Argument in the Medieval Morality Plays

August 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Compare and contrast the use made of argument and dramaticirony in some morality plays.By allegorising the redemption of mankind and the principles of Christian aretaics, morality plays, in the words of Robert Potter, “celebrate the permanent truth of Christianity as a theology, a theory of history, and an explanation of the human condition.” Dramatic irony, as an identifiable contrast between the knowledge possessed by characters in a play and the audience observing it, is a fairly constant factor in most morality dramas. This is because the morality plays emphasised religious truths that were already expressed in scripture, contemporary sermons, and the Christian liturgy, and consequently the audience would have had strong preconceptions of what the characters on stage should and should not know. Furthermore, the allegorised names of the characters, such as ‘Wisdom,’ ‘Mischief,’ and ‘Mercy’ allow the audience an insight into the moral and symbolic structures of the play, to which the ‘everyman’ figure is, at least initially, oblivious. An integral part of the ‘celebration’ that Potter describes is the juxtaposition of the Christian soteriological message and ‘the world, the flesh and the devil,’ which leads to the dialectical and polemical exposition of that very message. The argumentative and ironic aspects of morality plays are not disparate in configuration, but rather combine to emphasise the dynamic involvement of the audience in the play, principally as the active recipients of prescriptive moral teaching.Although generally there are literary and doctrinal models into which dramatic argument and irony can be fitted, the application of these techniques will vary in specific cases, in intention as well as in effect. According to Robert Potter, the spiritual confusion of the human predicament, “both in a theatrical and a theological sense, creates the morality play’s plot and distinctive structure.” The convention that the everyman figure should descend into sin and then rise to gracious redemption may appear to bind the plays’ devices and topoi to the corruptibility of mankind. However, the individual man’s innocence is usually depicted in contrast to a negative notion of worldliness, such as in the insincere character of Fellowship in Everyman, and the vice-peddling World in The Castle of Perseverance. A close analysis of key passages will be necessary to observe the similarities, subtleties, and distinguishing characteristics of the dramas and to construct a wider understanding of dramatic irony and argument within the literary mode.By far the most famous and genre-defining English medieval morality play is Everyman–a piece so simple in its structural composition and so candid in its message that it almost takes on the character of a fable. Fables are often associated with the symbolic education of moral principles in small children because they present examples of specific points and invite a basic level of analysis. Everyman’s sequential meetings with and betrayals by various allegorical characters on his pilgrimage to God imply, in a very accessible format, that the spiritual life is necessary to obtain ‘that peace which the world cannot bring.’ His meeting with Goods reveals the moral degradation that is incurred through ignorance of the divine and of virtuous behaviour, notably when Everyman says:”…all my life I have had joy and pleasure in thee:Therefore I pray thee go with me,For, peradventure, thou mayst before God AlmightyMy reckoning help to clean and purify.For it is ever said amongThat money maketh all right that is wrong.Goods:Nay, Everyman, I sing another song:I follow no man in such voyages.” Although the extract incorporates some argument about the nature of wealth, it primarily demonstrates the irony of Everyman’s misplaced belief in worldly goods and the permeation of this misapprehension into his spoken communication. Everyman’s exclamation that “money maketh all right that is wrong” is uttered epigrammatically, which heightens the dramatic impact of Goods’ flat contradiction. The contrast between Everyman’s and Goods’ views of the situation is further emphasised by the juxtaposition of “ever” and “Nay,” and Everyman and “no man,” which stresses Everyman’s ignorance and the audience’s comparatively enlightened state. No man can also imply an abandonment of men in general, implying perhaps that man is not defined by physical things but by ‘every gift that cometh out of the mouth of the Lord.’ However, the irony comes from the immediate recognition that the notion espoused by Everyman is, within the context of Christian morality, wholly risible. Ignorance of Christian value is lightly satirised and sternly admonished, but with the implicit caveat that everyman and any man is capable of it. Everyman’s belief that Goods will help to “clean and purify” his reckoning before Almighty God is especially poor Christian logic, especially as it diametrically opposes Jesus’ contention that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”–a text which fifteenth-century audiences would have been very familiar with. Unsurprisingly, the passage seems to be written with a didactic intention; the audience is reassured in their recognition of a non-Christian value system and is made aware of their superior moral awareness. The scene in Wisdom in which Lucifer is disguised as a knight serves as an excellent parallel because the audience is party to the deception and sees the irony of the line “[t]he Dewyll hath acumberyde yow expres” and experiences at first hand the ease with which virtue can be devalued. Everyman’s meeting with Goods is loaded with further confusions, all of which seem expressive of Everyman’s moral quandary and which contribute to and reinforce the dramatic irony. The use of the phrase “all right,” with its phonic similarity to ‘alright,’ could be understood to create an unusual tension at this point because of the cognitive difference between everything being morally righteous and things being unexceptional or adequate. However, word division was not standardised at this point. This is amplified by the juxtaposition of “wrong” and “purify,” implying that money can either be seen as the means by which things are made good or the means by which things are forgotten to be wrong. Similarly, the name ‘Goods’ (as opposed to something like Bunyan’s Mr. Money-Love or Mr. Worldly-Wiseman) generates a further level of ambiguity because it can either refer to constituents of the ‘good-life,’ abstracted moral values, or material commodities. Good is momentarily redefined as something over than Godliness, which in the Christian moral framework is absurd. If the authorial intentions behind the play are didactic then it is unsurprising that dramatic irony should be such a prominent device. By empowering the audience and making disagreement with (or ignorance of) the play’s theological position a subject for ridicule the audience is drawn to support the sentiments espoused–especially if the viewers of the drama are already sympathetic to its cause. The fact that Everyman is unable to surmount this confusion by distinguishing between goodness, which ‘maketh all right that is wrong,’ and goods, which are a road to damnation, achieves marked dramatic irony because the comparative ignorance of the protagonist audience. However, the audience’s amusement depends on their ability to distinguish between ‘goods’ and ‘goodness’ in the first place. Consequently their knowledge of Christian ethics is reinforced and, in a sense, rewarded.Structurally, Everyman is very simple because characters generally enter the play, talk to Everyman, and then leave while he progresses on his journey towards God. Contrastingly, The Castle of Perseverance has a large rambling plot, with many characters and a complicated system of symbolism. It seems that the larger plot, the distinct scenes and the greater number of actors on stage all help to reinforce the chaotic aspects of dramatic argument. The simpler Everyman, however, lends itself well to dramatic irony because the relationship between the protagonist and the audience is always perfectly clear. Also, Everyman never confuses the audience, meaning that their understanding consistently exceeds that of the characters on stage. Dramaturgically. Castle of Perseverance was probably more complicated as well. The original plan for the staging of the play is still extant and seems to depict a circular construction with various scaffolds around a centrally placed audience. Writing in The Tournament Tradition and Staging The Castle of Perseverance, Steven I. Pederson describes the problem that “[w]hile many have been enticed by the plan and the play and have sought definitive answers to the puzzle they present, for every issue of agreement, there are numerous points of disagreement.” The contrasting positions in any argument and their sway over the protagonist would be constantly reflected in the staging as characters moved around the scaffolds, but the complexity could inhibit the audience’s feeling of superior information, which is crucial for dramatic irony. Alternatively, the pageant-like surroundings of the circular stage could give the audience a feeling of being inside the drama and could bring about a stronger ‘esprit de cor’ than in a more modern theater. It should also be recognised that Everyman could have been performed in a similar dramatic space, although the stage directions do not indicate that this was so. The Castle of Perseverance uses formal argument extensively and the physical contest between the virtues and vices at the castle itself is clearly emblematic of the abstract correlation between opposing human character traits. This violence emphasises the polemic contest between the virtues and vices in a very direct fashion, whereas in Everyman the irony seems to operate more intuitively and with greater linguistic subtlety. Action briefly replaces argument because although physical drama can indicate the existence of an altercation true argument is about logical and semantic relations