Morality Plays

Morality plays are a type of drama that features allegorical stories to teach a moral message by way of various Christian symbols and teachings. The genre was most popular throughout Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Morality Plays Morality Plays

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Table of contents

    Morality play: definition

    A morality play is, as you might expect, a play about morals.


    First, let's consider the term's definition:

    A morality play is a genre of theatrical work, originating in the Medieval period, that intended to impart moral lessons as much as to entertain an audience.

    Morality plays served as allegorical narratives informed by stories from the Bible. They intended to teach audiences about right and wrong using religious reasonings.

    An important way that this was achieved was through characters that were personifications (the representation of abstract qualities or concepts in human form) of religious concepts, qualities or abstractions, good and evil alike. Characters like Death, Mercy, Greed, and Justice, among others, featured in morality plays to guide the protagonist to goodness, and ultimately salvation. Audiences became encouraged to heed these teachings and maintain lives without sin by making moral decisions in their lives.

    The morality play, the miracle play and the mystery play are the three central kinds of vernacular drama frameworks that developed during the Middle Ages, particularly in England, but also in other parts of Europe, including France, Germany and the Netherlands.

    Vernacular drama is a term to describe the three types of plays that were produced during the Middle Ages. This was the historical period in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. All three kinds originated from the Church and had religious elements.

    Miracle plays depicted the lives of saints, combining fact and fiction in their narratives to chronicle events, miracles and martyrdom.

    Mystery plays can also be known as 'cycle plays' due to their structure. They functioned as a collection of performances, or cycles, that chronicled the spiritual history of Mankind, as told in the Bible. They were the most popular of the vernacular dramas.

    Importantly, vernacular dramas were performed in vernacular, i.e. local, spoken language, rather than complex and unintelligible Latin, as would be dictated by the Catholic Church. Vernacular dramas were accessible to ordinary people, and allowed for a combined purpose of education and entertainment, providing easily understandable teachings about the importance of right and wrong.

    The morality play, in particular, marked an important beginning for the transition in English drama from liturgical (relating to the Church and religious worship) to secular (non-religious). Though still deeply religious, morality plays featured more secular themes than had ever been seen before in English drama, especially in attempts to entertain the audience amongst serious topics. We can notice this in the introduction of some comical elements. The genre's inclination towards storytelling and audience engagement was crucial to its popularity.

    Morality Play Summary

    The structure of a morality play is an important feature that must be considered. They tended to be written in a particular framework, making it relatively easy for us to categorise them into a genre.

    The plays often followed a protagonist, the hero of the story, who stood to represent a large section of society, making his journey all the more impactful due to its relatability. This was important in the play's educational purpose, as it allowed the audience to understand the story in relation to their own lives, and encouraged each individual to make more moral choices.

    The protagonist embarks upon a journey, during which he faces various challenges and encounters personified forms of Biblical concepts, attributes and abstractions, all of which lead him to make more moral choices in his life. Characters often included vices, specifically the Seven Deadly Sins, and virtues, the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Temperance, Truth and Justice).

    Significance of the morality play

    The popularisation of the morality play created a foundation for the development of the dramatic field in later eras, such as in the Tudor and Elizabethan eras.

    During the Tudor era, the English Reformation began after Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church in 1527. He established the Church of England, naming the monarch as its head, and usurping papal authority. During this time there were beginnings of a renewed interest in the dramatic arts.

    This built upon the foundation created by medieval vernacular dramas; the transition to dramatic secularity began to see fruition in plays created during this later period. There was now more freedom in which playwrights were no longer limited by serious, religious themes and were free to explore other concepts, including history, love and comedy.

    It was not until the Elizabethan era (1558-1603), however, that theatre began to flourish. These new developments fully took hold, establishing Elizabethan theatre.

    Elizabethan theatre is the term used to refer to the English dramatic field during Elizabeth I's reign

    Writing and performing theatre became a respected literary art that had the support and attention of the monarchy, the aristocracy as well as the common people. It flourished as an industry, creating a profession for actors and dramatists, who could now make a living with this public support. During this period, there was an emergence of some of the most important literary figures in history, most famously William Shakespeare.

    We can consider morality plays again, not just as a foundation for the development of English drama, but as a direct and conscious influence on Shakespeare and some of his most famous works. Shakespeare drew inspiration from morality plays, embracing elements of its literary traditions, and expanding them, by exploring complex themes that medieval morality plays could not. Many of his dramas, including King Lear, Richard II and Othello, contain many topes and characteristics of the genre.

