Mankind - An Interpretation of a Medieval Morality Play

Term Paper 2001 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Basic facts about Mankind
1.1 Characters in the Morality Plays
1.2 The Author of Mankind
1.3 Sources and Analogues
1.4 The Staging of Mankind

2. A Summary of the Plot

3. The Significance of Mankind
3.1 An Interpretation of the “Court Scene”

4. The genesis of Shakespeare’s theatre in Mankind

Works Cited

1. Basic facts about Mankind

1.1 Characters in the Morality Plays

There are some obvious differences between the morality and the miracle plays. The latter did stress moral truths besides teaching facts of the bible, but on the whole did not lend themselves to allegorical formulation except when there was no well – defined Bible story to be followed. A good example in this case is the life of Maria Magdalen, before she was converted. The miracle play dealt with what were believed to be historical events and its main characters were for the most part ready- made for the playwright by the Bible and inherited tradition.

The morality play on the other hand, stood by itself, unconnected to a cycle, and the plots were extremely stereotyped. “They afforded less scope for original creation than those of the miracles, which were crowded with major and minor characters, Herold, Pilate, Pharaoh, Noah’s wife, Satan, Adam and Eve,” (Kinghorn 1968: p.116) and a host of others, both scriptural and non-scriptural. As far as the characters in the morality plays are concerned one could say that these characters, like for instance the Seven Deadly Sins, did only offer very limited opportunities for development. “Gluttony could hardly be other than a fat lout, Sloth a half- awake lounger, Luxury an overdressed woman, Avarice a grasping old man and Anger continually in a rage”( Kinghorn 1968: p.116).

As far as allegorical formulations are concerned it has to pointed out that the morality play characters were always personified vices and virtues, producing a conflict of sorts and providing enough material for a plot. The Christian Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, Pride of Life, World, Flesh Youth, Age, Holy Church, Wealth, Health, Mercy, Learning and, of course, Mankind are just a few examples for personages which were made to behave as though they were human by the didactic aim of the author ( Kinghorn 1968: p.116), but all these characters are always contained within their own narrow definition. Since these allegorical personages were not characters but walking abstractions, they provided the playwright only very limited opportunities for development. Everything that was said and done by these characters showed clearly the moral truth which was of course the subject of the plot.

The late medieval morality plays mark a well - defined movement away from the religious drama towards the completely secular drama in England. ”What had been a religious aim gave way to a didactic aim free from theological purpose, so that a message such as ‘learning is valuable’ could be communicated dramatically”

( Kinghorn 1968: p.117). After this, something approaching realistic satire of everyday life developed and step by step the playwrights wished to create real – life characters, with a mixture of good and bad qualities. It is obvious from this statement that the Shakespearian drama is not that far away from these late medieval morality plays. By these late medieval dramas the transition from medieval to modern drama may be seen, also due to the fact that for instance in Mankind the actors collected money for their performance during the play itself. That might be considered as the beginning of professionalism in English drama.

1.2 The Author of Mankind

Mankind, just like two other Medieval Morality Plays named Everyman and Mundus et Infans, is anonymous. But nevertheless a few suppositions, as far as the author is concerned, may be made. One has to search for useful hints in the text in the play itself. Important hints, one can get from the text, are the places named in the play, which are mostly villages near Cambridge and King’s Lynn. “East Anglian towns some forty miles apart, and there are some slight signs that the author’s knowledge of the former locality was the more thorough” (Lester, page xii). He was probably a local of this part of England. It is obvious from the text that the author knew the Latin Language and he had some knowledge of the law. That is obvious from the Court Scene described in the play. He had a grasp of theology, but he was probably critical of the established church, because in the context of this play he is more interested in the broad issues of sin and forgiveness than in the specific ecclesiastical institutions related to these.

To sum it up one could say that the author of the medieval play Mankind was interested in Latin and he was a rhetoric a person, who may somehow have been connected to the university of Cambridge. Furthermore his ‘theatrical’ flair points to the possibility that he was either a professional or experienced amateur actor himself.

1.3 Sources and Analogues

Mankind has been linked to parts of the poem The Assembly of God, to parts of Piers Plowman, to the anonymous dialogue Mercy passeth Rightousness, and to a sermon on mercy in the 15th century homilists’ manual Jacob’s Well[1] ; but there are mostly influences not sources. In fact doctrine and dramatic action are so skillfully blended in Mankind, that the author’s use of any single, specific or non dramatic source is extremely unlikely[2] to happen. So there are obviously a few works that might have influenced the author in the writing process.

