Today in my series a play a day, I’ve worked my way up to play number seven (of ten) in Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays having already covered Arden of Faversham, Locrine, Edward III, The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Lord Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. The play in question is The London Prodigal which, according to the handy introduction is set to offer ‘a lively snapshot of city life in the early seventeenth century’ as it holds ‘up a mirror to the lives of the spectators’. But, as the title suggests there’s an element of allegory at play here, a tale of a prodigal (think prodigal son tale with a Renaissance twist), it offers us a journey and presumably characters developing and changing as the play progresses. But as someone who aims to avoid spoilers before reading the text in question I’m going to get stuck in to the story itself.
The title is less extensive than some of the others encountered in this series, and simply reads: THE LONDON PRODIGAL, as it was played by the King’s Majesty’s Servants. By William Shakespeare.
Old Flowerdale (who in the character list which begins the play is described as being disguised throughout) and his brother open the play Old Flowerdale has left his son under the supervision of his brother and wants to hear the latest – all that’s happened since he’s been abroad. And, in true prodigal son style it’s not good news. The son, Flowerdale Jr., has spent his inheritance and far beyond. He’s racked up quite the debt and stack of nasty habits to accompany it (sounds like the kind of student you hope your child would never become). He’s borrowed and begged to find anyway possible to ‘furnish his wants’. Old Flowerdal’s brother’s turn of phrase to describe Flowerdale captures his characters neatly: he is ruined by ‘unbridled wildness’.
His dad wants to give him the benefit of the doubt on the basis that we were all young once and maybe he’ll mature with age: ‘Believe me, brother, they that die most virtuous hath in their youth lived most vicious’. He then enquires as to his son’s habits. Again, it’s not looking good. He swears (remember this is the Renaissance and expletives weren’t good news), ad breaks his promises (but his father is less annoyed at the breaking of oaths than the language, in fact he seems to think it good he breaks oaths). He likes to fight, but again his father thinks this is character building stuff. And worst of all, Old Flowerdale’s brother declare – he likes to drink. Thank heavens! Old Flowerdale returns, clearly he likes a son who enjoys a pint or two. By this point as you can imagine Old Flowerdale’s brother is really irate and you can imagine his frustration as he utters the lines:
Then, brother, I see you rather like these vices in your son than any way condemn them
Perfect parenting of course! But Old Flowerdale makes it clear that it’s not that he likes them and hopes his son retains them, but rather that he’s glad he is experimenting now, so that he will grow up from these bad habits and see the error of his ways. As he says, ‘it would gall my heart they should ever reign in him’.
Noises from within indicate that Old Flowerdale’s son is back for more money. Old Flowerdale urges his brother tor pretend to Flowerdale that his father is dead. (Old Flowerdale remains in the room pretending to be a sailor from Venice called Christopher). Lo and behold Flowerdale wants more money because apparently thieves took his and he’s got a pressing appointment at Croydon fair with one Sir Lancelot Spurcock and his daughter Luce who he’s rather interested in, but he won’t stand a chance if he comes across as poor and then he’ll lose her and her dowry too.
He cites his friends as other trustworthy folk and also ‘as good as rapier and dagger men’ (a man good with a rapier.. cue titters from the audience). He then wants to know if a ship is in because he ordered some cloth – apparently financed by his father, he’s conveniently lost the letter from his father which said as much (because he changed his breeches of course). His Uncle quizzes him on the date of the letter before revealing to the audience (if it wasn’t clear already) that Flowerdale is dishonest, and that his father is dead (talk about dishonesty in that family..) and Old Flowerdale, sorry I mean the sailor.. chimes in declaring that he prepared Old Flowerdale for burial. Flowerdale is unable to weep on cue but promises tears in the next few days, and plenty of them.
Only a few lines later Flowerdale utters the line, ‘I hope he died in good estate’ which seems to just about some him up, it’s irritating father’s dead but I hope he left me a nice sum. At which point the ‘sailor’ reveals that he has the will of Old Flowerdale. His Uncle says optimistically, that he hopes Flowerdale will remember his kindness in the past if he is now rich thanks to his inheritance. Flowerdale quickly returns that he’s still holding a grudge about the £10 he requested earlier.
He begins to read the will..
His father has left him some dice (gambling reference perhaps?) and they are false ones, loaded to certain values (emphasising the falseness and deceitfulness of Flowerdale), and the will ends with a moral:
Let him borrow of his oath,
For of his word nobody will trust him.
