Performing repentance: (in)sincerity in prodigal son drama and the Henry IVs

14 Jun 2019

The parable of the prodigal son is the most popular repentance narrative in early modern drama, yet the authenticity of these prodigals’ repentances is frequently disputed. The truly repentant prodigal and posturing sinner are functionally identical on the early modern stage, and the parable was so renowned that the prodigal's repentance and forgiveness could not only be predicted, but expected and engineered. This essay compares prodigals’ repentances across Eastward Ho, The London Prodigal, 2 If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody, and the Henry IVs. It argues that these plays exhibit discomfort with the outward display of repentance, the irrelevance of sincerity, and the viability of the parable as a repentance narrative. While some of these repentances have been discussed in isolation, their comparison allows for the examination of ambiguous repentances not as isolated incidents but a discernible trend in early modern culture, born from anxieties regarding the indistinguishability of feigned and ‘true’ performances of inward spiritual change. The authenticity of repentance, it emerges, cannot be determined, but repentance also need not be sincere to be accepted by a plays’ community. The authenticity of repentance proves not only impossible to identify, but ultimately irrelevant to these plays’ social worlds.