A morality play is a genre of theatre popular in the medieval and Tudor period.
Mortality plays were also called “interludes,” or plays with or without a moral. They featured a protagonist who comes into contact with personified versions of moral and immoral attitudes. The character has to navigate these features in their life and decide the best way to live morally. The personified characters encourage them to change their way of life for the better.
The first morality play recorded was in 1151 by Hildegard von Bingen, titled Ordo Virtutum. Or in English, Order of the Virtues. It was recorded while the poet, a woman, was dealing with the relocation of her abbey. Order of the Virtues is the only Medieval musical drama with text and music to survive.
Explore Morality Play
Definition and Explanation of Morality Play
Morality plays were popular in the 1400s and 1500s throughout Europe. They came out of a previously more popular genre, the mystery play, that was well-loved and performed in the Middle Ages. (They focused on the representation of stories from the Bible.) As the public shifted away from their interest in purely religious content, so too did society as a whole. These plays are often seen as a symbol of the public’s interest in secular stories rather than religious ones, at least in the theatre.
Examples of Morality Plays
Everyman is the best-known of the five surviving morality plays from the Medieval period. Its full title was The Somonyng of Everyman or The Summoning of Everyman. It was written in the late 15th century by an unknown writer. It uses allegorical characters, like Fellowship, Death, Wisdom, Beauty, Strength, and Discretion, to speak on Christian salvation and what humanity has to do to reach it. Emphasis is placed on good deeds at the end of the poem. Everyman has been adapted for the modern stage, appearing. In 1901, three outdoor performances were put on by The Elizabethan Stage Society of William Poel. Other versions have been produced for the stage and even for television since.
Wisdom depicts the struggle between good and evil as an allegory. It features Christ, who is the character of wisdom, along with Lucifer, the Soul, Mind, Will, and Understanding. Christ and Lucifer battler over humanity’s soul, and goodness, as one might expect, comes out on top in the end. It, too, has an unknown author.
Mankind was written in 1470 by an unknown author. It follows a character named Mankind, who is a clear representative of the whole human race. This person falls into sin and has to repent. The audience is meant to observe Mankind’s mistakes and learn from them, avoiding his sins, and living a better, more godly life.
The Castle of Perseverance
The Castle of Perseverance was also written in the 15th-century. It is the earliest full-length play in existence today. It stretches to 3,649 lines and can be found in the Macro Manuscript along with the other plays cited in this article. The play is noted for its original stage drawing included along with the text. It is the only stage drawing from the period and suggests that the play was performed in the round.
Why Do Writers Write Morality Play?
In the Medieval and Tudor period, these plays were written in an effort to entertain and inform. Audiences observed the mistakes of characters like Everyman and Mankind and learned from them. While taking lessons, characters, and themes from the Bible, these plays were far more colloquial and secular than those who came before them, Miracle and Mystery plays. The latter focused on Biblical stories familiar to audience members, while Mortality plays included sin that would’ve been far more relatable to those watching. Therefore, writers chose to create these plays in an effort to appeal to the times. Preferences were changing, and art changed along with them.
Characteristics of Morality Plays
- A protagonist who represents humanity.
- Personified good and evil as characters.
- A conflict the protagonist has to overcome that aligns with a piece of moral guidance.
- Strong emphasis on mortality and the difference between good and evil.
- The belief that humans had control, to an extent, over their fate after they died.
- Performed by semi-professional actors.
- The productions relied on public support.
- They were usually short and contained serious and farcical elements.
Morality Plays, Mystery Plays, and Miracle Plays
Mystery plays and miracle plays are independent although similar genres that were popular in medieval Europe. Mystery plays focused on stories from the bible and their representation as tableaux, accompanied by antiphonal song. (A Christian chant that’s sung as a refrain.) Mystery plays depicted stories like that of Adam and Eve and creation. They were also performed in cycles, making them much longer than later morality plays.
A miracle play, on the other hand, focused on the lives of saints. Some of these stories were considered real, and others fictitious. They were concerned with a saint’s miracles, martyrdom, and life story. These plays, which were once tied to the church, were separated and performed at festivals and other gatherings. The majority of the plays, at least those that survive, are focused on the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas, a bishop from the 4th century in Myra.
In contrast, morality plays focus on personified versions of good and evil and are seen today as a marker of a turn towards secularism in the Medieval and Tudor period.
Related Literary Terms
- Aside: a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
- Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Soliloquy: a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process.
- Tragedy: a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
- Play: a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes.
- Point of View: what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective.