The Morality Play In English Drama

The allegorical morality play, a type of nonliturgical vernacular religious drama, was one of the forerunners to the development of English drama.

Related Terms:

ALLEGORY""(from the Greek "allegoria," which means "speaking otherwise." A story in prose or verse that has a double meaning or multiple meanings, both the obvious surface meaning and one or more secondary meanings, and thus must be understood on two or more levels.

DIDACTIC LITERATURE""literature used to teach a moral or a lesson. Most of the didactic literature in Europe was produced during the Middle Ages.

PSYCHOMACHIA""the battle within the individual's mind or soul, often represented allegorically in literature as a conflict between virtues and vices for the possession of the soul.

APTRONYM""a name that fits the nature or character of an individual (a "label name")>.

FABLE""a short narrative, often with animals as characters, that embodies a moral or a lesson.

EXEMPLUM""a short narrative used to illustrate a moral. Such stories were often used in sermons during the Middle Ages.

INTERLUDE""(literally, "between play"); a short entertainment put on between the courses of a feast or the acts of a longer play.

MORAL INTERLUDE""a type of interlude that was very similar to the morality play, though often shorter and more humorous. The dividing line between moral interludes and morality plays is not clear, and in many cases the two types of drama are indistinguishable. Several plays are classified both as moral interludes and as morality plays.

LITURGY""sacred rituals of the Church.

LITURGICAL DRAMA""plays performed in Latin by the clergy and the choir that sang the service, as part of the liturgy of the Church during the medieval period. As early as the fifth century, bible stories were represented in church by means of live tableaux accompanied by singing. From such simple beginnings, liturgical dramas developed gradually over several centuries as parts of the liturgy were embellished by "tropes" and then elaborated into dialogues and reenactments of scenes from the Easter story and the Nativity. Eventually the laity began to participate and vernacular elements were included.

TROPE""from the Greek, meaning "turn," a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the mass. In general, a trope is any rhetorical or figurative device, but a special development in the use of tropes occurred during the Middle Ages, when the term was applied to a verbal embellishment of the liturgical text. Some time before the tenth century, parts of the liturgy at Easter and Christmas were embellished by such tropes as the Nativity antiphonies and the "Quem Quaeritis" before the Easter Introit. Over time these tropes were expanded to include very rudimentary representations of the Nativity scene and the Three Marys at the sepulcher, mimed by the priests and the choir that sang the antiphonies

"QUEM QUAERITIS"""Latin for "Whom do you seek?" This was spoken to the three Marys by the angel at the sepulcher, who told them that Christ was not to be found in the tomb, for He had risen. This phrase was used as a trope during the Easter liturgy, and was adapted and elaborated into a dialogue that became the source of liturgical drama. Eventually it developed into a dramatized representation of the scene at the tomb and then became detached from the sacred liturgy. The "Quem Quaeritis" trope is considered to be the primary seed from which nonliturgical religious drama, and subsequently mainstream drama, grew.

ANTIPHON""a psalm, anthem or verse sung responsively (Webster's Dictionary, ninth ed.).



ANTIPHONY""a responsive alternation between two groups, especially of singers (Webster's Dictionary, ninth ed.). Antiphonies lent themselves readily to development into dialogue.

FARCE""an exaggerated, comic performance with no purpose other than to amuse the audience. Farce often contains ribald elements, but because of its playfulness, it usually is not considered offensive.

English drama developed out of early nonliturgical vernacular religious dramas, which had themselves probably developed out of the liturgical drama of the medieval church. Though secularized, these early dramatic forms""the mystery, miracle, and morality plays""still focused on the religious and moral themes that dominated the Christian imagination during the Middle Ages. The mystery plays dramatized sacred history, representing events from Creation to Judgment Day. Miracle plays presented the lives and miracles of the saints, or episodes of divine intervention in human affairs, often through the agency of the Virgin Mary.

Unlike the perspective of the mystery and miracle plays, that of the morality play was individual rather than collective. The morality play (usually called simply a "morality") presented religious and ethical concerns from the point of view of the individual Christian, whose main concern was to effect the salvation of his soul.

The mystery and miracle plays developed first, around 1100 a.d. Late in the fourteenth century, morality plays on such subjects as the seven deadly sins became popular in France, England and the Netherlands. In the first decades of the fifteenth century, secular allegorical plays concerning the conflict between good and evil in the individual soul began to be performed in France by law clerks and students, and this type of play soon became popular all over Europe, including England.

