Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 14. Origin of the Moralities

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 14. Origin of the Moralities

In the chapter of this work dealing with the early religious drama, it will be shown how its third species, the “moral plays” or “moralities,” originated in the desire to bring into clear relief the great lesson of life—the struggle between good and evil to which every man is subjected, and the solution of which depends for every man upon his relation to the powers contending for his soul. The conception is familiar to religious literature long before it is put into dramatic shape, and theological moralities were produced some time before they found their way to the popular stage. The productions of the Anglo-Norman trouvère Guillaume Herman (1127–70) and of Étienne Langton, doctor of theology at Paris and afterwards, as everyone knows, archbishop of Canterbury (1207) and cardinal, in general conception and treatment resemble the moralities of later date; though in each the strife of Mercy and Peace against Truth and Righteousness on behalf of sinful man, indirectly suggested by Psalm lxxxv, 10, 11, is solved by the personal intervention of the Saviour. It is clearly erroneous to suppose that the English moralities, to which these remarks are confined, grew gradually out of the mysteries and miracles, under the co-operating influence of the pageantry which had become a public custom in the English towns in the latter part of the Middle Ages.