New Hreligion And Medieval Literature A

Look At Mystery And Morality Plays Essay, Research Paper

As The Norton Anthology of English Literature says, “By far the larger proportion of surviving literature in Middle as in Old English is religious” (7). This shouldn’t be surprising since we know education had a religious affiliation; men were educated, went to “universities” to become clerics. “The church offered a path for gifted commoners to make a career” (7), but left the majority of commoners illiterate. The fact that Latin was the language of education and books were time consuming to produce and expensive only compounded the problem. The situation was alleviated somewhat with William Caxton’s introduction to type-setting in 1474, when he printed the first book in English. This new method of printing was the key to increasing the availability of texts and lowering the cost. But the church had overwhelming influence and plenty of funds to produce literature and wasn’t terribly interested in a literate following, it only meant more people would be reading and developing their own interpretations of the scripture. The church knew that the stories and ideas of the Bible could effectively be passed on through sermons and mystery and morality plays.

Although they both have the primary mission of conveying biblical messages, mystery and morality plays have considerable differences. The “mystery” in mystery plays refers to “the spiritual mystery of Christ’s redemption of humankind” (308). Mystery plays were typically written in “cycles” (a series) that would begin with the Creation, chronicle the major events of the Old Testament through the New Testament and the Last Judgment. The mystery plays “endeavored to make the Christian religion more real to the unlearned by dramatizing significant events in biblical history and by showing what these events meant in terms of human experience” (363). They are thought to have evolved from the liturgies and plays that were conducted in Latin. Mystery plays produced in the vernacular in the streets of towns were a way of reaching a wide audience that included educated laypeople and clerics as well as the unlearned folk. The authors of these plays usually broadened their appeal by giving the characters of the plays the appearance and characters of contemporary men and women. The Wakefield Master, “probably a highly educated cleric stationed in the vicinity of Wakefield” (319), did this in his play The Second Shepherds’ Play. “As the play opens, the shepherds complain about the cold, the taxes, and the high-handed treatment they get from the gentry–evils closer to shepherds on the Yorkshire moors than to those keeping their flocks near Bethlehem” (319), this convention would only help the lay people identify with the characters and make the religious message, that Christian charity doesn’t go unrewarded, seem more personal.

The Christian charity of the shepherds is seen first in their offering a sixpence to Mak’s newborn son and then in their mercy toward him when they find out his “son” is really a stolen sheep in disguise. This farcical parody of Christ in the manger is then offset by the moral of the story as their charity is then rewarded with a visit from an angel, singing Gloria in Excelsis, who tells them of the birth of the savior.

While the mystery play was “sometimes boisterous comedy” (309), the morality play opted for a more austere, overtly didactic approach. Everyman is a strong example of this. While the name might imply an attempt at personalizing the lesson, the lesson itself keeps the audience at a distance with its direct sermonizing. Where The Second Shepherds’ Play opened with Coll complaining about the weather and social injustices, Everyman opens with a messenger to preach to you the moral of the story. The names of the characters reinforce the moral lesson through allegory, with every character behaving “entirely within the limits” as “defined by his name” (364). Where The Second Shepherds’ Play might seem like entertainment that happens to have a subtle message, Everyman appears to be a message or lesson that happens to subtly seem like entertainment. Most of the morality plays do seem to “share with the mysteries a good deal of rough humor” (363). The fact that Everyman’s friends and relations abandon him so quickly in his hour of need might be construed as rough humor, but that humor is over-shadowed with the directness of the message of the play which is stated at the beginning and reinforced in the summary at the end of the play.

The influence and importance of religion in this period can be seen in more than just the mystery and morality plays, even “Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ is actually a sermon with an exemplum” (7) and The Canterbury Tales isn’t exactly what would be categorized as a religious piece. Chaucer, himself, felt compelled to pray for forgiveness for writing The Canterbury Tales in his “Retraction.” The Church had a powerful influence on Medieval literature. Events from the Bible were the subjects of poems such as “Adam Lay Bound,” as well as plays such as The Second Shepherds’ Play. And the teachings of the Church were also as prevalent in literature, as can be seen by Chaucer’s “The Parson’s Tale “and morality plays like Everyman. Although the tone may change from piece to piece the underlying message is the same, the Church is an integral part of Medieval literature.


Two Plays of the Middle Ages

Drama, on the whole, has undergone considerable change since the Middle Ages. One change, among many, is the broader scope that modern drama reflects. A play today can realistically deal with any subject matter and be presented in whatever form the playwright wishes. However, medieval drama was not as free as modern drama is. A play in the Middle Ages usually took the form of either a mystery or morality play. The mystery plays, such as The Second Shepherds’ Play, sought to make Christianity “more real to the unlearned by dramatizing significant events in biblical history and showing what those events meant in terms of human experience” (Norton, 363). The morality plays, such as Everyman, differed somewhat from the mysteries. Morality plays used allegory “to dramatize the moral struggle Christianity envisions as present in every individual” (Norton, 363). Both plays deal with a religious subject matter, which was a common subject for any writing in the Middle Ages. Both plays also reveal some characteristic beliefs that were common, at least in some circles, during the Middle Ages. However, there are significant differences in both purpose and style between the two plays. Everyman, with its overriding moral message, placed a much higher emphasis on the religious aspect of its story, whereas The Second Shepherds’ Play tended to sideline morality somewhat in favor of a more secular story. The similarities and differences between the two plays make up what can be termed as “characteristic” of medieval drama.

