ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Liturgical Drama II: Morality Plays
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006] 


Unlike the mystery play, which was dramatized scripture (plays acting out Biblical or scriptural stories-- e.g. the Second Shepherd's Play), the morality play is dramatized allegory. The usual subject is the saving of a human soul, and the central figure is Man in the sense of humanity in general (e.g. Everyman). In a typical morality play, the forces of Good and Evil are engaged in a struggle for the soul of an individual, a struggle called a psychomachia (Greek for "war over [or in] the soul"). Morality plays spoke to medieval man's anxiety about being prepared for death, or "dying well"; they offer their audience a sort of ars moriendi (Latin for "the art of dying [well]"). Thus, while the timespan covered by a cycle of mystery plays is literally all of sacred history--from Creation, to the Fall (eating the apple in the Garden of Eden), to other Old Testament events (e.g. Noah's Flood), to the New Testament events of Christ's Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection, to the Last Judgment and the end of time-- the timespan of a morality play is one human life. Know bold-type definitions and terms and the distinctions between them. Know relevant dates for Everyman (NA. 463). Note that in general, morality plays were most popular from the late 15th to mid-16th centuries.


Using Everyman , the N-Town Plays, and The Second Shepherd's Play as examples, compare the techniques and purposes of the mystery and the morality play. Is the target audience of each sort of play the same? What is the primary purpose of each sort of play? (Why are they written; are they meant to have an identical effect on the audience, or do they seek to achieve different goals?)

How is allegory used in Everyman? How many different categories of allegory do you find? (personal characteristics of Everyman; other people/things in his worldly life; supernatural forces, etc.) What is the interplay of these various sorts of allegorical figure? Compare/contrast the allegory used in other works read this term (e.g. The Pearl, the Morte Darthur, Piers Plowman). Which is easier to follow, and why?

With what new companions does Good Deeds tell Everyman to replace his original companions? What is the difference between these two sets of friends? What message are we meant to draw from the substitution? "Five-Wits" means the five senses, which we have previously come across as the first set of five associated with Gawain's pentangle (in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Do the five senses have the same symbolic meaning in each work? How is the symbol transformed, and what can we deduce about the respective author's understanding of the human experience? What is the message given by the play concerning the value of human qualities such as strength, beauty, intelligence and knowledge? Does the Gawain poet have a similar attitude toward human qualities? (Consider the last of the five fives associated with the pentangle, SGGK 651-5, NA 176.)

Everyman is about to embark on a long journey repeatedly referred to as a "pilgrimage" (line 68 etc.) Why might Everyman's voyage be called a "pilgrimage"? Compare with other depictions of pilgrims or pilgrimages encountered in your readings (The Canterbury Tales, Margery Kempe, Piers Plowman). What conception of time/history underlies this play, and how is it related to the idea of a voyage?

Note the statements concerning the priesthood. How does the author conceive of spiritual authority? Compare with the Wife of Bath and Margery Kempe. Is there a connection between the depiction of priests and the depiction of God in this play? Note in particular the statements of Knowledge, Confession (remember that only a priest can give the sacrament of confession), and Five-Wits (NA 476-80). Compare with the Second Shepherds' Play. What aspects of God are emphasized in each? What is the effect of this different emphasis? What is the significance of the metaphors drawn from the financial world (account books, loans, etc.)? Why might the author use them? Contrast with the treatment of wealth/hardship in the Second Shepherds' Play.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2010

Click here for The Second Shepherds' Play Study Questions

Click here for Introduction to Medieval Allegory

Return to ENGL 330 homepage
Return to ENGL 512 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!