Friday, May 6, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 7)

William Shakespeare

Most of these posts about Shakespeare and the parables contain additional information that did not make it into the final version of the book. 

I have to admit that rereading and restudying Shakespeare's works for the writing of this book was great fun. I'm looking forward to the celebrations of Shakespeare's life and works that are ingoing at Emory this year (including hosting a First Folio).

Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays are also permeated with allusions to the Prodigal Son parable. Prince Hal is the archetypal prodigal son who “comes to his senses” just in time to help save the day. Both Prince Hal and Falstaff indulge in dissolute living—although we find out later that Prince Hal’s behavior was not as debauched as previously thought. The prince returns to his father, asks his forgiveness, and pledges his determination to live responsibly.  Falstaff, who has a particular propensity to allude to the parable (and the Rich Man and Lazarus), can be seen as an “inverted prodigal” (cf. Lear) who has to repent and beg forgiveness from someone younger than him (Tippens 1988: 64).

In some senses, Falstaff’s life is a parody of the parable (see Hamlin 2013: 244). The Merry Wives of Windsor (4.5.8) says that Falstaff’s room in the inn is decorated with an image of the Prodigal Son parable, which is one of three allusions to the parable in reference to Falstaff in other plays. When Hostess Quickly complains in 2 Henry 4 that she will have “to pawn both my plate and the tapestry of my dining-chambers,” Falstaff refers to images of the parable on “bed-hangers” and fly-bitten tapestries (2.1.140-7).

Falstaff also refers to the Prodigal Son parable in 1 Henry IV (4.2.33-35). In his lengthy description of the miserable state of his conscripted soldiers, he first alludes to the Rich Man and Lazarus (“slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton’s dogs licked his sores”; 4.2.24-26; cf. 3.31-33) and then combines it with an allusion to the Prodigal Son parable (“You would think that I had a hundred and fifty tattered prodigals lately come from swine-keeping, from eating draff and husks”; cf. 3.3.79-80; cf. Tippens 1988: 68). Some other (possible) examples of references to the Prodigal Son parable may be found in Comedy of Errors 4.3.17-21; Love’s Labour’s Lost 5.2.64; King Lear 4.7.36-40; Timon of Athens 3.4.12, 4.3.278-81; Twelfth Night 1.3.23-24, Winter’s Tale 4.3.92-98, and others. A brief reference in Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.3.3-4 (“I have received my proportion, like the prodigious son . . .”) is notable for three reasons. First, Launce humorously confuses “portion” (Luke 15:12) with “proportion” and “prodigious” with “prodigal.” Second, this form of pun is also used by later authors, such as Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers chapter 43; Jeffrey 1992: 641; cf. the humorous parody of the Lost Sheep in the opening scene of Two Gentlemen of Verona; 1.1.69-110.). Third, Launce leaves with his money amidst the lamentation of his family: “my mother weeping; my father wailing; my sister crying; our maid howling; our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity . . .” (2.2.6-9).

Tippen rightly notes how important the “prodigal plot” is to Shakespeare’s works:

It embraces several distinctive “Shakespearean” motifs: the conflict of generations (yoth and age), sibling rivalry (old and younger brothers), ungrateful children, the conflict of justice and mercy, love, and law, the loss and restoration of community, and the archetype of death and rebirth . . . .

The parable in fact comprehends the dramatist’s most universal interest: what David Bevington describes as the romance pattern of “separation, wandering, and reunion” and the morality pattern of “fall from grace, temporary prosperity of evil, and divine reconciliation” [1962: 190]. In one sense, then, the Prodigal story is the poet’s ur-plot (Tippens 1988: 60).

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