Everyman and The Second Shepherds’ Play both contain ideas that illustrate how people in the medieval world of England viewed the rest of the world. One of those ideas is each play’s sense of the state of the world. In Everyman this sense is described by God in lines 35-45 when he says, “now I see the people do clean forsake me…the seven deadly sins…now in the world be made commendable…Every man liveth so after his own pleasure…the more that I them forbear, the worse they be from year to year.” From the beginning of Everyman the poor state of the world was emphasised to give God a reason to call a general reckoning of Everyman. Yet, the underlying belief for the inclusion of that passage in the play is that the world was in such bad shape that the end could come at any time. This belief is still present in society today. The writer of the play used that sentiment of the times as a good reason to stress the moral message present in the play.

The Second Shepherds’ Play had something very similar to God’s lines in Everyman with Gib’s opening speech as well as Daw’s. In lines 79-82 Gib said, “Benste and Dominus, what may this bemean? Why fares this world thus? Such we have not seen.” In Daw’s opening speech, lines 173-178, Daw said, “It is worse than it was, whoso could take heed and let the world pass, it is ever in dread and brickle as glass, and slithes.” Both of the passages stress the conviction that the world was in a poor state and getting worse every day. It was, and still is, part of the argument that everyone should try to lead a perfect life because the end must be near if the world is in such a poor state. However, these passages have a double function in The Second Shepherds’ Play. One role was to provide a comment on the contemporary world of England. Another had to do with the context of the play, and provided a reason for the coming of the birth of Christ.

To go along with the conception, which the writers of both plays hold, of the world as “always having been the way it is, and at the same time getting worse,” (Bender) are other similar ideas characteristic of medieval thinking. In The Second Shepherds’ Play it was the way that history was viewed in the play. That is to say, the playwright disregarded historical accuracy altogether in favor of a play more centered on England of his time than Bethlehem of Christ’s time. There are many examples of this throughout the play in the characters’ references to Christ, who was unborn until the very end of the play, as well as references to England in a time and place where England was unknown to anyone. This kind of historical mixing occurs when Daw, for example, in his opening line said, “Christ’s cross me speed and St. Nicholas,” (170) referring to two figures unknown to the Jews around Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. There were also references to England, one of which came at the time Mak entered the play. In line 311 Coll told Mak to “take out that Southern tooth” when Mak had previously been imitating the speech of shepherds of southern England, rather than speaking like the Yorkshire shepherd that he was. The various historical inaccuracies in the play show that the beliefs of the Middle Ages did not require a play to be perfectly accurate in order to be enjoyable, unlike modern drama which would be criticized for such little care taken in researching a play’s subject matter. The purpose of The Second Shepherds’ Play was not to be historically accurate. If the play was really written to “make Christianity more real to the unlearned” the people watching it would not have known the difference anyway, and the playwright would have wanted to make his point in a way that his audience could have understood easily, which was to include references to things that they did understand.

One more medieval belief that was present in Everyman is the sense of ownership in the play, or more specifically the sense of self, as well as property, as being loaned rather than owned. Death, in line 161 said, “What, weenest thou thy life is given thee, and thy worldly goods also?…Nay, nay, it was but lent thee.” This concept was also present in Everyman’s address to Goods in lines 437-440. Goods said, “What, weenest thou that I am thine?” To which Everyman replied, “I had weened so.” Goods responded much like Death with, “Nay, Everyman, I say no. As for a while I was lent thee; A season thou hast had me in prosperity.” The concept of who owned what was repeated in the play to emphasize the point that everything in this world was lent to its inhabitants. The belief was that God, as the supreme being and creator, gave us everything we have in this world, and he reserved the right to take it all away, which would happen eventually to everyone when they die. This belief could be a precursor to the modern popular phrase, ‘you can’t take it with you.’ However, this speaks about more than just the ownership of goods. It also implies that God created our soul and therefore owns that as well.

Everyman and The Second Shepherds’ Play elaborated some of the views that were characteristic of the medieval period by expressing them in the context of a play. The beliefs expressed by the two plays can be labeled as “characteristic” of the period because the playwrights would have written with the popular sentiments of their time period in mind, just as playwrights today write what they believe will be popular with the mass public. Yet, the ideas that were discussed in the two plays were not only present in those two works alone. Other works of the period pointed to the same conclusions. Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain, and The Canterbury Tales, to name a few, all contained parts of the “medieval view” that were discussed earlier. The views of history, of property and ownership, as well as the state of the world are present in many works of the period, and each one reaffirms the others. Today we make think the belief system of the Middle Ages was peculiar and naive, but if any of the people from that period were alive today they would find our beliefs to be no less odd.


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