Remarkable Essays in English Medieval and Reniassance Literature

The following essays have been written for the B.A. courses English Literature: Medieval to Renaissance and English Literature: Renaissance to Baroque


SUMMER 2014/2015


Katerina Stankovska F.N. 25826, Gr. 2

Passion and Revenge in John Webster’s The White Devil

John Webster’s play, probably published around the year 1612, belongs to the dramatic genre of the revenge tragedy just like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As such it exploits the conventions of the genre – a secret murder, revenge for the committed murder, vengeful ghosts, scenes of real or feigned madness. The central character of the revenge tragedy is the character type of the malcontent. He is a man divided within himself – on the one hand he is exposing the ills and vices of society, but on the other he is part of the viciousness of the world he rails against. (Gunby 1995:25-26).In The White Devil such a character is Flamineo, who I believe is a possible candidate for the title of the ‘white devil’, but who is also very likely to attract the audience’s sympathy, especially in the scene of his death. Other themes which are concentrated in the figure of the main character have to do with the administration of justice, the right of the protagonist ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’(Shakespeare 2003: 158) and to avenge the murder himself, which allude to his oscillating self. Those conventions of the revenge tragedy are related to two of the main themes in Webster’s play – passion and revenge.

By basing the tragedy on the real story of Vittoria Accoramboni and her lover Paulo Girodano Orsini(sorry, couldn’t help it), Duke of Bracciano, John Webster creates a tale of extreme passion, which ultimately destroys many lives. Urged by his intense sexual desire, Brachiano plots the deaths of his wife, Isabella, and Vittoria’s husband, Camillo, thus becoming the generator of the uncontrollable rage of Francisco and Lodovico, who decide to avenge Isabella’s murder. If this is the main crime to be avenged, it surely is not the only offence that stirs the avenging passions of the characters – in Act I,1 Lodovico is determined to ‘make Italian cut-works in their guts/If I ever return’(Webster 1995:41) – to avenge his banishment; in Act II,1 Isabella, who is self-abnegatingly proposing that she cover for her husband’s unwillingness to live with her, only to prevent him and her brother from fighting against each other, this meek, turn-the-other-cheek woman is ‘turn’d fury’ : ‘I would whip some with scorpions’, ‘To dig the strumpet’s eyes out, let her lie/ Some twenty months a-dying, to cut off/ Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth,/ Preserve her flesh like mummia, for trophies/ Of my just anger.’ (Webster 1995:66). Even the cardinal Monticelso seems quite keen, in the trial’s scene of Act III, 2, to administer justice on Vittoria for her immoral behaviour himself. Rowland Wymer writes ‘Webster is presenting us with a world in which conventional distinctions between good and evil, white and black are constantly invoked yet constantly undermined, a world in which characters are unstable and perpetually on the edge of violence, a world whose psychological and moral chaos is made fully apprehensible through devices of repetition, parallel and echo…’ (Wymer 1995: 36). This unclear division between good and bad is what I really appreciate about this play, because it presents the reader with a world in which everybody has their demons waiting to be awakened. It also shows how difficult it is to constrain oneself and not lose control over one’s own person. And yet, Isabella’s rage seems so human, and she has to express it in some way otherwise it will definitely destroy her. What Webster seems to suggest in his play is that unrestrained passions are destructive not only for the person towards whom they are aimed but also for the person in whom they originate.

Francisco, who is the principal orchestrator of the revenge plot, once found out that his sister is dead shows resolution neither Hieronimo, nor Hamlet display. There is no poignant questioning ‘To be or not to be’(Shakespeare 2003: 158), no redundant rhetoric. Immediately he comes up with a plan at the beginning of the fourth act and he goes on to execute it. He hires his accomplices, Lodovico and Gasparo, disguises himself as a Moor and proceeds straight to Brachiano’s place where they poison his helmet and finally Lodovico strangles the Duke. Thus Lodovico achieves Francisco’s revenge (not that Lodovico did not have a reason – he was in love with Isabella) for him – Francisco never took arms against his enemy, which I do not find the noble thing to do – paying to somebody to finish off your enemy for you instead of fighting yourself. Yet that does not mean that he is going to escape retribution: in Act V we find the young prince Giovanni, Brachiano and Isabella’s son, who before delivering the Fortinbras-like ‘Remove the bodies’ states ‘Away with them to prison, and to torture;/ All that have hands in this, shall taste our justice,/ As I hope heaven.’. He is supposed to restore order, just like Fortinbras is expected to do, but these statements of his, revealing some potential dark side of his personality, problematize the envisaged recuperation of the world, hinting that nothing has actually changed and that the world will continue in the same ways.

There is an interesting parallel between Cardinal Monticelso before he is elected Pope and after his election, which reflects his changed attitude towards revenge. On Vittoria’s trial he is too quick to judge her and to impose some punishment on her on the grounds of harlotry, yet when he is elected Pope he starts dissuading Lodovico from taking part in the revenge plan, saying ‘If thou persist in this, ’tis damnable’, reinforcing the Christian stance of turning the other cheek rather than ‘eye for an eye’. Notwithstanding his warning, nobody seems to pay heed to it and in the end the whole team of the avengers is annihilated, which falls in line with the Christian perspective that revenge belongs to God. Everyone gets what he deserves in the end – the revengers are dead or to be put ‘to torture’; the lascivious Duke dies a horrible death; the harlot and her pandar brother, who also committed fratricide and drove his mother mad, die a stoic death, which may extract some positive response towards them from audiences. They all die as victims of their passions, even Isabella and Vittoria’s brother Marcello are collateral damage to the others’ extreme and violent passions.

On the whole, what John Webster is probably trying to suggest in his play is that passions can be dangerous and deadly and succumbing to them turns one into a brute and makes one pay the highest price – one’s life. About revenge, the play seems to say that even though it is a sin, it is also a purely natural reaction in a world full of injustice; even though the road leads straight to hell, for those who have nothing to lose it seems the only road.

Works cited:

Gunby, D.C. Introduction in Three Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet .Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Webster, John. Three plays. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print

Wymer, Rowland. Webster and Ford. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995. Print.



Naiden Margov

Dr. Georgi Niagolov

English Literature: From Renaissance to Baroque

29th of May 2015

The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequence: Conventions and Innovations

The sonnet has its place in western literary history as one of the most popular, acclaimed and enduring poetic genres. Its short and elegant form and its thematic preoccupation with powerful emotions as stimuli for exploring existential questions make it equally appealing to both poet and reader alike, which, in turn, led to the format containing what is widely recognized as some of the best English poetry. In this essay we shall: “expand on the form and thematic content of the sonnet, observe how they contributed to the genre’s proliferation in England (or rather the factors that left England’s cultural climate vulnerable to “invasion”), comment on the ways England assimilated but also appropriated the genre, remark on the distinctions between a sonnet as an individual piece and as part of a sonnet sequence and of course, present the most notable examples of Elizabethan sonnet sequences and the ways in which their authors popularized and perpetuated the genre.

Let us first present the basic characteristics of the sonnet: “A sonnet is a fourteen-line lyrical poem in iambic pentameters, Alexandrines in French, or hendecasyllables in Italian, with a carefully patterned rhyme scheme (Pancheva et al 3). Said rhyming schemes are amongst the most conspicuous formal features of a sonnet’s country of origin. These schemes were the only place where formal variation could occur because as a genre the sonnet was a prescribed form: A prescribed form, or closed form as it is sometimes called, is one whose duration and shape are determined before the poet begins to write (Spiller 2). This constraint is the sonnet’s biggest strength as: The sonnet pre-emptively solves two problems: proportion and extension; and, while this is a challenge, it is also a security, a kind of metrical extension of feudalism, a definite service required and requited (Spiller 2). Here extension refers to the sonnet’s set 14 line length,

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contrary to what was said above attempts at innovation were made but they were short lived and had no lasting appeal: The fourteen line sonnet is the norm, and departures from it are brief and not in any continuing sense satisfactory (Spiller 3). Formally defined genres like the sonnet provide their authors with an enormous advantage as it alleviates them from worrying about arrangement, half of the work is done before even setting pen to paper and the poet is forced to focus on the ideas and imagery in order to express his/her originality and skill. Its economical length, while hamstringing at first glance, is one aspect of said advantage; it ensures that the poet has to be meticulous in the presentation of the idea and the selection of vocabulary. Another aspect is the sonnet’s proportion. In the genre proportioning is done through the already mentioned rhyming schemes. The conspicuous distinction in the quality and arrangement divides the sonnet into discreet structural units – generally: two quatrains of “abba” forming the octave followed by 2 trecets in ring rhyme arrangement cde, dcd (may vary) for the Italian sonnet and three cross rhymed quatrains followed by a couplet for the English (here we witness the end result of the most significant English innovation in the sonnet cannon). Not merely for aesthetic purposes, these divisions reflect the sonnet’s rhetorical structure in the presentation of the idea: The first quatrain of the octave was to lay the main idea before the reader; the second quatrain was to expand the idea of the first quatrain by giving details or illustrations or proofs. So the octave had not only a structural but also a semantic pattern: the eight lines were to express one idea, a thesis … The same applies to the sestette. The first three lines were to give an idea opposite to the one expressed in the octave, a kind of antithesis, and the last three lines to be a synthesis of the ideas expressed in the octave and the first tercet. This synthesis was often expressed in the last two lines of the sonnet and these two lines therefore were called epigrammatic lines (Galperin 260). This description is arguable, though, as the “epigrammatic last lines are something that emerged in the English sonnet as a formal feature but it does provide a good general idea of the discursive function of the sonnet’s larger units.

These characteristics are as much a convenient tool for the critic as they are for the poet as they provide clear cut parameters for assessment and comparison and are what Spiller refers to as “security”, the “proportioned mental space”.


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The sonnet’s rigid formal rules necessitate that each sonnet be an independent piece, therefore what is referred as a sonnet sequence must be unified by a loose narrative, a common theme rather than structure. Thus any changes observed in the genre will hold strong to any sonnets considered part of a sequence.

While formally defined, the sonnet (and especially the English one) is also closely associated with the themes of love, specifically the concept of fin amour and platonic love. Although not universal of the genre, especially during its inception in Italy: But love is not the only occupation of the sonnet … The sonnet was invented about the year AD 1230, in southern Italy and by the end of the thirteenth century about a thousand sonnets had been written, almost all in Italian (that is, in one of the dialects of it), exploring most of the varieties of its form and most of the possibilities of its subject matter (Spiller 1).

However what is relevant to our discussion is the time in which the sonnet made its entry into England and, more importantly, the source: English sonnets have multiple intertwined roots, including the poetry of the troubadours, the idealized visionary love poems in Dante’s Vita nuova, and Neo-Platonic philosophy. The Italian poet Petrarch’s collection [Rime sparce], … is, however, the principal source of the English sonnet tradition (Kinney 192). He [Petrarch] exerted a paramount influence on his own and succeeding centuries as a pioneer of humanism and midwife to the Renaissance … for in this [vernacular poetry] realm that Petrarch reigns supreme (Ford 318). Although Rime sparse encompasses a range of verse forms and subjects, most of its poems are sonnets concerning the speaker’s relationship to Laura (Kinney 192). Did Laura really live in flesh and blood? There is no good reason to deny her existence … but what she became in the realm of the poetic imagination is the prime subject of [Rime sparse] … most of the poems in this collection are inspired by her qualities of mind and body, and nearly all of them reflect his [Petrarch’s] perennial love for her in life and death. Like the vernacular poets of Provence and Italy before him, he idealized his love in the manner of l’amour courtois until Laura assumed the role and character of an intermediary between earth and heaven … a bewitchingly beautiful blonde who remains forever beyond her lover’s embrace (Ford 319-320). What he has created in his [Rime sparse] is the identikit portrait of the Beloved … the Universal Woman, the Eternal Feminine (Ford 325). … woman becomes the embodiment of virtue and intellectual beauty …

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The Petrarchan sonneteers play more or less seriously with the notion, derived from Plato, that physical beauty, which we experience through the senses, is only a limited manifestation of a higher spiritual or divine beauty, which exists in the soul and which we experience in the mind (David 110).

This was the state in which the Italian art of the sonnet from which the genre was imported in England, with an influential poet-titan sparking an entire culture and thus associating the courtly love tradition with the sonnet, a link further strengthened by the sonnet’s arrival in the English literary scene during its peak for the period. It was natural for these cultural elements to proliferate: Petrarch’s achievement of [Rime sparse] … was the glass of fashion and the mould of form for European sonneteers from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century (Spiller 1). [Rime sparse] model several characteristics that the English sonneteers were to imitate: a typically unhappy relationship with a woman who is often idealized but sometimes demonized … , a preoccupation with representation itself, a struggle between commitment to secular love and an attempt to disavow it, whether in the name of its spiritual counterpart or simply common sense and self-preservation (Kinney 192).