between words and propositions. There are grounds for humour in both cases, however, because although the vices are comprehensively defeated at the castle siege, Mankind then capriciously chooses “to don what he wyl do” and leave the castle. This is demonstrative of the fallenness of Mankind and the inherent evils of freewill, while, elsewhere in the morality drama tradition, man is contrasted with worldly transgressions and evil requires very cunning trickery to deceive his essentially good instincts. In Mankind, for example, the vices are chased away by Mankind with his spade and it is only after Tittivillus intervenes by burying a plank in ‘Mankind’s’ field that any corruption can take place. This scene uses an overtly comic brand of dramatic irony because when ‘Mankind’ exclaims “[t]hys londe ys si harde yt makyth wnlusty and yrke. I xall sow my corn at winter and lett God werke,” the audience knows that the unsuccessful agriculture (and theology) is attributable to some very elementary deceptions. Furthermore, the success of Titivillus’s scheme to cultivate Mankind’s weak spirit is dependent on and demonstrative of Mankind’s predictability, which is carried through spectacularly by Mankind’s absurd suggestion that he will wait for God to do the work. The argument and the dramatic irony correspond to the same theological superstructure and are similarly predictable as a result. However, some sections function didactically, discreetly and almost intuitively, like the passage from Everyman quoted above; whereas other extracts, such as the siege scene from The Castle of Perseverance, are more heuristically directed at eliciting an intellectual response from the crowd. After an assault by Wrath, Patience replies:”fro thi dowte, Crist me shelethis Iche day, & al mankynde!Thou wrecchyd wrechë, wood & wylde,Pacyens schal thee schende!….For Marys sonë, meke & mylde,Rent thee up, rote & rynde,whanne he stod meker thane a chylde,& lete boyes hym betyn & bynde” This argument refutes the vices’ pseudo-logical rhetoric from earlier in the play and forms part of a series of polemic exchanges between the sins and the virtues, in which all the positive arguments rest on an exemplary interpretation of the crucifixion. The strong rhyme in this section is reinforced by the assonance of ‘y’ sounds and the very heavily accented alliteration of “wrecchyd wrechë, wood & wydke” which leads to a serious, emphatic reading. The pathetic tautology of “wrecchyd wrechë” also contributes to the verbal drama because limited vocabulary can indicate strong emotion. Although this intense emotion could have comic affect, such humour would be incompatible with the visceral references to the Passion. In this sense the argumentative sections of the morality plays can be partly differentiated from the ironic ones through the use of humor. Because Patience makes this speech in the defence of mankind, it has clear instructive value for the audience, but the link being made between Christ’s Passion and an conceptual personification of wrath is not blatant or univocal. Although there is a basic interpretation in which Christ’s passivity in death is contrasted with abstract wrathfulness, there is also the implication that the violence of the crucifixion committed against God by “boyes” renders all subsequent acts of violence unnecessary. The individual moments of violence and the pacifism enshrined in the crucifixion can be understood to have a decidedly metaphysical and almost spiritual relationship, a fact partly evident in the unqualified “for” in the extract. This underpins the belief that many of the distinctively argumentative sections of morality plays are, in fact, less didactic and more heuristic than the identifiably ironic passages. It may even be possibly to argue that the use of the pseudonym “Marys sonë,” as opposed to a more direct title and besides evoking pity, has a thought-provoking function because it requires awareness of a small amount of background knowledge and the recognition of a relationship to be fully understood. The dramatic use of argument not only tells the audience what to think, but demonstrates the sort of proof that is required and the logic of both sides, whereas the ironic and humourous devices in Everyman can be easily read as direct ethical prescriptions. The arguments proposed by the virtues against sin in The Castle of Perseverance function individually, but also combine to create a broad theory of salvation and atonement in the Passion narrative. The argumentative theme is continued in The Castle of Perseverance when, near the end, the daughters of God debate whether Mankind should be saved and await a divine judgement. Truth asks:”whov schuld Mankynde be savude,Syn he dyed in dedly synne,& all thi comaundementis he depravyde,& of fals covetyse he wolde neuere blyne?” But is contradicted by Mercy who later replies,”lat Mankynde cum to thi blys,as thou art Kynge of Heuene!For werdly veyn-gloryHe hath ben ful sory,Punchyd in purgatory.For all the synnys seuene” There is a degree of irony here because the bickering continues