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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

§ 20. The Glasse of Governement

With Gascoigne’s The Glasse of Governement (1575), we return to the more orthodox type of prodigal son play. It cannot be merely a coincidence that Gascoigne had spent the two years (or thereabouts) preceding the date of its publication as a soldier in the Low Countries, the principal home of this dramatic type. He lays his scene in Antwerp, and his plot shows the influence of several of the masterpieces of the Dutch humanist cycle. The contrast between the prodigal and the virtuous son which is exemplified in Misogonus and Jacob and Esau appears in Gascoigne’s work in duplicate form. Two fathers are introduced, each with a pair of sons—the younger a model of virtue and the elder a scapegrace. The four youths are confided to the care of a schoolmaster, Gnomaticus, who forthwith proceeds to expound to them at insufferable length “the summe of” their “dutyes in foure Chapters.” The unregenerate couple Philautus and Philosarchus soon grow restive under this discipline, and find more congenial occupation in the company of the courtesan Lamia and her associates, Eccho and Dicke Droom. The revolt of the pupils against their preceptor was suggested, probably, by the Rebelles of Macropedius; but the scenes in which Lamia and the parasite figure seem inspired by similar episodes in Acolastus. The arrest of Lamia by the markgrave and the sudden despatch of the scholars to the university of “Doway” are incidents of Gascoigne’s own invention. At “Doway,” the virtuous younger pair grow still more exemplary and have their fitting reward. Philomusus finally becomes secretary to the palsgrave; and Philotimus a preacher of “singular commendation” in Geneva. Meanwhile, the elder couple tread the broad way to destruction, till Philautus is executed for a robbery in the palsgrave’s court, “even in sight of his brother,” and Philosarchus, for his evil courses, is whipped at Geneva “openly three severall dayes in the market” and “banished the Towne with great infamie.” In Rebelles, the two scapegraces are put on their trial for theft, but are spared at the instance of the master whose authority they had flouted; the harshly Calvinistic spirit that permeates Gascoigne’s play could not tolerate such a solution as this. The Glasse of Governement, in fact, is a puritan tract disguised in the vesture of a humanist school play. It pictures an unreal world of saints and sinners, ranged in symmetrical groups with no room for struggle and compromise, penitence and forgiveness. Hence, though Eccho and Dicke Droom are drawn with considerable spirit, the true merits of this play lie not in characterisation but in structure and in style. Great technical skill is shown in the last act, where the scene continues to be laid in Antwerp, though the chief incidents take place elsewhere. And the use, for the first time, of vernacular prose throughout a “prodigal son” drama gives a note of realism to the dialogue, which goes far to counterbalance the artificial moral scheme of the play.