Morality play

The morality play is a genre of Medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment. In their own time, these plays were known as interludes, a broader term for dramas with or without a moral.[1] Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him or her to choose a good life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Having grown out of the religiously based mystery plays of the Middle Ages, they represented a shift towards a more secular base for European theatre. Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum (English: "Order of the Virtues") composed c. 1151, is the earliest known morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.

The 1522 cover of Mundus et Infans, a morality play


Morality plays typically contain a protagonist who represents either humanity as a whole or a smaller social structure. Supporting characters are personifications of good and evil. This alignment of characters provides the play’s audience with moral guidance. Morality plays are the result of the dominant belief of the time period, that humans had a certain amount of control over their post-death fate while they were on earth.[2]

In Everyman, perhaps the archetypal morality play, the characters take on the common pattern, representing broader ideas. Some of the characters in Everyman are God, Death, Everyman, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength. The personified meanings of these characters are hardly hidden. The premise of Everyman is that God, believing that the people on earth are too focused on wealth and worldly possessions, sends Death to Everyman to remind him of God's power and the importance of upholding values.[3] The emphasis put on morality, the seemingly vast difference between good and evil, and the strong presence of God makes Everyman one of the most concrete examples of a morality play. At the same time, most morality plays focus more on evil, while Everyman focuses more on good, highlighting sin in contrast.[4]

Other plays that take on the typical traits of morality plays, but are rarely given the title of "morality play" are Hickscorner and The Second Shepherds' Play. The characters in Hickscorner are Pity, Perseverance, Imagination, Contemplation, Freewill, and Hickscorner. They blatantly represent moral ideals.[5] In The Second Shepherds' Play, the characters are less obviously representative of good and evil, being primarily a trio of shepherds. But other characters such as Mary, The Child Christ, and An Angel show a strong moral presence and the importance of God in the play.[6]

Justice and Equity as characters

In early English dramas Justice was personified as an entity which exercised “theological virtue or grace, and was concerned with the divine pronouncement of judgment on man”.[7] However, as time progressed, more moralities began to emerge; it is during this transitional period where one begins to see Justice begin to assume more and more the qualities of a judge. The Justice in Respublica begins to concern himself with administering justice on “the criminal element”, rather than with the divine pronouncement on a generic representative of mankind.[8] This is the first instance where one may observe a direct divergence from the theological virtues and concerns that were previously exerted by Justice in the morality plays of the fifteenth century. The Justice in Respublica is personified as a “civil force rather than a theological one”.[8] An evolution of sorts takes place within the morals and agendas of Justice, he begins to don on the Judicial Robe of prosecutor and executioner.

Another change envelops in the character of Justice during the sixteenth century in morality plays; Equity replaces Justice and assumes the judiciary duties previously performed by Justice. This changing of rulers, or preceding justices, is done when Equity declares that his brother Justice has been banished from the country and that he (Equity) will from now on take on the duties of the former monarch, Justice.[9] This change of ruling heads is portrayed in the morality play, Liberality and Prodigality, where Equity serves Virtue in the detection, arrest, and punishment of Prodigality for the robbery and murder of Tenacity, a yeoman in the country of Middlesex.[10] Virtue states,

So horrible a fact can hardly pleaded for favour:
Therefore go you, Equity, examine more diligently
The manner of this outrageous robbery:
And as the same by examination shall appear,
Due justice may be done in presence here.
(Liberality and Prodigality 377)

The meta phases that Justice undergoes during the sixteenth century in morality plays, from “Justice” to “Equity” further illustrates the evolution of Justice; not only did Justice change from a “theological abstraction to a civil servant”,[11] but he experienced a corporeal change as well.

One may readily observe the evolutionary progression of Justice as portrayed in the plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One encounters Justice in the early-fifteenth-century moralities as a performer playing the role of a theological virtue or grace, and then one sees him develop to a more serious figure, occupying the position of an arbiter of justice during the sixteenth century. It is a journey of discovery and great change on which Justice welcomes one to embark as one leafs through the pages of morality plays.

Pre-Reformation versus post-Reformation

Although the purpose of all morality plays is to instruct listeners on the means of receiving redemption, morality plays after the Protestant Reformation are of a distinctly different didacticism than the morality plays before the Reformation.

