How many times have you watched a TV show or film and thought the narrative seemed vaguely familiar? From the classic ‘boy meets girl’ rom-com story arc, to the theory that The Lion King is just a rip-off of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I think it’s fair to say that stories often repeat themselves.
I recently completed a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) Project; these provide undergraduate students an opportunity to research an area of special interest. I chose to look at morality plays and what they tell us about the impact of the Black Death on Medieval life and culture.
I found that the approaches taken by these medieval playwrights were not too dissimilar from the techniques used by modern screenwriters. By exploring two literary techniques: tragicomedy and the ‘Shoulder Angel’ I compared these medieval morality plays to modern day film and television to further understand how they differ in consequence to the cultural climate of the period.
Although these plays are an established part of academic study, the narratives of a late-15th-century morality play is not generally well-known. This popular type of play followed the story of ‘mankind’, a single character who represented a typical individual living in medieval society, following his birth, life and final salvation on his day of judgement. Most of the plays I studied originated from East Anglia, but there were other plays from cities such as Chester and York that also dealt with similar themes of religion and death.
The plays were intentionally metaphorical, with their purpose being to give reassurance to those living in the aftermath of the Black Death, as its cultural impact lasted for centuries after its slow decline in the 1350s. Death was witnessed by each individual, as they lost many family members and friends. Thus, these plays aimed to educate their audience, showing that people would reach heaven if they lead a Christian life.
Comedy and Death: A match made in heaven?
‘Mankind’ (suspected to have been written 1465-1470), was considered one of the most popular morality plays of the medieval period. This was thought to be due to its focus on entertainment and comedy taking centre stage over an educational directive.
Similarly, ‘Bruce Almighty’ (2003) – a film about a man who believes he can do a better job than God and in response is gifted omnipotent power by God himself – is an example of a film that pushes a moral message, whilst being comedic.
The morality play argues that a repentance of sins would lead to a control over life, as they could control their afterlife. During a time were life and death were extremely unpredictable Christianity would have offered a reassurance to a medieval audience, showing that they were in control of their future, even if they couldn’t be in control of their death.
Where ‘Mankind’ teaches an audience to repent of their sins and live a moral life, ‘Bruce Almighty’ teaches an audience they should take control of their own lives, and not expect others (such as God) to fix their problems. During a time where life and death were extremely unpredictable, Christianity provided a comforting solution by suggesting that through repenting of their sins they could control their life even in death by ensuring their path to heaven.
Specifically, in its use of comedy, ‘Mankind’ makes a mockery of the main character during his fall into sin. This juxtaposition of comedy and darker themes is seen in another Jim Carrey film, ‘The Truman Show’ (1998). If you took the comedy (or Jim Carrey) out of the film, it would just be harrowing. An hour and forty-three minutes of watching a man have his entire reality taken away from him, to find out it was just a moneymaking scheme.
The use of comedy in both modern films and morality play helps to keep an audience engaged, as death for medieval people was a heavy theme; by using comedy the playwrights could more successfully communicate their moral message.
The Perseverance of the ‘Shoulder Angel’.
The plot device of the ‘shoulder angel’ is most commonly seen today where a protagonist has a good character and an evil character both attempting to persuade the protagonist down a certain path.
This technique was also used in another morality play, ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ (1440), with its use of 15 good and bad characters. More recently, this technique has been seen in the Amazon original, ‘Good Omens’ (2019), with the two protagonists being an angel and a devil.
Although there are some clear differences in the narratives, both stories follow the concept that both good and evil are present in the world. Therefore, it is our own choices that will lead us down a good or evil path. During the 15th century, this may have provided reassurance, as the plays appear to be demonstrating to the audiences that they are in control of their lives, despite the mysterious and unstoppable figure of death being ever-present in their lives, caused by the Black Death.
The idea of being guided by angels is another technique seen in some of the most recognisable films, often ones that are cemented into our Christmas Traditions, like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946). In many ways, it appears like a modern-day morality play, as it teaches the audience to be aware of the impact they have on the world as well as the people within it.
Firstly, both the play and film follow one man’s entire life. Secondly, the character of an angel who shows the protagonist how his good deeds have affected the world, allowing him to see the importance of his own life.
The most important part of morality plays was a happy ending. This also demonstrates the legacy of the Black Death, as even when a character reached death it is shown as a rite-of-passage where they were ultimately forgiven for their sins.
Similarly, the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ shows the protagonist gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of life, ending on the note that they will live their life differently – is that not the same as what the authors of the morality play want their audience to do after the curtain closes?
In summary, I think it’s important to note how all storytelling has a message. The message of morality plays to live a Christian life may not be entirely relevant to the majority of people today, but the general sentiment of living your life with an awareness of mortality suggesting that we should live with purpose and accountability of our actions is a concept audiences can still relate to.
Thus, the reoccurrence of these similar tropes suggests that the stories we choose to tell today may not be so dissimilar from those written 500 years ago. Despite huge differences in values and material conditions, the similarities deserve serious study too.
Natalya Edwards is a History undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Project which provides undergraduate students an opportunity to research an area of special interest, in order to provide insight and experience for postgraduate research. In her project she chose to look at morality plays and what they can tell us about the impact of the Black Death on medieval life and culture.