Morality Plays

views updated May 18 2018


A type of drama that developed in the late Middle Ages and is distinguished from the earlier religious types mainly by its use of dramatized allegory in which abstract virtues and vices are personified. It attained its greatest popularity in England and France.

The major distinction between the cycle plays (see drama, medieval) and the morality plays is that between dogmatic and moral theology; the cycle play presents the history of salvation and the morality play the way to salvation. The essential theme of the morality play is the conflict between the forces of good (the good angel, the virtues) and the forces of evil (the bad angel or devil, the vices) for possession of man's soul. The allegorical motifs and devices employed in presenting this theme in the various morality plays that survive all point to their kinship with the literature of preaching, particularly to that group of treatises in Latin and in the European vernaculars that was concerned with the condition of man's life from birth to death, usually titled Speculum and subtitled Liber de Pater Noster, in some instances bearing the latter title alone (see preaching [medieval english]).

Pater Noster Play. From the earliest days the Church regarded the Credo as the rule of faith and the Pater Noster as the rule of life and made both prayers the subject of instruction, meditation, and sermons. Tertullian explained the significance of each of the seven petitions of the Pater Noster, and throughout the centuries various schemata were developed so that by the 12th century hugh of saint-victor, in De Quinque Septenis seu septanariis opusculum, listed the seven vices that the seven petitions guard against by supplicating the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which endow the soul with the seven virtues and lead to the beatitudes. In a later work he explicitly opposed the seven deadly sins to the seven petitions of the Pater Noster. When the Fourth lateran council (121516) decreed that the faithful confess their sins and receive the Eucharist at least once a year, a need arose for manuals of instructions for priests and laity, and the traditional development of the Credo and Pater Noster form their basis. Some, e.g., Chaucer's Parson's Tale, dealt only with the Sacrament of Penance; others followed the pattern of the Liber de Pater Noster.

It is not merely coincidental that the first allusions to the morality plays in England and on the Continent occurred in the 14th century, the York Play of the Pater Noster in 1378 and the Gieux des sept vertuz et des sept pechiez mortelz of Tours in 1390, when the liturgical drama had passed from the Latin to the vernacular and, for the most part, from clerical to civic control. In England the emergence of the morality plays both in time and place coincided with the preaching reform of john of thoresby, Archbishop of York (135274).

The Creed Play (Articula fidei catholicae ) had its impetus in the same preaching reforms and literature. No text has survived, however, and records exist only for York. The play was presented to the Corpus Christi Guild by William Revetor, a chantry priest, to be performed at York every tenth year. That it was of considerable length is attested to by the fact that a transcription made in 1455 filled 20 quires and that the Corpus Christi Guild possessed elaborate properties to be used in the production. It was substituted for the York Cycle in 1435. Five performances are recorded between 1483 and 1535. A petition to present the play was refused by Dr. Hutton, Dean of York, in 1568 and the play has not been heard of since.

It is evident that the Pater Noster plays did not evolve from the cycle or miracle plays, but constitute an analogous or parallel development. The town records of York, Beverley, and Lincoln and the "returns" made to Richard II in 1389 attest to this development. wyclif alluded to the York Play of the Pater Noster in 1378; five performances are recorded between 1399 and 1572. After the performance of 1572 the books were given over for correction to Archbishop Grindal of York and disappeared from sight. Two performances are recorded for Beverley in 1441 and 1467, and four for Lincoln between 1398 and 1521. As to the origin, management, and nature of the play the records of York and Beverley yield little information; those of Lincoln, none at all. The "returns" reveal that the Guild of the Oratio Dominici had been organized in York to manage and perform the play, which later passed into the hands of the York Merchants' Guild (1462). In 1588 the York Pater Noster play was substituted for the Corpus Christi plays. The Beverley play was similar in scope to that of York. The number of crafts assigned to the Pater Noster play in Beverley in 1441 was almost equal to and in 1467 exceeded the number assigned to the cycle plays, and the stations assigned to the pageant wagons for the Play of the Pater Noster in 1467 were, with but one exception, the same as those stations that had been assigned to the cycle plays in 1449.

