Mother Bombie, A Pleasant Conceited Comedy is an Elizabethan era comic play by John Lyly. It is different from Lyly’s other dramas. It is a comedy in the tradition of Plautus and Terence, where wayward young men and their ingenious servants outwit their more prudential elders in bringing their love affairs to a successful conclusion. It is a work of farce and social realism; in Mother Bombie , Lyly departs from classical allusion and courtly comedy to create a “vulgar realistic play of rustic life” in a contemporary England.
Mother Bombie’s plot revolves around the marital affair of two young couples, and the complicating opposition of their four respective fathers. Memphio and Stellio are two rich old men; they want to arrange an advantageous marriage between their two children, Accius and Silena. Memphio and Stellio have seen each other’s kid through their chamber windows and, noting them as handsome/beautiful, figure they must be wise, too.
Each of the two fathers knows that his child is a simpleton — what the Elizabethans succinctly called a “fool” — but neither knows that his child’s prospective partner is also a simpleton. Each father is trying to take advantage of the other, in the same way.
Another elderly man, the middle class Prisius is aiming for upward mobility by trying to marry his daughter Livia to Accius, while Prisius’s longtime rival, Sperantus, is trying to do the same thing by marrying his son, Candius, a true scholar, to Livia. Both of these fathers are unaware that their children are in love with each other, and when they find out they bar the couple from seeing each other.
Each of the four fathers enlist their clever and Latin-learned servants—Dromio , Risio , Lucio , and Halfpenny —to bring their schemes about, but the servants conspire together to get Livia and Candius married behind their fathers’ backs. Their fathers, Sperantus and Prisius, eventually reconcile themselves to the idea of their children’s marriage. The wealthy fathers, Memphio and Stellio, come close to accepting the same realization, and allowing their foolish children to marry —the idea being that such a marriage is better than no marriage at all.
Yet the foolish marriage is forestalled when the old nurse Vicinia reveals that the two fools are actually her children, and so are brother and sister. Long years before, Vicinia exchanged her children for the rich men’s real offspring, who are now called Maestius and Serena. These two, thinking themselves siblings, have been struggling against what they think is a mutual incestuous passion; once they learn that they are not actually related, they can legitimately wed. The rich old men, pleased to have their natural children restored to them, magnanimously agree to provide support for their false imbecilic children; and a happy ending is engineered all around.
Mother Bombie, the local cunning woman, functions rather like a dramatic chorus in all this; characters consult her for advice and she predicts the outcomes of particular situations in doggerel verse. (“Mother Bombie told me my father knew me not, my mother bore me not, falsely bred, truly begot….”) She has relatively little direct effect on events, except for convincing Vicinia to expose her secret and thus resolve the plot’s difficulties.
What is at stake in this play is actually money– the fortunes of the children are determined by the fortunes of the families. ‘Marriage among them’, Candius, Sperantus’ son, remarks, ‘is become a market.’ T.W. Baldwin has seen the farcical placement of fathers and children as both balanced and contrasting.
The play turns on the issue of misconceptions surrounding the efforts of four fathers to secure socially advantageous marriages for their heirs, and the determination of their young servants to exploit their masters’ misguided aspirations for their own advantage. The play is of particular interest to twenty-first century criticism for its focus upon those situated on the margins of the social group, notably Mother Bombie herself, thought by some to be a witch, and the two simpletons whose marital prospects lie at the heart of the action. Mothe Bombie character specifically denies that she is a witch, and calls herself a “cunning woman.” The play often attracts the attention of modern scholars interested in feminism, women’s studies, the witchcraft controversy, and related issues.