An important figure in the introducing of the sonnet England is its pioneer Thomas Wyatt, a member of Henry VIII’s court: … it was most probably through his diplomatic missions to Italy that he came into contact with the poetry of Dante and above all Petrarch and the Petrarchists (Mincoff 248-249). But a more important factor was the stagnant condition of the English poetic scene at the time: In the 15th c. , poetry in England had suffered an almost complete eclipse, partly because, in its higher forms, it was a courtly pastime, and the court at the time had small leisure for the arts, partly because the gigantic figure of Chaucer dwarfed all his successors and almost forced them into the path of mere imitation and mainly … for lack of talent … English poetry was practically dead, and anyone who hoped to revive it would have to break with everything and turn to foreign models for help (Mincoff 248). We can see that the English scene was starving for any kind of novelty and thus the time was ripe for the sonnet to come in and fill the niche.


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While Wyatt pioneered the sonnet, the credit for incorporating and popularizing it goes to both him and also Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Among their contributions figures the most

significant innovation of all is the one of form: “… And this arrangement with the closing couplet led with Wyatt’s younger contemporary, Surrey, to a much simpler type of sonnet, consisting merely of three groups of four lines each, each with a different set of rhyme sounds, and a concluding couplet (Mincoff 250). Wyatt’s name is chiefly famous now for his introduction of the sonnet form, which was to play so large a part with the Elizabethans (Mincoff 249). It is these innovations of Wyatt and Surrey that are most relevant to the Elizabethan sonnet sequence.

The phrase “Elizabethan sonnet sequences” refers to the series of English sonnets written by various prominent practitioners in the Elizabethan era, such as William Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence includes 154 sonnets. Spenser’s main sonnet series is a collection entitled Amoretti and Sidney’s most famous sonnet series is entitled Astrophil and Stella ( An interesting thing to point out about the Elizabethan period is the queen herself. A figure of the highest stature she represented the embodiment of the coveted lady in the sonnet sequence cannon: “… the country was ruled by a virgin queen. From her courtiers and poets Elizabeth received adulation in language similar to that paid to the Petrarchan mistress. More than any absolute ruler, Elizabeth was hedged by divinity because she was a woman and a virgin (David 110-111).

Author of the first Petrarchan sonnet sequence … Sir Philip Sidney is one of the most brilliant figures of the dazzling Elizabethan literary firmament (Pancheva et al. 10). The Petrarchan convention of courtly love is given away in the title: “star lover” and “star”, a metaphor for the coveting the unattainable. While the work follows this tradition closely, it distinguishes itself in some key ways: Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella … demonstrates the dramatic immediacy and psychological complexity the form could achieve. The sequence also demonstrates its author’s delight in experimenting with verse form, rhyme and rhetorical devices such as complex patterns of repetition (Kinney 191). In terms of the poem’s lady, Stella: unlike many Petrarchans, Sidney seems to have painted the portrait of an actual human being (Pancheva

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et al 11). Sidney’s sequence is a manual of sonnet subgenres: there is the blazon (praise of the lady’s face), the definition of love, the genealogy of Cupid, the lover’s complaint, the baiser (kiss). In most of the sonnets, the rhyme scheme is that of the Italian sonnet with the

modification of the concluding couplet: abba abba cdcd ee (Pancheva et al. 12). Most interesting however is Sidney’s approach to presentation: What distinguishes Sidney’s sequence from all others is not its relative sexual explicitness … but the fact that it is, lightly and pervasively, funny. It does not end with humour, certainly, and many sonnets have a plangent intensity that Petrarch might envy: but through the whole sequence runs a tone of absurdity and irony that justifies our saying that Sidney created the first deconstructive lyric persona in the sonnet’s history (Spiller 106). The sequence’s unifying factor is the creation of narrative that runs through the sonnets.

Spenser’s Amoretti (p. 1595), a sequence of 88 sonnets, is probably the most Platonic sequence of the 1590s (Pancheva et al 19). Spencer’s Amoretti is sometimes contrasted with Sidney’s collection as a more melodious and descriptive in its style and less troubled in its responses to love and desire, though Spencer does in fact include some extraordinary bitter invective as well as soaring praise of his lady (Kinney 191). Spencer’s Amoretti all strike a more or less meditative note: he is no so much intent on giving expression to his emotions, or even analyzing them but rather hunting for aphorisms on the subject of his love (Mincoff 298). We should have in mind however that Spenser tries to coordinate two different ideas of pride – it is not just the deadliest of Christian sins, but, as the poet explains, it is also the lady’s way of shielding herself against arrogant eyes and advances. Still, the duality is there: the indispensability of pride within the Petrarchan power structure is obviously at odds with the Christian doubt as to “why should fair be proud”. In some of the best poems of the sequence, such ideological clashes produce the effect of Spenser’s deconstuction not only of traditional sonneteering but also of his own (Pancheva et al 19-20). Amoretti was more experimental in terms of form than its content as it was written in the form of Spencer’s spiral rhyme.

The rewriting as well as the deconstruction of the Petrarchan sonnet reaches its greatest intensity in the Shakespearean sonnet sequence (Pancheva et al 212). The collection creates

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unique and highly specific situations, full of apparently circumstantial allusions; it addresses two people, a man and a woman, with an intimacy and a ferocity of emotion unparalleled outside the sonnets of Michelangelo (Spiller 149). The sequence breaks away from Petrarchan conventions both thematically with “the typical erotic structure of the desire of the male poet for the female addressee (later rethought by Lady Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilantus, 1621) is here abandoned for the homoerotic economy of male friendship (Pancheva et al 213). The sequence also delves into the notion of platonic love and innovates formally via: “he [Shakespeare] reactivate[ing] the much more flexible form of three quatrains and a couplet invented by Surrey (abab cdcd efef dd) (Pancheva et al. 213).

The convention of the sonnet and of the sonnet sequence make them inherently inimical to any paradigmatic innovations. As already observed throughout this essay, any attempts are greeted with hostility and disregard so much so that even the accepted English sonnet’s status as a sonnet is questioned by Mincoff. Changes in the rhyming pattern are permitted, however they are restricted to the limits of the larger structures and as such are mere variations. Content is perhaps the one place where true innovation can occur; as seen during the development of the sonnet fin amor was the one that simply “won out”. However a common thread running throughout the examples above is that all their innovations in terms of content are deconstruction, irony, humor etc., which, while departures, still derive from the convention (fin amor) and are contrasted against it and as such are more on the level of novelty and individual style rather than innovations proper.

Thus we can conclude that England’s contribution to the sonnet tradition is mostly one of perpetuation than one of innovation, albeit through its cultural lens.

Works Cited

Kinney, Arthur F. The Cambridge Companion to English Literature: 1500 – 1600. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print

Mincoff, Marco. A History of English Literature: Part 1, Second Edition; From the Beginnings to 1700. Sofia: Naouka I Izkoustvo, 1970. Print

Ford, Boris. The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: 1. Medieval Literature Part Two: The European Inheritance. England: Penguin Books, 1990. Print

David, Alfred. Teaching with The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Fifth Edition. A Guide for Instructors. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1988. Print – The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequence. Web. 29th of May 2015.

Pancheva, E., Niagolov, G. Renaissance English Literature: A Reader. 2013. Electronic

Spiller, Michael R.G. The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005. Electronic

Galperin, I.R. Stylistics. Electronic.



Martina Veleva

Dr. Georgi Niagolov

English Literature: Renaissance to Baroque

30 May 2015


Passion and Revenge in John Webster’s The White Devil


The English Jacobean dramatist John Webster is best known for his two revenge tragedies – The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. The second one, now referred to as a masterpiece of the 17th century English stage, was a failure after its first performance due to the winter and the inappropriate conditions of the theatre it was performed in. Later it was performed again and gained popularity.

Revenge tragedies were very popular at that time. They are focused around a protagonist who seeks revenge most commonly for someone’s death. Scholars believe that the revenge tragedies stemmed from Seneca’s tragedies which share some conventional for the genre features: the theme of revenge, the ghost of the murdered, a character who goes mad during the play, intrigues, a play-within-the-play, bloody violence and multiple murders. These conventions are all present in one way or another in all revenge plays. Shakespeare himself gives a great description of what a revenge play is through his character Horatio in the closing moments of Hamlet:

… So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on the inventors’ heads. (Act V, Scene 2)


The White Devil, now acknowledged as one of the finest examples of revenge tragedies, also follows some of the conventions of the genre. It is loosely based on true events in Italy involving a young noblewoman named Vittoria Accoramboni. In the play, she is the character which is supposed to be the centre of all events but her brother Flamineo steals the show. They are both passionate in their desire to reach a higher social status, since they are from a noble but poor family. Passion is actually the force that seems to drive all the characters. They are all sinners in one way of the other, victims to their own desires. And it is through revenge that they all pay for what they were so passionate about. In that sense, passion and revenge do not go hand in hand, but one is a consequence of the other.

With its very opening lines, the play presents the very misogynist opinion of the male characters. Lodovico, who is not one of the leading roles in the play at first, shares his views on the dangers of women’s sexuality. Apparently the worst possible faith is to be cheated on by your wife and women are either virgins or whores.


Fortune’s a right whore:

If she give aught, she deals it in small parcels,

That she may take away all at one swoop. (Act I, Scene 1)


That quote also makes a link to the main female character Vittoria. She wants to get a higher social status and is unhappy with her husband Camillo who can’t seem to satisfy her needs. Vittoria, as a young lady has her needs for love, passion, but also class. Brachiano seems to be the key to all of this and she falls in love with him and betrays her husband. She is also partly to blame for Isabella and Camillo’s murders, because of her dream and claiming to be afraid for her life. Brachiano, blinded by his passionate feelings for Vittoria is ready to commit awful crimes just to protect his loved one.

The misogynist ideas in the play become even more obvious when Vittoria is blamed for the death of both her husband and Isabella with hardly any evidence. Yet she is put to trial and is called a whore many times. But Vittoria passionately defends herself and even puts her blame into question quite well:


Condemn you me for that the duke did love me?

So may you blame some fair and crystal river,

For that some melancholic distracted man

Hath drowned himself in’t. (Act III, Scene 2)


It is interesting to note that Francisco and Monticelso lack evidence, but they assume that since she is an adulteress, she is also a murderess, as if the two sins go hand in hand. Monticelso even says so:


You know what whore is. Next the devil adultery,

Enters the devil murder. (Act III, Scene 2)


That, of course, proves nothing in reality but for their trial it doesn’t matter. Vittoria is guilty for seducing the poor Brachiano as if he didn’t seduce her as well. So, found guilty, Vittoria is “confined/ Unto a house of convertities”. Vittoria realises that she has no power in this world since she is a woman. Her word counts for nothing and she can’t really have any revenge over the ones that harm her in any way, so she has no other choice but to accept her guilt:


Take it for words. O woman’s poor revenge,

Which dwells but in the tongue! I will not weep; (Act III, Scene 2)


The other half of this passionate new couple is Brachiano. He is the typical melancholic lover who is desperately and blindly in love. Deciding to divorce his wife Isabella, who then he poisons, Brachiano is quite passionate in his commitment to Vittoria. She is the reason why he decides to turn into a murderer. His love for her seems to be true, though destructive and leading to his death. But he, like all the other men in the play also shows some judgement over women when he sees the fake love letter and blames Vittoria for cheating on him. Her beauty is somehow to blame for making him love her and commit all his crimes:


Right! There are plots.

Your beauty! Oh, ten thousand curses on ‘t!

How long have I beheld the devil in crystal!

Thou hast led me, like an heathen sacrifice,

With music, and with fatal yokes of flowers,

To my eternal ruin. Woman to man

Is either a god, or a wolf. (Act IV, Scene 2)


John D. Cox makes a good connection between The White Devil and Macbeth. The two plays capture the evil human nature, driven by sin. Almost all characters are a very good example of his words: “Webster’s The White Devil (1612) is like Macbeth in eschewing literal stage devils, but it is a compelling portrait of the hell human beings make for themselves when committed to pride, lechery, and avarice.” (Cox, John D. The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama 1350–1642, p. 176)

The purely evil and selfish character in the play is Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother. He is led by passion for higher social status and is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He sees Brachiano and his sister as a way to reach his goal and helps them get together. He doesn’t seem to have any respect for his sister, his mother or his lover, again showing the misogynistic tone of the play. Then he helps Brachiano in his murders and that makes him the villain in more than one ways. He doesn’t seem even remotely bothered by his doings. His passionate character is also hinted in his name, which means flame in Latin. Like fire, he passionately goes after what he wants and leads everyone around him to destruction. He even kills his own brother Marcello. That is actually the only time he seems truly broken by his actions:


I have a strange thing in me, to the which

I cannot give a name, without it be

Compassion.” (Act V, Scene 4)


Flamineo is considered Webster’s masterpiece character in the play. He is the ultimate villain, yet there are times where he provokes sympathy and his view of the world rings true. His perspective on life is bitter and cynical. He sees how broken the world truly is and is simply trying to make the best of it:


As in this world there are degrees of evils,

So in this world there are degrees of devils. (Act IV, Scene 2)

Flamineo is the only one who doesn’t try to blame someone else for his crimes. He gets what he deserves when he tests his sister’s loyalty and she shoots him with a fake bullet. He then is determined to have a revenge on her but doesn’t live to fulfil it. Still, Flamineo is the only one who realises how evil he was in his life and accepts his fate: “’Tis well yet there’s some goodness in my death;/ My life was a black charnel.”


