How is Mankind typical or atypical of medieval morality plays?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The medieval morality play known as Mankind was often criticized, early in the twentieth century, for being unusually crude and unsophisticated. In the words of Martin S. Day in his History of English Literature,

The emphasis on buffoonery and indecency, the slovenly stanzas, and the mere sop to morality show a pandering to a vulgar audience.

This view of the play was common before the 1970s. The work was considered an unusually bad and unusually immoral morality play. Today, however, the work is considered to an unusually energetic and linguistically clever morality play, and, in the words of the editors of the Broadview Anthology of English Literature, it is

unique among extant morality plays in its incorporation of a direct fund-raising appeal by the players . . . .

Recent treatments of the play have been much more appreciative than earlier ones, particularly in praising its treatment of such themes as sloth and patience and in highlighting the work’s  rhetorical sophistication (see the Arden edition of the play, which stresses the attention that recent critics have paid to the play’s language).

The play is a typical morality play in its emphasis on teaching Christian lessons, in its explicit focus on communicating those lessons directly to the audience, in its use of allegory, and in its concern with the spiritual fate of the protagonist. Like other morality plays, it does not emphasize Biblical characters (who tended to be the subjects of “mystery plays”).  Also like other morality plays, Mankind tends to focus on the conflict between various examples of the seven deadly sins and seven deadly vices (see the Broadview Anthology of English Literature).

 

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