What Is a Medieval Morality Play?

Morality plays formed an important part of European culture in the 15th and 16th centuries, molding society with morals through the medium of entertainment.

May 12, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

what is medieval morality play

 

Gaining huge success and popularity in the late medieval and early Renaissance era, morality plays were performed throughout much of Europe, attracting vast crowds of people and imparting important messages and morals to the citizenry.

 

Christian doctrine was a heavy theme, warning of the dangers of vice and showing the rewards of virtue. They encapsulated the morals of the time and became embedded in the cultural landscape of Europe at a time when great shifts were taking place in society and politics.

 

A Note on Nomenclature

sir joshua reynolds robert dodsley
Robert Dodsley by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The term “morality play” is a modern invention. It was coined by modern academics as a way to define a series of plays that shared common themes, characteristics, and purposes. The influential 18th-century English publisher, poet, and playwright Robert Dodsley attempted to categorize the genre in his works. In his descriptions, he splits the genre into two important categories. “Morality plays” make heavy usage of allegory, while “mystery plays” are biblical in nature. There is, however, no reason why the two cannot share the same stage. Biblical narratives can be found in morality plays, and allegory can easily be inserted into mystery plays. “Mystery” in this sense is better encapsulated with the modern meaning of “miracle.”

 

everyman morality play 1
“Here begynneth a treatyse how the hye fader of heuen sendeth dethe to somon euery creature to come and gyue a counte of theyr lyues in this worlde and is in maner of a morall playe. (The somonyg of eueryman.)” Source: British Library

 

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In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these plays were referred to as “games,” as attested to by a number of works in which the performance is referred to as a “game” reflexively while speaking to the audience. The only known play to have referred to itself as a “morall playe” is the most famous, The Somonyng of Everyman, which premiered around 1510 and still takes to the stage today.

 

History of Morality Plays

chester mystery play
Chester Mystery Play from Chambers Book of Days (1864). Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Central to the dynamic of morality plays is the idea of good and evil, vices and virtues, morality and immorality, fighting over the soul of a human being. This dynamic goes back to ancient times and can be found during the late Roman period after the empire had officially become Christian. While good versus evil is not exclusively a Christian narrative, the history and evolution of the morality play have its roots firmly in Christian doctrine and activity.

 

From the early Middle Ages, mystery or “cycle” plays were en vogue as a way to disseminate the stories of the Bible. In a time when the language of the Bible could only be read by those literate in Latin, these plays helped bring the stories and teachings contained within to the masses.

 

It is apparent that from these plays, the morality play evolved, especially since it was monks who started the morality play trend. In the 13th century, Dominican and Franciscan monks began the evolution of cycle plays to morality plays by adding actors to their sermons. The theatrical elements were widely popular and started a trend that spread across much of Europe.

 

everyman morality play 2
Images from Everyman depicting personified versions of abstract ideas. Source: British Library

 

Concepts that were often difficult to explain or understand, such as original sin, were more easily understood via this medium, which also had the advantage of being far more entertaining than sermons that used nothing but the spoken word.

 

Thus began the attempt to represent abstract ideas through personification. Ideas like charity, beauty, death, and a host of different vices and virtues began to take on a human form in order for them to be presented in a theatrical sense.  By the 15th century, these plays had formed their own genre, with solid themes separating them from the mystery/cycle plays.

 

Morality Play Themes

morality play everyman
A 1982 production of Everyman. Source: Shakespeare’s Staging, UC Berkeley

 

Morality plays followed a simple three-part plot. They are all stories of innocence, the fall into sin, and then redemption. In the beginning, the main character is innocent and unaware of the dangers that are to come. He is then tempted by some vice. These vices are usually in the form of one of the seven deadly sins and are represented by characters in the play. By the end of the play, the main character repents and is saved by virtue of being a good person.

 

The main character can represent the whole of humanity, or if the play is aimed at a specific community, he can represent that community or a demographic. Supporting characters form the basis of representing good and evil, and the main character’s interactions with them are indicative of humanity’s struggle with sin and the quest for virtue. As such, the supporting characters are also a way to examine the main character’s introspective struggle with his own conscience.