Morality plays before the Reformation teach a Catholic approach to redemption, with an emphasis on works and the sacraments, a view originating with Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 AD) and Cyprian (d. 258). The emphasis on works can be seen in the final speech in one of the most well-known of medieval morality plays, Everyman, in which there is a clear statement about the necessity of good works for the one who desires heaven:

Doctor: This moral men may have in mind;
Ye hearers, take it of worth, old and young,
And forsake pride, for he deceiveth you in the end,
And remember Beauty, Five-wits, Strength, and Discretion,
They all at last do Everyman forsake,
Save his Good-Deeds, there doth he take.
But beware, and they be small
Before God, he hath no help at all.
None excuse may be there for Everyman.[12]

The importance of the sacraments is seen in the morality tale entitled Mankind (play). In this play, the sacrament of penance is emphasized when the allegorical character Mercy speaks to Mankind: “Come let us go to this cloister and incline your mind towards God. Don’t sin thinking that you are assured mercy, that itself is a sin. It’s not a good idea to take advantage of the Lord.”[13]

Pre-Reformation plays emphasized the importance of the sacraments of the Catholic Church (such as partaking in mass and baptism), the church clergy, the church hierarchy, the church establishment in general, and the abstinence from the Seven Deadly Sins. Many of the morality tales were allegories and involved characters with names of Vices (e.g., Gluttony) and Virtues (e.g., Goodness). Their purpose was to direct the playgoers to pursue virtue and renounce vice.

Frequently a character representing a Vice would state, upon his first appearance, that he was evil. For example, in The Castle of Perseverance, a character called Lust-Liking states:

Lo, me! here ready Lord, to fare and to flee
To seek thee a servant valued and dear!
Whoso will by Folly ruled be,
He is worthy to be a servant here,
Who slips into the Sins Seven.[14]

Even after this initial introduction, however, the Vice will continually reiterate to the audience that his nature is diabolic. Very often, the Vice presented will bring his character into criticism by the manner in which he presents himself to his audience, thus further demonstrating his wickedness. For example, the Vices in the earlier morality plays often spoke using vulgar language and by blasphemous swearing. Often, these curses were spoken in Latin, which being considered the holy language, made these curses even more offensive to the audience. Moreover, the Vices often made a mockery of religious practices sacred to the audience, thereby castigating themselves in the eyes of their audience. Deceit is another means by which the Vice exposes his wickedness to the audience and serves as an example to them of what to avoid in a righteous life. Furthermore, in the pre-Reformation play, the Vices denounce their own characters by acting violently toward each other, and toward the Virtues.[15]

Whereas the pre-Reformation morality plays sought to reinforce the establishment of the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrine, the post-Reformation morality plays worked to destroy Catholic credibility and demonise the Catholic Church. Although post-Reformation morality plays were like its predecessor in that it also was concerned with the salvation of its audience, it differed in that it believed that the theology promoted by pre-Reformation plays was antithetical to salvation. Thus, a major shift in focus, from concern for the individual’s moral behaviour to concern for the individual's theological practices, occurred with the post-Reformation morality plays. The wave of Protestantism which fuelled the content of these plays dictated that more attention should be given to warning people against the Catholic Church than of their sinful nature. The means of redemption, according to the philosophy embedded in post-Reformation morality plays, is dependent upon the audience understanding the truthfulness of Protestant theology and verses and also the deceptiveness and wickedness of Catholic theology, whose best example is the secular play of Calderón.[16]

The Vices in post-Reformation morality plays are almost always depicted as being Catholic. At times this depiction is achieved through their physical appearance. For example, Vices in post-Reformation morality plays would be dressed as cardinals, friars, monks, or the pope. Other times, the Vice comes out and states he is a Catholic, or elucidates that he is Catholic by swearing a Catholic pledge. Oftentimes, the Vice in post-Reformation plays admits that Catholic theology is flawed, and that by being Catholic the Vice is committing treason. Moreover, Vices often appear ignorant and naive, especially when it comes to their biblical understanding and knowledge of the New Testament. Often, morality plays coming out the post-Reformation period ridicule ritualistic Catholic practices. Furthermore, these plays postulated that Catholics were opposed to moral behaviour and truthfulness, and that the Catholic Church warped the text of the Bible to justify sinning. To deceive the victim of post-Reformation morality plays, the Vice typically assumes a new name to disguise what actual Vice he is.