    Characteristics of morality plays

    As mentioned, morality plays seemed to all contain similar features. The main elements we can consider are:

    • A protagonist that represents humanity as a whole, or a particular group or social class.

    • Supporting characters and antagonists alike are not dimensioned individuals, but rather are personifications of various religious abstractions, concepts or qualities.

    • A central struggle between good and evil, usually representing the inner, human conflict with morality.

    • An outcome that sees the protagonist succeed over forces of evil by adhering to moral guidance, but with a sustained emphasis on mortality.

    • Narrative is written and performed in the vernacular (the language spoken by ordinary people in a region), rather than in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. This allowed for accessibility, which was key to the genre's popularity and didactic purposes.

    • A strictly moral standpoint, with clear distinctions between right and wrong, as according to Christian teachings.

    • A simple structure and short length; morality plays were often short, and featured minimal props so that they could be performed in public spaces, providing easily digestible moral lessons quickly.

    • The presence of some farcical elements, to convey some lightness and comedy. More focus was given to entertainment, rather than simply moral education.

    Morality plays in English Literature

    There are only five morality plays from the Medieval period that have survived to the present day. Though there are some differences in each of these, scholars agree that there were two main forms of morality play.

    The first contained a narrative that was broken into episodes, in which the audience is shown the main protagonist at various moments in his life, including, perhaps, his birth, some important events in his life, and finally death, on Judgement Day.

    An important example of this kind of play is The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1425), which was written in England by an anonymous author. It considers the soul of Humanum Genus, known as Mankind, who resides in a castle surrounded by both good and evil forces. The dramatic narrative shows episodes of Mankind's life journey from his birth until his death. Ultimately, good triumphs in driving away evil by using rose bunches (a contemporarily known symbol of the passion of Christ).

    The second type of morality play follows a specific hero's journey, at a particular age in their life, during which an important event occurs where there is a struggle between good and evil.

    For this kind of morality play, we can consider the most famous English morality play, Everyman (c. 1500). Everyman follows its eponymous protagonist, Everyman, who is summoned by Death to account for his actions during life, in his Book of Accounts, to present to God on the Day of Judgement. As he faces the prospect of eternal damnation in hell, he must hope for salvation by way of his life's good deeds.

    Throughout the play, appearances are made by allegorical characters, including Wisdom, Beauty, Fellowship and Strength, who all provide important Christian teachings and moral advice. Everyman is one of the few medieval plays that is still performed today!

    Morality Plays - Key takeaways

    • Morality plays were a genre of drama from the Medieval period that used allegorical stories to impart Christian messages and teachings.
    • They featured characters that stood as personifications of religious and moral concepts, abstractions or qualities.
    • The narrative followed a hero, most often a symbol of humanity or a social group, who is caught in a struggle between good and evil.
    • Though still with primarily religious themes, morality plays signified a shift in English drama in which plays began to explore some secular ideas.
    • Morality plays were essential to the eventual establishment of the dramatic industry, which came to flourish during the Elizabethan era. They influenced the craft of playwriting for many later figures, including Shakespeare.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Morality Plays

    What is a morality play?

    A morality play is a genre of theatrical work, originating in the Middle Ages, that intended to impart moral lessons as much as to entertain an audience. 

    In using allegorical stories informed by teachings from Christianity, these plays featured personifications of religious concepts, qualities or abstractions. 

    What was the point of morality plays?

    Morality plays existed to impart Christian lessons about morality, intending to teach the general public about right and wrong. Alongside this purpose, morality plays were created to entertain audiences, introducing elements of farce and humour to serious, religious topics.

    Who performed morality plays?

    Usually, morality plays were performed by semi-professional actors who were part of troupes that travelled around.

    What is the difference between miracle plays and morality plays?

    Both miracle and morality plays are examples of vernacular dramas of the Medieval period.

    Miracle plays tended to depict the lives of saints, combining fact and fiction to chronicle various events, miracles and eventual martyrdom.

    Morality plays, however, focused on a hero, usually representative of humanity, to impart moral lessons upon the audience. 

    What is an example of a morality play?

    We can consider the most famous surviving English morality play, Everyman, which is thought to have been written in 1500 by an anonymous dramatist. 

    This play is still performed today, and has been repeatedly adapted for the stage, and even the screen.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What language did plays affiliated with the Church previously have to be written in?

    What were the other types of vernacular dramas?

    What is an example of an English morality play?


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