after the exit of the sins, perhaps satirising the arguments of learned and religious men. It is almost certain, however, that this debate attempts to show the dependence of everything on God, echoing Robert Potter’s reading of the plays as a celebration of Christian truth. When Mercy is attacking Truth (rather mercilessly) she exclaims, “as thou art Kynge of Heuene!” which draws an analogy between the veracity of God’s existence and the veracity of his grace. Christian theology has traditionally accepted that God is indivisible from his grace, but the rhetoric use of such a comparison, and especially with an exclamation mark, is enormously thought-provoking, because although God is gracious, hell none-the-less exists as the abode of the damned. Furthermore, the speech patterns of the daughters of God seem very colloquial which makes the debate accessible and fierce, but also reinforces a light heated reading–there are no references to grisly technicalities as there are earlier. Truth asks a question and then follows it with “Syn he dyed in dedly synne,” which indicates that the question is a rhetorical one rather than an admission of ignorance. The context that Truth provides to frame the question in fact consists of possible answers to it, all of which argue for damnation. The two lines beginning with ‘&’ also give a sense of vitriolic temper, and reiteration, which is emphasised by a strong, definite rhyme and some short lines, when Truth says:”We schal fulfyllethin hestis, as resun & skylle,Fro зone gost grille,Mankynde to brynge thee tylle” The argument at the end of The Castle of Perseverance is difficult to read because on one level it seems like a wry parody of academic dispute or an extrapolation of scholastic intellectual pedantry. At the same time, the metre, accentuation and speech patterns are all reminiscent of children squabbling in a playground. The second level of symbolism considers the theological content of the debate. The salvation of man and the definition of God are discussed and some quite erudite ideas transferred to the audience. It must be remembered that the grace of God is meant to be inexplicable so although the play is certain that God is characterised by love for humanity, the debate need not itself conclusive. The ideas voiced may stimulate reflection in the listener and encourage scholarly interpretation of religious texts. However, the fact that the characters involved in the mild farce are abstract personifications of personal virtues leads to a very strange dramatic irony in which the audience seem aware of who the characters are meant to be when they themselves are not. When it is also considered that the outcome of the argument is never in question, the whole thing becomes fantastically perplexing. When God finally passes judgement when he proclaims:”My mercy, Mankynde, зeue I theeCum, syt at my ryth honde!Ful wel haue I louyed thee,Unkynde thow I thee fonde.” This is the expected response of a God who is defined by mercy and love, a fact never occluded by the preceding debate. The lines have to be delivered (or read) independently because of the metre and the rhyme, which gives the judgement a structural as well as contextual sense of gravity. It is a perplexing judgement, however, because Truth was in the wrong and even goes to join the Bad angel, as we see in the stage direction, “tunc ascendent ad Malum Angelum omnes paritores; & dicat.” This can be understood to make a lucid distinction between human epistemic standards and those of God, but it also seems indicative of the profound difference between modern philosophical and medieval theological understandings of epistemology.In surveying the extant English morality plays the application of simple allegorical for the attainment of a didactic, conceptually reiterative objective is the salient feature. Dramatic irony and argument both contribute to this through the stimulation of reflection in the audience and the emphatic celebration of Christian values. Dramatic irony is frequently humourous, as misinterpretation of the Christian message is gradually made tantamount to stupidity or pedantic bigotry. Dramatic irony tends to work subconsciously because the collective tendency to derive an analysed amusement from a dramatic spectacle is so strong whereas the argumentative scenes in the morality plays are often subtly balanced. The conclusion of the arguments is rarely unpredictable, but the various means by which a conclusion can be validly drawn in the Christian epistemic system is a major doctrinal point. Dramatic irony and argument are also often coexistent in the same phrase so although they may have discretely identifiable implications they are be textually almost indivisible. The morality plays may appear simply in their persistent use of allegorised characters and their conventional soteriological plot but within these perimeters the layering of meanings and devices, and the tension between linguistic ambiguities and theological absolutes is extraordinary.3206 words

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