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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.

V. Early English Comedy

§ 18. Misogonus

It was, not improbably, in emulation of Acolastus that a writer who cannot be identified with certainty wrote, probably about 1560, a play, Misogonus, which enables us to claim for England the credit of having produced one of the most elaborate and original comedies on the prodigal son. In its general structure and development of plot, Misogonus shows the influence of its Latin prototype. A distracted father, Philogonus, laments to his friend and counsellor, Eupelas, over the riotous living of his son Misogonus. The young prodigal is introduced by Orgalus and Oenophilus, nominally his servants but, in effect, his boon companions, to the courtesan, Melissa, with whom he drinks and dices and plays the wanton. When his fortunes fail, he is deserted by the “vipers” whom he has cherished. Overcome with remorse and shame, he returns trembling into his father’s presence to find immediate welcome and pardon. All these episodes have their counterpart in Gnaphaeus’s comedy. But the author of Misogonus was a creative dramatist, not merely an imitator. He individualised the somewhat shadowy neo-classic types into English figures of his own period, though the scene is nominally laid in Italy. He added new personages of his own invention, and made the dénouement spring out of an ingenious secondary plot. His remarkable gifts in the way of dialogue and characterisation are displayed to the full in the realistic gaming scene, where the revellers are joined by the parish priest, Sir John, who is of the same kin as Heywood’s clerics—drunken and dissolute, ready, even while bell and clerk summon him to his waiting congregation, to bandy oaths over the dicebox, and to dance himself into a share of Melissa’s favours. But it is not merely this “rabblement” of “rakehells” that brings the prodigal to ruin. He has an elder twin brother, Eugonus, who, immediately after their birth, has been sent to his uncle in “Polonaland.” Owing to the mother’s death, the secret is known only to a group of rustics, Alison a midwife, her husband, Codrus, and two of her gossips. Codrus, threatened with ruin by the death of his “bulchin” and the loss of his sow, hints at the truth to Philogonus in the hope of reward, and then fetches Alison to tell the full tale. The exasperating circumlocution with which she spins it out in a half incomprehensible jargon; the foolish interruptions by her husband which lead to a violent quarrel and to further delay in her disclosures; the suspense, amazement and joy of Philogonus—these are all portrayed in masterly fashion. Equally effective in purely farcical vein is the scene that follows after a messenger has been despatched to bring home the missing heir. Cacurgus, the household fool, remains faithful to Misogonus, and tries to frighten Isabel and Madge out of supporting Alison’s story. He pretends that he is a physician, who can cure Madge of a toothache that makes her stammer with pain, and that he is also a soothsayer, who foresees damnation for them if they bear witness that Philogonus had two sons. But the return of the long-lost Eugonus resolves all doubts, and the prodigal has to confess his sins and beg for forgiveness. The play lacks a fifth act in the manuscript, but the action seems virtually complete. Even in its mutilated state, it claims recognition as the finest extant comedy that had yet appeared in England. To the pungent satire of Johan Johan it adds the structural breadth of Roister Doister, and the insight into rustic types of the Cambridge farce, Gammer Gurtons Nedle. The last-named piece, which was “played on stage” at Christ’s college, probably not long after 1550, will be treated in another chapter, among university plays. But it may be pointed out here that the triviality of its main incident—the loss of the gammer’s needle—and the coarseness of much of the dialogue should not be allowed to obscure the fact that its author, like Udall and the writer of Misogonus, had an eye for characterisation and had learned plot construction from classical or other humanist models.