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Mystery and morality plays

The beginning of English drama

In the Middle Ages, there were no permanent theatres in England. Any drama was associated with the Christian church. Beginning with dramatisations of the key elements of Christian belief and events in the Christian year, such as the resurrection of Christ at Easter, the Medieval Church allowed short dramatic performances within services, or on the steps of churches. These helped to show to the people the mysteries of faith within the Latin liturgy.

Theatre on the streets

These short dramas then developed into processions, where the priests and civic dignitaries in their colourful vestments and robes added to the spectacle. Gradually, these processions included ‘pageants' – a word we usually use today to mean a kind of open-air theatrical display, but which originally meant the cart on which scenes were performed.

As the citizens stood in the streets, carts moved past carrying actors in still poses depicting biblical events such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, or the resurrection of Christ.

Drama in English

Eventually some dialogue was introduced, and although the language of church services was Latin, actors on the pageants spoke in English, so that all the people listening could understand; in this way drama was used by the church.

The plays which thus developed are known as Miracle or Mystery plays. The name arises from the French ‘myster' or ‘metier', meaning craft/profession, since it was the craft guilds who took over the production of the plays in the Middle Ages. This is the sense in which, in Measure for Measure, the executioner Abhorson describes his job as ‘a mystery' (Act IV sc ii).

Some mystery plays, originating from towns such as Chester, York and Coventry, still survive and are still regularly performed.

Image of Chester Mystery Play

Morality plays

Alongside the Mystery plays, in the later Middle Ages, dramas known as Morality plays developed. Instead of enacting events from the Bible, morality plays focused instead on the spiritual struggles of individual souls. The central characters, who have names such as Mankind or Everyman, act out the spiritual challenges faced by every human being. Vices and Virtues, such as deceit or kindness, or the Seven Deadly Sins, or the even more abstract Good and Evil, are personified and presented as debating or struggling against one another while the eternal destiny of the human protagonist hangs in the balance. The most famous of these plays is Everyman, which is still performed today.

Influence on Shakespeare

We see the influence of Morality plays in Shakespearean drama:

The period of European history broadly between 1000AD-1500AD.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians. 2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship. 3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
Literally, rising to life again. In the Bible it is specifically applied to Jesus Christ's coming to life after his crucifixion; and from thence, to the hope of all believers that after death, they will be raised to a new life in heaven.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and the oldest and greatest festival of the Christian Church.
Religious ceremonies offering obedience and worship to God.
Belief and trust in someone or something.
The language of the ancient Romans which gradually became the language of the part of the Christian Church which owed allegiance to Rome.
A set form of a worship service in church, usually written down. This includes set prayers and Bible readings for certain weeks of the year.
A person whose role is to carry out religious functions.
According to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), Adam is the first human being, made in the image / likeness of God, placed in the Garden of Eden and given dominion over the earth.
According to the book of Genesis in the Bible the first woman, said to have been created by God out of Adam's rib, to be his companion.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
Very important Jewish leader described in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Received the Ten Commandments form God.
Also called 'The Decalogue' (Ten Words). Instructions said to have been given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, which have not only shaped Jewish and Christian belief and practice but also strongly influenced the legal systems of many countries.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
An event evoking wonder, believed to be the result of supernatural intervention.
In religious terms, something which cannot be understood by most people, but has to be revealed to the understanding of believers.
Medieval plays in which the forces of Good and Evil battled for the souls of individuals.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
1. Consisting of or relating to (the) spirit(s), rather than material or bodily form. 2. Relating to matters of the soul, faith, religion, or the supernatural. 3. A type of religious song whose roots are in the slave communities of North America.
Usually defined as Pride, Covetousness, Lust / Lechery, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth.
The 'protagonist' in Greek drama meant the chief contender, or main actor.