Prodigal Fathers and Virtuous Bastards: The Moral Economy of Inheritance in Richard Brome’s The Demoiselle, or The New Ordinary

Jakob Ladegaard


Richard Brome’s comedies display a critical interest in the moral and social implications of early modern economic practices. One such practice, inheritance, is a central concern in many of his plays, but so far, it has received little scholarly attention. This article offers a reading of The Demoiselle, or The New Ordinary (1637-38), one of the author’s most profound engagements with the economic, social, and moral meanings of inheritance. The article argues that the play stages a conflict between a communal ideal of gift giving, of which inheritance is a privileged form, and the contested economic practices of usury and prodigality. In line with a long tradition, the play condemns usury as a self-centred perversion of Christian charity, but also adds a critical contemporary perspective by signalling its pernicious effects on a credit economy built on trust and risk-taking. In its treatment of prodigality, too, the play engages with tradition, namely the tradition of prodigal son plays that Brome inherited from his dramatic predecessors. In an original twist of the conventions of this subgenre, the protagonist of The Demoiselle is not a young prodigal heir, but a prodigal father, the impoverished gentleman Dryground, who seeks to redeem the sins of his past through a trick that will raise a marriage portion for the son of his long-standing enemy. Through this act of gift giving, Brome raises an implicit critique of the self-interest of prodigal heirs in comedies like Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One (c. 1605) and Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625). The redemption of the prodigal father also goes through a reconciliation with the living manifestation of his youthful transgressions, his virtuous illegitimate daughter, Phillis, one of the only female bastards of the early modern stage. Through his inventive and critical engagement with his dramatic legacy, Brome thus constructs inheritance as a reciprocal and inclusive act of gift giving between generations both in and across traditional family ties. This ideal goes well beyond a defence of patrilineal primogeniture and the inherited privileges of elite families. Wealth, the article argues, is not justified because it is inherited in The Demoiselle; it is because wealth is inherited that it is in need of justification. And the only means of justification the play offers is to receive it and pass it on as a gift.



Richard Brome, inheritance, prodigality, usury, bastardy

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