Morality Play

This, like the mystery and miracle plays, was a distinct genre of religious drama which developed in the early fifteenth century with particular popularity in England, France, and the Netherlands. The morality plays perhaps developed from the sermon or homily and taught practical truth at a popular level. Their distinctive element is the portrayal of the cosmic struggle for the soul of man in his lifelong quest for salvation through the allegorical dramatization which personifies virtues (or the forces of good) and vices (the forces of evil).

Perhaps the earliest morality play is The Castle of Perseverance (c.1400-1420) which is characteristic of the early plays since nearly all the themes, later singly presented, are combined. The Castle presents the various stages of the life of Mankind (Humanum Genus) from birth and baptism through a life of sin till about forty, a period of about twenty years of sanctity, and finally old age and the dominance of the vice of covetousness, to death and a post death debate for Mankind's soul before God's throne. Other fifteenth-century morality plays are The Pride of Life; Wisdom; Mankind (which introduces comedy into this genre); Mundus et Infans; and the very popular Dutch play, Everyman. In the sixteenth century the themes are fewer, the plays more elaborate, and the messages more adapted to propaganda and secular motifs, as in Skelton's Magnyfycence (1533) portraying a political prince; John Bale's Protestant polemic King Johan (about 1538); or its Catholic counterpart Respublica (1553). The morality plays heavily influenced later English drama. For example, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus or Dekker's Old Fortunatus.

A.W. Pollard, English Miracle Plays... (1890; many later eds.); W. Creizenach, Geschichte des neuren dramas (5 vols., 1893-1916) and “Miracle plays and moralities” in A.W. Ward and A.R. Waller (eds.), The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. 5 (1910); E.N.S. Thompson The English Moral Plays (1910; rep. 1970); W.R. Mackenzie, The English Moralities from the point of view of Allegory (1914); E. Hartl, Das Drama des Mittelalters (1937); G. Frank, The Medieval French Drama (1954); F.P. Wilson, The English Drama 1485-1585 (1969).