A morality play is essentially an allegory in dramatic form. It shares the key features of allegorical prose and verse narratives: it is intended to be understood on two or more levels, its main purpose is didactic, and the characters are personified abstractions with aptronyms ("label names"). The nondramatic didactic and allegorical precursors to the morality play are to be found in medieval sermon literature, homilies, exempla, fables, parables, and other works of moral or spiritual edification, as well as in the popular romances of medieval Europe.

Another dramatic form that has much in common with the morality play is the interlude, particularly that subset of interludes called "moral interludes." There is no clear dividing line between the moral interlude and the morality play, and in fact many works are classified under both headings: "The Pride of Life (c. 1300), "The Castell of Perseverance" (c. 1400), "Wisdom" (c. 1460), "Mankind" (c. 1465), "Hyckescorner" (1512), "Lusty Juventus" (1550), and "Like Will to Like" (1568). Moral interludes were usually about 1000 lines long and written in rough verse""often mere doggerel. Interludes generally, including moral interludes, were often written to be performed as entertainments at court, in the houses of nobility, at University colleges, and at the Inns of Court.

Typically, the morality play is a psychomachia, an externalized dramatization of a psychological and spiritual conflict: the battle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul. This interior struggle involves the Christian's attempt to achieve salvation, despite the obstacles and temptations that he encounters as he travels through life, toward death.

Originally, because of their roots in religious drama and their didactic purpose, moralities were serious in tone and style, but the increasing secularization of the plays led to the incorporation of elements derived from popular farce, a process encouraged by the presentation of the Devil and his servant the Vice as boisterous mischief-makers. These characters soon became figures of amusement rather than of moral edification. Even more disturbing for the Church was the way that actors would improvise humorous""and often ribald""scenes to increase the crowd's hilarity. By about 1500 the Church no longer officially approved of the mystery and miracle plays or the morality plays, and in England they were suppressed after the Reformation in the sixteenth century, though they continued to be performed well into the seventeenth century in the Catholic countries of Europe.

In England the moralities dramatized the progress of the Christian's life from innocence to sin, and from sin to repentance and salvation. Among the most widely known of the fifteenth-century moralities are "The Castell of Perseverance," which features a battle between Virtues and Vices; "Mankind," which incorporates topical farce; and perhaps the most famous of all the English morality plays, "Everyman" (c. 1495), which concerns the Christian's experience of mortality and Judgment.

The main characters in "Everyman" are God, a Messenger, Death, Everyman, Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, and Good Deeds. Everyman is immersed in worldly pleasures when Death summons unexpectedly him. He soon finds that none of his supposedly loyal companions (Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin) will go with him. His treasured Goods also desert him, and at the grave the qualities of the flesh (Beauty, Strength) also fade away. Only Good Deeds stays with him to help him get into Paradise, which is accomplished with the help and guidance of Knowledge, by means of Confession and Priesthood.

In other moralities, various manifestations of the forces of Evil (the Seven Deadly Sins, the World, the Flesh, the Devil, Vice) are arrayed against the Christian, who turns for help to the forces of Good (God, His angels, Virtue). The quality of writing in the moralities is uneven, and in many cases the author is unknown. Characterization is also crude and naïve, and there is little attempt to portray psychological depth.

But over time, the moralities began to show signs of increasingly sophisticated analysis of character. This increasing subtlety and depth of characterization point directly to the development of mainstream Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's play "Gorboduc," the first of the Elizabethan tragedies, is a kind of political morality play on the proper government of a kingdom. And at least one of drama's most memorable characters, Shakespeare's Falstaff, is a direct descendant of the medieval Vice. Falstaff functions as a Vice not only in his character, but also in the way he tempts Prince Hal in "Henry IV" (Parts I and II) to neglect his duties as heir apparent to the English throne in order to pursue a life of drunkenness, wantonness, and crime. When Hal becomes king, he must repudiate Falstaff altogether, just as the Christian must repudiate Vice in the medieval morality play.

By the sixteenth century, morality plays were addressing not only religious themes, but also social and political analysis and satire. For example, "Magnificence: (1516) satirizes extravagance, and "Satyre of the Three Estaitis" (1540) is a political morality play.

From about the mid-sixteenth century, under increasing pressure from religious authorities, the popularity of the moralities began to wane, but they continued to be a major influence on mainstream drama. Besides Sackville and Norton's "Gorboduc," Nathaniel Wood's "The Conflict of Conscience" (1568) and Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus" (1588) also owe much to the morality play, and even as late as 1625, Ben Jonson's "The Staple of News" showed the influence of the moralities, especially in Lady Pecunia, an allegorical character representing Riches. The allegorical use of aptronyms for characters in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century comedies, and also in novels and short stories all through he nineteenth and twentieth centuries, suggests the ongoing significance of the tradition established by the morality play.

© High Speed Ventures 2011