Because the Vice is aggressively tied to Catholicism from the outset of the play, when the Vice is reprimanded and damned, so are his Catholic beliefs. Therefore, the Vice served as a central component to discrediting the Catholic Church in post-Reformation morality plays.[15]

The role of the Virtues in post-Reformation morality plays was to preach a message of salvation based upon an individual’s faith and the grace of God. They promoted Protestant beliefs of original sin, the importance of bible reading and meditation, the marriage of clergymen, and the cleansing of sin only through Christ’s sacrifice; at the same time, they discredited the Catholic belief in transubstantiation.[15]



  1. ^ Richardson and Johnston (1991, 97-98).
  2. ^ King, Pamela M. "Morality Plays". The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Ed. Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1994. 235. Print.
  3. ^ Everyman and Other Miracle and Morality Plays. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum and Candace Ward. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. 36-59. Print.
  4. ^ King, Pamela M. "Morality Plays". The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Ed. Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1994. 257. Print.
  5. ^ Everyman and Other Miracle and Morality Plays. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum and Candace Ward. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. 60. Print.
  6. ^ Everyman and Other Miracle and Morality Plays. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum and Candace Ward. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. 12-35. Print.
  7. ^ McCutchan, J. Wilson. "Justice and Equity in the English Morality Play."Journal of the History of Ideas. 19.3 (1958): 406.
  8. ^ a b Respublica, ed. by Leonard A. Magnus (London, 1905), Extra Series XCIV.
  9. ^ McCutchan, J. Wilson . "Justice and Equity in the English Morality Play."Journal of the History of Ideas. 19.3 (1958): 408.
  10. ^ Liberality and Prodigality, in A Select Collection of Old English Plays. ed. by W. Carew Hazlitt (London, 1874), VIII, 329-83.
  11. ^ McCutchan, J. Wilson . "Justice and Equity in the English Morality Play."Journal of the History of Ideas. 19.3 (1958): 409.
  12. ^ Cawley, A. C. (1974). Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. London: Dent. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-460-87280-5.
  13. ^ McDonald, Rick. "Modern English Translation of Mankind". Utah Valley University. Retrieved 7 August 2016.
  14. ^ Johnston, Alexandra F. "The Castle of Perseverance: A Modernization". Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. University of Toronto. Retrieved 7 August 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Pineas, Rainer (1962), "The English Morality Play as a Weapon of Religious Controversy", Studies in English Literature (Web)|format= requires |url= (help), JSTOR, 2 (2): 157–80 |access-date= requires |url= (help).
  16. ^ Muratta Bunsen, Eduardo, Leidenschaft des Zweifelns: Skepsis und Probabilismus in den Säkulardramen von Pedro Calderón de la Barca (in German), Berlin, DE: FU.


  • Cummings, James (2004-07-13). "The Pride of Life". The Literary Encyclopedia. The Literary Dictionary Co Ltd. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
  • Owen, Siam, "The modern God of our era", Medieval Drama, English Dramatists, London: Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-45477-4.

External links

Christian drama

Christian drama is based on Christian religious themes.

Conspiracy fiction

The conspiracy thriller (or paranoid thriller) is a subgenre of thriller fiction. The protagonists of conspiracy thrillers are often journalists or amateur investigators who find themselves (often inadvertently) pulling on a small thread which unravels a vast conspiracy that ultimately goes "all the way to the top." The complexities of historical fact are recast as a morality play in which bad people cause bad events, and good people identify and defeat them. Conspiracies are often played out as "man-in-peril" (or "woman-in-peril") stories, or yield quest narratives similar to those found in whodunnits and detective stories.

A common theme in such works is that characters uncovering the conspiracy encounter difficulty ascertaining the truth amid the deceptions: rumors, lies, propaganda, and counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what is coincidence become entangled. Many conspiracy fiction works also include the theme of secret history and paranoid fiction.


Dumbshow, also dumb show or dumb-show, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English as "gestures used to convey a meaning or message without speech; mime." In the theatre the word refers to a piece of dramatic mime in general, or more particularly a piece of action given in mime within a play "to summarise, supplement, or comment on the main action".In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, Michael Dobson writes that the dumbshow was originally "an allegorical survival from the morality play". It came into fashion in 16th century English drama in interludes featuring "personifications of abstract virtues and vices who contend in ways which foreshadow and moralize the fortunes of the play's characters".There are examples in Gorboduc (1561) throughout which dumbshow plays a major part, and in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1580s), George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1594) and The Old Wives' Tale (1595), Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1594) and the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (1599). Shakespeare used dumbshow in Hamlet, for the play within a play staged by Prince Hamlet and the players for King Claudius. That, like Revenge's dumbshow in The Spanish Tragedy, suggests by mime the action soon to take place in the main spoken drama. In Dobson's view the dumbshow was becoming old-fashioned by Shakespeare's time, and the playwright's most elaborate dumbshows are in Pericles, a play intentionally constructed in "a mock-medieval dramatic idiom". In the 17th century, dumbshow survived as an element of the courtly masque, and in the Jacobean tragedies of Webster and Middleton dumbshows are featured in masque-within-the-play episodes.From the 1630s the dumbshow no longer featured in mainstream British drama, but it resurfaced in harlequinades, pantomimes and melodramas in the 19th century. Thomas Holcroft introduced a dumb character in his play A Tale of Mystery (1802), and the device of using a mute to convey essential facts by dumbshow became a regular feature of melodramas. In his Dictionary of Literary Terms (first published in 1977), J. A. Cuddon lists 19th century plays with the titles The Dumb Boy (1821), The Dumb Brigand (1832), The Dumb Recruit (1840), The Dumb Driver (1849) and The Dumb Sailor (1854).Cuddon notes three 20th century instances of dumbshow in André Obey's Le Viol de Lucrece (1931), Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953) and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966).


