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The word Morality,' applied to a dramatic representation, like the word · Mystery,' is of comparatively recent introduction into our language. The terms employed by our ancestors, when they wished to designate this species of abstract allegorical performance, as distinguished from plays founded upon scripture history, were • Moral' and 'Moral-play*;' and
* They are used in the accounts of the Revels at an early date: Every-man, printed by Pynson, is said, on the title-page, to be 'a Moral-play;' and Lupton calls his All for Money, 1578, a Moral.' At a later period, 1590, we meet with the pleasant and stately Moral' of the Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, and in the licence to Hemmings and others, in 1619, Moral is still particularized as a species of entertainment, distinct from tragedy, comedy, history and pastoral. As the generic term play was often used to signify any species of dramatic exhibition, so the word Moral was sometimes applied in a wider sense than properly belongs to it. In the following passage from Rowley's When you see me you know me, 1605, it is used for a Miracle-play. King Arthur and his knights of the round
table, that were buried in armour are alive again, crying St. George • for England, and mean shortly to conquer Rome : marry, this is thought to be but a Moral?
they have reference to the nature of the production itself, in which some ethical precept is enforced and illustrated.
A Moral, or Moral-play, is a drama, the characters of which are allegorical, abstract, or symbolical, and the story of which is intended to convey a lesson for the better conduct of human life. It has been shewn, that abstract impersonations by degrees found their way into Miracle-plays, although in their origin they only dramatised certain scriptural events by the characters historically concerned. The change was designed to give Miracle-plays a degree of attractiveness they would not have possessed, if year after year they had been repeated to the same audiences precisely in the same form. Among the first innovations of this sort were the representatives of Veritas, Justitia, Pax, and Misericordia in the Parliament of Heaven,' which constitutes part of the eleventh play or pageant of the Ludus Coventriæ. Death, in the same series, was a subsequent improvement, and the Mother of Death (mentioned by Mr. Sharp in his
Dissertation ') a still later addition; until at length such characters as Reufin and Lyon were employed, partaking of greater individuality, though still personifying the feelings and passions which are supposed to have actuated the Jews against our Saviour.
As such characters became more numerous, they interfered, to a certain degree, with the action and progress of the plot: the scriptural characters in some pieces fell into the background, and sank into com
parative insignificance; and thus in process of time what was originally intended to be a poetical embellishment to a historical drama, became a new species of theatrical exhibition, unconnected with history. This was called a Moral, or Moral-play ; and while it consisted of mere allegory and abstraction, unenlivened by mental or personal idiosyncrasy, by varied incident, and by temporary allusion, it must have been a very wearisome, and often unintelligible exhibition, ill calculated for a popular assembly.
If, therefore, this kind of drama were to exist at all, it could not exist long supported only by mere abstractions : accordingly, in the very earliest specimens that have reached the present day, we find efforts made, with more or less success, to render them amusing as well as instructive, by conveying the moral lesson of the piece in a varied and inviting form. It was only, in fact, by abandoning the original plan, that this object could be accomplished. Thus deviations from the first design of Miracle-plays, by the employment of allegory, led to the performance of Moral-plays; and deviations from Moral-plays, by the relinquishment of abstraction for individual character, paved the way, by a natural and easy gradation, for tragedy and comedy, the representations of real life and manners.
Supposing this view of the subject well founded, it is unnecessary to resort to the hypothesis of Warton, that. Moralities' (as he and others term them) owed their origin to the speaking characters which, in the reign of Henry VI., and subsequently, addressed monarchs, from temporary scaffolds on their entrance into large towns and cities *. Those characters were historical as well as allegorical t, and yet it is not pretended, that historical personages, unconnected with the events of Scripture, figured upon our stage until more than a century after allegorical abstractions were first employed.
Malone was inclined to think' that our first Morality' was not older than the time of Edward IV.1; but some manuscript productions of this class have recently been discovered, which show that early in the reign of Henry VI. Morals were in a state of considerable advancement. The opinion of Warton, that they reached the highest perfection of which they are capable while Henry VII. was on the throne, is probably not to be disputed, though they subsequently acquired a greater degree of complication, and exhibited more labour and ingenuity in their construction. A company of actors in the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. in general only consisted of four or five persons, and by doubling some of the parts they were
* Hist. Engl. Poet. iii. 37. edit. 8vo.
f When Henry VII. on one occasion entered Coventry, he was addressed not only by Righteousness, Temperance, Strength, Prudence, &c., but by Hector, Alexander the Great, Arthur, Charlemaine, St. Edward, Julius Cæsar, and Godfrey of Bollogne. See the pageants at Coventry appended to the Tailor's and Sheermen's Play, as printed by Mr. Sharp in 1817, before he undertook his larger work.-Cotton MS. Julius B. xii. shews, that when Henry VII. entered Bristol, during one of his progresses, he was addressed from a scaffold by a performer who represented Henry VI.
| Malone's Shakespeare by Boswell, iii, 30.
, capable of performing the dramatic entertainments then in fashion*. The greater complication of Morals will be illustrated hereafter in the course of an examination of the structure of some of the pieces exhibited.
Independent of allegorical personages, there were two prominent characters in Moral-plays, regarding which it is necessary to speak, as some misunderstanding has existed respecting them. I allude to the Devil and the Vice.
The Devil was no doubt imported into Moral-plays from the old Miracle-plays, where he figured so amusingly, that when a new species of theatrical diversion had been introduced, he could not be dispensed with: accordingly, we find him the leader of the Seven Deadly Sins, in one of the most ancient Moral-plays that have been preserved. He was rendered as hideous as possible by the mask and dress he wore; and from Ulpian Fulwell's Like will to Like 1568, (and from
* This was, however, by no means invariably the case, and some of our most ancient Morals would require many actors for their representation : perhaps, in these cases, the common players obtained extraneous assistance, such as was given at Thetford in the reign of Henry VIII., by the members of the Priory. The custom of composing pieces so that one actor might undertake two, or even three, characters, continued until late in the reign of Elizabeth. In the MS. historical play of Sir Thomas More, which was probably written about 1590, the actors of Cardinal Wolsey are spoken of as only ‘four and a boy.' Henry VIII. was the first of our monarchs who entertained eight performers, but they formed two separate companies, the new and the old players. See Annals of the Stage, vol. i. p. 69.