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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VI. Sir David Lyndsay

§ 3. Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

Ane Pleasant Satyre is a morality play, but it is also something more. It is a blend of secular and sacred drama, and embodies something of the French morality farce. It introduces real, as well as allegorical, personages, and it lightens the action of the play by comic devices borrowed from French models. In parts, it manifests the special characteristics of modern comedy. It inevitably does so by reason of the very specific character of its satirical representation of contemporary manners. Though hampered as a comedy by its morality conventions, it is a morality play of a very advanced type: a morality play aided in its dramatic action and relieved in its dramatic seriousness by a strong infusion of comedy, and by the intermixture of interludes of a strikingly realistic character. The strictly morality portions are superior to the morality plays of Bale; and the interludes are much more elaborate and finished specimens of comedy than the interludes of Heywood. Lyndsay’s knowledge of the ways of the world and of the temper and characteristics of the crowd, and the minute character of his zeal as a reformer, were important elements contributing to his dramatic success. Neither in this nor in other satires was he content with generalities. His desire was to scourge the definite social evils of his time, and he had therefore to represent them in living form, as manifested in the speech, manner and bearing of individual persons.

For this reason, the play is of unique interest as a mirror of the Scotland of Lyndsay’s time—when Catholicism was tottering to its fall. It is an excessively long play, its representation occupying a whole day, from nine in the morning until six in the evening; but its length enables the playwright to present a pretty comprehensive epitome of contemporary abuses and of contemporary manners and morals. The flagrant frailties of the ecclesiastics are portrayed with sufficient vividness in the speeches of representative types and in the amusing exposition of their relations with allegorical person-ages, good and bad; but it is in the tone of Lyndsay’s wit, in the character of the horseplay by which he seeks to tickle his audience, in his method of pandering to their grosser tastes, in the farcical proceedings of such persons as the soutar, the tailor and their two wives, in the interviews between Pauper and Pardoner, in the dealings of Pardoner with the soutar and the soutar’s wife and in the doings and speeches of Folly, that the peculiar social atmosphere of the time is most graphically revealed.

The play is divided into two parts, and part 1, which represents the temptation of Rex Humanitas by Sensualitie, is divided into two acts, with an interlude between them. Sensualitie is introduced to the king by Wantonness, Placebo and Solace, in whose company he then passes to a private apartment, after which Gude Counsell makes his appearance. Gude Counsell declares his intention to “repois sometime in this place,” but is immediately followed by Flatterie and Falset, who, shortly after they have congratulated each other on their happy meeting, are joined by their indispensable companion Dissait; whereupon, the three resolve to introduce themselves to the king under the guise respectively of Devotion, Sapience and Discretion. Shortly afterwards, the king returns to the stage and calls for Wantonness, who introduces him to the three vices; and, after a conversation with him in their feigned characters, in the course of which their proficiency in their several methods of guile is admirably indicated, he gives them welcome as “three men of guide.” Here the king, observing Gude Counsell standing dejectedly at a distance, sends his new friends to bring him to his presence; but, when they discover who he is, they hustle him out of the place, threatening him with death should he dare to return. They then inform the king that the person he saw was a housebreaker whom they had ordered to be sent to the thieves’ hole. Gude Counsell having been expelled, the king is now entirely in the hands of his evil companions, and sits down amongst the ladies, who sing to him a song, led by Sensualitie. Here Veritie makes her appearance carrying a New Testament, but is speedily followed by the Spiritualitie—including the abbot and the parson—who, at the instance of Flatterie, put Veritie in the stocks, after she had offered up an impressive prayer, beginning:

  • Get up, thou sleepis all too long, O Lord!
  • And mak sum ressonibill reformatioun.
  • Veritie being disposed of, Chastitie makes her appearance, whom, on her asking for “harberie,” Diligence recommends to go to a “prioress of renown,” sitting amongst the rest of the Spiritualitie. The prioress, however, asks her to keep her distance, the Spiritualitie tell her to pass on, for they know her not, and even Temporalitie informs her that, if his wives knew she were here, they would “mak all this town on steir.” With the sorrowful departure of Chastitie from the company, act 1 ends. It is admirably conceived and written, the terseness and point of the satire being accentuated by the very skilful management of the dramatic situations.