 

The most common supporting characters represent man’s temptations from the world, the flesh, and the Devil. These temptations are always present, and through them, the play conveys the message that sin is inevitable, no matter how pious and virtuous one tries to be. However, a path to redemption is always present and can be taken at any point. Mirroring this idea, and unlike many other medieval events, morality plays were not consigned to being a regular calendar event. They could happen at any time.

 

Some Examples of Morality Plays

castle of perseverance
A staging diagram for Castle of Perseverance. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

 

The oldest known morality play comes from Germany (then the Holy Roman Empire) and was written in 1151. Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues) tells the story of a human soul eager to skip life and enter heaven, but she is told by the Virtues that she must live life first, and the Devil comes in and takes the opportunity to draw her away from goodness by introducing her to worldly things.

 

The Virtues take turns stating their importance while the Devil interrupts and argues with the Virtues. The play is a musical drama, and the songs replace the need for any complex plot. Finally, the soul repents and joins with the virtues to bind the Devil.

 

The Castle of Perseverance is an early 15th-century morality play that tells the story of the character Humanum Genus (Mankind) and his battle with good and evil. During the story, he is deceived and lured by vice while protected by virtue. After being protected in a castle, he once again goes out into the world and is seduced by sin, but he is suddenly struck down by an arrow from Death, communicating that the end could come at any moment. His salvation is debated until God shows mercy. The last line is delivered by the actor playing God, who tells the audience to consider their sins, for death could strike at any time.

 

guy marchant danse macabre
Detail from Danse Macabre by Guy Marchant, 1490. Source: Library of Congress

 

Wisdom (ca. 1460s) tells the story of Wisdom, personified as Christ, battling against the Devil for the soul of humankind, while Mankind (ca. 1470) follows the common theme of man falling into sin and repenting. The latter, however, is marked by its dialogue, which switches between serious theological consideration and vulgarity.

 

Perhaps the most famous morality play is The Somonyng of Everyman (ca. 1510), which tells the story of a man who tries to get various characters to join him on his pilgrimage through life. On his journey, God tallies the good deeds and the bad. The transient nature of the characters finds the main character alone in front of God at the end, and Everyman, alone, must deal with his reckoning.

 

The End of the Morality Play Era 

don warrington king lear
Don Warrington as the eponymous character in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Source: BBC

 

As the heyday of morality plays reached its zenith in the 16th century, the seeds had been sown that would change the nature of religious thought in Europe and thus bring an end to the massive popularity of such theatrical endeavors. By and large, the movement responsible for this decline was the Reformation, which altered the religious beliefs and the way Europeans interacted with their faith. As religious mores were the very foundation of morality plays, they, too, were subject to the shift in beliefs.

 

The underpinnings of morality play themes were all Catholic in nature, and as Protestantism swept across Northern and Western Europe, so too was there a demand for things that appealed to Protestant sensibilities. While Catholic plays focused on the importance of sacraments, for example, Protestant plays put more emphasis on faith alone. The political nature of the Reformation also found its way into Protestant productions, and Catholic characters were even cast as villains.

 

Despite these changes, morality plays remained morality plays, as much of the teachings were the same. Large elements of morality plays continued through later works and can be found in plays such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Edward II.

 

death inn everybody
Death, portrayed by David Adamson in Everybody, a modern version of Everyman. Source: HuthPhoto / Playmakers Repertory Company

 

The real death of morality plays seems to have been the shift in the theatrical business. Major theaters opened up, dedicated to performance as well as profit. Morality plays in this regard risked entering into a realm of vice that was warned of in its own message. Especially as places such as the Globe Theatre and its surroundings in London became known for its bawdy attractions such as bear-baiting, cock fighting, and the lubricious delights on offer in taverns and similar establishments. Whether an audience in such a place would have been receptive to overly pious preachings is debatable.

 

The importance of morality plays and their effect on society in terms of guiding the populace to certain beliefs and principles are subjects of debate. What is certain is that they formed a part of the culture of Medieval Europe, especially in France and England, where the trend became immensely popular.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.