Morality Plays: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Morality Plays Defined
  • 2:53 Examples
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Has watching a movie ever taught you how to be a good person? Learn more about popular entertainment as a teaching tool in this lesson on morality plays, where you'll also get to see some examples of this often heavy-handed genre.

Morality Plays Defined

Do you remember any of the skits or plays you participated in or watched when you were in primary school? Maybe they were about playing well with your classmates, or perhaps concerned conflict resolution. Either way, there's a good chance they were much more kid-friendly versions of morality plays: allegorical dramatizations of (typically religious) ethical principles.

Especially when we're younger, priestly homilies or rabbinical commentaries may sometimes seem endlessly droll, often allowing our minds to wander. The school productions we mentioned earlier, though, capitalized on the idea that humans tend to retain information when we're entertained in the process. Over time, men of the cloth became some of the first to use popular entertainment for educational purposes.

Evolving from sermons and other theological works during the Middle Ages, morality plays were first performed by predominantly Christian clergymen as an instructive portion of the service beginning around the 13th century. Traditionally in Latin, morality plays eventually appeared in the local vernaculars and outside the churches as more (frequently unnamed) non-clergy writers crafted dramatic representations of religious principles. When morality plays first ventured outside the church walls, many of them were staged on medieval church grounds like the one seen in this picture (see video).

By telling stories that can be interpreted on superficial levels as well as frequently multiple other levels, morality plays are effectively dramatic allegories, which are stories that can be interpreted to reveal hidden meanings. The allegory of a morality play is developed generally by pitting some representation of moral good (i.e. God, cardinal virtues, etc.) against the forces of evil (i.e. Satan, deadly sins, etc.) in a battle for human salvation. For example, on the surface, a character like Lady Pecunia from Ben Johnson's 'The Staple of News' (1625) might appear to be just a wealthy lady with an odd name. However, her persona also operates beneath the surface as an allegorical depiction of the moral dangers in hoarding riches (pecunia is Latin for money).

A quick skim of Johnson's work based on older morality plays reveals the allegorical truth of Lady Pecunia pretty easily. These dramas are typically characterized by this sort of clumsy transparency, and for this reason - combined with their often harsh expectations - they largely died out in popularity and use beyond the early 16th century. Though rarely ever seen on the modern stage, there are several examples of morality plays preserved from history. Let's look at some of those examples now.



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