What is a Morality Play?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A morality play is a type of theater performance that uses allegorical characters to teach the audience a moral lesson. This type of play originated in medieval Europe, first appearing in the 1400s, and typically was of a Christian nature. It could be considered an intermediate step between the Biblical mystery plays of the medieval period and the secular theater of the later Renaissance, such as the plays of William Shakespeare. The morality play has remained a cultural influence to some degree, although it has waned in popularity. The basic premise of the morality play, in which the main character — who represents all people and to whom audiences can relate — makes a journey and is influenced by characters along the way, is still common in many works of theater and film.

Morality plays often focus on the seven deadly sins.
Morality plays often focus on the seven deadly sins.

Teaching Morals

This type of performance is called a morality play because it is meant to teach the audience moral principles. Among the most common themes is that one should avoid what are known as the seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, wrath, sloth and gluttony. Another is that even when a person gives in to temptation, repentance and redemption are possible. Plays that emphasize the difference between good and evil also might be called morality plays.

Macbeth, a play written by William Shakespeare, is an example of a morality play.
Macbeth, a play written by William Shakespeare, is an example of a morality play.

Naming of Characters

One of the most significant characteristics of a morality play is the way that characters are named. Instead of normal names, they are called by the quality they represent. In Everyman, one of the most famous morality plays, some of the characters include Fellowship, Knowledge, Good-Deeds and Kindred. Eventually, all of these characters abandon the play's hero, Everyman, during his journey with Death, and only Good-Deeds stays with him. The moral of this play is therefore that only good deeds can help one get into Heaven, and that no other Earthly things are truly lasting.

Morality plays are still common in many works of theater.
Morality plays are still common in many works of theater.

Historical Progression

The concept of the morality play allowed writers more creativity than was possible with its predecessor, the mystery play, which was very closely based on Biblical and traditional stories. This trend continued into later centuries with morality plays that sought to teach secular lessons, such as which form of government is best. Throughout the Renaissance, plays continued to be less instructive and allegorical and more representative of real life.

Morality plays may look at the ambiguities surrounding certain crimes.
Morality plays may look at the ambiguities surrounding certain crimes.

Other Works of Art

The influence of morality plays can be seen in works of art other than theater performances. For example, John Bunyan's 1678 novel, The Pilgrim's Progress relies heavily on the typical themes of the morality play. The main character, Christian, encounters characters such as Faithful, Goodwill and Ignorance on his journey to the Celestial City of Zion.

Modern Examples

Although true morality plays are no longer popular, except as examples of medieval theater, this genre continues to influence works of art such as movies, television shows and books. C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia book series and the movies based on the books are some examples. One difference in most modern works that might be considered similar to morality plays is that the characters are rarely given the express names of the qualities they represent, although they might be given similar names or names derived from certain qualities. It also is common for real-world events to be equated to morality plays by commentators and writers. As examples, the worldwide economic problems of the early 21st century and the success or failure of various political policies have been compared with morality plays by people who think that certain lessons can be learned from them.

A morality play uses allegorical characters to teach the audience a moral lesson.
A morality play uses allegorical characters to teach the audience a moral lesson.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

anon255816

Renaissance is believed to have started in the early 15th century and "Everyman" was written around 1495. There is a flemish play written in 1495 by the name of "Ecklujic"(not sure of the spelling) of which "Everyman" may be a translation or vice-versa.

anon161228

When was the first documented case of a morality play? Out of interest (and for a project), what time did they start?

anon84117

"Everyman" was written before the renaissance. The answer is in the question.

anon40258

In response to Laluna: The 1400s are not considered as a 'Renaissance' period in Europe. The 'Renaissance' is generally considered to have taken place in the seventeenth-century and is marked by Humanist ideals. Medieval drama, and in particular the morality, is markedly different in that the characters are simpler subjected to less character development. Medieval drama can indeed, as the article suggests, be considered as a step to later Tudor and Renaissance drama. Furthermore, the Renaissance did begin earlier in Italy but it reached England later - 'Everyman' is an English/ Dutch text.

anon22408

In England the medieval period is usually counted as about 500 to about 1500. Morality plays *are* part of the medieval canon. "The Renaissance" (itself a term that is much disputed) takes place at different times in different locations, occurring earlier in Italy than in England for example.

laluna

I believe that "Everyman" was written at the end of 1400's which was already a Renaissance period in Europe, even though there are no exact dates one can quote when Renaissance started and when it ended. Renaissance did start in Italy first around 1400, and then spread through the rest of the Europe later.

anon19483

I know "Everyman" as a medieval literature. Though anonymous, I believe it was written before the Renaissance.

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