    Act 1 is followed by an interlude, relating the adventures of Chastitie after her expulsion from high society. On introducing herself to a tailor and soutar, she is cordially welcomed by these worthies; but, while they are entertaining her, their wives enter, and, after a boisterous scene, during which the wives set on their husbands in savage fashion both with tongue and hand, Chastitie is driven away; whereupon, after further “dinging” of their “gudemen,” the wives resolve to have a feast in celebration of their victory, the tailor’s wife sitting down to make “ane paist,” and the soutar’s wife kilting up her clothes above her waist, that she may cross the river on her way to the town to fetch a quart of wine.

    Diligence (the master of the ceremonies), who had found Chastitie wandering houseless, late at night, at the beginning of act II introduces her to the king; but, Sensualitie objecting to her presence, she is put in the stocks by the three disguised vices. She is, however, comforted by Veritie with the news that Divyne Correctioun is “new landit,” and might be expected very soon. Hereupon, Correctioun’s varlet (or messenger) enters, on hearing whose message Flatterie resolves to take refuge with the Spiritualitie or hide himself in some cloister. He therefore bids adieu to his two friends, who, before leaving, resolve to steal the king’s box, but quarrel over the division of the spoil and Dissait runs away with the box through the water, just as Divyne Correctioun enters. At the instance of Correctioun, Gude Counsell and Veritie are set free from the stocks, and, accompanied by Veritie, Gude Counsell and Chastitie, pass to the king. On the advice of Correctioun, the king then consents to the expulsion of Sensualitie, who, on seeking the protection of the Spiritualitie, is warmly welcomed by them as their “dayis darling.” By further advice of Correctioun, the king then receives into his society Gude Counsell, Veritie and Chastitie; and, on their confessing their faults and promising to have no further dealings with Sensualitie, Correctioun also pardons Wantonness, Placebo and Solace. Then, after a speech by Gude Counsell, Diligence, by order of the king, warns all members of parliament, both the Spiritualitie and the Temporalitie, to appear speedily at court. He then intimates that the first part of the play is ended, and that there will be a short interval —which he exhorts them to employ in refreshing themselves and in other ways not now mentioned in ordinary company.

    Between the first part and the second there is an interlude, while the “king, bishops and principal players are out of their places.” It introduces us to a pauper, who is really a small farmer reduced to proverty by ecclesiastical oppression, and on his way to St. Andrews to seek redress. When Diligence endeavours to drive him away as “ane vilde begger carle,” he climbs up to the king’s chair and seeks to seat himself in it. With some difficulty Diligence succeeds in making him vacate it, but, struck by his sad and respectable demeanour, asks him where he comes from and what is his errand. Pauper then recites to him in moving terms the story of his wrongs at the hands of the ecclesiastics, who have brought him to utter poverty by their greedy extortions on the death of his father, his mother and his wife, which had successively occasioned him the loss of his mare and his three cows; while even the clothes of the deceased persons have been seized as perquisites by the vicar’s clerk. After telling his pitiable story, Pauper, with the consent of Diligence, lays him down to rest; and there enters Pardoner, who, unchallenged by Diligence, proceeds to make a speech in which he rails at the “wicket New Testament,” which has greatly injured his trade, and exposed the craft which he had been taught by a friar called Hypocrisy; bans Martin Luther, Black Bullinger and Melanchthon; and expresses the wish that Paul had never been born, or his books never read except by friars. Then, placing his wares on a board, he proceeds to dilate on their several merits, the picturesque recital being, on Lyndsay’s part, a masterpiece of mocking irony, full of grotesque allusions admirably adapted to provoke the amused mirth of the rude crowd. The soutar, who, meanwhile, has entered and listened to the recital, now resolves to take advantage of Pardoner’s arrival to obtain a dispensation for separation from his wife. While he is in conference with the holy man for this purpose, his wife appears, just in time to hear his very plain-spoken description of her character and doings; but, although furiously angry with him for libelling her as he has done, she, in answer to Pardoner’s query, affirms that she is content with all her heart to be separated from him; and, thereupon, Pardoner, on condition that they perform a mutual ceremony too coarse for description, sends them away uncoupled, “with Belial’s best blessing.” Then, after an interview between Pardoner and his boy-servant Willikin, during which we obtain the information that village middens are the chief hunting grounds for Pardoner’s holy relics, Pauper awakes from sleep. On Pauper handing to the holy man his solitary groat, Pardoner guarantees him in return a thousand years of pardons; but, since Pauper cannot see the pardons and has no evidence that he has obtained anything, he comes to the conclusion that he is merely being robbed; and the interlude ends with a grotesque encounter between the two, during which Pauper pitches both board and relics into the water.

