The unprodigal prince?: Defining prodigality in the Henry IVs

01 Feb 2018

Since John Dover Wilson’s declaration that Prince Hal is a “prodigal prince”, critics have read the Henry IV plays as adaptations of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11–32). Although the parable informs the plays, Hal is not “prodigal” in the predominant early modern understanding of prodigality. Prodigality is defined by wasteful excess, often financial in nature, and prodigal sons were defined as much by this excess as by association with the Lukan paradigm. The Henry IVs present one of the most complex and enduring formulations of the relationship between prodigality and the parable in early modern literature, which cannot be understood without an appropriate understanding of prodigality in context. This article explicates early modern prodigality, accounting for its classical context, secular and religious usage, gendered dimension, and role in dramatic adaptations of the parable. It then situates the Henry IVs within this context and delineates how Hal enacts a prodigal son plot with Falstaff’s prodigality functioning in place of his own prodigal dissolution. By providing a historicist understanding of prodigal sons, this article facilitates more accurate readings of prodigality and the parable in early modern culture.