There are some sins which heaven doth duly punish

In a whole family. (Act V, Scene 2)


Those are Marchello’s final words which somehow blame everything on fate, as if people have no power over it. It also explains why things turned out for the worst for Flamineo and Vittoria.

Francisco and Lodovico are the revengers in this play. Isabella’s brother seems very close to her. Their relationship is the only pure and honest one:


Believe me, I am nothing but her grave;

And I shall keep her blessed memory

Longer than thousand epitaphs. (Act III, Scene 2)


After her death, he swears to have his revenge on her murderer. Isabella was unfortunate in her life, married to Brachiano and being cheated on, so she appears as a ghost to her brother to remind him of his revenge:

Out of my brain with ‘t: what have I to do

With tombs, or death-beds, funerals, or tears,

That have to meditate upon revenge? (Act IV, Scene 2)


Francisco refuses to give in to sadness and melancholy. He has a revenge to plan and he quickly picks himself up in memory of his sister. Lodovico, on the other hand, is the other villain in the play. He, like Flamineo has a very dark and bitter perspective on life. He was in love with Isabella, but she was married to Brachiano. Lodovico also wants revenge for her death. He is conspiring with Francisco and Monticelso and he ends up the one that kills Brachiano, Vittoria and Flamineo. His revenge is worse than Francisco’s because he really enjoys going after his victims. When he is arrested, he says:


I do glory yet,

That I can call this act mine own. For my part,

The rack, the gallows, and the torturing wheel,

Shall be but sound sleeps to me: here ‘s my rest;

I limn’d this night-piece, and it was my best. (Act V, Scene 6)


At the end of the play none of the characters seems to be good in nature. They all fall victim to their passion and suffer someone’s revenge for it. Brian Morris’s conclusion of that seems quite accurate: “No set of values is ever the right one, no pose is ever invincible.” (Ricks, Christopher, English Drama to 1710, p. 74)

Getting back to the title, it makes more sense after reading the whole play. It comes from the proverb: “The white devil is worse than the black”. It means that the people who pretend to be good but are actually evil, are the most dangerous ones, because they fool everyone with their mask. This applies to every major character in the play.

”O me, this place is hell” says Vittoria when Brachiano dies. Well, it is the hell they all made it to be with their adultery, betrayal, murders, revenge, scheming. Fate is not the only thing controlling their lives. They make their own mistakes, commit their crimes and pay for them. They easily give in to passion without caring much for the consequences and it is only when they are facing revenge that they realise what crimes they’ve committed and how much of sinners they are.

Works Cited:

Salgado, Gamini ed. Three Jacobean Tragedies. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Ricks, Christopher, English Drama to 1710 (vol.3 of History of Literature in the English Language), London: Sphere Books, 1971.

Cox, John D. (2000) The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama 1350–1642, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.



Ivana Apostolova

Georgi Niagolov, PhD

English Literature: Renaissance to Baroque

31 May 2015

The Tragedy of Obsession in William Rowley and Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling

The Changeling, regarded as one of the masterpieces of English Renaissance drama, makes use of a number of the dramatic conventions of the Jacobian Age: the Italianate setting, the double plot, the role play and the element of women changing places. It is a study of gradual moral degeneration driven by pride, selfishness and passion. The play’s main focus is the characters’ sinful nature and the fatal consequences their desires lead them to.

The Changeling tackles the theme of obsession by tracing the tragic fall of characters controlled by their feelings and needs. Their behavior is motivated by the desire to impose their will regardless of how this would influence other people’s lives. It is Beatrice and Deflores, the protagonists and the villains of the play, that most easily fall into the trap of their obsessions. Deflores is overpowered by his lust after Beatrice and becomes her partner in crime with the hope of winning her favour. What makes him a tragic character is not only his death but also his blind obedience to the resentful Beatrice. She, on the other hand, is possessed by the idea of marrying the man she loves despite having been promised to another. Just like with Deflores, death is not the only tragic consequence of her obsession. Throughout the course of the play she experiences moral degradation and disillusionment with her power to control the turn of events in her life. Furthermore, eventually she realises that she has been tricked by Deflores into losing her virginity to him which results in bringing shame to her husband and her family. Beatrice and Deflores are not the only characters who are punished for pursuing a fixed idea. Beatrice’s father, for example, is adamant that she has to marry Alonzo and his will brings him nothing but the pain of seeing his daughter take her own life and the prospect of living with the humiliation caused by Beatrice’s deeds, while Alsemero and Alonzo’s fascination with the heroine leaves them blind to her scheming and treachery. This essay is an attempt at illustrating the devastation the main characters’ obsession and blindness drive them to. In addition, it offers an interpretation of the subplot as a mirror of the main one aimed at contrasting the clever way Isabella handles her paranoid husband and her lustful suitors with that of the impulsive and reckless means Beatrice resorts to in her attempt to achieve what she longs for.

The role of the woman as the reason behind death and moral debasement is central to this play (Morris 84). It opens with Alsemero and Beatrice instantly falling in love. Despite having been betrothed to Alonzo, Beatrice is determined to marry the man she genuinely loves. The first instance of her burning ambition to attain what she wants is her resolution to disobey her father’s will and seek a way to get rid of Alonzo: “How well were I now/ If there were none such name known as Piracquo/ Nor no such tie as the command of parents!” (The Changeling, Act II, Scene II). The next step in Beatrice’s transformation from a courtly lady to a fallen woman is her plan to manipulate Deflores into murdering Alonzo. What is interesting to note is not only the seeming ease with which she abandons herself to sin but also the fact that she turns for help to a man she abhors. Although there is reasonable explanation behind her choice, namely her hopes in this way to rid herself of Deflores as well, by approaching him she disregards the instinctive repulsion and worry he stirs in her: “I never see this fellow but think/ Of some harm towards me: danger’s in my mind still” (The Changeling, Act II, Scene II). Her boldness to conspire with the man she has previously referred to as “poison” foreshadows her degradation and subsequent submission to the physically deformed man.

Beatrice’s pact with Deflores exposes her blindness and delusion caused by the determination to achieve her ends. As Alsemero confesses his feelings for her, she warns him that humans tend to trust their eyes, which “tell us wonders/ Of common things, which when our judgments find/ They can check the eyes, and call them blind.” (The Changeling, Act I, Scene I). Ironically, namely Beatrice proves to be prone to rash judgement and failure to perceive Deflores’s true intentions. She is blinded by her “immediate needs” (Hall 94). Deflores too falls prey to Beatrice’s supposedly transformed attitude to him: “Ha, I shall run mad with joy!/ She call’d me fairly by my name, Deflores,/ And neither rogue nor rascal.” (The Changeling, Act II, Scene II). Both of them, however, reveal their hidden motives and implications in the asides and that reaffirms the idea of their immersion in “a private world of reverie and preoccupation” (Revels, qtd. in Ricks 344).

Beatrice falls deeper into the vicious circle of sin as she realises that despite her initial disgust and sense of superiority, she and Deflores, being bound in crime, are actually alike. As Deflores reminds her, it is absurd that she is so protective of her chastity given that they both share the burden of guilt of murder (Mincoff 407): “Pish, you forget yourself,/ A woman dipp’d in blood and talk of modesty!” (The Changeling, Act III, Scene IV). She eventually admits her sinful nature and responds to Deflores’s appeal to give herself to him: “Come, rise, and shroud your blushes in my bossom;” (The Changeling, Act III, Scene IV). It is namely losing her virginity rather than the crime of murder that seems to trouble her more and that prompts her to completely abandon herself to sin. We find proof for this at the end of the play when she confesses to killing Alonzo but refuses to admit to being unchaste (Hall 91).   By surrendering to Deflores she completes another stage of her moral degeneration which leads to further scheming. After losing her honour, chastity, morality and the chance for a happy marriage, she puts an end to her life.

Deflores faces the same fatal consequences. Nevertheless, his obsession with Beatrice makes him a tragic character even before his death. He is so possessed by his sexual desire for her that he does not mind her hurtful remarks and undisguised repulsion: “I know she hates me/ You cannot choose but love her: no matter, If but to vex her, I will haunt her still: Though I get nothing else, I’ll have my will.” (The Changeling, Act I, Scene I). Even though he is humiliated by Beatrice, he demonstrates a stoic and masochistic determination to endure her scorn as long as he is in her presence. In addition, Deflores is so enamoured with Beatrice that in a scene which has provoked Joan Lord Hall to compare Beatrice and Deflores to “a gracious lady setting terms to her devoted knight” (88), Deflores agrees to kill for her without a shred of hesitation.

Beatrice and Deflores are not the only characters that fall victim to obsession. Vermander, for instance, exercises his will by obliging his daughter to marry Alonzo (Hall 93): “He shall be bound to me, / As fast as this tie can hold him; I’ll want/ My will else.” (The Changeling, Act I, Scene I). Little does he know that his stubbornness will provoke his daughter to destroy his family’s reputation. Alonzo and Alsemero are both under the spell of Beatrice. However, Alsemero does not allow himself to be blinded by his feelings. His initial fascination does not prevent him from seeing through Beatrice’s attempt at deceiving him. At the end his disgust with her is reminiscent of Beatrice’s attitude to Deflores at the beginning of the play. Not only does he regard her as morally corrupt but he also considers her physically appalling (Bradbrook 220): “The black mask/ that so continually was worn upon’t/ Condemns the face for ugly ere’t be seen./ O thou art all deformed.” (The Changeling, Act V, Scene III). In contrast, Alonzo remains deaf to his brother’s warnings about his fiancé’s apathy and as a result literally falls prey to his affection for her. Women’s tendency to act based upon visceral motives is reinforced by the death of Diaphanta. The maid’s attraction to Alsmero pushes her into accepting Beatrice’s proposal to change places during her first wedding night and thus she also becomes victim to Beatrice’s scheming but also to her own blindness. It seems like in this play passion wins the upper hand in the battle with sound judgement. As M.C. Bradbrook points out “all characters (save Alsemero) are entirely at the mercy of their feelings, which are instinctive and uncontrollable” (214).

The main plot’s message is reaffirmed by the comic subplot, which scholars attribute to William Rowley. It is set in a madhouse, which echoes “love’s tame madness” that possesses the characters in the castle. The subplot shares some curious similarities with the main one as the characters are indeed under the control of their sexual desire (in the case of Antonio, Franciscus and Lollio) or their paranoia (represented by Alibius’s suspicions that his wife might be unfaithful). The heroine, however, remains sane throughout the play and shrewdly discourages her suitors. Although there are various occasions on which she could yield to temptation, she manages to consider the possible consequences of an affair and does not transgress moral conventions. Her judgement, self-restraint and cleverness oppose her to Beatrice’s recklessness, immorality and delusion (Hall 85). Whereas Beatrice is absorbed in her intricate plans to deceive and get obstacles out of her way and thus falls deeper and deeper into the trap of her own obsession, Isabella deals with temptation in an inventive and effective way by disguising as a madwoman and putting her suitor’s feelings to the test.

It is hard to disregard the resemblance that The Changeling bears to the medieval genre of the morality play. Beatrice and Deflores’s death serves as retribution for their failure to control their desires. However, this play does not have a purely didactic message in the sense of providing instructions on how to avoid sin and lead a good Christian life. By presenting almost all characters as potential victims of the preoccupation with their own passion and ambition the play warns against a universal human tendency for defying morality and reason when under the spell of an obsession.


Bradbrook, M.C. Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1964. Print.

Hall, Joan Lord. The Dynamics of Role-Playing in Jacobean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1991.


Mincoff, Marco. A History of English Literature. Sofia: Pleada, 1998. Print.

Ricks, Christopher. “The Tragedies of Webster, Tourneur and Middleton: Symbols, Imagery and

Conventions”. English Drama to 1710. Ed. Ricks, Christopher. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Print. 315-359.


Web Publications:

Middleton, Thomas and William Rowley. The Chageling. Web. 16 May. 2015.



WINTER 2014/2015

Katerina Stankovska

F.N. 25826, Gr.2

The Supernatural in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

On 31 July 1485 William Caxton published Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, a chivalric romance which relates many stories about the mythical King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table. In his book, Malory incorporates stories from the French Vulgate cycle of over two centuries before his time, as well as the two English poems Morte Arthur (Pearsall 2003: 83) in order to revive the glorious past of his country, which, at that time, was being ravaged by civil war. In this sense his book is not only a romance but also an attempted historical account of times long forgotten.

The book as an attempted historical account does not exclude the prominent featuring of the supernatural. On the contrary, the supernatural reveals a past which has irretrievably lost its grandeur. The extraordinary is so intrinsically entwined into the everyday life of the characters that everybody accepts it as something natural. Thus the whole concept is understood as more realistic, but at the same time this realistic representation highlights its strangeness (Saunders 2010: 235). Malory’s world is a world where it is possible to fight with giants, to fall under an enchantress’s spell, to possess magical objects, to speak with angels and to combat demons.