    Part II deals more specifically with the evils of the time than part 1. The three estates, in response to the previous summons, now appear before the king; but they are shown us walking backwards, led by their vices—Spiritualitie by Covetousness and Sensualitie, Temporalitie (the Lords) by Publick Oppression and Merchant (the representatives of the burghs) by Falset and Dissait. On Diligence, however, summoning all who are oppressed to come and make their complaint to the king, John the Commoun Weill makes his appearance, and, after a piquant conversation with the king, denounces the vices of the three estates in no measured terms, and requires that such scandalous persons should be put in the stocks, which, at the instance of Correctioun, is immediately done, Spiritualitie bidding Covetousness and Sensualitie a farewell, the sadness of which is mitigated by the hope of soon meeting them again. Then, at the instance of John the Commoun Weill, who delivers an impressive address on the abuses of the administration, the Temporal Estates repent of their conduct, promise amendment and embrace John the Commoun Weill. The Spiritualitie, however, not only remain impenitent, but impudently seek to represent their doings as in the highest degree exemplary; the abbot, the parson and the lady prioress, each in characteristic fashion, seeking to show that their violation of their vows, so far from being dishonourable, is rather to their credit than not, and that their sins of omission are really condoned by the character of what are usually deemed their sins of commission. This leads to a long debate, during which Pauper, and also the soutar, the tailor, a scribe and Common Thift, all add liveliness and point to the discussion. Then Common Thift—who had no other resource but to steal—is induced by Oppressioun to go into the stocks in Oppressioun’s stead, on condition that Oppressioun will come again soon and relieve him; but Oppressioun slinks away from the scene, leaving Common Thift unsuccoured. Doctor, then, at the instance of Correctioun, mounts the pulpit, and delivers a sermon amid ill-mannered interruptions from the abbot and the parson. During its delivery, Diligence spies a friar whispering with the abbot, and, suspecting that he intends to “set the town on steir” against the preacher, has him apprehended; and, on his being brought in by the sergeant and stripped of his habit, he is seen to be no other than Flatterie. The lady prioress is then spoiled of her habit, and, on being discovered to have been wearing under it a kirtle of silk, gives her malison to her parents for compelling her to be a nun, and not permitting her to marry. Flatterie is then put in the stocks, and the three prelates are stripped of their habits, which are put upon three sapient, cunning clerks. The prelates seek to find comfort from Covetousness and Sensualitie; but these former friends now renounce them, and they depart to earn an honest living in secular occupations. Thereafter, John the Commoun Weill, clothed in gorgeous apparel, takes his place in the parliament, and, after acts have been passed for the reform of clamant abuses, the malefactors in the stocks are led to the gallows. Flatterie saves himself by undertaking the office of executioner; and with their characteristic last speeches and Flatterie’s cynical self-congratulation, the drama proper is brought to a close.

