Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 15. English Love of Allegory

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

§ 15. English Love of Allegory

The love of allegory from a very early period onwards domesticated itself in the English mind, to which there seems to be nothing intrinsically congenial in this species of composition, but which at all times has been singularly tenacious of tastes and tendencies to which it has once given admittance. This particular taste must have been implanted by Christianity by means of the Bible. Paraphrases of the Bible are the chief fruits of the earliest productive age of English poetical literature. The Old and the New Testament were alike composed in eastern tongues; the scenes of their narratives are eastern; certain books of the Bible have always been declared by the church to be allegorical in design; and there are few portions of the holy text that are not full of allegory, parable and symbolism. It is needless here to pursue further a theme which has been fully treated elsewhere, and which has not been left out of sight in earlier volumes of this History. Before English literature, in which the love of allegory had continued to assert itself wherever that literature continued most popular in its forms as well as in its sympathies, had produced one of the masterpieces of the species in the Vision concerning Piers the Plowman, the taste of western literature in general, and of French in particular, had already set in the same direction, and the Roman de la Rose had established an ascendancy in the world of letters which was to reflect itself in our own allegorical literature, and which endured down to the time of the renascence and the reformation. To the French taste for allegorical poetry and satire, the drama, which, in the thirteenth century, had completely emancipated itself from the control of the church, no doubt in its turn contributed; by the end of the fourteenth, the Confrérie de la Passion found it difficult to maintain its religious plays against the moralities, full of polemical satire, of the Confrérie de la Basoche, or against the Aristophanic soties of the Enfans sans souci; while the Basoche, which had begun with moralising allegories, soon took a leaf out of their rivals’ book, and interspersed their moralities with farces and soties, till the didactic species virtually passed away. If, then, the love of allegory which had been early implanted in the English people, and the impulse given to this predilection by French examples both in literature and on the stage in the period between Chaucer and the renascence be remembered, it will not be difficult to account for the growth, side by side with the biblical and saintly religious drama, of a species differing from it in origin, except as to their common final source, and varying from it in method, and, as time went on, more or less in character also. Nevertheless, the growth of this didactic species accompanies that of the plays following, with more or less of digression, the biblical narrative, or dealing with lives of saints or the after-effects of their martyrdoms in the form of miracles, and continues to affect these sister species in many instances, or actually in some cases to intermingle with them. Gradually, and under the influence of the general widening of the range of ideas and interests due to the renascence, the moralities begin to abandon the path of religious teaching for that of the inculcation of intellectual or philosophical, and even of political, principles and truths; and a further step is thus taken towards the complete secularisation of the drama.