Towneley Plays Criticism - Essay

Alfred W. Pollard (essay date 1897)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The Towneley Plays, edited by George England, 1897. Reprint by Oxford University Press, 1925, pp. ix-xxxi.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to George England's highly respected edition of The Towneley Plays, Pollard discusses the relative merits of several of the plays and singles out The Second Shepherd's Play as "perfect as a work of art."]

Long before the publication of the York Plays, the composite character of the Towneley was recognized by its first editor, though the reasons he assigned were less happy than his surmise itself [In a footnote, the critic adds: "He says that there are no Yorkshireisms in the...

(The entire section is 3184 words.)

Homer A. Watt (essay date 1940)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Dramatic Unity of the Secunda Pastorum" in Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, New York University Press, 1940, pp. 158-66.

[In this influential early study of the literary value of The Second Shepherd's Play, Watt examines such aspects of the piece as structure, symbolism, parallelism, and use of music.]

Considered as effective drama many of the English miracle plays are, it must be admitted, pretty sorry stuff. Indeed, they could hardly be otherwise. The essential story was dictated by biblical material that did not always offer a dramatic conflict. In transferring this material from Bible to play the anonymous authors were...

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A. C. Cawley (essay date 1958)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, edited by A. C. Cawley, Manchester University Press, 1958, pp. xi-xxxiii.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to his much-admired translation, Cawley offers a general assessment of the style of the plays, focusing especially on the Wakefield playwright's adept and masterful use of language.]


Although the raw materials of the Wakefield pageants are as variegated as life itself, it is clear that the Christian tradition is the dominant influence on these pageants.

The Towneley cycle, like every other Corpus...

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Martial Rose (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The Wakefield Mystery Plays, edited by Martial Rose, 1961. Reprint by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 19-55.

[Below, Rose discusses the staging of the Wakefield plays, elaborating on his theory of the use of a circular set and the combined staging of several of the plays.]


The reference concerning the suppression of the Wakefield Plays in the records of the Diocesan Court of High Commission at York is one of the very few pieces of external evidence that Wakefield possessed a cycle of mystery plays. The document tells us that the plays were planned for 'Whitsonweke…or...

(The entire section is 6068 words.)

E. Catherine Dunn (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Literary Style of the Towneley Plays," in The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, December, 1969, pp. 481-504.

[Dunn examines the narrative voice in the various parts of the Towneley cycle, characterizing it as prophetic and lyrical. She also comments on the function of language and its role in the development of the plays.]


The nature of the meaning in the Towneley cycle, like that of other Corpus Christi plays, is historical in the sense that the Sacred Scriptures are historical, and by the same token, prophetic of a realization yet to be achieved by the dynamic historical process. The genre...

(The entire section is 8077 words.)

Walter E. Meyers (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to A Figure Given: Typology in the Wakefield Plays, Duquesne University Press, 1969, pp. 7-20.

[In the following excerpt, Meyers describes his approach toward studying the Wakefield plays and his particular focus on typology in order to demonstrate the plays' unity and sophistication as literary works.]

The traditional view of the Middle English cycle plays has been unenthusiastic: it has claimed that the cycles cannot be judged as works of dramatic art since each cycle as a whole lacks an overall unifying structure, and that the individual plays are formless and hopelessly mixed in style. This is the traditional view, and probably the most...

(The entire section is 5174 words.)

Rosemary Woolf (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Navity Plays, II," in The English Mystery Plays, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 182-211.

[In the brief excerpt below, Woolf analyses the First and Second Shepherd's Play in the light of their portrayal of shepherds and their role in other English mystery plays.]

The dramatists in their treatment of the Nativity and of the events preceding it had a wealth of apocryphal or meditative amplifications to draw upon. The story of the shepherds, however, had gained no accretions of this kind. The basis therefore remained Luke ii, 8, 'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night'....

(The entire section is 4959 words.)

John Gardner (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: A prologue to The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 1-12.

[In the following prologue to his study of the structure and unity of the Wakefield plays, Gardner argues that, although the dramas may have been written by different hands, "at a late stage of cycle evolution, one poet took the whole hodgepodge in hand and, by ingenious revision and some rewriting, shaped the collection into an artistic unity."]

If we concentrate principally on the more obvious features of the techniques found in the Wakefield pageants—the characteristic stanza, the randy language, the social criticism—we find the pageants unusual....

(The entire section is 4557 words.)

Josie P. Campbell (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Idea of Order in the Wakefield Noah," in The Chaucer Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, Summer, 1975, pp. 76-86.

[Here, Campbell suggests that the theme of Noah is love and that the dramatic struggle in the play stems from the mistaken notion about mastery in marriage held by Noah and his wife.]

On the surface, the Wakefield Noah seems to be simply a working out of its biblical counterpart. Noah's opening prayer states that the world suffers from a malaise. The prayer is a recapitulation of the history of mankind, beginning with the creation, moving to his lifetime, and looking toward doomsday; and Noah's story is that of a second creation...

(The entire section is 3357 words.)

Clifford Davidson (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Jest and Earnest: Comedy in the Work of the Wakefield Master," in Annuale Mediaevale, Vol. 22, 1982, pp. 65-83.

[In the essay below, Davidson discusses the use of visual comedy in the Wakefield plays, focusing on the Second Shepherd's Play, Coliphizacio, Magnus Herodes, and Judicium. He stresses that the combination of humor and high didactic seriousness in the rhetorical style of the plays "provides a surprisingly strong presentation."]

The contribution of the Wakefield Master to the Towneley Manuscript has been carefully studied, and on the whole his work has received the highest praise from those who focus on theatrical skill rather than moral...

(The entire section is 6379 words.)

Martin Stevens (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Wakefield Cycle: The Playwright as Poet," in Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 88-180.

[Stevens argues that a single individual, the Wakefield Master, was the compiler of the Wakefield cycle, marshalling historical, metrical, and "circumstantial" evidence to support his claim.]

…[The] York cycle developed over the years as a corporate enterprise. As civic pageantry it apparently started in improvisational performance, gradually became recorded in a series of texts by the performing guilds, and eventually was compiled by the city fathers into a register, or a...

(The entire section is 14557 words.)

Peter Meredith (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Towneley Cycle," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 134-62.

[In the following excerpt, Meredith discusses the general background of the Towneley plays, the style of the Wakefield Master, and the plays as part of a dramatic cycle.]

Almost certainly the most anthologised of all medieval English dramatic pieces is the so-called Second Shepherds' Play, containing the double story of Mak the sheep-stealer and the visit of the shepherds to Bethlehem. Through this public exposure, not only the play but the 'name' of the author also has become familiar—'The Wakefield...

(The entire section is 8078 words.)