There are two major sources of the supernatural in Malory’s book – Celtic legends and myths and also Christianity.

The pagan supernatural elements include magical objects such as Arthur’s sword Excalibur and its scabbard, the magical ring which Dame Lyonesse gives to Sir Gareth and which has the power to prevent its bearer from losing blood and which is also responsible for the change of the colour of his armour, the love potion which Sit Tristram and Lady Iseult drink.

The narrative is full of magical creatures such as The Questing beast – a creature which has ‘the head of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the buttocks of a lion and the feet of a hart’ (Malory 2010: 214). Arthur sees it shortly after his affair with his aunt/half-sister Margawse is over, which somehow alludes to the monstrosity of the incest, prophesized by Merlin to be Arthur’s doom. Other magical creatures are the giant Arthur fights on St. Michael’s Mount in Book 2 of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the dwarfs which accompany some knights and noblewomen, and the numerous devils the knights see on the Quest of the Holy Grail.

Whenever King Arthur is mentioned it is nearly impossible not to mention the name of the great sorcerer Merlin. Merlin’s complexity as a character is due to his manifold nature. In the book, we see Merlin the wizard, a druid-like figure performing different spells, interpreting dreams, giving counsel to Arthur regarding matters of both real life and supernatural matters. He has a prominent moral role in shaping the chivalric ethic of Logres, he is the one who causes Sir Gawain to repent his accidental killing of a lady (Saunders 2010: 237). But the wise sage also has a purely demonic side – Merlin eggs Arthur on to drown the noble babies in order to kill Mordred, the child Arthur has begotten on his aunt/half-sister Margawse. One may claim that such cruelty is to be expected from the son of the devil, for Merlin is supposedly this. Paradoxically still, the son of the devil is the voice of God – Merlin the prophet oftentimes enacts divine command (Saunders 2010: 238) as for example when he stops the battle between Arthur and the eleven kings on the grounds that ‘the wrath of heaven will be upon you’(Malory 2010: 16) if they continue fighting. Merlin’s druid-like features and his prophetical abilities show him as an amalgamation of pagan and Christian supernatural motifs.

Merlin can also be regarded as the double agent of Destiny. There is the episode form the beginning of the book in which Arthur saves him from three ruffians chasing him in the forest. The king makes a teasing remark that Merlin’s magic failed to save him, to which Merlin replies that he could have saved himself ‘…had I so wished’ (Malory 2010: 22), implying that he has some control over what is going on. Yet, he knows about his ‘shameful’ death – being imprisoned in an enchanted cave by Nyneve after his constant tries to seduce her – and he cannot do anything about it (this reveals him as a tragic character himself, adding yet another aspect to his complicated character.) Moreover, even though he tells Arthur about his death at the hands of Mordred, and he is apparently aware of the finality of his visions, he still advises Arthur to kill the infants. Merlin is seemingly trying to change fate, yet it looks like he is facilitating it – he warns Arthur that Excalibur is to be stolen by a woman and at the same time he does not warn him that he is going to sleep with Margawse.

Another interesting observation that can be made is that besides Merlin there is no other male sorcerer in the book. All the enchantments that are to be performed till the end are performed by women. According to the magic they practice, whether it yields positive or negative results, we may distinguish between good enchantresses and, of course, evil ones (Saunders 2010: 242). To the group of good sorceresses we may classify Nyneve, Iseult, who is not exactly a sorcerer but she nevertheless saves Tristram’s life by using the healing powers of herbs, and Lady Lynet from the tale of Sir Gareth. In the group of bad enchantresses ‘the place of honour’ is, of course, saved for Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, Hallews, from The Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake and Dame Brusen from the story about Sir Launcelot and Lady Elayne, the mother of sir Galahad.

Nyneve learns magic from her tutor Merlin, who falls in love with her and whom she imprisons in a cave. Her magic is healing and protective – she saves Arthur when he fights with Accolon, who is Morgan’s lover, to whom she had given the stolen Excalibur. It is Nyneve who reveals the truth about the poisoned apple, which Sir Pelles eats at the feast of Gynevere thus saving the queen’s reputation. Her magic does not rely on illusion, manipulation or shape-shifting, yet her imprisoning Merlin in the cave is probably Malory’s way to suggest that her character is more complicated than it seems.

In The Tale of Sir Gareth, Sir Gareth and Lady Lyonesse appoint an assignation which is interrupted by a knight whom Sir Gareth beheads. Then Lady Lynet, Lady Lyonesse’s sister, appears and applies a magical ointment to the severed head of the knight thus bringing him back to life (Saunders 2010: 245). She is in this sense a giver of life, which adds a divine aspect to her personality but at the same time relates her to Dr Frankenstein and his necromantic ‘art’ of assembling of dead bodies.

Morgan le Fay is the principal antagonist to both Merlin and Arthur. She constantly tries to undermine the values of the Round Table – for example when she sends the magic cup to King Mark in order to compromise Queen Iseult for her affair with Sir Tristram. She enchants Launcelot and imprisons him in her castle so that he may choose her or one of her accomplices as his paramour. Almost the same is the fate of Alexander the Orphan, who is also enchanted by her. What she is most remembered for, however, are her constant attempts to kill her brother, King Arthur. She sends a mantle to him as a sign of repentance for all the offences she has committed to him, but this present soon proves deadly – it sets the wearer on fire. Before that she manages to steal Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, and to give it to her lover Sir Accolon in hope that he would kill Arthur when they fight at a tournament. Morgan’s magic relies on illusion, deception and shape-shifting. It is nourished by her hatred, vengefulness and jealousy. Yet, what is really curious about her is that she is present at Arthur’s funeral – she is in the same boat when he departs for Avalon along with Nyneve, the Lady of the Lake. At Arthur’s funeral the good enchantresses are brought together with the evil ones, which suggests that nothing in the world, whether real or supernatural, is either black or white.

Dame Brusen from The Book of Sir Tristram of Lyoness is the sorceress who deceives Sir Launcelot by means of magic potion to sleep with Elaine, believing her to be Gwynevere, and thus to conceive Galahad, the greatest knight on earth, who achieves the Quest of the Holy Grail. Later on, again she is the reason for Launcelot and Elaine’s reunion, but this time she disguises herself as one of the Queen’s maids and tricks Launcelot for the second time.

The last wicked witch is Lady Hallews from The Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake. Sir Launcelot is taken on a quest at the Chapel Perelous in order to save a fellow knight of the Round Table, Sit Melyot de Logres. To save him, Launcelot needs to ‘search’ his wounds with the sword of the dead knight of the Chapel and to cut a piece of the cloth with which he is covered. As he reaches the Chapel Launcelot is met by thirty terrifying knights, as if he has entered into the Celtic Otherworld (Saunders 2010: 252) – this particular part of the adventure reminds one of Sir Orfeo and his entering the castle of the Faerie King, the world of the dead. Later Launcelot learns that his experience was part of Hallews’ plan to kill him so that she could have him forever as he would not love another woman but Gwynevere.

The Quest for the Holy Grail presents the knights of the Round Table with the possibility of spiritual perfection and enlightenment. The Grail in Christian legend is the cup in which drops of Christ’s blood were collected when he was crucified. It has the power to heal and on many occasions in Malory’s book it is the source of food (Saunders 2010: 253). In pagan legend the Cauldron of Plenty, belonging to the Goddess of Fertility, has similar function, (Malory 2010: 539) which is a reason why many scholars believe that the origins of the Christian symbol are pagan. On the Quest the knights are faced with allegorical dreams, fiends they have to fight (Sir Galahad exorcises a demon, for example; Sir Percival is also confronted with a demon in the form of a horse, which disappears after he crosses himself), miracles. The Quest itself is a means to test the knights and their virtues and as every quest it is symbolic of the inner transformation the knights go through. Galahad is the most worthy knight to achieve the Grail because of his spiritual qualities. He is shown as a descendent of Solomon, who ‘was wise and knew the virtues of all the trees and all the stones, the courses of the stars, and many other things besides’ (Malory 2010: 428) – he is familiar with natural magic (Saunders 2010: 255). This link between Galahad and Solomon is the source for Galahad’s divine powers (he cures King Mordrayns form his blindness, as well as the Maimed King form his wounds), they are ‘directly received from God’ (Saunders 2010: 255).

The supernatural in Le Morte d’Arthur with its two main sources, Celtic legend and Christianity, serves not only as generic convention, but it also creates a picture of a glorious past in which magic was as normal as the internet today. It is a potent means for creating manifold characters and it also gives the reader the opportunity to look at one and the same thing from various perspectives. And this is, I believe, the reason why Malory’s book has been and still is so enchanting.


Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. New York: Signet Classics, 2010. Print

Pearsall, Derek. Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Print

Saunders, Corinne. Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010. 27 Dec. 2014 <> Web.


Velina Kostova Dimitrova 25807

Instructor: Dr. Georgi Niagolov

Course: Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Winter Term 2014/15


The Image of Man in the Morality Play: Mankind

As a representative work of the 15th – 16th century movement in Medieval English drama which saw the emergence of compositions known as morality plays, Mankind tackles the prevailing themes for the movement as do the other extant works, however it does have features which slightly distinguish it from them in its treatment of these.

Moralities are “deliberately didactic” (Ricks, 38) pieces which place a particular emphasis on the condition of the human soul upon departing from the earthly plane, as it is subject to be evaluated by God on the Day of Judgment. Compared to another major movement in the development of Medieval English religious drama, the mystery plays, they are not as much concerned with the presentation of Biblical episodes in the common vernacular, so as to serve the purpose of “strengthening the faith of the spectators” (Mincoff, 182), but rather they limit their treatment and representation of Christian doctrines to a more personal scope, primarily preoccupied with “bringing home to each individual the application of his faith to his own daily life and conduct” (Ricks, 38). For the purpose of accessibility and promoting audience empathy, plays of the movement are marked by a reliance on the heavy use of allegory as their main means of representation. Their portrayal of humanity is usually done via a protagonist embodying the entirety of the human population, who bears a representative name and his conduct is marked by the oscillation between the two polar opposites of good and evil. In this sense, one of the major themes appearing in all extant works of the movement is the battle between good and evil for dominance over the souls of men.

Mankind expounds upon this theme in the manner of a typical morality: by the use of allegorized representations of virtues and vices. Rather than juxtaposing figures which represent the best and worst of mankind and having them straightforwardly enter into battle, the conflict between the opposing powers is presented in a slightly less exaggerated scope. They appear to be part of a community which attempts to coexist, which in itself points to their simultaneous presence in man’s own nature: man is neither good nor evil, but contains both within him, and the central question is which shall prevail over the other. Although the interaction is perceived as belonging to the internal dimension of man’s soul, the conflict is externalized through the use of allegory and is thus also made more accessible to audiences or readers.

The main figure, Mankind, whose very name immediately reveals him as the play’s protagonist, is from the very outset of the play portrayed as being aware of his own predicament:

“194 My name ys Mankynde. I haue my composycyon

195 Of a body and of a soull, of condycyon contrarye.”

The character goes on to articulate his mindfulness of what is considered proper conduct and that he must renounce his bodily desires as his soul must not be led astray by external forces. This serves to draw a distinction between the soul, the inherently good within every man, which after death will be deemed worthy or not of ascending into Heaven based on the way of life one has led, and its earthly shell: the body. It is thus shown that the powers of evil are predominantly (with the exception of Titivillus) linked to the everyday concrete world, and not to that which will inevitably transcend into another realm (the soul). This is made more explicit by the very concepts each character represents: while Mischief, Nought, New Guise and Nowadays are linked to man’s behavior and experience of the reality surrounding him during his lifetime, Mercy, the single figure representing virtue in the play, portrays the potential for good which man carries within him.

Having such potential, Mankind is shown to be an “ostensibly upright countryman” (Sanders, 76). From his introductory lines we are informed of his good intentions, and we see them exemplified further on in the play when he guards himself from the three vices (Nought, New Guise and Nowadays) as they attempt to make him stray from the path he has chosen. He goes as far as assaulting the three with his spade, a lack of passivity which is perhaps not entirely in line with what is typically considered ‘good’ in Christian terms, nevertheless it does serve as a vivid example of man’s willpower and determination to follow through on the path of moral virtue.

