Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 23. Tendency towards the introduction of comic elements

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

III. The Early Religious Drama

§ 23. Tendency towards the introduction of comic elements

Generally, however, the tendency to give a certain prominence to the comic element grows more and more distinct; above all, allegorical representatives of the vices are more and more richly endowed with realistic features, especially with local jokes concerning London. This is shown, e.g., in Nature, composed by Henry Medwall, chaplain of archbishop Morton of Canterbury (1486–1500), who is also mentioned in the play. Here, we see how Sensuality drives away Reason from man’s side; how, after all, man is reconciled to Reason by Age; but how Avarice comes in at the end, and gives the chaplain an opportunity for a bitter attack upon his own profession. In the morality The World and the Child (printed 1522), man, the object of strife between allegorical figures, appears, successively, as child, youth and man; he is persuaded by Folly to lead a dissolute life in London; nor is it until, reduced to a low state, he quits Newgate prison, that good spirits regain possession of him. Similar in character are the moralities Hick Scorner (printed before 1534) and Youth (printed 1555), which both seem to date back to the pre-reformation period. So, probably, does the morality Magnyfycence, the only play by Skelton that has been preserved; it was not printed till after his death. Here, instead of the usual commonplaces from medieval devotional books, a warning frequently given by classical and humanistic moralists is allegorically represented, namely, that against excessive liberality and false friends. In the same manner, Medwall, if we may trust Collier’s account, treated another humanistic commonplace, namely, the persecution of Truth by Ignorance and Hypocrisy, in an interlude acted before Henry VIII at Christmas, 1514–15. Skelton and Medwall are the earliest writers of plays in English whose names have been preserved.