Morality Plays, those in which the characters were allegorical persons would attempt to drive home a moral. They provided more scope to the imagination for new plots and incidents and afforded a chance for delineation of characters. (For more information on Miracle Plays, Mystery Plays, and the Cycle Plays, see my earlier post on Anglo-Norman Drama.) At first, many found these plays a bit dull, but with the introduction of Vice, a character who customarily played pranks similar to those of modern-day clowns, interest in the Morality Plays increased. Generally, the individual plays ended with Virtue triumphing over the Devil and Vice. The Devil would return to Hell in disgrace, with Vice riding upon his back.
Everyman is a morality play of the late medieval period (c. 1500), which points the way to Virtue. The foreword runs thus:
Here begins a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sendeth Death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this worlde.
Summary of the Tale: God speaks and bewails the lack of virtue in this world. People are in love with worldly riches and the seven deadly sins. He sends Death to show to Everyman the pilgrimage he must take.
There follows the colloquy between Death and Everyman. Death asks for an account of Everyman’s life. Everyman tries to buy off Death, but the effort proves fruitless. Seeking a refuge from Death’s manipulations, Everyman turns to Fellowship, who has sworn he would do anything for Everyman. Everyman tells him he has been commanded to appear before Judge Adonay ( Hebrew for God), and he would prefer that Fellowship bear him company in the task. Needless to say, fickled Fellowship refuses. Everyman then asks the same of his Kindred, only to receive a like response. Neither Goods or Riches agree to accompany him on his dark journey. Next, he calls on Good-deeds, but although Good-deeds is willing to assist Everyman, he has done so few good deeds that she cannot stand upon her feet. However, Good-deeds sends her sister Knowledge to assist him in “his dreadful reckoning.” Knowledge escorts Everyman to Confession, after which he does penance for his sins. Now, Good-deeds sends Discretion, Strength, and Five-Wits along with him on the voyages, as well as Beauty. With these qualities to aid him, Everyman fears nothing. But when it comes to going into the grave, Beauty draws back. Strength soon follows her lead in forsaking Everyman. Then Discretion leaves and finally Five-Wits. Only Good-deeds remains to assist him. “All feeth save Good-deeds.” At length, the Angel receives Everyman. The moral is that of all the qualities and possessions one may have in this life, only Good-deeds may justify you to God.
Analysis: The play shows the measure of dramatic quality and power, which the morality was capable of attaining when it was at its best. There is no classical influence and yet is classically constructed. The beauty of the work is its sincerity and a certain inevitability about the fortunes of the chief character, Everyman.
The Second Shepherd’s Play comes from the Towneley Cycle in the 15th Century. “The Second Shepherds’ Play (also known as The Second Shepherds’ Pageant) is a famous medieval mystery play, which is contained in the manuscript HM1, the unique manuscript of the Wakefield Cycle. These plays are also referred to as the Towneley Plays, on account of the manuscript residing at Towneley Hall. The plays within the manuscript roughly follow the chronology of the Bible and so were believed to be a cycle, which is now considered not to be the case. This play gained its name because in the manuscript it immediately follows another nativity play involving the shepherds. In fact, it has been hypothesized that the second play is a revision of the first. It appears that the two shepherd plays were not intended to be performed together since many of the themes and ideas of the first play carry over to the second one. In both plays it becomes clear that Christ is coming to Earth to redeem the world from its sins. Although the underlying tone of The Second Shepherd’s Play is serious, many of the antics that occur among the shepherds are extremely farcical in nature.” (The Second Shepherd’s Play)
Summary of the Tale: The three shepherds meet and bewail their poverty and the cold weather. They are soon joined by Mak, a notorious sheep-stealer who puts on a big front. Mak seems a rather simple rogue, ingenious but poor. The shepherds make sport of him, but he persists in posing as the messenger of the king. He drops his pose soon enough and discourses in quite lively fashion about his wife, her fecundity, and the expense of her upkeep, ending by offering to pay her burial mass with great readiness. Soon the shepherds become sleepy and lie down on the ground to rest. To prevent Mak from pilfering, they put him between two of them. But Mak puts them under a spell to prevent them from awaking, then simply walks off with a sheep which he brings to Gill, his wife.
Gill, fearing discovery, conceives the ingenious plan of pretending to be ill after childbirth, and she bundles the sheep into the baby’s cradle. Then Mak returns to the sleeping shepherds and lies down as if he never been awake.
When the shepherds arise and discover a sheep missing, Mak immediately falls under suspicion. They go to Mak’s home to make a search. Here they find Gill in bed groaning as if from a recent childbirth. In fact, the shepherds are made to feel ashamed of themselves for coming to search a house where there has so lately been a birth. They are about to go when one of them insists on presenting the newborn child with a gift. Naturally, Mak’s theft is disclosed, and though he insists that the sheep was really born of him and his wife, the shepherds punish him by tossing him in a sheet.
The play continues with the appearance of an angel instructing the shepherds to journey towards Bethlehem, there to give homage to the Christ child. They follow the star, philosophizing as they go, until they read the manger. Having offered their gift, they hail the Savior. Mary speaks, and they depart.
Analysis: Although as a mystery play, the central episode of this play would be the birth of Christ, it is obvious that the birth is hardly more than an anti-climax to the story of Mak. It is clear that in the Second Shepherd’s Play, the drama is liberating itself from ecclesiastical domination, although it was not as yet completely independent. In its general atmosphere, it has departed from its Scriptural basis. The humor and the character of the shepherds are English. The situation is domestic.
The work was written in a vigorous, rhymed stanza suitable to the rather coarse humor and colloquial conversation. An excellent example of this humor is Mak’s complaint that his wife is always bearing children, some years one, some years two. The harshness with which Gill treats her husband until she learns that he has brought home a sheep is an additional touch. The play might well be called our first domestic farce.
History of English Literature: Part 1 – Early Saxon Through Milton), Hymarx Outline Series, Student Outlines Company, Boston, MA, pp. 71-74.
Robinson, J. W. (1991). Studies in Fifteenth-century Stagecraft. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Medieval Institute.
Feinstein, Sandy (2001). “Shrews and Sheep in The Second Shepherds’ Play“. Pacific Coast Philology 36: 64–80.
Hi Regina, I haven’t thought about The Morality Plays for a long time. Lovely post, thank you. anne stenhouse
Since I retired from teaching, I, too, have not visited these ideas. Silly as it may sound, Anne, I am putting my undergraduate degree to work. I started these posts with the earlier “British” literature.