Medieval dramas : Miracle plays, Mystery plays and Morality plays

The 14th and 15th centuries feature the beginnings of English drama which would later flower so dramatically in Elizabethan times with Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare. To the uninitiated like yours truly, the various names given to these earlier religious dramatic performances need some explanation.

Mystery plays are known from several English cities, such as York, Chester, Coventry and Wakefield. These were performed on elaborate pageant wagons pulled through the streets of the town, stopping at designated stations to perform scenes from the Bible, from the Creation to the Last Judgment. To stand and watch all the plays in succession at York is believed to have taken from 4.30 in the morning to midnight. Each play was assigned to a guild of the city (the Bakers, the Smiths, the Carpenters, etc.) hence the term “mystery” may refer to the guilds rather than the content of the actual plays.

Miracle plays concentrated on the lives and deeds of saints, although the terms miracle plays and mystery plays are used interchangeably with little fine distinction.

Finally, Morality plays dealt more generally with the salvation of man’s soul from temptations of the Devil and the Seven Deadly Sins. The actual plots and staging could therefore be more flexible than the prescribed content of Mystery and Miracle plays.

In coming weeks I will try reading The Castle of Perseverance, and Everyman (two morality plays) and the York Cycle of Mystery plays.

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