October 18

Medieval Drama

The Mystery Play

This form offers dramatizations of Old and New Testament miracles and the spiritual mysteries of Christianity, most particularly Christ's redemption of fallen humanity through his Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

The cycles seem to have arisen in the late 14th century. Because their doctrine is Catholic, they cease to be performed after the English church splits from Rome in the mid-16th century and are not revived until the 20th century.

Surviving Texts

Virtually complete texts of mystery cycles survive from

Local clergy probably assisted in the writing down and revising of play scripts. The so-called Wakefield Master is probably responsible for 6 plays in the Towneley cycle including 2 versions of the Shepherds' Play.

Performers and Performance Conditions

Mystery cycles were performed by craftsmen's guilds--societies which combined the functions of professional & charitable organizations and were also religious fraternities. Their performance involved many members of the community and a great deal of civic energy and effort.

Cycles were performed over the course of single day. Either

The platea is, in effect, negotiable space: here and everywhere.

The Uses of Familiarity?

The main emphasis in the cycles seems to have been on making present and immediate the events of scripture.

In the mystery plays scriptural events are frequently supplemented with characters & episodes which are bawdy or comic and sometimes draw upon popular and folk traditions (e.g., in the Noah's Flood plays or in the Joseph and Mary plays) or display a dark naturalism, as in the York Crucifixion play.

A question: are Medieval notions of what constituted spiritual texts much broader than our own?

The Second Shepherds' Play

represents Yorkshiremen (and by extension their Yorkshire audience) as being present at the birth of Christ. There are contemporary references, horseplay, Mak the trickster, a parody of a nativity followed by a real nativity. It's another example of serious game, significant play.

The Morality Play


These were not presented in cycles, but as individual dramas with allegorical plots, possibly performed in market places, in inn yards, or in the halls of large private homes.

In these dramas, qualities normally thought of as abstractions become embodied in particular persons (both Good Deeds and Worldly Goods are speakers who have their own separate conversations with Everyman).

They have no "character" beyond their predetermined spiritual status in the plot. Sometimes they seem to be externalizations and embodiments of qualities within the protagonist; sometimes they are personifications of social phenomena.

An allegory (from the Greek allos, other) usually involves some kind of spiritual or psychic event being translated into other terms which invite interpretation.


The earliest surviving morality play is The Castell of Perseveraunce (1425). Everyman was written c. 1500. No manuscript has survived, but we have an early printed text, c.1530. NB: Everyman is the first work you've read that we know only from its printed text.

Note the play's literalization of the metaphor of accounting for one's life--variations of the words reckoning/account occur 25 times in play.

Everyman's must carry his "book of count" to the final judgment. In terms of Christian theology, it is the sacrifice of Christ that settles all accounts, redeems our sins.

The Passion of Christ, the suffering and death of God made man, is one of the climaxes of every Corpus Christi mystery cycle & is also central to Everyman.

As Everyman prepares to enter the grave he invokes Christ's sacrifice in lines 886-87--"In manus tuas, of mights most,/Forever commendo spiritum meum" ("Into thy hands, O greatest of powers, I commend my spirit forever")--by borrowing Christ's own words on the cross (in the Latin text of the Gospel according to Luke).

Recall that the mystery plays fuse the here and now with the scriptural moment: Yorkshire shepherds witnessing Christ's nativity in The Second Shepherds' Play. In the morality plays we have a variation on this strategy: the repentant Everyman, trying to bring his own life into consonance with the life and death of Christ, lets Christ's words speak through him as he prepares to meet his God.