Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Medieval Era Morality Plays

Everyman Fighting with Death
The Morality Plays of the 14th Century were didactic, relied heavily on allegory, and were a transition between the liturgical drama of the early Medieval Era and the secular drama of the 15th Century.

To Teach a Moral Lesson

Medieval Christians were exceptionally concerned with death and the afterlife.  Reminders to save one's own soul by thinking and behaving properly were everywhere: What we might consider "too macabre" by today's standards was commonplace during the late 14th Century.  For example, "In the visual arts, death's heads, skeletons, and similar devices were prominent" (Brockett & Hildy, 2008, pg. 94).

This concern for people's souls in the afterlife lead to a greater popularity in teaching lessons about morality, about how to live more virtuous lives and not fall victim to sin.  The Morality Plays, instead of being about the Bible, the Saints, or the life of Christ, were about people and  how they did or did not suffer when they did or did not lead virtuous lives.

Reliance on Allegory

Because of the preoccupation with saving one's soul from damnation, there was a trend in Morality Plays to represent virtue and sin on the stage.  Allegorical characters began appearing in the plays to help teach moral lessons.  Death, Money, Knowledge, and Piety might become intricately costumed and masked characters on the stage, either temping the main character to sin and be driven to Hell, or convincing the main character to lead a pious life and thus earn a glorious afterlife.  The characters that appear in Everyman, for example, include Death, Kindred Cousin, Goods, Knowledge, Strength, Beauty, and the main character named Everyman.  As explained in The Compact Bedford Introduction to Drama (Jacobus, 2013, pg. 133), "Each character does not just stand for a specific quality; he or she is that quality.  The allegorical way of thinking derived from the medieval faith that everything in the world had a moral meaning."

From the Liturgical to the Secular


When moments of dramatic dialogue were first introduced into the Catholic Mass during the early Medieval Era (10th Century), the people responded favorably, and the practice of adding bits of dialogue to the Mass continued.  In the beginning, these moments were sung by clergymen during the Mass, but over time, short, staged performances moved outside the walls of the church.  Full performances grew out of these humble beginnings, and the actors in the performances became not clergymen, but members of the community and amateur actors.  As time went on, the performances and performers became more professional.


During the Medieval Era, the Catholic Mass was conducted in Latin.  Latin, however, was not the everyday language of the people.  As performances moved outside the walls of the church, so did the language of the performances.  The Morality Plays were produced in the vernacular, or everyday language, of the people.  This made it much easier to use the plays to teach a moral lesson, as everyone in the audience could understand what was being said by each of the characters!


The shift from clergymen to professional performers and the shift from Latin to the vernacular were taking place concurrently with a shift from religious content to more secular content.  The content of the plays became less about the lives of Jesus or the Saints, no longer relied on stories of the Bible, and were more about saving the souls of men and women.  These changes were reflected in the scripts as well as in performance.  For example, the Morality Play, Mankind, incorporated time for the actors to ask for contributions during the performance. Furthermore, with its addition of song, dance, and comic interludes, its purpose seems to have shifted from that of teaching a moral lesson to entertaining an audience and making a living (Brockett & Hildy, 2008, pg. 95).

The Morality Plays of the Medieval Era were a transitional drama that helped usher in the drama and theatre of the 16th Century.    Stemming from the tropes, or songs, delivered as dialogue during the Catholic Mass, Morality Plays focused on teaching people how to live more virtuous lives and gain entry into heaven.  These plays took place outside both the walls and the language of the church, which eventually allowed for the further evolution of drama as secular entertainment.


Brockett, O. G., & Hildy, F. J. (2008). History of the Theatre (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Jacobus, L. A. (2013). The Compact Bedford Introduction to Drama (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/ St. Martin's.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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