At a certain point in the play, however, the protagonist is persuaded to commit sins, proving that man, albeit having the purest of intentions and instructed in how to lead a quality life (Mercy, lines 226-244), is not immune to sin and that a great amount of personal restraint and willpower is in fact necessary for his resistance to the tricks of the Devil (Titivillus), earthly temptations (New Guise, Nowadays and Nought), and the desires of his own sinful flesh. This proves to be an exceedingly difficult task in a world where evil forces do greatly outnumber those of good, which is shown by the very number of allegorized vices opposed to the figures representing virtue in the play. Traditionally, the three cardinal virtues and the four daughters of God would function in morality plays to combat the Seven Deadly Sins, in line with the strife for symmetry signature of Medieval literature, but in Mankind the “forces of good have been reduced to the single figure of Mercy” (Mincoff, 199). The predominance of evil is further strengthened by the nature of Mercy’s interactions with the remaining characters. He is constantly ridiculed, as in this initial passage where, albeit recognizing his wisdom, Nowadays goes as far as to mock Mercy’s scholarly nature and manner of expression:

“131 “I haue etun a dyschfull of curdys,

132 Ande I haue schetun yowr mowth full of turdys.”

133 Now opyn yowr sachell wyth Laten wordys

134 Ande sey me þis in clerycall manere!”

The forces of evil dominate in the work not only because of the lively, entertaining nature of their characters and the humorous situations they get into, but also because when contrasted with Mercy they represent a much more familiar and relatable part of human nature, which once perceived by audiences and readers of the play would inevitably lead to self-awareness and perhaps even incite a feeling of shame and guilt for being able to identify much more easily with the negative characters in the work.

Nevertheless, there is good in Mankind. When not distracted by the earthly he has a clear sight and awareness, one which only Titivillus, a representation of the Devil and the embodiment of evil itself, is able to “blench” (Titivillus, line 531). The moral virtue and desire of Mankind to lead his life in the ways he has been instructed in is further underlined by introducing ‘sight’ as the means by which man is to acquire spiritual enlightenment. Mankind’s sight can only be obscured, and thus he can only be led astray, by the most powerful of evils. This further proves his dedication to Mercy as a character and consequently to his Christian faith.

Yet man is not exempt from sin and this is made very clear. Despite his best efforts, his nature is still fragile, and given the right incentive, in this case the possibility of an almost effortless, carefree existence, opposed to the one filled with hard toil he has led thus far. Still, Mankind is not a passive character, and upon realizing his sin he goes on to exclaim:

“813 MANKYNDE. Alasse, I haue be so bestyally dysposyde, I dare not apere.

814 To se yowr slaycyose face I am not worthy to desyere.”

He describes his conduct as “beastly” or animalistic, thus equating himself with creatures which occupy a lower place in the Great Chain of Being, “a divinely planned hierarchical order” (Source 2). Since man occupies a special position in the order, a more flexible one, he is free to move from a lower to a higher rank. By giving into the forces of evil, he has diverged so much from his set of beliefs that he has become further removed from God, who occupies the highest spot in the hierarchy. The following statement made in the beginning of the play by Mercy regarding the vices is another example of the hierarchical order being referenced in the play:

“165 I preue by reson þei be wers þen bestys:

166 A best doth after hys naturall instytucyon;”

Mercy says that such behavior is natural for servants of evil, which in turn leaves us to believe that it must be natural for Mankind to move from virtue to vice and back again. He is of an unsteady nature, but, albeit losing hope and deeming himself unworthy because of this, Mankind deserves forgiveness, as it is always possible for him not to commit errors. He has an inherent potential to do good but he may often give into temptations, it is only natural that he should occasionally commit sin. Should he realize so in time, however, and show truthful repentance, he deserves to be absolved from such mistakes.

The play is unique and marked by its broad use of scatological humor, quite atypical of a work attempting to convey precise moral messages. In such, the work shows a “sacrifice of the earlier seriousness” (Mincoff, 199) found in other plays of the movement. The use of such crudeness and profanities dispersed throughout the text is not however accidental. It is in fact a tool subservient to the goals of the didactic piece. By empathizing and identifying with the more shocking moments in the text, audiences and readers are bound to feel “a sense of guilt” (Gradesaver) especially when those are so sharply contrasted with the speeches of Mercy.

All in all, it is perhaps through its provocative aspect and manner in which it plays with what is the expected reaction of those exposed to the text that the work is able to achieve its main goal and prompt the desire of a lifestyle which would ultimately be in line with what is perceived to be morally upright as regards the Christian teachings of the time. If successful in this endeavor then, it would be safe to say that an adequate representation of those features most characteristic of men, thus portraying him as having a fragile, prone to sin nature, which is nonetheless balanced by willingness and desire to learn from error.


Sources used:


Mincoff, Marco, A History of English Literature. Pleiad, 1998.

Sanders, Andrew, The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Clarendon, 1994.

Ricks, Christopher, English Drama to 1710, Sphere Books, 1971.

Encyclopedia Britanica, Web. 11 January 2015.

Gradesaver, Web. 10 January 2015.

University of Portland Website, Web. 15 January 2015.

From Stage to Page, Web. 10 January 2015.

Utah Valley University Website, Web. 10 January 2015.




Ivana Apostolova

Georgi Niagolov, PhD

English Literature: Medieval to Renaissance

15 January 2014


The Image of Man in the Medieval Morality Play: Mankind

Mankind (1465-70) belongs to the corpus of English medieval morality plays of which only four other works survive: the early fragment The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom and Everyman. The morality plays, also known as “the drama of moral instruction” or “plays of crime and punishment”, are didactic in purpose. Unlike the mystery plays which are built upon the lectio, these texts are based on another part of the mass: the sermon. It offers instruction on how to lead a good Christian life. Both preachers and philosophers of that time tried to convince the masses that it lies within the responsibilities of the individual to win their right to salvation (Wickham 109). The idea of man’s free will to choose between virtue and vice is supported by the concept of psychomachia, the battle for the soul between good and evil. In morality plays this conflict is presented in theatrical form and the battle is externalized: allegorical characters representing different vices and virtues fight for the soul of the protagonist who stands for the whole of humanity.

In Mankind the eponymous character is tormented by the conflict between his soul and his body. On the one hand, he wants to be a good Christian and live according to the moral code of behavior. On the other hand, he finds it hard to resist the temptations of earthly pleasures and vices. Mankind’s initial resolution to stick to the Christian morality after Mercy has offered him guidance and has promised him salvation is later put to the test. The evil characters Mischief, Titivillus, New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought try to shake his beliefs and trick him into sin. Mankind’s falling into the vices’ trap suggests his constant oscillation between good and evil. Man is given free will to choose between good and evil but at the same time he proves to be easily manipulated into disregarding his resolutions and falling into sin. The protagonist is not the only image of man in the play. Due to the audience‘s involvement in it on a number of occasions they could also be considered a representation of the human race. The audience is won over by the villains, especially by New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought, because they are the source of the comical in the play. The audience’s supposedly positive response to their mockery of Mercy and their farcical speech and behavior undermines Mercy’s appeal for virtuous life and is also suggestive of man’s inconsistency. This essay is an attempt at presenting the image of man in Mankind by looking closely at Mankind’s moral transformations throughout the play, as well as his relation to the other characters. In addition, an examination of the audience’s involvement in the play is viewed as a further proof of man’s susceptibility to vice.

In the battle for Mankind’s soul in this play Mercy, one of the Four Daughters of God, which here plays the role of “Mankind’s father confessor” (Beadle 248) faces Mischief. Mercy’s opponent summons the three vices New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought, as well as the devil Titivillus to set the traps for Mankind’s moral fall. J.L. Styan aptly calls Mercy and Titivillus “Mankind’s good and bad angel” (51). In accordance with the fall-rise structure typical of the moralities eventually Mercy wins in the combat between good and evil. Nevertheless, it is not before Mankind goes through various stages of anguish, determination, insecurity, desperation and moral degradation that he devotes himself to Imitatio Christi, the good life modelled on the life of Christ. At the beginning of the play we find Mankind tortured by the conflicting desires of his soul and his body: “My name ys Mankynde. I haue my composycyon/
Of a body and of a soull, of condycyon contrarye./ Betwyx hem tweyn ys a grett dyvisyon;” (Mankind, lines 194-196). Mercy reassures him that his efforts to fight the sinful nature within him will be rewarded by God: “Yf 3e wyll be crownyde, 3e must nedys fyght.”(Mankind, line 231). Mercy also warns Mankind of how transitory man’s life is: “Remember, my frende, þe tyme of contynuance.” (Mankind, line 233). Encouraged by Mercy’s words of wisdom and comfort, Mankind is now determined to suppress his body’s desire and oppose any temptation in the future. However, his belief and virtue are about to be challenged.

Mankind is presented as a humble and industrious worker who finds salvation in agricultural labour. His only prop is his spade, which likens him to Adam, who is often depicted with a spade (Beadle 250). Mankind has also been associated with other biblical figures such as Cain, another farmer and a fallen man, but also with Job because Mankind’s faith and loyalty to God are about to be tested just like the biblical character’s. (Richardson 129). Thus, the audience, which was most probably able to recognize these references, is given a hint about Mankind’s coming downfall not only by the conventions of the genre but also by Mankind’s identification with these particular biblical characters.

Mankind’s prop, the spade, becomes his weapon against the three “distraction vices” (Beadle 249) – New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought. They fail to lure the protagonist into a lifestyle of sloth and moral corruption: “Go and do yowr labur! Gode lett yow neuer the!/ Or wyth my spade I xall yow dynge, by þe Holy Trinyte!” (Mankind, lines 376-375). Ironically, the spade turns into the instrument of Mankind’s descent into sin. Following the three vices’ unsuccessful attempts to persuade Mankind to let his corporeal being take precedence over his spirituality, Mischief calls up the devil Titivillus. He buries a wooden plank in Mankind’s land and steals his corn. Thus, he is no longer able to cultivate it. This cruel and clever plan results in Mankind’s falling into despair and giving up the good Christian life: “Of laboure and preyer, I am nere yrke of both;/ I wyll no more of yt, thow Mercy be wroth.“ (Mankind, lines 585-586). Mankind’s downfall is completed upon hearing that Mercy has been hanged for stealing. His disillusionment with his spiritual guide leads him to his eventual moral corruption: “Adew, fayer masters! I wyll hast me to þe ale-hous” (Mankind, line 609).

Mankind’s abandonment to sin is marked by a literal change of guise – his coat is refashioned. Mankind’s transformation is also reflected in the language he uses. The moralities are usually structured as combats concerned with argument and debate (Wickham 106). In Mankind language has a very important role in character portrayal. As Pamela M. King puts it, the linguistic choices of the speaker in terms of lexis, syntax and register “place the speaker on a scale between absolute good and absolute evil” (Beadle 242). Whereas Mercy speaks the elaborate language of the Church, the speech of the vices is blasphemous, vulgar and fragmented. Titivillus is traditionally linked with “the abuse and misappropriation of language” (Happé 44). As Mankind gives himself up to temptation, he adopts the vices’ physical and verbal patterns of behavior.

At the end, Mercy appears again to save Mankind from the vicious circle of wrongdoing and disappointment. Although he wants to hang himself out of shame and fear after having heard that Mercy is alive, he is given one more chance to devote himself to the Christian values and thus gain a chance for redemption. In this way, the conventional requirements of the genre are satisfied. Furthermore, the typical message of the morality play is conveyed – the only remedy for the archetypical Christian antagonism between good and evil is life modelled on the life of Christ. Nevertheless, taking into consideration the comical elements in the play together with the audience’s active participation in the fictional world, the validity of this moral message appears rather problematic. The role of religion as the indisputable source of truth is undermined.

Mankind distinguishes itself as quite bold in its challenge of the Christian creed and the values propagated by it. On the one hand, Mercy emerges victorious after the battle for the human soul. On the other hand, the vices manage to win the audience’s sympathy. The comic depiction of New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought imbues the play with “greater life and vividness” (Mincoff 199). The amusing behavior and crude jokes of New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought appeal to the masses. The vices win over the audience right from the beginning with Mischief’s mockery of Mercy’s solemn speech and thus erode Mercy’s authority: “Yowr wytt ys lytyll, yowr hede ys mekyll, 3e are full of predycacyon.” (Mankind, line 47). This bold attempt at debunking the Christian principles is something that makes Mankind stand out from the other moralities. The amusing behavior and crude jokes of New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought appeal to the masses.

What is even more telling about the audience’s association with the vices is their involvement in the play instigated by the vices themselves. Firstly, they invite the audience to sing a rude song with them by addressing them directly (Beadle 250): “Now I prey all þe yemandry þat ys here/ To synge wyth ws wyth a mery chere:” (Mankind, lines 333-334). Halfway through the play the actors resort to another common practice in popular drama of that time which involves the audience’s participation. Mischief informs the audience that they need to pay in order for the performance to continue and the other three vices mingle with the audience to collect money: “Now gostly to owr purpos, worschypfull souerence,/ We intende to gather mony, yf yt plesse yowr neclygence,/ For a man wyth a hede þat ys of grett omnipotens.” (Mankind, lines 459-461). What is worth noting is the moment when this practice is conducted: right before Titivillus’ entrance. Although the audience is aware of the devil’s coming and the threat to Mankind Titivillus will pose, they consciously make it possible for this to happen. They are both victims to the vices but also their accomplices. They assist in effecting Mankind’s downfall (Beadle 251).