All conjectures as to the content and nature of the Beverley Play of the Pater Noster must be based chiefly on the two entries in the Beverley Town Minute Book of 1441 and 1467. Both entries record the date on which the play was to be given and the assignment of crafts to the pageants. The number of crafts assigned to the play and the length of time allotted for the preparation and performance indicate that it was an undertaking equal to the production of the cycle plays. The management of the plays was the same and suggests the possibility that the Play of the Pater Noster was actually a series of semi-independent but related plays, a cycle of morality plays. As to the subject matter of these plays, there is only the evidence of the titles of the individual pageants, one for each of the seven deadly sins and "Viciose" (possibly the Sinful Man), and the generic title Ludus de Pater Noster. The returns state that the York play had been put together to treat the utility of the Lord's Prayer, and that in it an equal number of vices and sins were reproved and virtues commended, and "therefore, it was of great influence for the salvation of souls."

Virtues vs. Vices. Of the English plays that have survived, the Castle of Perseverance (c. 1425), is possibly the most closely allied to the Pater Noster plays. Staged not on pageant wagons, but like the Cornish cycle on five fixed stages in an open place, it presented the struggle of the forces of good and evil for the possession of Humanum Genus (literally, the human race) and in the concluding Debate of the Four Daughters of God dramatically presents the part played by the Incarnation in mankind's redemption. In the extant plays, three major plots were employed: the Conflict of Vices and Virtues, the Summons of Death, and the Debate of the Four Daughters. The theme of conflict is explicit in all the plays except the Pride of Life and everyman, which are built on the plot of the Summons of Death, but it is implicit even in these plays. The Debate of the Four Daughters is an auxiliary plot employed in the Castle of Perseverance and is not used independently in any morality play. It is employed in only one other play, Respublica (1553), wherein it is clearly reminiscent of the Castle of Perseverance.

Three of the plays, the Castle of Perseverance, Mundus et Infans (printed 1522), and Henry Medwall's (fl. 1490) Nature, present the lifelong struggle between the Vices and Virtues for the soul of man and are therefore called full-scope morality plays. Each differs from the others in the traditional devices or motifs by means of which the struggle is represented. In the Castle of Perseverance, Humanum Genus is directly presented as the center of strife between his good angel and the virtues and his bad angel and the vices, who, in turn, are under the leadership of the sources of temptation, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Implicit in the plot is the device of the ages of man, for Humanum Genus is presented as newly baptized, as leading a life of sin until he is 40, as persevering in good for 20 years, and, at 60, falling into the vice of old age, covetousness. Mundus et Infans portrays the same lifelong struggle by means of the same device. The central figure appears first as Infans (the Chylde), and proceeds through each of the "seven ages," attaining a new name and a corresponding vice at each period of life, until Age and Repentance finally overtake him. The forces of good are economically represented by Conscyence and the Perseveraunce, of evil by the Worlde and Foly, who is the sum of the seven deadly sins. In Nature, the forces of evil are again servants of the World; they are presented, however, in a new motif, the sins under the leadership of Sensuality, the virtues under Reason. The theme of life as a journey appears in the 15th-century French Bien avisé, mal avisé.

Everyman, the Pride of Life, the Castle of Perseverance, Mundus et Infans, and Nature are universal in subject matter and appeal. Each member of the medieval audience identified himself with Everyman, knowing that the weaknesses of Humanum Genus and the follies of the Chylde were his own. Other 15th-century morality plays retained the "otherwordly" intent, but like Mynd, Wyll and Understanding (c. 1460) preached to a special audience (in this case to religious), or, like Mankynd (c. 1473) and Hyckescorner, against the specific vices of particular groups and of a particular time. John rastell's Interlude on the Nature of the Four Elements (1519), although it preserves its otherworldly purpose in its contention that true learning leads the soul nearer to God, is concerned primarily with the presentation of scientific information in the vernacular. The struggle between Reason and Sensuality (Studious Desire and Sensual Appetite) differs from the conflict in Nature in that it is a struggle for the mind rather than for the soul of man and is preserved chiefly to afford comic relief in the realistic tavern scenes and in the antics of Sensuality and Ignorance to the long lectures on science delivered by Nature and Experyence.

