Miracle and Morality plays were popular in Medieval times as the emerging (Catholic) Church gained power. The
Miracle plays (sometimes called Mystery plays) were written in cycles for the major days of the church year, with texts adapted from the Bible and performed
by clergy in Latin as part of the service. According to
the form had its beginnings as early as the fifth century, but in 1210, "Pope Innocent III issued a papal edict forbidding clergy from acting on a public
stage." Town guilds then took over and the plays were performed in the vernacular. I don't know how many language transformations the four plays in
the Dover edition have been through, but, though using many obsolete English words they aren't very difficult to read or understand, and the modern English
words use modern spelling, not Olde English. There are footnotes for unfamiliar words and phrases, but after a while, one gets used to them. It actually seems
to be a hodge-podge of modern and ancient language. I wish Dover had stuck with the old language—there is a certain charm to it.
Of the Miracle plays, only two complete cycles are extant. One is the Chester Mystery Plays, which according to Wikipedia, took place on the feast of Corpus Christi, from 1422 to 1521. Eventually Queen Elizabeth l and the English Church banned them because they "were seen as popery." The first play in this book, Noah's Flood, is obviously the story of the Great Flood from Genesis. Of course, there is drama worked into it, including Noah's wife, who prefers to drink with her friends and must be dragged onto the ark! One interesting point is that, with each play, the town guild pertaining to that subject would present that particular play. The Drawers of Dee (watercarriers) traditionally undertook the acting of Noah's Flood. The cycle was revived in 1951, and is performed every five years in Chester, England. Both Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky set the text to music as an opera. If you wish to read all the Chester plays in the original Olde English, you may do so at Chester Mystery Plays.
The Second Shepherd's Play is from the Wakefield Cycle, also fully extant. It dates from between 1400 and 1450, and is named as such because it is the second of two nativity plays involving shepherds. It may be a revision of the first, because they are similar. And this one has some humor in it, but, hey, why not? Jesus had a sense of humor. Here, we listen to the second shepherd lament all those who are stuck with a wife, especially himself:
For—if ever read I epistle—I have one by my fire,
As sharp as a thistle, as rough as a briar,
She has brows like a bristle and a sour face by her;
If she had once wet her whistle, she might sing clearer and higher
Her pater noster;
She is as big as a whale,
She has a gallon of gall,—
By him that died for us all,
I wish I had run till I had lost her!
Yes, these texts do rhyme, and throughout both of these, there are references to Christ, though, chronologically, he had
not yet been born!
In this one, the sheep-stealer, Mak, makes off with a lamb, and his wife wraps it up and pretends it is a baby, when the shepherds, suspecting Mak, come to his house to investigate. Since she is always having babies, they figured the ploy would work. It didn't. The play ends as a messenger announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and they go to see him.
Here is another source with original texts to all the plays included in the book, plus lots more and both complete cycles, called Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.
The third and fourth plays are Morality plays, and differ from the Miracle plays in that they were not part of a cycle, nor adapted from Bible stories. Wikipedia says:
"Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him to choose a Godly life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Having grown out of the religiously based Mystery plays of the Middle Ages, they represented a shift towards a more secular base for European theatre."
Everyman is perhaps the best known of the Morality plays. In it God sends Death to warn
Everyman that he is to begin a long journey from which there will be no return, where he will have to give an account of his life. Everyman, being selfish and
greedy, doing or caring little for anyone but himself and his wealth, knows that he's doomed. So he uses his remaining short time on earth to seek someone who
will come with him and support him. He begs all those whom he thought were his friends, including Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods (wealth), Beauty, on so
on, but they all forsake him and turn away when they learn where he is going. The only one who will not turn away is Good-Deeds, but she is so weak, she
cannot follow him. He meets Knowledge, Perseverance, Confession and others who help, but will not continue with him on his journey. But by now, through the
help of these others, Good-Deeds has grown strong, and she stays by his side as Death comes to claim him.
OK, this one is definitely not meant to be funny, but you've got to see the silly side. From my viewpoint, where I am today, it is a presentation of the rules of the Catholic Church, attempting to keep humanity in a state of disempowerment and control. (I was Catholic for half my life, so I know of what I speak.) Here, the priest is the only one capable of setting him right (through the sacraments):
Yea, Everyman, hie you that ye ready were,
There is no emperor, king, duke ne baron,
That of God hath commission,
As hath the least priest in the world being;
For of the blessed sacraments pure and benign,
He beareth the keys and thereof hath the cure
For man's redemption, it is ever sure;
Yeah, right. Not then. Not now.
The last play, called Hickscorner is downright bawdy. And unlike Everyman, who when put to the threat, willingly takes the advice of those trying to help him and begins to repent his evil ways, the characters in Hickscorner delight in their immoral life, resulting in a somewhat comedic and farcical production. According to one online dictionary source, the word Hickscorner itself means "libertine scoffer at religion and the religious," made of two words, hick and scorner.
We don't really hear too much from Hickscorner himself (and he never repents), however, the two main characters are Freewill and Imagination. They are thieves and adulterers and every other kind of rogue, and are well familiar with Newgate (prison). The two good guys are Pity and Contemplation, who eventually convert them.
Here is a passage spoken by Hickscorner:
Marry! I kept a fair shop of bawdry,
I had three wenches that were full praty,
Jane true and thriftless, and wanton Sybil,
If you ride her a journey, she will make you weary,
For she is trusty at need:
If ye will hire her for your pleasure,
I warrant, tire her shall ye never,
She is so sure in deed;
Ride, and you will ten times a-day,
I warrant you she will never say nay,
My life I dare lay to wed.
Ah, we've strayed a bit from the solemn and sacred. Incidentally, I find it interesting that the two bad guys were named
Freewill and Imagination, those two words in the modern world being considered worthy and positive. As I said above, much of this appears to be the work of
the (Catholic) Church attempting to keep people under their control. And women are mostly portrayed in all these plays in a derogatory manner.
In any case, this book is an interesting read to anyone who likes to go way back in history. However, I suggest going to the links provided above to read the original Olde English text of these and other Miracle and Morality plays.
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