Discussion of John Bale’s drama requires some background on the theatrical conventions of the times. At festivals, common folk enjoyed song, dance, games, and ritual skits satirizing the nobility and the clergy. Some plays were enacted, drawing from English folklore. Also in medieval England there had developed a tradition of religious instruction through drama. Certain towns presented annual cycles of plays, productions lasting three days and made up of individual plays dramatizing selected Bible stories. Such series were designed to present a Christian worldview from the creation of Adam through the life of Christ and on to the Last Judgment. The religious purpose, however, did not preclude use of humorous, even bawdy, stage business and dialogue. Depictions of saints’ lives and of moral fables were also common.
Medieval religious drama, which provided a rich heritage for English Renaissance drama, included three major categories: the mystery play, the miracle play, and the morality play. The mystery play drew on liturgy and on episodes of the life of Christ, dramatizing the “mysteries” of divine intervention in the temporal world. The miracle play presented events from lives of saints or martyrs for the purpose of asserting the virtue of faith in divine power and intervention. The morality play personified abstractions such as hope and charity in conflict with vices such as pride or greed in simple stories designed to teach moral, ethical, or...
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