What is Morality Play? Its Origin, Characteristics and Examples

A Morality Play is an allegorical play popular especially in the 15th and 16th centuries in which the characters personify abstract qualities or concepts (such as virtues, vices, or death). Its dramatic origins are to be found in the Mystery and Miracle Plays of the late Middle Ages; its allegorical origins in the sermon literature, homilies, exempla, romances and works of spiritual edification like the Lambeth Homilies (12th c.); Ancrene Riwle (1200–50); the homily Sawles Warde (13th c.); Chateau d’Amour (14th c.); the Abbey of the Holy Ghost (14th c.); Azenbite of Inwyt (1340).

Characteristics of Morality Play:

  • A morality play is essentially an allegory, told through drama. It shares the feature of allegorical prose and verse narratives. That is, it is written to be understood on more than one level. Its main purpose is two-fold, and the characters are personified abstractions with label names (aptronyms).
  • Most morality plays have a protagonist who represents either humanity as a whole (Everyman) or an entire social class (as in Magnificence). Antagonists and supporting characters are not individuals, but rather personifications of abstract virtues or vices, especially the seven deadly sins.
  • In essence, a Morality Play was a dramatization of the battle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul; thus, an exteriorization of the inward spiritual struggle: man’s need for salvation and the temptations which beset him on his pilgrimage through life to death. The main characters in Everyman (c. 1500) are God, a Messenger, Death, Everyman, Fellowship, Good Deeds, Goods, Knowledge, Beauty, and Strength. Everyman is summoned by Death and he finds that no one will go with him except Good Deeds.
  • Morality plays were typically written in the vernacular, so as to be more accessible to the common people who watched them. Most can be performed in under ninety minutes. In fact, morality plays are very similar to another form of theater common in the same time, called “moral interludes.”There is no clear dividing line between moral interludes and a morality play, and many works are classified under both headings. These works include The Pride of Life, The Castell of Perseverance, Wisdom, Mankind, Like Will to Like, and many others. Moral interludes were typically 1000 lines long and written in a very rough verse. These were often written to be entertainment at courts, in noble houses, at colleges and University, and at the Inns of Court.
  • Morality plays were structured simply, so that they could be performed in almost any open public space, without scenery, and with a minimum of props. Locations were introduced through the dialogue between characters, and after that, were left to the imagination of the audience. As with other types of the drama of the period, the stage was typically on the same level as the audience, rather than on a raised platform like modern stages. Being on the same level giving the audience a tighter connection to the actors, the character, and the story being presented.
  • Early morality plays, in particular, were quite crude and the writing was often uneven, the author almost always unknown. However, as time went on, the plays became better written and the characters showed increasing signs of sophistication and psychology.
  • Morality plays are based highly on a religious standpoint in order to teach individuals about proper or true morals; right and wrong.
  • The writing in the plays is often uneven, the characterization is crude and the psychology naive. Nevertheless, in their simplicity, a number of them have a certain robust and impressive power. The better ones show an increasingly sophisticated analysis of character and point the way to that examination of human nature and morality in depth which makes the best Tudor and Jacobean drama so remarkable.

Examples of Morality Play:

The most memorable Morality Plays are: The Castell of Perseverance (c. 1425); Mind, Will and Understanding (c. 1460); and Mankind (c. 1475). These three are considered as a group because they occur in the Macro Manuscript. Then comes Everyman (c. 1500), to which there is a slightly earlier Dutch analogue, Elckerlijk.

The main characters in Everyman (c. 1500) are God, a Messenger, Death, Everyman, Fellowship, Good Deeds, Goods, Knowledge, Beauty, and Strength. Everyman is summoned by Death and he finds that no one will go with him except Good Deeds.

In other plays, we find the forces of evil (the World, the Flesh and the Devil, the Seven Deadly Sins and various demons) deployed against Man, whose champions are the forces of good (God and his angels, and the four moral and the three theological virtues). Nearly all the Moralities are didactic illustrations of and commentaries on a preoccupation that dominated Christian thought throughout much of the Middle Ages: namely, the war between God and the Devil.

To the same period belong the French Moralities Bien avisé, Mal avisé and L’Homme juste et l’homme mondain, and La Condemnation de Banquet. To the early years of the 16th c. belong The World and the Child; Hyckescorner (1512); Skelton’s Magnificence (1516); Rastell’s Four Elements (1519); Mundus et Infans (c. 1520); Henry Medwall’s Nature (c. 153o); Sir David Lindsay’s Satyre of the Three Estaitis (1540), an example of a political Morality Play; and Wever’s Lusty Juventus (c. 150).

From about the middle of the 16th c. Morality Plays became less popular, but they were still being written and many plays bore unmistakable marks of their influence, such as Nathaniel Woodes’s The Conflict of Conscience (1563); Fulwell’s Like Will to Like (c. 1568); Lupton’s All for Money (c. 1578); Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (c. 1588). Even as late as 1625 Ben Jonson’s The Staple of News showed strong Morality influences, especially in the person of Lady Pecunia, an allegorical figure representing Riches.

The long-term influence of the Moralities is discernible in the pageant and masque, and in the label names or patronymics given to characters in 17th and 18th c. comedy and also in the names in novels. A modern example of a Morality Play was Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1908).