Mystery Miracle and Morality plays

Mystery Miracle and Morality Plays!

The medieval and early Renaissance periods saw great artistic and cultural expression in English literature, including the popular Mystery, Miracle, and Morality plays. These plays, based on religious faith and moral teachings, offered vivid interpretations of biblical stories and allegorical lessons, while also serving as a powerful vehicle for communal bonding and moral edification. In this article, we will explore the enduring legacy of these plays in the tapestry of English literary heritage.

Mystery Plays

During medieval times in England, Mystery Plays were popular dramatic representations of biblical stories. They mainly focused on depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Craft guilds usually performed these plays, and they were staged outdoors in cycles. The cycles covered the entirety of Christian salvation history, from the creation of the world to the Last Judgment.

The term “mystery” comes from the Latin word “misterium,” which means “occupation” or “craft.” This reflects the involvement of trade guilds in their production. These plays were known for their vivid spectacle, elaborate costumes, and a blend of religious reverence with popular entertainment. One of the most famous examples of Mystery Plays is the “York Mystery Plays,” which were performed annually in York, England, during the Feast of Corpus Christi. This cycle consists of 48 individual plays, each presenting a different biblical story, from the creation of Adam and Eve to the Last Judgment.

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Popular Examples

  • The Wakefield Cycle – It has about 32 brilliant plays and one of the most popular and important is the Second Shepherd’s Play which has a conversation between three shepherds Coll Gib and Daw.
  • The Chester Plays – Here you can find about 25 Chester Plays and the most important to be noted are The Creation and The Fall and Fall of Lucifer

Miracle Plays

Miracle Plays were a type of play that revolved around the lives of saints, martyrs, and miraculous events said to be attributed to divine intervention. These plays were quite similar to Mystery Plays, but instead of focusing on biblical stories, they delved into the hagiographic traditions, recounting tales of saints and their extraordinary deeds. During the Middle Ages, they were extremely popular, captivating audiences with dramatic portrayals and reinforcing religious beliefs.

The “N-Town Plays” or “Ludus Coventriae” are notable examples of Miracle Plays, showcasing a vibrant tapestry of medieval spirituality and theatrical ingenuity. These plays celebrated the triumph of faith over adversity and the miraculous interventions believed to occur in the lives of saints, inspiring awe and devotion among spectators.

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Popular Examples

  • Mary Magdalene – Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. He healed her from seven demons and she supported him financially in Galilee. She was present during the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus and was the first person to witness his Resurrection.
  • The Conversion Of St. Paul – This Middle English miracle play unequivocally portrays the transformation of Saul, who transitions from being a persecutor of Christians to becoming a strong advocate for their faith.
  • The Croxton Play Of the Sacrament – The Croxton Play of the Sacrament is the only remaining English Host miracle play. It revolves around the kidnapping of a Host by a group of Jewish men and the sequence of miracles that result in their conversion to Christianity.

Morality Plays

Morality Plays are a distinct genre that emerged in the late medieval period. Unlike the biblical and saintly themes of Mystery and Miracle Plays, they focus on allegorical characters and moral lessons. These plays personify abstract virtues and vices, depicting the journey of the soul towards salvation or damnation. 

The main goal of Morality Plays is to convey moral teachings to the audience through didacticism and allegory. They aim to educate the audience on ethical conduct and the consequences of their actions. Characters such as Everyman, Good Deeds, and Death serve as archetypes embodying universal human experiences and moral dilemmas. This invites introspection and moral self-examination. 

Perhaps the most famous example of this genre is “Everyman,” attributed to an unknown author. The play presents the allegorical journey of Everyman, representing humanity, towards his final reckoning.

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Popular Examples

  • The Castle Of Perseverance – “Castle of Perseverance” is an allegorical play that depicts mankind’s journey, from birth to death, and emphasizes the importance of virtues for achieving Christian salvation. The play portrays the constant battle between good and evil for the soul of mankind, with 15 good characters and 15 bad characters.
  • The Somonyng Of Everyman – “Everyman” is a play that represents the life of all mankind. The plot shows how God tallies good and evil deeds in a ledger book after death. Everyman tries to convince mystical characters to accompany him on his pilgrimage, but he ultimately discovers that he is alone. He learns that when he faces God after death, all he is left with are his own good deeds.


Interludes were short, light-hearted plays or dramatic sketches that served as entertaining diversions between the acts of longer, more serious productions during the late medieval and early Renaissance periods in English literature. 

They were popular in 15th and 16th century England, particularly at royal courts and noble households, and often featured comedic elements, music, and dance. John Heywood was a notable practitioner of interludes, known for his witty and humorous works. Interludes typically featured a variety of characters engaging in humorous situations or playful banter and sometimes included moral or allegorical elements.

Heywood’s interludes, such as “The Four PP” and “The Play of the Weather,” were characterized by their witty and humorous writing. 

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