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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 10. The Merry Devill of Edmonton

The Merry Devill of Edmonton, although the earliest known edition of it is dated 1608, was certainly written by 1604, when T.M. (? Thomas Middleton) alludes to it, in company with A Woman Kilde with Kindnesse, in his Blacke Book; twelve years later, in the prologue to The Devil is an Ass, Jonson describes it as the “dear delight” of the theatre-going public. The popularity which the play enjoyed was not unmerited; in the words of Charles Lamb, it “seems written to make the reader happy.” In its blending of scenes of magic and the black art with a romantic love comedy, standing out against a pleasant background of English rural life, The Merry Devill recalls Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay. But the magic element in the play is little more than a sop to the popular taste of the day. After an induction, which is a serio-comic imitation of the famous closing scene in Dr. Faustus, we hear little more of the doings of Peter Fabell, the Edmonton magician, and give ourselves up to the main story, which shows by what devices youth and true love overcome the treasonable counsels of age and prudence. The lovers are lightly conceived; but in their veins there flows the youthful spirit and romantic ardour of the early school of Elizabethan comedy, and Millicent, the heroine, who is willing to dare much lest love be “smothered in foggy gain,” is worthy of a place not far below the early heroines of Shakespeare. The play is not Shakespeare’s; but its author, alike in his love romance and in the humorous and realistic scenes in which Blague the host, Smug the smith and Sir John the priest appear, is one of Shakespeare’s imitators. The character of the host of the George tavern at Edmonton is modelled, as Hazlitt pointed out, on that of the host of The Merry Wives of Windsor; and this fact furnishes us with a clue as to the period at which the play was written. The source of the story is unknown, but the adventures of Peter Fabell, who, in the district round about Enfield Chase, enjoyed something of the reputation of a Dr. Faustus, had been already recorded. There was a poem, now lost but known to Warton, entitled Fabyl’s Ghoste, written in octave stanzas and printed by John Rastell in 1533, which may be the same as The Merry Pranks of Fabyl mentioned by Weever; and, in the same year as that in which the play was published, Thomas Brewer’s prose tract, The Life and Death of the Merry Devill of Edmonton, with the Pleasant Pranks of Smug the Smith, Sir John and mine Host of the George about the stealing of Venison, was entered at Stationers’ Hall. These Fabell stories, doubtless, furnished the dramatist with some of the materials for the comic by-plot, but not for the romantic love story.