(ca. 1465)
   With the exception of EVERYMAN,Mankind is probably the best-known and most often studied late medieval MORALITY PLAY. A verse drama in 914 lines, Mankind is written in the East Midland dialect of MIDDLE ENGLISH, and is known to have been performed in East Anglia, both in Cambridgeshire and in Norfolk.With The CASTLE OF PERSEVERANCE and Wisdom, Mankind is one of a group of dramas called the “Macro Plays,” so named after the Reverend Cox Macro (1683–1767), the earliest known owner of the single manuscript in which they survive. There is no indication that the play was particularly popular in its own time, nor was it much performed or printed in the ensuing centuries, not because of any lack of quality but because of a good deal of vulgar and even obscene language that permeates the play. In recent decades, however, appreciation of the play has grown, and nowadays it is admired for its liveliness, its psychological “realism,” and its incorporation of popular theatrical elements that contribute to its unified dramatic effect. As in most morality plays, the characters of Mankind are personified abstractions presenting an ALLEGORY of human salvation—of vices and virtues in conflict over a human soul. Mankind, the protagonist, clearly represents the individual human being. The other main character of the play is Mercy, depicted not, as in other allegories, as one of the daughters of God, but rather as Mankind’s father confessor—hence, the character does not properly represent the quality of mercy itself but rather the means by which human beings may attain God’s mercy.Mercy opens the play with a sermon on repentance, during which Mischief, the play’s chief VICE, enters and ridicules Mercy’s speech. The manuscript is missing a leaf at this early point, but when the story resumes, three minor vices—New Guise (“latest fashion,” or “the pride of life”),Nowadays (apparently the desire for instant gratification), and Nought (that is, vanity)— are dancing around Mercy and mocking him mercilessly and spewing out blasphemies and vulgarities. The three are chased off, after which Mercy provides Mankind with several precepts for his spiritual guidance: Live a life of moderation, he is told—like a knight of Christ, Mankind must fight against the temptations of the flesh, the world, and the devil. This advice apparently strengthens Mankind’s resolve. He goes to till his land, his agricultural labor suggesting a physical remedy to the sin of sloth (and no doubt also representing a spiritual labor), but also typologically recalling Adam, and reinforcing Mankind’s identification with all of fallen humanity. When New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought reappear,Mankind chases them off with his spade.
   Having failed to tempt Mankind by the attractions of vice, Mischief switches to a strategy designed to convince Mankind of the difficulty of achieving virtue, despite his hard work. First, he advises New Guise,Nowadays, and Nought to conjure up a true devil, Titvillius. The devil appears and sends his three conjurers off to steal money and horses. Meanwhile, Mankind has gathered seeds for sowing his land, but Titvillius, invisible to Mankind, puts boards in the earth to make it impossible for Mankind to plant his seeds. Titvillius also interrupts Mankind’s prayers, and puts it into his head that Mercy is not to be trusted, calling him a married priest, a fugitive criminal, and a horse thief. The devil then advises Mankind to go sport himself with a prostitute, and then to beg pardon of New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought for chasing them off with his shovel. The scene shifts to a mock-court established by Mischief.Mankind appears in new, fashionable garb furnished by New Guise, and is made to swear in court that he will become a thief and a killer. To depict his protagonist’s fall, the playwright now has Mankind speak in the language of the vices, rather than in Mercy’s style as he had previously. Now Mischief tries to push Mankind to despair, hoping to tempt him to suicide.Mankind, preparing to hang himself, is ultimately rescued by Mercy, who has the last word in the text, urging mankind to confession and to reconciliation with God.
   There is no known source for the play, but, particularly in its emphasis on labor as an antidote to sloth,Mankind clearly draws heavily from the Old Testament book of Job, and to some extent from William LANGLAND’s PIERS PLOWMAN as well. Some scholars have also compared its style with 15thcentury Dominican and Franciscan preaching style. Furthermore, the playwright was conscientious about the meter of his verse, particularly in the lines of Mercy and Mankind, who speak in four-line stanzas rhyming abab. Mankind calls for very simple staging: All that is needed for the set is a stage wide enough to represent Mankind’s plot of land, and the only prop necessary is Mankind’s spade. The simplicity of the production has led scholars to speculate that a professional touring troupe acted the play, though there is some debate as to whether the play was performed outdoors or in a great hall of similar space indoors. The play was most likely performed as a part of the carnivalesque Shrovetide celebration on the eve of Lent—such a context would explain the broad humor of the play. The fact that the vices at one point make the audience sing an obscene Christmas song does not preclude a Shrovetide performance, since the medieval Christmas celebration extended until the beginning of Lent. The interplay between actors and audience is important for the effect of this play. As Pamela King points out, when the audience sings with the vices, they have sinned through “idleness of the tongue,” anticipating the fall of Mankind.When before calling up the devil, the vices take up a collection from the audience, they themselves have engaged in the ritual of a black mass that helps bring about Mankind’s overthrow (250–251). As Mankind allegorically represents all humankind, the audience, as a part of mankind, participates in the fall into sin. In the end, the conventional Christian themes of the play—the danger of demonic temptation (especially for an idle mind), the importance of reason controlling bodily passions, the infinite mercy of God—are likely less moving and effective for the audience than their participation in the performance itself, a participation that makes very real the abstract themes.
   ■ Bevington, David, ed. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1957.
   ■ Coogan, Mary P. An Interpretation of the Moral Play, “Mankind.”Washington,D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1947.
   ■ Wickham, Glynne. The Medieval Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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