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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

§ 28. Treatment of educational, political, and ecclesiastical questions in the Morality

Of particular interest, in England as in France, is the treatment of political and religious problems by authors of moralities. Of political moralities, but few have been preserved. From Hall, the chronicler, we learn that, at Christmas, 1527–8, a play entitled Lord Governaunce was acted at Gray’s inn, which cardinal Wolsey, who was present, took for a satire directed against himself; but he was appeased by the assurance that the piece was twenty years old. Of a remarkable drama, Albion Knight, printed, probably, in 1566, we unfortunately possess but a fragment; here, instead of the usual symbolical representative of humanity at large, a personified England is the object of contest between the allegorical representatives of good and evil powers.

Above all, however, the morality furnished an easy opportunity for bringing the great ecclesiastical controversies on the stage, where, as everywhere else, innovators showed far more skill and activity than their conservative adversaries. The first drama relating to the reformation of which we have knowledge is, however, directed against Luther; it was acted in Latin, in 1528, by the pupils of St. Paul’s school, before Henry VIII, and seems, besides some mockery about Luther’s marriage, to have contained gross flatteries addressed to the all-powerful cardinal Wolsey. And, even after the king had broken with Rome, it was quite in accordance with the despotic character of the English reformation that the spirit of the new movement was not advocated and upheld to the same extent as elsewhere by dramatic satire. Only when Thomas Cromwell endeavoured, jointly with Cranmer, to advance the English reformation movement on the lines of the German, and more resolutely than had originally lain in the king’s design, several favourites of the influential chancellor are found seeking to work upon public feeling in favour of his church policy. Foremost of all was the zealous, militant theologian John Bale, in whose dramas an ardent hate of popery is strangely combined with ponderous pedantry. The tendency of most of the twenty-two “comedies” enumerated by himself in his Catalogus of 1548 is recognisable from the very titles, which are extremely outspoken as to the “adulterators of God’s Word,” the “knaveries of Thomas Becket,” and so forth. Of the five that are preserved, one, The Three Laws, belongs to the domain of the moralities; it shows how the three laws which God successively revealed to mankind—the law of nature, the law of Moses, and the law of Christ—are corrupted by hostile powers; one of these powers, Sodomy, appears as a monk, and, in this part, of course, the most monstrous things from the anti-clerical chronique scandaleuse are brought out. In the beginning, the First Person of the Trinity, with delightful naïveté, introduces Himself to the public: “I am God Father, a substance indivisible.”

A far more lively picture is unrolled by the Scottish statesman and author, David Lyndsay, in his Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, which was probably acted for the first time on Epiphany, 1540, before James V of Scotland. But of this, by far the longest morality in the English language, designed for a great number of actors and a large scene of action, an account has been given in an earlier volume. Cromwell must surely have been well satisfied when an account (which has been preserved) of the great success of this play reached him.