    This latter portion, which is a good deal longer and more complicated in its action than part 1, is, at the same time, more diversely and elaborately clever. It is enlivened by a great variety of picturesque incidents, and the satire is so pointed and so topical, and the various dénouements are led up to with such admirable wit, that the audience must have been kept throughout in a high state of amused excitement, mingled with righteous expectation, and must, at the close, have been not less seriously impressed with the lessons of the play, than enthusiastic over its dramatic merits.

    The play proper is followed, for the diversion of the multitude, by a farcical interlude, after the manner of the French monologues, a comic sermon being delivered by a buffoon dressed up as Follie, in which shrewd advice is mingled with an extremely coarse display of low wit.

    If the glamour of poetry be absent from The Pleasant Satyre, its sententiousness and wit are occasionally varied by strains of lofty eloquence; and, if its moralising seems to us a little tedious and commonplace, it would have a different aspect to Lyndsay’s contemporaries. Moreover, the more serious portions of the play are relieved by an unfailing flow of witty satire, which is all the more irresistible in that the special idiosyncrasy of each wicked or foolish character is revealed with admirable consistency, and that each is unconsciously made the exponent of his own wickedness or folly. Viewed as literature, the merit of the play is of a high order: the style is always clear, terse and pointed, even when neither witty nor eloquent. Though rather rough and careless in his rhythm, Lyndsay shows an easy commond of rime as well as some skill in varying his metres to suit his subject. The dialogues are, for the most part, in an eight-lined stave in the rime couée used in early English plays, or in the octosyllabic couplet; but, for various recitals in character, he has recourse to a rimed alliterative stave used in several old romances, to the heroic couplet, to the French octave and the kyrielle; and to various forms of the six-lined stave in rime couée, including that which was a favourite of Burns.

    The satirical Tragedie of the Cardinal, written shortly after the death of cardinal Beaton in 1547, a kind of parody of the lives in Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, offers a detailed account of the cardinal’s errors in conduct and policy, which his ghostly personality is supposed to relate as a warning to prelates and princes; but the dejection of the disembodied individuality seems to affect the poem, which is one of the least sprightly of Lyndsay’s poetic efforts. Even so, however, it compares favourably with the long Dialog betuix Experience and Ane Courteour, which seems to have been suggested by Lyndsay’s perusal of the translated Scriptures, of which it is largely an epitome. Opening with a discussion of the moral reasons for human suffering and misery, it includes an argument for the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular, an account of the creation of Adam and Eve, a prelection on man’s first sin, an explanation and description of the Flood, an account of the rise and fall of the four great monarchies—which, according to the author, were the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian and the Roman—a reference to the first spiritual or papal monarchy with a description of the court of Rome and a dissertation on death, Anti-Christ and the general Judgment.

    Only two other of Lyndsay’s pieces remain to be mentioned, and they are of an entirely non-didactic nature: The Deploratioun of the Death of Queen Magdalene and The Historie of the Squyer Meldrum. The former, in rime royal, is modelled on the aureate method adopted by Dunbar in his more ceremonial pieces, but lacks the imposing musical melody of Dunbar’s verse, and jolts along in a rather rough and uneven fashion. In couplets, Lyndsay was more at his ease, and in this medium he has related the varied and surprising adventures of a Fife neighbour, Squire William Meldrum, umwhile laird of Cleish and Binns, with unfailing spirit and with a point and graphic particularity that, to the modern reader, is sometimes a little disconcerting. Modelled after the Squire’s Tale of Chaucer, Lyndsay’s narrative, though in substance relating the actual experiences and achievements of Meldrum, reproduces them with a gloss which makes the poem assume the form of a kind of burlesque of the old romances. Apart from its special merits, it is of interest as revealing Lyndsay’s enjoyment of mere merriment devoid of satire.

    Of James V, Lyndsay’s royal patron, no verses that can be authenticated survive; for he can as little be credited with the authorship of Peblis and Christis Kirk, as of The Gaberlunzie Man and The Jolly Beggars. For an account of Lyndsay’s other poetic contemporaries and a summary of their individual merits we are indebted to Lyndsay’s prologue to The Complaynt of the Papyngo.