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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

§ 12. The London Prodigall

The London Prodigall and The Puritane, as already stated, are examples of realistic city comedy. At the hands of Heywood and Dekker, realism associated itself with romance; but, with Middleton and his successors, the romantic element was purged away, and nothing was allowed to interfere with the realistic, and often satirical, representation of contemporary manners. The authorship of these two plays is not easy to determine; but it can be stated without hesitation that neither is the work of Shakespeare, who, while interested in bourgeois comedy, rarely allowed it to force its way into the foreground. Both plays, probably, were written early in the seventeenth century, when Heywood and Middleton were making this type of drama acceptable to popular taste, and when Ben Jonson was also engaged in a close inspection of the social types of London life and in the discovery of humours.

The London Prodigall was first published in 1605, and the title-page of this edition informs us that the play was acted “by the Kings Majesties servants” and that its author was William Shakespeare. It is full of bustling life, but is wholly wanting in the higher elements of dramatic art, and, also, in poetic beauty. The most striking feature in the plot is the resemblance, pointed out by A. W. Ward, which it bears to the Charles Surface story of Sheridan’s School for Scandal. The wealthy father, Flowerdale senior, who has just returned to England after long years of absence, and who, under the disguise of a servant, attaches himself to his prodigal son, and, in the end, pardons his excesses, is a crude prototype of uncle Oliver. But the author of the Elizabethan play fails, where Sheridan succeeds, in winning the reader’s sympathy for the prodigal. Flowerdale junior’s career of riot and neglect has no redeeming feature in it, and his final repentance, so far from convincing us of its reality and endurance, only deepens our pity for the outraged and extravagantly patient wife, Luce, who takes the repentant sinner to her bosom. The humour of the play is chiefly to be sought among the servingmen of the wealthy city knight, and in the persons of Sir Launcelot Spurcock. Weathercock the parasite and the Devonshire clothier Oliver, whose west country talk and manners have the homely honesty of the rough kersey cloth which he makes and wears. The disguise of Luce as a Dutchwoman, and the pigeon English by which, when thus disguised, she conceals her identity, may, very possibly, have been suggested by the similar disguise of Lacy in Dekker’s highly popular play, The Shoemaker’s Holiday.