Mankind presents man’s soul and mind as an eternal battlefield where his spiritual being faces his corporeal desires. The chaos and conflict within result in man’s actions ranging from a total devotion to his Christian duties to an indulgence in worldly pleasures. In the play man is illustrated as unable to stand behind his religious principles when facing disappointment and desperation. If we view Mankind as a dramatic performance rather than only as a literary text, we might regard the audience’s participation and reaction during the play’s staging as another argument that man is easily tricked into giving up to the appeal of sin. Furthermore, the vices’ vitality and humour challenge the Church’s condemnation of their lifestyle as disgraceful. Man in the late 15th century is no longer an unambiguous creature whose position in the larger framework of the religious doctrine is easily identifiable. Man is depicted as a much more complex and enigmatic figure.


Beadle, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Happé, Peter. English Drama Before Shakespeare. London and New York: Longman, 1999.


Mincoff, Marco. A History of English Literature. Sofia: Pleada, 1998. Print.

Richardson, Christine, and Jackie Johnston. Medieval drama. London: Macmillan, 1991. Print.

Styan, John. The English Stage. A History of Drama and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1996. Print.

Wickham, Glynne. The Medieval Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.

Web Publications:

Mankind. Web. 03 January. 2015.


WINTER 2013/2014

Dessislava Popovska

George Niagolov, PhD

Medieval and Renaissance Literature

07 February 2014

Symbolism in the Old English Poem the Phoenix

The Phoenix is an Old English poem believed to have been composed in the ninth century. Even today there is still no conclusion on the matter of authorship, but some have suggested that it may have been the work of the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf, because of the presence of “verbal and stylistic similarities between his literary works and The Phoenix” (Wikipedia, The Phoenix) or maybe one of his students’.The poem was written in the verse form typical of Old English poetry – frequent use of alliteration, general lack of rhyming and caesuras dividing each line can be observed. It represents an allegorical narrative put in the form of a liturgy. The poem is part of the Exeter Book, which is one of the four major Old English poetic manuscripts. It appears side by side with elegies such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer but as Prof. Marco Mincoff points out in his book A History of English Literature, instead of “the beautiful mournfulness” and “the bare, stormy, wintry scenes” that we find in these elegies “we have here the Southern ideal of beauty, in the description of an early paradise…”(p. 48)

The Phoenix comprises two parts. The first one mirrors Carmen de Ave Phoenice, a fourth-century Roman literary work attributed to Lactantius. It begins with a detailed description of Paradise. It is described as a beauteous land, located higher than any earthly mountain where leaves never wither and storms don’t rage. This place is the home of an exquisite bird – the phoenix. It greets the sun every morning, sings sweetly and enjoys all the pleasures this land has to offer. After a thousand years it leaves Paradise and flies down to the land of man where it finds a large tree, builds a nest out of twigs and fragrant flowers and dies in flames in order to be reborn from the ashes and return to Paradise. The second part represents this retelling of Lactantius’ story placed, through the use of symbolism, in the context of Biblical tales such as The Creation of Man, the Book of Job, Judgment Day and the Resurrection of Christ.

In the poem, the phoenix is the most important instance of symbolism and its nature is multi-aspectual. It works simultaneously as a symbol of Christ, the man, and soul and body as an integral whole. In this essay I will also be exploring the nature of ‘supporting’ symbols such as the appearance of certain numbers, the absence of the bird’s gender and the phases the phoenix goes through after death.

First let us look at the phoenix as a symbol of Christ. After the phoenix leaves Paradise and flies down to Earth it “… accepts supreme sovereignty over the family of birds, a paragon among his people, and for a while he dwells with them in the desert.”(S. A. J. Bradley, Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English) and then after it rises from the ashes and flies away, the birds bid him farewell in a ceremonial manner. These episodes portray Christ, appearing on Earth and living among the people and being revered by them and also celebrated for his bravery and sacrifice after he is resurrected, which mirrors the events described in the Bible. Another scene in the poem in support of this view is the phoenix carrying its remains with it when it flies away. According to the Bible, after Christ’s resurrection his body was not found in the tomb where he was supposed to lie and he was seen rising towards the sky. The phoenix as a representation of Christ’s resurrection was not at all new at the time when the poem was composed. This is stated in Debra Hassig’s Medieval Bestiaries (p. 72-74)and it suggests that medieval society in general was already familiar with this idea, but maybe it was just then becoming familiar to the Anglo-Saxons.

The phoenix in the poem is also a symbol of the righteous man. After the speaker has acquainted his audience with the story of the bird, he reminds them of the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise and draws a parallel between the two. He compares the phoenix leaving paradise with Adam and Eve leaving Paradise and as descendants of the first humans the audience have no choice but to identify with them. The speaker proclaims that the only way they could possibly right the wrongs of their primordial ancestors and be reinstated into their former holy place is through serving God well and accumulating good deeds on Earth, just as the phoenix gathers twigs and flowers in order to build its burial site, through which it is reborn. Later in the poem the speaker also tells the audience that even in hard times they should continue to ‘build their nests’ regardless or the circumstances, without losing trust in God just like Job in the Bible patiently endures illnesses and hardships that God sends to him as a test and is later rewarded for his trust and kindness.

This is the one symbolic aspect of the bird that most directly concerns the medieval man and as such it is given special attention in the poem. The detailed description of the phoenix’s radiant colourful exterior and it being referred to as “brisk and swift and extremely lightsome, lovely and pleasant, marked out for heaven” (S. A. J. Bradley, Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English) serve to give the medieval man something to aspire to; to show him that his good work on Earth will be rewarded not only through obtaining a place in Paradise but also through achieving a kind of freedom that the hardships of earthly existence will not allow. The use of ‘poetic diction’-like language in the poem, though fairly typical of Old English poetry, as Prof. Mincoff mentions in A History of English Literatue(p.15), and also of Biblical texts, certainly helps strengthen the positive impression on the audience by evoking feelings of admiration towards the phoenix and probably a desire to imitate his actions in order to ‘become one’.


And last but not least, the phoenix in the poem is also as a symbol of the soul and the body being integral parts of a single whole. In medieval times there was a debate over the exact nature of the resurrection, and more specifically, if the body was completely discarded or resurrected along with the soul. This was pointed out by Debra Hassig in her Medieval Bestiaries and she suggested that “the bestiary phoenix texts and images would have been perceived by medieval readers as support of the dogma of the resurrection of the flesh” (p. 81) because to them “the material continuity of the body was crucial to personal identification”(p. 80-81). It seems like this was the view held by most medieval theologians and it is also supported in The Phoenix. The immortal aspect of the bird and its absence of body, at least for a small fraction of time until it is renewed, is consistent with the Biblical idea of the soul – an immaterial and an immortal entity. On the other hand, the Phoenix carrying its former body with him suggests the importance medieval society placed on the body as an indispensable part of the soul, which was justified by the Biblical description of events after Christ’s resurrection, and more specifically – the absence of his body in the tomb.

An instance of ‘supporting’ symbolism in the poem is the frequent appearance of number 3 and number 12, which is a multiple of 3. They both appear very frequently in the Bible. Number 3 signifies the Holy Trinity, or the representation of God as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Number 12, as a multiple of 3 represents God’s influence extending across the four corners of the world. It is also generally thought to signify “governmental perfection” (The Meaning of Numbers in the Bible, Web). In the poem Paradise is found “higher by twelve fathoms than any of the mountains” and there “twelve times the delightfulness of fluent streams should ripple throughout that glorious land” where “the glory-blessed creature laves himself in the brook twelve times…” and later ‘he upturns his head, and three times beats his swift-flighted wings” (S. A. J. Bradley, Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English).The phoenix does this repetitively, in a ritualistic manner. Also it is mentioned in the poem that the rebirth happens once at the end of a thousand years – a reference to Christ being supposed to appear and reign on Earth for a millennium until Judgment Day, when the souls of those who have deserved it will be resurrected, which is one of the most important transitional points in the Bible. The appearance of these numbers represents a motif in the poem. It reinforces both the idea of the superiority of the holy (the phoenix beating his wings 3 times; God – the Trinity) and the idea of ‘the cycle’, of periodicity; number 12 is a symbol of perfect unity and order and as such emphasises the completeness of the time parameter in the poem which is strongly contrasted with the phoenix being so unique and powerful that it is able to transcend it. Everything has a definite beginning and an end but for the phoenix these are merely transitional stages.

The genderless aspect of the phoenix is particularly interesting. The speaker in the poem informs us that “God alone, the King almighty, knows what his gender is, female or male; no one of humankind knows it, only the ordaining Lord alone, how miraculous are the circumstances, the admirable dispensation of old, concerning this bird’s birth.” (S. A. J. Bradley, Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English).In her Medieval Bestiaries, Debra Hassig writes that “the asexual nature of the phoenix” symbolises “the mystery of the Incarnation… the Virgin… and spiritual perfection.” (p.78).To put it in the context of The Phoenix, the lack of the bird’s gender and its “absolute uninvolvement with carnal procreation” (Debra Hassig, Medieval Bestiaries, p. 78)links the phoenix to the Creation of Man and his state before the Fall – Adam and Eve constituting a perfect whole and also to Christ appearing on Earth not through carnal means but in a miraculous way, through pureness, without losing his aspect as part of God but also becoming a man.

Another interesting scene in the poem is the events following the bird’s death. After its body has been destroyed through fire, the phoenix goes through a sort of metamorphosis from “the likeness of an apple” (S. A. J. Bradley, Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English), to a worm, then to e baby eagle, an adult eagle and finally, to a phoenix. Now, this progression from a worm to an eagle and then to a phoenix is a common aspect of the phoenix’s legend, but its beginning from the ultimate symbol of sin places focus on Christianity, rather than on the legend’s pagan origins. This sort of ‘blooming’ of life form, especially starting from an apple, marks the transition from a state of sin to a state of pureness. With each phase, a stronger life form is introduced, each one entirely capable of ‘devouring’ its predecessor. This hierarchy culminates in the completion of the cycle, the bird reaching a state of being “dissevered from sin” (S. A. J. Bradley, Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English) and ready to be accepted again into Paradise. This serves the purpose of portraying to the medieval man the grandeur of Christ’s resurrection, and ultimately – their own. The scene produces a dramatic effect which reinforces the deliberate ‘emotional colouring’ of the poem which in turn amplifies the overall effect the symbolism has on the audience. After all, it was important that the medieval man did what the Christian doctrine ‘prescribed’ in order to ensure well-being of the soul in the afterlife.

The Phoenix, though carrying a seemingly straightforward message is in fact an elaborate and carefully assembled poem, the work of, without a doubt, a very clever man. The phoenix, an otherwise pagan symbol, used in the context of the Christian Bible, links perfectly the Anglo Saxons’ pagan past and their Christian future. In this way the allegorical nature of the poem does not only serve to teach but also to inspire; to instil into the medieval man a belief in the miraculous, to spark in him a desire to embrace the Christian doctrine, accepting its validity. By giving them The Phoenix, he gave them something to do, something to hope for, encouraging in them the belief in the resistance of the righteous soul. A soul that will transcend the bounds of time and will forever wander free.


Works cited:

Mincoff, Marco, A History of English Literature. Pleiad, 1998. Print.

Debra Hassig, Medieval Bestiaries. Soft copy.

Wikipedia, Web. 7 February 2014.

Translation of The Phoenix into Modern English by S. A. J. Bradley. Web. 07 February 2014

The Meaning of Numbers in the Bible. Web. 07 February 2014.

WINTER 2012/2013

Dessyslava Nicolova

FN: 25670

Georgi Niagolov

Medieval Literature

January 15, 2013


The Supernatural in Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur



Sir Thomas Malory`s Morte Darthur was first published in 1485 by William Caxton, the first person to set up a printing press in Britain, and was completed some fifteen years before that. It is chivalric romance, a compilation of stories that tell the tale of the mythical King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The book combines English and French stories as well as Malory`s own contribution to the Arthurian legend and is often considered the first major work of prose fiction written in English.

The supernatural plays a major role in Morte Darthur, it is part of the everyday lives of the characters. There are two sources of supernatural elements that combine and coexist in this literary work – Celtic folklore and legend and Christianity. King Arthur might have started off as a Brittonic chieftain from the long-forgotten days of old but over the centuries he has become more of a Medieval Christian king. However, the pagan elements surrounding him are always present.

We can see traces of the supernatural right from Arthur`s conception. The beautiful Igraine, wife of the duke of Cornwall is seduced by Uther Pendragon who, with the help of Merlin the wizard changes his form to resemble the duke. Merlin does this in exchange for the child which will be born from their union. After Arthur is born he is taken away by Merlin and placed in the care of foster parents – Sir Ector`s family.

Merlin, as we can see, is a prominent presence from the very beginning. He himself is a supernatural creature but what is particularly interesting about him is that he, in a way, has several faces. Firstly, there is Merlin the wizard, the one who casts spells and performs all kinds of magic, a shamanistic figure who interprets dreams and visions and guides Arthur in his dealings with both the human world and the Otherworld. Secondly, there is Merlin the prophet, the voice of God. He informs the characters of the will of God, however, his foresight is not always good. For example, he goes to the archbishop of Canterbury and tells him that he should assemble all the lords at Christmas because a miracle is going to happen – they are going to find out who is born to be king of England. However, he does not warn Arthur that Arthur is going to sleep with his half-sister. Some of Merlin`s key prophesies are the one in which he sees Arthur defeated by Mordred and the one in which he sees the battle between Tristam and Launcelot – the greatest battle ever fought between two knights and two friends. He seems to know what is going to happen and encourages the characters to do one thing or to avoid doing another so that he can be sure that what is supposed to happen really happens. Thirdly, we can even view him as the Devil himself, or the son of the Devil, as Nineve calls him. He is often very cruel, for example when he advises Arthur to kill all the baby boys born on the first of May.