Elckerlijc (also known as Elckerlyc) is a morality play from the Low Countries which was written in Dutch somewhere around the year 1470. It was first printed in 1495. The play was extremely successful and may have been the original source for the English play Everyman, as well as many other translations for other countries. The authorship of Elckerlijc is attributed to Peter van Diest, a medieval writer from the Low Countries.

The play won the first prize in a theater contest in Brabant; it is uncertain whether it won at the Antwerp Landjuweel in 1496. As a morality play, it stresses the didactic message. It uses allegory of the hero as an "everyman" (a typical human person) and is written in moderately elevated Rederijker style.

Dutch and English historians argued for decades over whether the English play Everyman was based on Elckerlijc (or vice versa). The most convincing evidence that Elckerlijc was the original was provided by the English historian E.R. Tigg, who showed how many rhymes and literal translations were copied from the Dutch language play into the English Everyman. On the other hand, an English translator should have added a rhyming tag to each of a pair of words that rhyme in Dutch but not in English. The prevalent view is that the Dutch language version was the original.

Everyman (novel)

Everyman is a novel by Philip Roth, published by Houghton Mifflin in May 2006. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2007. It is Roth's third novel to receive the prize.

Everyman (play)

The Somonyng of Everyman (The Summoning of Everyman), usually referred to simply as Everyman, is a late 15th-century morality play. Like John Bunyan's 1678 Christian novel The Pilgrim's Progress, Everyman uses allegorical characters to examine the question of Christian salvation and what Man must do to attain it.

Jedermann (play)

Jedermann (Everyman) is a play by the Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is based on several medieval mystery plays, including the late 15th-century English morality play Everyman. It was first performed on 1 December 1911 in Berlin under the direction of Max Reinhardt at the Circus Schumann (which later became the Großes Schauspielhaus).


Mankind refers to the human species, Homo sapiens, collectively, namely Humanity (sociology).

Mankind may also refer to:

Mankind (wrestler) (born 1965), a later gimmick used by Mick Foley during parts of his tenure in World Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Entertainment

Mankind (play), a 15th-century morality play

Mankind (video game), a 1998 massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game

Mankind (album), an album by Factory 81

Mankind: The Story of All of Us, a 2012 American documentary series

ManKind Initiative, a domestic violence charity

ManKind Project, a non-profit, educational organization

"Mankind", a song by Pearl Jam from No Code

Mankind (band), a disco band

Medieval theatre

Medieval theatre encompasses theatrical performance in the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and the beginning of the Renaissance in approximately the 15th century. Medieval theatre covers all drama produced in Europe over that thousand-year period and refers to a variety of genres, including liturgical drama, mystery plays, morality plays, farces and masques. Beginning with Hrosvitha of Gandersheim in the 10th century, Medieval drama was for the most part very religious and moral in its themes, staging and traditions. The most famous examples of Medieval plays are the English cycle dramas, the York Mystery Plays, the Chester Mystery Plays, the Wakefield Mystery Plays and the N-Town Plays, as well as the morality play, Everyman. One of the earliest surviving secular plays in English is The Interlude of the Student and the Girl (c. 1300).

Due to a lack of surviving records and texts, a low literacy rate of the general population, and the opposition of the clergy to some types of performance, there are few surviving sources on Medieval drama of the Early and High Medieval periods. However, by the late period, drama and theatre began to become more secularized and a larger number of records survive documenting plays and performances.

Morality Play (novel)

Morality Play is a semi-historical detective novel by Barry Unsworth. The book, published in 1995 by Hamish Hamilton was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Movie Movie

Movie Movie is a 1978 American double bill directed by Stanley Donen. It consists of two films, Dynamite Hands, a boxing ring morality play, and Baxter's Beauties of 1933, a musical comedy, both starring the husband-and-wife team of George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. A fake trailer for a flying-ace movie set in World War I entitled Zero Hour (also starring Scott) is shown between the double feature.

