The Birth of Merlin, or, The Child Hath Found his Father is a fast-paced, low-brow comedy first published in 1662 as a co-authored work by William Shakespeare and William Rowley. Since the 1662 title page postdates the deaths of both men by several decades, scholars feel safe in ignoring it. It is generally considered part of Shakespeare's Apocrypha.
The opening scene introduces the nobleman Donobert, his daughters Constantia and Modestia, and their suitors Cador and Edwin, and begins the story of Modestia's conflict between her desire for a religious vocation versus social pressures to marry. The famous characters of Arthurian romance do not appear until the second scene, which introduces King Aurelius and his royal court. The British are flush with a recent victory over the invading Saxons—though they are troubled by the fact that the king's brother Uther is missing. Saxon emissaries arrive at court to negotiate a peace; they are led by the Saxon princess Artesia. Aurelius instantly falls in love with Artesia, and in his infatuation grants the Saxons very generous peace terms—despite the objections of his courtiers and the criticism of a holy hermit who interjects his own opposition.
Act II introduces the otherwise-unnamed Clown and his very pregnant sister, Joan Go-to't. The Clown's sister has gotten herself pregnant by yielding to the advances of a mysterious stranger; she and the Clown are now wandering through the forest, searching for the father of the child. They stumble upon Prince Uther, who is wandering through the same forest, distracted and disconsolate after catching sight of a woman with whom he has instantly fallen in love. Overhearing this, the Clown solicits Uther as a potential husband for Joan, much to the prince's outrage.
At court, Aurelius's infatuation has led to a sudden marriage with Artesia. One British noble, Edol, is so outraged that he flees the court to nourish his opposition. The court now blends British and Saxon influences, though not smoothly or happily. The Hermit has a contest of power with a Saxon magician; the Christian Hermit triumphs over pagan magic. Prince Uther enters, and sees that the woman who has caused his distraction is now his brother's wife and the new British queen. Aurelius recognizes the situation, and withdraws in anger and jealousy.
In Act III, the Clown and Joan have reached the court in their search for her child's father. They confront various courtiers, with comically unsuccessful results. Finally, though, they encounter the actual father: though Joan sees him as a handsome courtier, the Clown can recognize him for a devil, "his feet and head horrid". Joan pursues him, and the Clown loyally follows her. In the second-level plot, Modestia embraces her religious vocation; in a familial confrontation, Modestia's defence of her choice is so persuasive that her sister Constantia is converted to the spiritual life and rejects her suitor, just as Modestia has done. Donobert is outraged, but urges Cador and Edwin not to give up on his daughters yet. In a cave in a forest, the Devil summons Lucina and the Fates to attend Joan as she gives birth to Merlin. The Clown catches up, to meet his sister and his new-born nephew, a fully grown Merlin the Magician. Merlin introduces his Clown-uncle to his Devil-father; the Devil predicts a dramatic future for his newborn son.
In the British court, the Saxons are plotting treason; Artesia manipulates Uther's romantic interest and Aurelius's jealousy to bring about a fissure between the two, though her plans are partially frustrated by the British nobles. The two factions separate and prepare for war.Meanwhile, Merlin, Joan, and the Clown have made their way to Wales, where King Vortigern, a Saxon ally, is having trouble building a castle.
To keep the edifice from continual collapse, the Welsh must sacrifice a "fiend begotten child"; therefore they are pleased and relieved when Merlin appears. Merlin, however, foretells Vortigern's imminent defeat at the hands of Edol and the British. A series of battle scenes portray Edol's victory, culminating in a spectacular special-effect scene in which Merlin prophesizes on a blazing comet.
Act V provides a swift wind-up of the various plots. Merlin seals his devil-father within the earth, and leads his mother away to a life of repentance. Donobert accepts his daughters' religious commitment to the solitary and celibate life. The British defeat the treacherous Saxons, who have assassinated Aurelius. Uther is now the British king, aided by Merlin.
The funniest scenes concern the birth of the fully-grown magician Merlin to his mother Joan Go-to-’t, a country wench seduced by the devil. Before she gives birth, she and her brother the Clown encounter Prince Uther in the forest. They try to convince him he is the father of Joan’s unborn child.
- Joan: Do you not know me, sir?
- Prince: Know thee! as I do thunder, hell, and mischief; Witch, scullion, hag!
- Clown: I see he will marry her; he speaks so like a husband.