Some pagan elements are made to look more Christian by Malory. For instance, we find the motif of the child destined to kill and/or overthrow his father. Usually the father orders the death of this child. When Merlin tells Arthur that Mordred, the child Arthur begets on his own sister Morgan le Fay, will be the end of Arthur and his kingdom, Arthur orders all male children born on May Day to be put on a ship and sent out to sea to perish. Mordred, however, miraculously stays alive. Malory Christianizes Arthur`s actions by having Merlin declare that God is angry because of Arthur`s sins of lust and incest, thus justifying this horrible deed. All of this brings forth the story of Herod`s Massacre of the Innocents from the Bible.

Morgan le Fay is another key figure related to the supernatural. She is a sorceress and a necromancer. She tries to kill Arthur with various spells several times, including once with a mantle that bursts into flames when someone puts it on, but never succeeds. She is also one of the women in black cloaks who accompany the dying Arthur to Avalon.

The Lady of the Lake is one of the major supernatural figures in the book. She gives Arthur the magical sword Excalibur and the magical scabbard that goes with it in exchange for a service in the future. Later on, when she comes to Camelot to claim that service, she asks for the heads of Sir Balin and the damsel who was cursed to wear a sheathed sword around her waist until a knight who is pure of heart can draw it out. Arthur refuses and Balin kills her in his anger because he recognizes her as the murderer of his mother.

Nineve is Merlin`s pupil. The old wizard falls in love with her but she refuses him. He teaches her everything he knows. Nineve later imprisons Merlin in a cave, puts a spell on Sir Pellas and they live happily together. She becomes Lady of the Lake after Balin slays the previous one. When Arthur is fatally injured he tells one of his friends to throw Excalibur into a nearby lake. When the knight does so a hand reaches out of the water, catches the sword and brandishes it three times. We can assume that this is Nineve as the new Lady of the Lake.

There are several magical objects in the book. Apart from Arthur`s sword and scabbard we also have the sword in the stone which Arthur, a very young boy, pulls as out and is thus made king. Galahad pulls out the sword in the floating stone which proves that he is the best knight in the world. The sword, however, also carries a curse – it will one day cause a grievous wound. Lamerok sends a magical cup to King Mark to see if Isoud, Mark`s wife, is faithful to him. Sometime before that Tristam and Isoud accidentally drink a love potion.

We can also find many supernatural creatures such as dwarfs, dragons, ghosts and giants. Several characters also see the devil. The Questing beast is another example. It has the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the backside of a lion and the legs of a stag.

When Merlin appears in front of Arthur first as a young boy of fourteen and then as an old man he not only demonstrates his powers, he also symbolically embodies the cycle of life and death, a very important Celtic motif.

There is also an invisible knight and a 400-year-old king who asked God to let him live until he meets the knight who will achieve the Holy Grail.

We even catch glimpses of the Otherworld. For the Celts, the Otherworld was the realm of the supernatural and magical. It can be accessed only with a guide, very often an animal, or by crossing a symbolic boundary. Mist and water are such boundaries. A particular time of the day, such as dusk and dawn, is also a boundary, the state between sleep and wakefulness or between life and death as well. We can see such crossings between the worlds in many places in the narrative but maybe the most memorable episode is when, dying, Arthur is borne away in a barge to Avalon. Earlier on, two kings, Ban and Bors, cross the Channel and come to Arthur`s aid on Hallowmass, the Celtic Samhain, a day in which the veil between the worlds is extremely thin and passage is easy.

The strongest supernatural element of Christian origin in the narrative is the Holy Grail. This is the cup from which Christ drank during the Last Supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea collected drops of Christ`s blood as they fell while Jesus was on the cross.

Many knights go on the Grail Quest, embark on numerous adventures and bear witness to miracles. Often the knights have prophetic visions or dreams which are later explained to them by hermits or wise men or women. Only three knights achieve the Grail – Percival, Bors and Galahad – because they are most worthy, the other knights attempt but fail one way or another, some even lose their life in the process. Launcelot, for instance, finds his way to castle Corvebic and even catches a glimpse of the Grail but is miraculously struck before he can get closer.

The Grail appears at least two times in the book and feeds the knights. The origins of the story of the Holy Grail can be traced back to classical mythology where we find the myth of the cornucopia. This comes as no surprise because there are many pagan “leftovers” in Christianity. In order to make conversion easier to accept Pope Gregory the Great ordered important Christian celebrations to coincide with pagan ones. This is why, for example, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th – it is the day of the Winter Solstice. He also suggested converting pagan shrines into churches. People continued their pagan practices and that is how they remained in the Christian tradition.

The supernatural elements in Morte Darthur are many. Regardless of their origin, they enrich the narrative, make the stories more interesting and create an atmosphere of a time long forgotten when magic and miracles were a fact of everyday life. Furthermore, these elements add additional layers and make the text open to numerous interpretations.



Malory, Thomas, Le Morte Darthur, 1996, Wordsworth Editions Limited

Godden, Malcolm & Lapidge, Michael, The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, 2000, Cambridge University Press

Wallace, David, The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, 2002, Cambridge University Press





Dobromir Petrov

FN: 25 590

Group 1

7 January 2013


Comic Elements in Medieval Miracle and Mystery Plays


Miracle and Mystery plays are two of the three principle kinds of vernacular drama of the European Middle Ages. The Miracle play, which is also called Saint’s play, presents a real or a fictitious account of the life, miracles and martyrdom of a saint. There are not many miracle plays surviving, but almost all surviving are about the Virgin Mary or St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. The Mystery play on the other hand, usually represents biblical subjects, and it developed from Liturgical Drama. The Mystery Play depicts subjects such as the Creation, Adam and Eve, the murder if Abel, and the Last Judgment. During the 13th century, various guilds began producing the plays in the vernacular and at places removed from the churches. Under these influences the religious nature of the plays declined and they became filled with irrelevance and apocryphal elements. Even satirical elements that mock religious figures, physicians, soldiers and judges were included in the Mystery plays. Sometimes the Miracle and Mystery plays are distinguished as two forms, although the terms are usually interchangeable. That’s not the only thing they have in common. Miracle and Mystery plays also share the element of comedy.

Life in Medieval times, when Miracle and Mystery plays appeared, was heavily religion orientated. Religion played a great role both in people’s occupations and their inner life. Life in those times was very hard. Instability in society, the proximity of life-threatening experiences such as the plague or child birth were made more tolerable with the help of Religion. Religion brought, joy, celebration and gave cause for hope. Developments related with comedy in the Miracle and Mystery plays are associated with ‘The Feast of Fools’ or “The Feast of Asses’, which are connected with Religion. In those feasts the actions and word of the official liturgy were parodied by least important members of the ecclesiastical community. Sausages played a comic part in these rites, asses were brought into the church, and anthems such as the ‘Gloria’ were sung out of tune. The lesser clergy also made fun of the Church by ringing the bells in the wrong way and wearing ridiculous vestments. This certainly encouraged parody later in the cycle plays. Such items illustrate the strength and diversity of Liturgical drama, and an awareness of it may have had some influence upon the development of the vernacular forms. Liturgical drama took this feeling of celebration from Religion and passed it on the Miracle and Mystery plays. A typical comic element in those plays is to mock evil characters like the Devil, Cain, and Herod etc. By the use of language and gestures the frantic over-activity of the damned was mocked. Such characters as the devils were fun and people enjoyed them. Satan and his devils always threatened to steal any scene they played in. These devils probably saw their role rather as a grimacing circus clowns than that of frightening figures intended to fetch down judgment to the sinners. (‘The Harrowing of Hell’) Though the Devil is crafty and threatening to Christ and to humans, and though the possibility of damnation should and could be taken lightly, his ultimate fate is disaster and this could be anticipated by making him ridiculous and incompetent. Even the Fall of Lucifer could be seen as a comic in that, after his vain boasts, the change in his appearance was made clear by stage action. But it is a matter for interpretation as to how ridiculous the Devil should appear. His inability to counter the power of Christ inevitably puts him at disadvantage, and dramatic conceptions place him in an inferior position in such episodes as the Temptation and the Harrowing of Hell. In the cycles, laughter begins with the temptation of Eve, and grows apace as soon as Paradise is lost. Once out of the Garden, Adam and Eve assume the parts of a much-married couple, and are quickly into a spat about who was responsible for the Fall. Cain chooses to quarrel with his impertinent ploughboy, who in turn curses both his master and the audience. Cain in Towneley, hearing the voice of God, mockingly asks whether God is out of his wit. Comedy naturally embraces the stubborn character of Noah’s Wife, played in drag. Noah’s Wife especially at Chester, Newcastle and Wakefield is a caricature of all shrews. She even hits Noah. Comedy also makes through the use of a tyrannical king Herod (‘Hic Herod pompabit’) and of Pilate too, foolish when he’s drunk. Herod’s pride and anger are full of comic bluster in the play ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’. In some cycles Pilate acquires an interesting degree of humanity when he sympathizes with Jesus. Laughter plays a significant role at times in the N town cycle, though one may suggest, that like much of the characterization, and it is controlled by the complex of didacticism and spirituality. The unique quality of humor in the plays may be best seen in the irreverent fun had even when dealing with a sacred doctrine like that surrounding the Immaculate Conception. Firstly, the discovery by Joseph of Mary’s pregnancy is handled by means of a comic presentation of him as a foolish old man. The language is in marked contrast to that just discussed and it suggests more the comedy of cuckoldry ‘-Ow, dame, what pinge menyth this?… za, za, all olde men to me take tent’(notice). But this folly is contained perhaps because the audience knew from the Annunciation – not to mention other common assumptions – what had really happened, and also in the development of this particular play, he is put right by the Angel (sent direct from God), contrition is complete. At Sork, the elderly Joseph expresses ironic surprise of the arrival of Mary’s baby, after he was apparently to beget a child. He enters wearily, convinced that he has been cuckolded:


For shame what shall I say,

That thusgates now in my old days

Has wedded a young wench to any wife,

And may not well stride over two straws?

(trans. J. S. Purvis from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays)


At Coventry the pair fight, and, at N Town, a comic character, Den the Summoner, attempts on behalf of the bishop to try Joseph and Mary for infidelity Clowning proliferates when he demands payment and threatens the audience with his ‘great rough tooth’ if they refuse him. In ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ the action as well as the dialogue is comic. Though the sardonic descriptions by the accusers have a grim truth, there is comedy in the moment of action when they bang upon the door and the young man emerges with his shoes untied and his breeches in his hand. He makes a good deal of noise and goes off cursing them all. The accusations against the woman, now desperate, rise to a crescendo as they bring her before Christ, who scripture prompting, silently writes in the sand. Thus the comedy of the outburst works successfully by turning attention towards the silent wisdom of Christ, and we should note too that this is the play which begins with a sermon from Christ on the desirability for mercy for sinners who repent –which the adulteress wholeheartedly does. Nevertheless it is easy to misunderstand the nature of the comic material in the plays particularly in those, like Noah and the Shepherd, which seem to have predominantly humorous tone. The entire cycles were seen as ‘comedy’ – a divine comedy of rebirth. If the stage seems to display irreverence, it may be that modern sentimentality, not medieval belief, is at fault. The comedy of The Shepherds is a recurrent practice as it could be seen, but the presence of comedy makes for a more beneficent view of them to be generated. The Chester author enlarges the feast of the Shepherds (also found in Coventry and Towneley), to grotesque proportions, both in terms of the vast number of items they consume. One has to presume that all the nineteen or so items (green cheese, a sheep’s head, a pig’s foot, ham, tongue, pudding, cake…) are real stage properties which are produced from packets and bags, though of course there would be scope of comic effect in miming the whole process of assembling the feast and consuming it. Here and elsewhere with the shepherds there is a strong farcical element, but it is strictly limited by an overriding devotional purpose (The N town play, York play). A point is made by A. W. Pollard (in English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes (1927)), that the most interesting characters in the plays are those about which the Bible has little or nothing to say; in other words Scripture, has obligingly left some parts to the imagination of the actor and his audience. It is these characters who are quick to acquire local and more natural characteristics and many of them a quality of humor; their speech betrays their non-biblical origins and their behavior indicates the popularity with which they were viewed by their audiences. Especially noteworthy are the following characters:

  • The ploughboy who introduces the Cain and Abel play at Wakefield. This ‘boy’ is the type of impertinent servant found throughout Roman and Renaissance drama, and provides a good match for Cain who is presented as the type of English farmer, albeit a bad-tempered one. He expresses the audience’s contempt for Cain.
  • Pharaoh – the audience enjoyed one of its favorite characters (Moses) being provoked as matters from bad to worse.

