Mystery and morality plays
The beginning of English drama
In the Middle Ages, there were no permanent theatres in England. Drama was associated with religion and began with the acting out in church of scenes from the Christian story, such as the Resurrection of Christ at Easter.
These short dramatic performances contained only a small amount of action and the elaboration of a few words from the service. In the case of the Resurrection, for instance, the performance took place on the evening before Easter Sunday and culminated in the priest finding Christ's empty grave clothes in a sepulchre near the altar. (These Easter Sepulchres – perhaps the earliest English stage sets– can still be found in a number of churches in England.)
Over time, these performances became more elaborate and acquired more characters and dialogue. Many continued to be performed in the course of church services, but, when they outgrew the available space for action, began to take place outside churches in porches or on the steps. Their purpose was largely devotional and educational: the dramatic performances helped the congregation to understand the meaning of the liturgy.
Theatre on the streets
These short dramas then developed into processions, in which the priests and civic dignitaries, in their colourful vestments and robes, added to the spectacle. Gradually, these processions included ‘pageants' — a word we usually use today to mean a kind of open-air theatrical display, but which originally meant the cart on which scenes were performed.
As the citizens stood in the streets, carts moved past carrying actors in still poses depicting biblical events such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Moses receiving the Ten Commandments or the resurrection of Christ.
Eventually, the processions came to a stop in different points in the town and the people on the carts performed a short drama. By staying in one place, spectators would thus be able to witness scenes from the whole Christian story.
Drama in English
Eventually, some dialogue was introduced. Although the language of church services was still Latin, actors on the pageants spoke in English. In this way, everyone listening could understand and the educational value of the drama was enhanced.
The plays which thus developed are known as miracle or mystery plays. The latter name derives from the French myster or metier, meaning craft or profession, and was applied to the plays because the craft guilds or association gradually assumed responsibility for particular plays. Often, the plays they supported were appropriate to their craft:
Some mystery plays, originating in towns such as Chester, York and Coventry, still survive and are regularly performed. Nothing, however, is known about the author(s) of individual plays.
Alongside the Mystery plays, in the later Middle Ages, dramas known as morality plays developed. Instead of enacting events from the Bible, morality plays focused instead on the spiritual struggles of individual souls. The central characters, who have names such as Mankind or Everyman, act out the spiritual challenges faced by every human being. Vices and virtues, such as deceit or kindness, or the Seven Deadly Sins, or the even more abstract Good and Evil, are personified. They are presented as debating or struggling against one another, while the eternal destiny of the human protagonist hangs in the balance. The most famous of these plays is Everyman (c. 1509-19), which is still performed today.
Influence on Marlowe
Doctor Faustus clearly draws on this tradition in a number of ways:
- The play focuses on the fate of a single individual
- The good and bad angels contend for Faustus' soul, presenting him with the stark choice between salvation and damnation
- There is a pageant of the seven deadly sins, summoned for Faustus by Mephastophilis, and each of the vices has a short warning speech about the consequences of sin
- Some of the scenes are ‘mini-moralities', object lessons in sin and vice. A good example is provided by Faustus' visit to the papal court
- The moral lesson of the story is very clearly established in the final speech of the play.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10And the angel said to them, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! 15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord) 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation 31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. 33And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed. 36And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. 41Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress. 49And he said to them, Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? 50And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 21And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23(As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. 25And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. 26And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, 28Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, 31Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; 32A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. 33And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. 34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. 36And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; 37And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. 39And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. 40And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him. 41Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. 43And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. 44But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. 45And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. 47And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. 48And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. 49And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? 50And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. 51And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
The period of European history broadly between 1000AD-1500AD.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians.
2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship.
3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
Literally, rising to life again. In the Bible it is specifically applied to Jesus Christ's coming to life after his crucifixion; and from thence, to the hope of all believers that after death, they will be raised to a new life in heaven.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and the oldest and greatest festival of the Christian Church.
Day on which the Church celebrates the Resurrection of Christ three days after his death on the cross.
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Tomb; term used to refer to the tomb in which Christ's body was laid after the crucifixion.
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The distinctive clothing worn by clergy when taking part in services of worship.
According to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), Adam is the first human being, made in the image / likeness of God, placed in the Garden of Eden and given dominion over the earth.
According to the book of Genesis in the Bible the first woman, said to have been created by God out of Adam's rib, to be his companion.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
Very important Jewish leader described in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Received the Ten Commandments form God.
Also called 'The Decalogue' (Ten Words). Instructions said to have been given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, which have not only shaped Jewish and Christian belief and practice but also strongly influenced the legal systems of many countries.
The language of the ancient Romans which gradually became the language of the part of the Christian Church which owed allegiance to Rome.
An event evoking wonder, believed to be the result of supernatural intervention.
In religious terms, something which cannot be understood by most people, but has to be revealed to the understanding of believers.
Supernatural beings closely linked with the work of God; his messengers, traditionally portrayed as having a winged human form.
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Medieval plays in which the forces of Good and Evil battled for the souls of individuals.
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Usually defined as Pride, Covetousness, Lust / Lechery, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth.
Represented or imagined as a person.
Supernatural beings closely linked with the work of God; his messengers, traditionally portrayed as having a winged human form.
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Word used in the Authorised Version of the Bible for punishment or destruction, referring to the fate of those who are found on the Day of Judgement to have rejected Jesus Christ (Revelation 20:12-15).
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