Let him by no means marry an honest woman.
For the other will keep herself.
Let him steal as much as he can, that a guilty conscience
May bring him to his destinate repentance
Flowerdale is pretty miffed and also somewhat confused, as his continual ‘sbloods’ and his angry demand show, ‘what, doth he think to fob off his posterity with paradoxes’. I can’t help but think he seems to be missing the point.
Quick to dismiss his poor father’s will, he turns to his Uncle to borrow again that £10. The sailor promises to lend the money to his Uncle and so Flowerdale is instructed to return within an hour for the money. Giving Uncle and father of Flowerdale chance to discuss him out of earshot. Old Flowerdale is not best pleased at the untrained, mad and undisciplined state of his son who ‘must be tamed with an iron bit’. But he knows his son won’t listen since ‘counsel still is folly’s deadly foe’.
Old Flowerdale declares that it is better his son makes mischief when young (for if too restrained then he’ll rebel more later) but hopes in time things will change:
The next scene introduces a character who I think has probably one of the best names in Renaissance drama: Artichoke. Made all the more amusing by Lancelot’s addressing of him as ‘Sirrah Artichoke’. It’s not just him on stage of course, also there are Sir Lancelot, Master Weathercock, Daffodil, Luce and Franck. Artichoke and Daffodil are servants to Lancelot.
Lancelot’s daughter keeps refusing eligible men and he’s not happy but there’s hope with his other daughters, Luce has had some suitors including our man Flowerdale who’s ‘all air,/Light as a feather, changing as the wind’. Weathercock describes him as a ‘Desperate Dick’ (pun intended I imagine particularly given the Spurcock and Weathercock already in the scene and Shakespeare’s love of bawdiness) and urges Lancelot to steer clear of this reckless fellow. But Lancelot knows Flowerdale’s parentage is good and Weathercock is somewhat comforted by this and whips out another of his proverbs. ‘For there’s an old saying..’ should be Weathercock’s catchphrase.
Monsieur Civet then enters and he’s been on the hunt for a woman. He spies Lancelot’s girl, Frances, and takes quite the fancy to her. Daffodil’s retort to whether or not she is married I think is brilliant, though admittedly when I read it all I could think of was The Shoemaker’s Holiday as he says: ‘The Fates knows not yet what shoemaker shall make her wedding shoes’.
Lancelot & Co are staying at George’s Inn (yep the dragon slayer saint, ok not quite, but certainly his namesake). They’re just sitting down for a pint, cake, and wine when Flowerdale enters (with his father – playing his servant – in tow). Flowerdale pitches dancing but Luce isn’t up for it, so he agrees not to. Just then a gift from M. Civet is discovered, Flowerdale gives them the lowdown on Civet: ‘O, I know him, sir, he is a fool, but reasonable rich. His father was one of these lease-mongers’ – clearly that’s why Flowerdale knows him – ‘these corn-mongers, these money-mongers, but he never had the wit to be a whore-monger’. So by the sounds of it Civet isn’t too bad, and with that introduction he enters.
Lancelot is impressed that Flowerdale has taken on a servant; he thinks the servant will keep him more grounded and off he trots to Lewisham with Flowerdale in tow.
The next scene opens with Sir Arthur Greenshield, Oliver, Lieutenant and soliders, and Arthur ordered the soldiers to the ships, amid the fuss Oliver kicks up Lancelot enters, Flowerdale mocks the way Oliver speaks (look who’s talking). Lancelot calms them down urging them all to be friends.
Lancelot is about to say who he prefers of his daughters suitors. Flowerdale sows his ‘wild oats’ carelessly and Lancelot thinks it unlikely he will mend his ways, Flowerdale is neither thrifty nor honest. Luce doesn’t like it that he messes around and is inconstant in his love. Luce reveals to Arthur that she loves him whatever her dad says. Although her dad prefers Oliver, he gives his daughter the liberty to choose her own man. Artichoke enters declaring that daffodil is with M.Civet (who’s apparently rather small but nevertheless proper) who would like to see Luce. Flowerdale is left alone with his father (though he thinks him to be his servant) and Oliver who he says, almost in as many words, ‘do you want a fight mate? I’ll give you a piece of my mind’. His father suggests they draw up a will making it look like Flowerdale has lots of land to offer Lancelot’s daughter – thus making him the desirable suitor. And Weathercock who (you’ve guessed it) changes direction like the wind, will push for Flowerdale too.