In the Interlude on the Nature of the Four Elements and its contemporary play Magnyfycence, the plot and machinery of the early religious morality play have been taken over simply as a convenient vehicle, in the former for presenting information, in the latter for the double purpose of teaching a political lesson and satirizing a political regime. Of the two plays, Magnyfycence definitely marks the break from the earlier morality plays. In the Four Elements, Rastell endeavored to bridge the gap between the otherworldliness of the earlier morality plays and the worldliness of his own productions.

Skelton's Magnyfycence (1533), however, is clearly of this world. Magnyfycence is a ruler, who, deceived by false courtiers, the court vices, and ruined through their connivance, is left to the mercy of Adversity and Poverty and so falls into the clutches of Despair. Rescued from self-destruction by Good Hope, he is advised by the loyal courtiers, the virtues of a wise sovereign, and after confessing to Redress and accepting the advice of Perseveraunce he is reinstated to his former power and position. The skeleton plot of the morality play has been retained in a conscious adaptation of its plot and devices to the presentation of a political theme. Magnyfycence and such neutral figures as Liberty and Wealth, as well as the court virtues, are derived from the Ethics of Aristotle. The play is of added interest in that it admits of a general and a specific interpretation, general as a political allegory warning against false counselors and prodigality, specific in its application to the reign of Henry VIII under the ascendancy of Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal had earlier (1526) objected to some of the political implications in Lord Governance and Lady Public-Weal.

Political and Social Purposes. Later morality plays openly adapted the theme of conflict to political purposes, as in Respublica (1553) and Wealth and Health (1557); to religious and political controversy, as in John Bale's (14951563) King Johan and David Lindsay's Satyre of the Thrie Estaites (1540); and to educational purposes, as in the series of "Wit and Science" school plays (1545 on). Others preserved the strictly doctrinal or religious aim of the earlier plays but confined their teachings to apply to a particular period of life, as in Youth (155358), or to a particular vice or group of vices, as in Impatient Poverty (1560). The subject matter of the later morality plays, other than the controversial and school plays, is almost wholly contemporary social satire. Lacking the universal application and timelessness of appeal that characterized the earlier plays, they lost the dignity and nobility of purpose of Everyman and the Castle of Perseverance. The same shift to social satire can be seen in the French plays, La Condemnation de Banquet (c. 1500) and L'Homme juste et l'homme mondain (c. 1500).

As Magnyfycence marks the conscious adoption of the plot of the morality plays as a vehicle of didacticism and propaganda, so Mankynd marks the transition from morality play to comedy through the gradual evolution of the vices from abstractions to realistic types, a transition through many and various intermediate stages from the Gula (Greed) of the early play to the Justice Greedy of comedy. Evidence of the process of transition can be noted in the contemporary plays Mynd, Wyll and Understanding and Hyckescorner, which are related to each other in representing the soul under the guise of its powers. In both plays the central or neutral figure no longer preserves its autonomy but becomes the vice, or type of evil to which it has consented. Thus, in Mynd, Wyll and Understanding the powers of good and evil are represented by Wysdom (who is Christ) and Lucyfer. Mynd, after yielding to temptation, becomes Mayntenance, the contemporary social evil resulting from the vice of pride; understanding becomes Perjury, the evil that results from avarice, and Wyll becomes sensuality. The three powers of the soul succumb to the three concupiscences: the concupiscence of the eyes (sensuality), the concupiscence of the mind (avarice), and the pride of life, which, in turn, are opposed to the three religious vows: chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Both Hyckescorner and Mynd, Wyll and Understanding are related in purpose to Mankynd as all three preach against and satirize the vices and lawlessness of the postwar period in which they were written; in fact, the social satire in the plays overshadows their original moral purpose. Mankynd marks the break from the realistic presentation and satire of contemporary vices as a deterrent from evil to the emphasis on such presentation for comic effect. Played by a traveling company whose members doubled in parts, the play was no longer, if it ever had been, under clerical supervision. The extant text presents a frankly commercial enterprise. The actors are out to please; local allusions and the antics of the devil Tityvillus and the gay young rioters are exploited to the fullest extent. But beneath the horseplay lies a serious theme, a protest against the irreverence and lawlessness of the age. Mercy, the single force for good in the play, is both priest and virtue, or virtue represented under the guise of a priest, who, through his admonitions and his power of forgiving sin, dispenses Christ's mercy on earth. Now-adays, New Guise, and Nought are vicious tendencies of the times presented under the appearance of the young men of the day: the modern young man or scoffer, the fashionable, and the frivolous young man. They hover midway between abstraction and type, for if they had been conceived as types of human beings they would have been subject to conversion. When, with their comrade Mischief, they scoff at Mercy, ridiculing his Latin and his ancient saws, they are directing their insults, not at the virtue, but at the priest. They represent the same lawless types which appear in Hyckescorner as the powers of the soul, the forerunners of the roistering tavern-haunting blades of the later comedies.