Barry Bostwick, Red Buttons, Art Carney and Eli Wallach also appear in both segments, with Harry Hamlin, Barbara Harris and Ann Reinking featured in one each. The script was written by Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller.

Ordo Virtutum

Ordo Virtutum (Latin for Order of the Virtues) is an allegorical morality play, or sacred music drama, by St. Hildegard, composed c. 1151, during the construction and relocation of her Abbey at Rupertsberg. It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.

A short version of Ordo Virtutum without music appears at the end of Scivias, Hildegard's most famous account of her visions. It is also included in some manuscripts of the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum ("Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations"), a cycle of more than 70 liturgical songs. It may have been performed by the convent nuns at the dedication of the St. Rupertsberg church in 1152 or possibly before the Mass for the Consecration of Virgins at the convent .

The Boy Who Drank Too Much

The Boy Who Drank Too Much is a 1980 American made-for-television drama film based on a novel by Shep Greene. The film was initially broadcast on CBS and sponsored by Xerox, and starred Scott Baio as a high school hockey player struggling with alcoholism. While its approach is that of a typical after school special, the film was presented as a prime time made-for-TV movie, which was seen February 6, 1980 at 9:00 pm ET/PT. Taking a form of a 20th-century morality play, the film dealt with a serious issue of alcoholism, that might confront youth in a prescriptive manner.

The Castle of Perseverance

The Castle of Perseverance is a c. 15th century morality play and the earliest known full-length (3,649 lines) vernacular play in existence. Along with Mankind and Wisdom, The Castle of Perseverance is preserved in the Macro Manuscript (named after its owner Cox Macro) that is now housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Castle of Perseverance contains nearly all of the themes found in other morality plays, but it is especially important (and unusual) because a stage drawing is included, which may suggest theatre in the round.

The Disobedient Child

The Disobedient Child is a theatrical comic interlude written c.1560 by Thomas Ingelend (an author who is known only as a "late student of Cambridge", as described on the first edition's title-page) and first performed in a Tudor hall.This play contains the famous line: "None is so deaf as who will not hear."

The Reckoning (2003 film)

The Reckoning, also known as Morality Play (and as El misterio de Wells in Spain), is a 2003 British-Spanish murder mystery drama film directed by Paul McGuigan and starring Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Tom Hardy, Gina McKee, Brian Cox and Vincent Cassel. It was written by Mark Mills and based on the 1995 novel Morality Play by Barry Unsworth. Filming was done on location in Spain, Wales, and England.

The story, which is set during the medieval period in England, alludes to the evolution of the theatre arts from what was strictly Biblical morality plays in the period to dramas based on real or extra-Biblical fictional subjects.

The Seven Deadly Sins (play)

The Seven Deadly Sins was a two-part play written c. 1585, attributed to Richard Tarlton, and most likely premiered by his company, Queen Elizabeth's Men. The play drew upon the medieval tradition of the morality play; though it was very popular in its time, no copy of either part has survived.

The World and the Child

The World and the Child (Latin: Mundus et Infans) is an anonymous English morality play. Its source is a late 14th-century or 15th-century poem The Mirror of the Periods of Man's Life, from which the play borrows significantly while reducing the number of characters. It is thought to have influenced William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1.

Vice (character)

Vice is a stock character of the medieval morality plays. While the main character of these plays was representative of every human being (and usually named Mankind, Everyman, or some other generalizing of humanity at large), the other characters were representatives of (and usually named after) personified virtues or vices who sought to win control of man's soul. While the virtues in a morality play can be seen as messengers of God, the vices were viewed as messengers of the Devil.

Over time, the morality plays began to include many lesser vices on stage and one chief vice figure, a tempter above all the others, who was called simply the Vice. Originally, the Vice was a serious role, but over time his part became largely comical. Scholar F.P. Wilson notes, “Whatever else the Vice may be, he is always the chief comic character”; this comic portrayal is explained thus: "In theory there is no reason why vice should not be put upon the stage with the same seriousness and sobriety as virtue: in practice, however, dramatists, and many a preacher, knew that men and women will not listen for long to unrelieved gravity”. In his Declaration of Popish Impostures from 1603, Bishop Harsnet wrote that "It was a pretty part in the old church plays, when the nimble Vice would skip up nimbly like a Jacke-an-apes into the Devil's necke, and ride the devil a course, and belabour him with his wooden dagger, till he made him roar, whereat the people would laugh to see the Devil so Vice-haunted.”

Morality plays of the Tudor period
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