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Jakob Ladegaard

Prodigal Heirs and Their Social Networks in Early Modern English Drama, 1590–1640

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This article combines computational social network analysis and contextualized close reading to study 20 English plays from 1590 to 1640 that draw for their main plot on the Biblical parable of the prodigal son. Often viewed as an inherently conservative comic subgenre that ends with the restoration of patriarchal authority, recent literary critics argue that many plays portray the prodigal heirs in a positive light, linking prodigality to risky economic speculation and the improvisational skills needed to navigate London’s expanding commercial economy. For the earlier plays in our corpus (ca. 1590-1610), we find evidence for this view in our analysis of two clusters of understudied minor characters related to the pleasures and punishment of prodigality. However, these clusters all but disappear in the later plays (ca. 1610-1640). Instead, we see a group of weightier, more individualized servants and stewards rise to structural prominence. Informed by close reading of plays like Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller (1624) and Phillip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1626), we interpret this as a shift towards a more moralistic censure of prodigality as a threat to the patrilineal succession of elite households and the social hierarchy it buttressed.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLaw and Literature
ISSN1535-685X
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Apr 2021

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