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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

§ 24. Progress in aim and treatment

As Dodsley justly remarked, the importance of moralities in the development of the drama lies in the fact that here the course of action is not, as with mysteries, prescribed by tradition; the individual author’s own inventive power is of much greater importance. Besides, otherwise than in the case of mysteries, hearing is more important than seeing. In the stage arrangement of a morality, however, the costume of allegorical characters, the choice of symbolic colours for clothes, the providing of the different figures with emblems illustrating their moral essence, were all matters of first-rate importance. And the greater significance of the spoken word in moralities also accounts for the fact that several of these plays are extant in contemporary prints, which is not the case with any of the mysteries.

Besides the serious drama, in which an admixture of the comic element was seldom wanting, there existed, in the Middle Ages, a very popular kind of short farce, which was acted at festive and convivial meetings by professional minstrels or by young fellows who combined for the purpose. But, of these, an account has been given in a previous chapter. From France and Germany, numerous farces of this kind have come down to us; not so from England, where they were also highly popular, but where, unfortunately, one only has been preserved, and this but in fragments. Besides the Interludium de Clerico et Puella, composed, to judge by the handwriting, toward the beginning of the fourteenth century, we possess an account of another play which proves that in England, just as in France, events and problems of the day were satirised in these farces. Bishop Grandison, in 1352, forbade the youth of Exeter, on pain of excommunication, to act a satirical play which they had prepared against the drapers’ guild of the town; at the same time, drapers were called upon not to push their prices too high; thus, evidently, the guild was itself the cause of the hostile feeling.

The humanistic and reforming movement naturally exercised everywhere a powerful influence on the drama, which, up to that time, had been a faithful expression of the medieval view of life. In England, as in all other countries, the particular circumstances under which the movement took place left their traces on the drama. Here, performances of mysteries on the medieval model continue far into the sixteenth century; for, in the first phase of the reformation in England, when the domain of dogma proper remained intact, the old religious plays could live on undisturbed. Of course, in the reign of Henry VIII it could no longer be tolerated that such a champion of papal supremacy as Thomas Becket should, in his archiepiscopal see of Canterbury, be honoured every year by a processional play. However, performances of mystery-plays lasted even through the six years’ reign of the protestant king Edward VI; though, in the famous performances at York, the scenes relating to the Virgin’s death, assumption and coronation were suppressed; and a magnificent processional play, instituted at Lincoln, in 1517, in honour of Mary’s mother, St. Anne, a saint especially in fashion in the later Middle Ages, came to an end in the very first year of the new reign, and the apparel used for it was sold. In the reign of queen Mary, mysteries were, of course, produced with particular splendour, and the suppressed plays on St. Thomas and St. Anne also experienced a short revival. But, even after the final victory of protestantism under Elizabeth, people would not—especially in the conservative north of England—miss their accustomed plays. On this head, too, the citizens of York showed their “great stiffness to retain their wonted errors,” of which archbishop Grindal complained. And, in Shakespeare’s native county, during the poet’s boyhood and youth, the performance of religious plays was still in full flower. Only towards the end of the century did mysteries gradually cease; in Kendal, Corpus Christi plays were kept up as late as the reign of James I; the inventory of the capmakers of Coventry for 1597 shows that, as in preceding years, the guild still preserved faithfully the jaws of hell, a spade for Adam, a distaff for Eve and other properties, probably hoping for a revival of the old plays; but this hope proved illusory. Mysteries came to an end, under the double influence of puritan enmity to the stage and of the vigorous growth of Elizabethan drama.