The use of allegorical characters and motifs are rare and sparse in the cycle plays, but they are utilized in the five temptation scenes of the Digby Mary Magdalene and in a scene interpolated into the Conversion of Saint Paul (see section 1 of this article). The scenes in both plays are clearly reminiscent of those in the Castle of Perseverance. In medieval literature Mary Magdalen, St. Paul, and St. Peter were the traditional exemplars of great penitents. In that sense, the theme of both plays relates them to that of the morality plays, for they are in reality dramatic exempla.

Plays based on the structure of the morality plays appeared throughout the 16th century (e.g., The Three Lords and the Three Ladies of London, 1592), and their influence is apparent in Elizabethan drama, specifically in such plays as Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Thomas Dekker's Old Fortunatus. The later morality plays shaded off into the interludes and, together with the earlier religious dramas, prepared for the great dramatic outburst of the 16th and 17th centuries, principally in its development of moral themes, comic situations, comic types, and characters.

Bibliography: e. k. chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 v. (Oxford 1903; repr. 1948). w. m. a. creizenach, Geschichte des neueren Dramas, 5 v. (Halle 18931916; v. 2, rev. ed. 1918). r. davies, Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York during the Reigns of Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III (London 1843). f. j. furnivall, ed., The Digby Plays (Early English Text Society, Extra Ser. 70; 1896). j. skelton, Magnyfycence: A Moral Play, ed. r. l. ramsay (ibid., 98; 1906). f. j. furnivall and a. w. pollard, The Macro Plays (ibid. 91; 1904). w. r. mackenzie, The English Moralities from the Point of View of Allegory (Harvard Studies in English 2; Boston 1914). g. r. owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (2d ed. New York 1961); Preaching in Medieval England (Cambridge, Eng. 1926). l. petit de julleville, Histoire du théatre en France: Repertoire du théatre comique en France au moyen-âge (Paris 1886). a. w. reed, Early Tudor Drama (London 1926). w. k. smart, "The Castle of Perseverance," in The Manly Anniversary Studies in Language and Literature (Chicago 1923). e. n. s. thompson, The English Moral Plays (New Haven 1910). h. traver, The Four Daughters of God (Philadelphia 1907). k. young, "The Records of the York Play of the Pater noster," Speculum 7 (1932) 540546. h. craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford 1955). For a relevant discussion of the "Pater Noster Play" see also t. e. allison, "The Pater Noster Play and the Origin of the Vices," Publications of the Modern Language Association 39 (1924) 789804, esp. 791. a. williams, The Drama of Medieval England (East Lansing 1961). a.p. rossiter, English Drama from Early Times to the Elizabethans (New York 1950).

[m. e. collins]

morality play

views updated May 18 2018

mo·ral·i·ty play • n. a kind of drama with personified abstract qualities as the main characters and presenting a lesson about good conduct and character, popular in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

morality play

views updated May 23 2018

morality play a kind of drama with personified abstract qualities as the main characters and presenting a lesson about good conduct and character, popular in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Morality plays

views updated May 21 2018

Morality plays: see THEATRE AND DRAMA.

morality play

views updated Jun 08 2018

morality play See mystery play


views updated May 29 2018

moralities. See miracle plays.