One could conclude that Mankind is a medieval morality play, that was written between 1465 and 1470. It consists of 914 lines. This play was recorded in an English East – Midlands dialect. The play is in a manuscript which is part of a book, that also contains the morality plays Wisdom Who is Christ and the relatively long play The Castle of Perseverance. This particular book is named The Macro Plays, due to the name of the first private owner. Before that the Cloister Bury St. Edmunds was the owner of the Macro Plays ( compare to Kindler’s Neues Literaturlexikon Hauptwerke der Englischen Literatur: 1995, p. 98)

1.4 The Staging of Mankind

There are a lot of different opinions as far as the time, the place, the acting company and the audience for which the play was intended are concerned. So it is rather problematic to answer all these questions correctly. One has to search for useful hints in the text itself. The time – setting is winter (lines 54 – 323), but it is not clear wether it is Christmas, as implied by the ‘Christmas Song’ (line 333), or the pre – Lenten period of merry – making, when the playing of football (cf. line 732 and note) was one of the ways of enjoying a final fling before the austerities to come. Certain Lenten themes, such as the Ash Wednesday text of line 321 “Memento, homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris”[3] seem to imply Shrovetide as a possible time -setting , for Lent itself would not have been a time for plays.

The properties mentioned are a spade, a bag of grain, paper, a writing instrument, and a rosary for Mankind; furthermore a net, a board and weeds for Titivillus; a scourge for Mercy; a weapon, fetters, a dish, a plate, a rope and gallows for Mischief; and a flute, purses, a noose, stolen goods, a pen and paper for the other vices.

Although an interior setting of the play seems to be likely, like for example the halls of private houses, out – of – doors performance, like for instance in innyards, also seem possible. In many interpretations of the play it is said that the actors were a professional group due to the ‘passing round of the hat’ – scene. But this fact is not a certain hint, that the play was not performed by amateurs. So both ways are possible.

Due to the many Latin citations, puns, and witty mistranslations the play was likely intended and written for very educated people, for instance clerics and jurists. Only these people were able to understand the Latin language and of course they could laugh about the bad pronunciations and the jokes hidden in the play. But in all Mankind has something for everyone, for the ‘sovereigns that sit’ and the “brothern that stand right up” (line 29), for the workman, the gentleman and even the cleric. Almost every single member of the medieval society could find one character in the play, who resembled his own attitude. The humour of the play can, at times, become quite vulgar. This, almost certainly, broadened the play's appeal with its medieval audience. But quite often critics like for instance Craig criticized this vulgar and sometimes scatological style. He called the play a “ baldly degenerate play, its characters absurdly reduced in numbers, and the play itself lewdly vulgarized for the amusement of rural audiences…” ( Craig 1995: p. 343).

“As for costumes, Titivillus has a large head, Mankind wears a ‘side – gown’, which is cut down to make a jacket, and Mercy is “seemly father”, the term probably implying clerical dress. The seven persons can be played by six different actors, if one takes the parts of both Mercy and Titivillus. That is possible because they do never appear on stage together” (Lester, page xxxvii).

To sum it up one could say that the “very ambiguity of time and places suggests a play which could be adapted to suit a variety of occasions, and this, together with its generally high quality, seems to support the idea of a professional touring group” (Lester, page xxxvii) performing the play.

2. A Summary of the Plot

The drama Mankind starts in the delivered, almost complete version with a sermon of a person named Mercy, who is appearing as a sort of a priest. The essential message of his sermon is primarily dedicated or addressed to a person named Mankind, after whom the anonymous and titleless piece was designated and secondarily, since this play is a medieval morality play, it is of course dedicated to the audience of the play. “All Mercy’s speeches are an important key to the meaning of the play, and this opening address establishes several themes which are to be unfold – the foundation of mercy in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; the importance of good works as an antidote of temptation; and the nearness of the Last Judgement, at which every man shall render account of himself”( Lester, page xx). The sermon is suddenly interrupted by the chief vice named Mischief, whose main intention is to disturb the lecture of Mercy, since he considers the message of his words as to far away from real life. Additionally for him it is just boring, uninteresting and he continues to mock Mercy.


[1] A. Brandl, Quellen des weltlichen Dramas in England vor Shakespeare (Strassburg, 1898), p. xxx; M.M. Keiller; ’The Influence of Piers Plowman on the Macro lay of Mankind ’, PMLA 26 (1911), 33 – 55; W.R. Mackenize, ’A New Source for Mankind’, PMLA 27 (1912), 98 – 105); M. P. Coogan, An interpretation of the Moral Play, Mankind (Washington, 1947), pp. 38 - 45

[2] This passage was copied from Three Late Medieval Morality Play: Mankind Everyman Mundus et Infans, edited by G.A. Lester, because no additional material was available in the library.

[3] ’Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return’ is a text for Ash Wednesday and it used to be a common inscription on fifteenth - century tombs and memorials. It’s adapted from Job 34 : 15.


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Justus-Liebig-University Giessen – Instiute anglisitc linguistics
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Mankind Moralität Morality Play Medieval Drama




Title: Mankind - An Interpretation of a Medieval Morality Play