Daffodil clearly likes Luce too, but she’ll have none of it and is ready to tell tales to make him stop. Daffodil has her bracelet and Lancelot is not impressed, the consequences are bad news for Daffodil – he’s to lose his position.
Next scene in which Luce declares to Arthur her love for him, despite the fact he’s a soldier, and she says with passion, ‘If I may choose, I’ll be a soldier’s wife’.
Lancelot begins to make wedding plans with Oliver, and they agree to meet at the King’s Head – sorry I mean the Rose, to discuss more tomorrow. Old Flowerdale then presents Lancelot with a letter from Flowerdale, Oliver is ready to tear Flowerdale to pieces.
Lancelot prepares to fight Daffodil, but Artichoke refuses to get involved. Then Lancelot asks Artichoke to go and pretend to be Oliver tomorrow morning earlier as Flowerdale will be going to a field to meet Oliver to fight with him for the love of Luce (of course it won’t be Oliver by Artichoke he fights – sneaky stuff).
Weathercock enters and urges Lancelot to avert this fight and instead let Luce marry Flowerdale – he’s found a will which speaks of Flowerdale’s wealth (remember the will Old Flowerdale suggested they plant?). After a discussion of eyesight and spectacles they read the document which makes Lancelot executor of Flowerdale’s wealth – all of it. Now his ears prick up. Lancelot and Weathercock head over to London to prevent the fight and ensure Flowerdale marries Luce.
Now there’s going to be two marriages as Franck has been promised to Civet who are in discussion about their future lives together and marriage apparel, he’s going to be careful with his money and live on only £40 a year or so he promises his sister Delia.
New scene: Flowerdale and his father swords in hand spy the approach of Lancelot & Co. Flowerdale refuses to be spoken to but Lancelot begs his ‘servant’ for a meeting, claiming to be his ‘good friend’. Flowerdale eventually emerges claiming to have been reading ‘Nick Machiavel’ i.e. Machiavelli. Lancelot tries to flatter Flowerdale.
Lancelot declares his love for him and promises him his daughter in marriage, provided he calls off the fight. Flowerdale agrees. His father flaps about what his son ought to wear, he’s not really in love of course all he wants is the dowry so he can hit the pubs again – his father is not impressed and wonders if it’s Flowerdale’s mother’s fault.
Old Flowerdale’s brother enters and they discuss the deceitfulness of Flowerdale who only does things for money. The only comfort he has is the approaching marriage and the possibility of his arrest which he hopes will tame him (having just watched 10 Things I Hate About You with my younger sister – who now thinks Shakespeare might not be quite so bad, thanks Heath Ledger! – I keep having Taming of the Shrew flashbacks).
His brother is a bit dubious given the longlasting effects disrupting a wedding day can have on someone (Miss Havisham recollections anyone?) but Old Flowerdale is adamant, he wants his son to be fully humiliated and hopes this will make him change his ways, finally his brother gives in and agrees.
Oliver shows up for his fight but no Flowerdale in sight, and Arthur appears having had ‘an inkling’ that a fight was to take place he thought he might play ref.
Daffodil comes to tell them that Luce is set to marry Flowerdale this morning, they are not best pleased and don’t believe him at first. Flowerdale’s Uncle enters and summons the sheriff as the wedding music plays (you can imagine the suspense, audience and actors waiting with baited breath). Lancelot and Weathercock tell Oliver and Arthur they are not to interrupt the wedding. But before they get chance Flowerdale has been arrested by his Uncle (the under-sheriff), declaring him a thief and liar. He then utters lines of disownment and puns on his own name: ‘cousin, cousin, you have uncled me’ – that is to say un-uncled (stolen all my money) and cheated. (It’s a bit like the final reveal and the weddings in Twelfth Night). He’s really proved a right old cozener (yep, another pun on cousin and cheating rolled into one – and there’s plenty more to come in this scene). His father and uncle unveil his falsity to great uproar from Flowerdale and all present, especially the duped Lancelot and Weathercock.
Luce is really not happy, not only was she forced to marry a man she didn’t love but then he turns out to be a liar and cheat and now to top it all because he’s her husband she has to comfort him. Lancelot begs others to take his daughter, but they refuse as it would of course be breaking the law, and then he disowns her for obeying her husband over her father (as the law commanded her to do). Strangely reminiscent of the disowning of Cordelia who refuses to flatter in King Lear.
Luce then begs the sheriff on the behalf of her husband, she promises her dowry to clear her husband’s debts and the sheriff and Flowerdale’s Uncle agree he may be freed thanks to her generosity (which has of course impoverished them both).
When money doesn’t materialise for Flowerdale from his ‘servant’ he gets even more mad and begins to cuss even his father, and suggests his wife become a whore because there’s plenty of business in that. Charming. His wife clings to his ‘servant’ – his father – unsure what to do. He agrees to put her up somewhere and ensure she is well looked after.
Lancelot grieves the situation of Luce but Civet comforts him with the happy promise of ugly yet witty kids from him and Lancelot’s other daughter Franck. And they’re to have a cook (Civey’s sister) so the precious Franck doesn’t ‘soil’ her fingers. Oliver and Arthur suggest to Lancelot that he’s made a mistake in casting away such a pretty dowry as Luce, he’s full of regret at making her marry Flowerdale in lieu of Oliver and plans to sue Flowerdale and annul the marriage on grounds of wrong circumstance and fraud.
Flowerdale is not happy and cursing anything and everything including the dice (fate but also with a clear reference to the original will of his father), unable to borrow any more money he plans to steal Delia’s, he tries but she recognises him although undeterred he is interrupted with the arrival of Oliver and Arthur. Delia defends him and suggests he was only jesting, she lends him money. Arthur thinks it unwise: ‘’Tis pity to relieve him in this sort,/Who makes a trompant life his daily sport’. She prays that he will change. Flowerdale is not happy now he’s going to have to look after pigs and live a low life (sounds familiar to the original prodigal son tale?).
The next scene sees another disguised character – this time it’s Luce playing the part of Franck’s (her sister’s) servant with an unusual accent. Then enter Artichoke and Co with news of the attempted robbery, Old Flowerdale (disguised) pays him to keep quiet, and Artichoke suspects knavery. Delia recognises Luce and urges her to leave Flowerdale.
New scene and Flowerdale is muttering to himself about a journey and about how awful his life is, Dick and Rafe enter and he’s hopeful they’ll lend him money but they tell him they have none. Looks like no supper for Flowerdale again – not like his old decadent lifestyle. A ruffian enters and warns flowerdale to get lost or face the consequences. Then enters an Old citizen who he begs for help, he refuses but his wife is more easily persuaded. But he is beginning to learn as the line: ‘I perceive dishonesty/Will not thrive’. He’s repentant to Oliver revealing that all he wanted was Luce, he tells them his wife is sick and Oliver lends him 40 shillings to help – he’s rubbing his hands together having made a great profit so far from passing trade. His father and Uncle enter and he spins them the same tale. Then Luce enters (disguised), he takes her money and she hopes he’ll now repent. She asks after his wife, he claims she was deceitful and a dreadful burden, she is called away but promises to return. His father is even more unimpressed, and calls Flowerdale a coward.
He gives him a talking to and tells him why people lend him money in the first place and how he really ought to repay them and then leaves. Lancelot, Artichoke and Weathercock enter and Lancelot orders him to go to prison. Civet, Franck, Oliver, Arthur, Old Flowerdale, Uncle and Delia enter and look upon him. He begs and pleads them to set him free from jail but they refuse and ignore his requests. Luce enters (disguised), they tell her he’s killed his wife she vouches that he loves her and they think it to be a plot against them. Then she reveals her true identity and kneels before her husband, she makes him see the light and realise the error of his ways, as his blushing cheeks reveal. He hopes to rescue his fouled reputation and to win the favour of Lancelot. Oliver believes him to be changed and gives him 40 shillings to re-establish his life, Arthur vows to help in any way and gives Luce a diamond, his Uncle promises Flowerdale to be heir to his fortune and Lancelot promises nothing and accuses him of killing off his father. His father orders Lancelot to pay her dowry and swiftly reveals his true identity: ‘Look on me better, now my scar is off./Ne’er muse, man, at this metamorphosis’.
Flowerdale is happy but ashamed and begs pardon to which his father readily agrees happy his son is changed. He then explains why his started the rumour that he was dead having heard of his son’s habits, and Lancelot finally understands and accepts him into his family.
Finally, in the final lines of the play Oliver asks for Delia’s hand but she refuses, not willing to marry preferring a life of solitude, Oliver condemns himself to a life alone and Old Flowerdale plans a party to take place tomorrow in Civet’s house.
And tomorrow too will be a little party here, as the next play (number 8) in the series is tackled: A Yorkshire Tragedy.