Many details of everyday realism are scattered through the Miracle and Mystery plays, setting the profane among what is deeply sacred and coloring the sacred with what is familiar. These popular elements can be divided into four broad kinds:

  1. Direct and natural details that would have been immediately recognizable by the audience;
  2. Moments of tenderness and pathos to which the audience could make a sympathetic response;
  3. The realistic exhibition of violence and cruelty chosen to reflect the audience’s notion of barbarism;
  4. Elements of ribaldry and clowning with touches of satire and caricature from common life.

We can come to the conclusion that the comic element played a significant role in medieval drama. The comic element in the Miracle and Mystery plays belittle evil and show negative towards it. The comic element also makes the plays easier to understand makes them closer to the audience. The Miracle and Mystery plays were one of the few sources of entertainment in those times. They made Religion more entertaining and tolerable. Last but not least Miracle and Mystery plays, especially the comic in them, alleviated people’s thoughts from the harsh reality they lived their short lives in.


Works cited:

Happé, P., English Drama before Shakespeare, Longman Literature in English Series;

Styan, J. L., The English Stage, A History of Drama and Performance;

Encyclopedia Britannica. Miracle Play.;

Encyclopedia Britannica. Mystery Play.;

Wikipedia. Mystery Play.;

Wikipedia. Feast of Fools.





Lydia Gruncharova

Dr. Georgi Niagolov

English Medieval and Renaissance Literature

6 January 2013


Transience and Eternity in the Elegy: The Seafarer


“The Seafarer” is an outstanding poem that tells us the story of a traveller at sea, who faces not only the relentlessness of nature but also his own inner conflicts and worries. The journey he embarks on is one filled with troubles, difficulties, danger, sorrow and suffering. He is in exile in the middle of the sea, far away from kinsmen, comfort and everything he is familiar with. Plodding through life he is in search of a place to call home and something to give him peace. He often turns to the life on the land where everything is easy but people are blind to what happens outside their reality. They eat, drink and revel and their whole existence circles around their own pleasure and satisfaction. The author draws a parallel between the life of the seafarer and all the difficulties he endures and the careless city-dwellers:


This the man does not know
                                       for whom on land          it turns out most favourably,
                                       how I, wretched and sorrowful,          on the ice-cold sea
                                       dwelt for a winter          in the paths of exile… (12-15)

As we read we start wondering why the lyrical hero would take up such a journey that would bring him so much suffering and pain. The word “journey” has always been associated with the phrase “a journey through life” or life itself, so the poem can be seen as an interpretation of a man’s life with all of its hardships and struggles. As if a mixture of two different stories, the poemstarts as an elegy and then transforms into a didactinc analysis of human existence. It goes into the philosophical themes of Christian faith, being devoted to God and the path to the spiritual. Christian faith teaches us to choose the spiritual before the material, to lead a modest and humble life instead of giving into satisfying our physical and emotional urges. The deprivation of carnal pleasures, abiding God’s laws and principles and the search of inner peace are things that define the strength and power of human faith and spirit, but for some they are just the things they strive for. The lyrical hero is the best example of this. He has repudiated “life on the land” and he is not even interested in the ways people live. For him the most important thing is to follow his heart and spirit and not to stray from his goal. Darkness and despair have descended upon his soul because of this journey, but it is the only right way he sees. He cannot stay peacefully at one place. Something in him urges him to go and search for the home and harmony he needs to calm down. Even when his spirit flies into the sky and “soars widely / through all the corners of the world” (60-61) it returns to him discontented and disheartened, because what he needs is not on earth. His abode is not in the world he lives in.The place he needs is the Heavenly Kingdom and only then and there will he receive repose. Resting on the Christian worldview the poem can be seen as a metaphor for the challenges a truly devoted Christian must face in life. Actually, if we take a deeper look into the poem we realize that the non-believers are represented as the city-dwellers, who lead a “dead life” (65) and are absolutely unconscious of the life a committed Christian leads.

In “The Seafarer” we can also see an example of the Anglo-Saxon ethic, according to which if you win the praise of people through doing good deeds you can live forever in the kingdom of God. The only way of achieving immortality is to be remembered with your bravery and courage and later on commemorated in a song or a tale: “And so it is for each man / the praise of the living, /of those who speak afterwards.” (72-73)It is as if through the memories of other people you earn the chance to live with the angels and God forever:

… against the enmity of devils,
                                       daring deeds          against the fiend,
                                       so that the sons of men          will praise him afterwards
                                       and his fame afterwards          will live with the angels
                                        for ever and ever,          the glory of eternal life,
                                       joy with the Hosts. (75-80)

The author again turns to Christianity by pointing to the fact that you do not have to win battles against other people or warriors, but against the devil himself – the root of all evil and the reason why many people do not recognize their creator. Only through defeating him, people will praise and admire you and you would be rewarded with eternal life. The devil is a collective image of all the evil in the world, but it can also be seen as a person’s sins and inner conflicts. By following God’s path of living, repenting for your sins, controlling your passions and desires and being a righteous and humble man you defeat your inner demons and win your place in the Heavenly Kingdom. According to the author people should recognize and praise God, the creator of all, and the ones who do not fear and venerate him will suffer the consequences of their wrong choices and sins, because they will not receive forgiveness. In this way they get deprived of the gift of humility which is granted by God through faith and is the only right way to eternal life. We can also witness the clash between the pagan and Christian religions:


Though he would strew          the grave with gold,
                                       a brother for his kinsman,          bury with the dead
                                       a mass of treasure,          it just won’t work—
                                       nor can the soul          which is full of sin
                                       preserve the gold          before the fear of God (97-101)


Even though the Anglo-Saxons believed that by burying the dead with gold and precious things would help them in the afterlife, the author claims that the material does not have a place in the great beyond, because for God only the spirit and its value matter. Wealth and gold belong to the earthly life and cannot be taken after its end.

The author also turns to the transience of the human life and all that is human as a whole. He includes some historical aspects as, for example, the fact that after the fall of the great Roman Empire the Anglo-Saxons lived among the remains of the ones that were once “most lordly majesty” (85) and their kingdoms. According to him the glorious days have passed, there are no longer mighty kings and “sons of princes” (93), because even the most powerful and noble can not stand against time. Everything is ephemeral and has a deadline. There is a correspondence between the withering of the mighty kingdoms and kings and the aging of man. Time has no mercy and with it everything human loses its luster, beauty and strength. Just like the glorious kingdoms lose their grandeur and power, the aging man starts losing his abilities, senses and traits. The aging man laments over the fact that life as he knows it is slipping away from his fingers – he can no longer perform his deeds; he is losing his friends and kinsmen and his body is failing him. The word the author uses – “lament” (92) is a synonym to the genre of the poem – an elegy. It is a mournful and despondent confession of his inner feelings. Elegies are considered to be based on personal experiences and we can really “peek” in the past and see a reflection of the true life of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, although we cannot know whether this is the case or not.

In the last few lines the author reveals his thoughts and beliefs as a truly devoted and committed Christian. It is shaped as a prayer and it is a manifestation of the faith in Lord. Though the elegy may sound depressing and dark it still has the light of hope, because the author shows other Christians that even though the path to eternal life is tough and difficult they must not give up on their faith and keep trying to find their way home:


Let us ponder          where we have our homes
                                       and then think          how we should get thither –
                                       and then we should all strive           that we might go there
                                       to the eternal blessedness          that is a belonging life
                                        in the love of the Lord          joy in the heavens. (117-121)


These last lines once again remind us that the choice of life defines what will happen after one departs from the physical world. The author wants us to understand that a life should be spent in trying to prove you are worthy of being amongst the Hosts. Only through faith can we realize that our world and everything in it is transient in comparison to the eternal world of God. The non-believers are narrow-minded and limited in their worldview, because for them only what they see exists. They cannot perceive the world like a believer and a devoted Christian can, because to the author seeing is not believing – believing is seeing. They will not be prepared to go when their hour strikes, because they have nothing to expect and believe in and their empty lives have not given them anything but delusions and lies. Having seen the fate of both sides it is all up to us to choose whether to drink from the Holy Grail or the gilded cup.

“The Seafarer” is a mirror of the Anglo-Saxon values and virtues and we can conceive of what they believed in and what they cherished the most. The author shows us that being loyal and devoted to God and people as a whole is of greatest importance to Anglo-Saxon society. In their time the strongest relationship of all was the one between God and his children – us, people. Doing good deeds and being brave and selfless in the name of God and your people wins you glory and paves your way to eternity. The Anglo-Saxon hero had to be not only strong and brave but also humble and benevolent. If he follows his religion he would be rewarded with going to Heaven and if he recognizes and believes in God death is no object. Glory and eternal life were all that an Anglo-Saxon longed for. The moral of the seafarer’s story is that no matter how hard the right path might be, it is the price we must all pay to go to Heaven and, after all, life is short and transient enough to waste it over earning a place in Hell.


Reference sources:





Magdalena Damyanova

Dr. Georgi Niagolov

English Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Faculty Number: 25 640; Group Three



Essay on Troilus and Criseyde


Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most famous late-fourteenth-century English poets. Chaucer, together with Lydgate came to represent the English literary past. Little is known about his personal life and education but fortunately there is a number of existing records related to his professional life. A typical feature of Chaucer is that he wrote in the vernacular, the English that was spoken in and around London in his day. Chaucer was influenced by other great authors like Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio who wrote in the Italian vernacular. Chaucer was a prolific writer and among his works are The Book of the Duchess, The Canterbury Tales and also one of his most complete and well-formed works – Troilus and Criseyde.

Geoffrey Chaucer used a lot of sources of inspiration in writing Troilus and Criseyde but one of them presents a great interest. Chaucer was likened to Ovid and the influence of Ovid’s works can be felt with different degrees of intensity throughout Chaucer’s poem. Medieval readers regarded Ovid not only as a master in the art of love and rhetoric but also as a great thinker and philosopher whose works people read with great interest. ‘From Ovid’s writings stem many commonplaces on love and perhaps some models for the archetypal characters of lovers, while Ovid’s poems are the likely ultimate source of many of Chaucer’s allusions to classical mythology, especially a suffused Ovidian sense form the Metamorphoses of how the gods and the natural world are involved in the process of suffering and transformation’ (qtd. in Windeatt 109). Ovid, of course, influenced not only Chaucer but also other great writers like Boccaccio who had a tendency to draw on Ovid, and Chaucer in turn absorbs into Troilus and Criseyde the influence Ovid has already had on Boccaccio.

Another exceptional thing about the poem is the diversity of genres which are brought together. Chaucer is among the first writers who use and combine various genres within the same work and that is why his poem achieves a specially mixed and combinative use of these different genres. One of them is the epic – at the beginning of the third book, where the physical union of the lovers is described, Chaucer invokes the assistance of Calliope, muse of epic poetry, so his writing can be associated with the writing of epic. ‘Chaucer absorbs into his Troilus many intrinsically non-epic features, but he also incorporates motifs of presentation, action, and characterization from earlier epic tradition with a resulting increase in complexity and richness of meaning’ (qtd. in Windeatt 141).

Another genre the author deals with is the romance. The author never refers to Troilus and Criseyde as a romance. But he shows both Criseyde and Pandarus reading romances in the text, and he also presents Pandarus as a reader of romances, so a clear reference to romance traditions can be seen. Another element typical for romance is the experience of being in love Troilus feels and all this is expressed with the help of superlatives and hyperbolical language which is commonly used in romance. There is great emphasis on the hero’s inexperience in love and that makes the feeling so charming and challenging, new and adventurous.                       Direct speech, dialogue, and song – all these bring us to the lyric nature of the poem. In other of his works Chaucer refer to characters who are singing but the actual text of the lyric is included in few of them. In this respect Troilus and Criseyde is easily distinguishable because of the frequency of the lyrics in the poem. In this way a unique relation between lyric and narrative is established and that can be considered as one of Chaucer’s achievements in the poem.                                                                                                                                                    The story of Troilus and Criseyde is narrated within a chronology structured according to the siege of Troy so it might be concluded that the genre of history is also present. A close look at the poem shows Chaucer’s attempt to re-create some sense of the pagan past where his characters are acting and this reflects a real interest in fourteenth-century England and suggests Chaucer wants to associate his poem with the writing of history.

Last but not least, Chaucer’s poem ends in an intensity of disappointment that invites comparison with some of the effects of tragedy. At key moments in the poem there are some motifs of a tragedy of rise and fall and in this way it is felt that tragedy is something inevitable.

The next thing which is worth analyzing is the structure of the work. In his poem Chaucer achieves a remarkable symmetry of structure which is specially designed to reflect the rise and fall of Troilus’ fortunes. ’This structure is very deliberately articulated through a series of prologues and book-endings, which emphasize each book as an entity while also contributing to the overall symmetry’ (qtd. in Windeatt 185).

The structure of time is also something that should be taken into consideration. Time is in a way related to the structure because it intensifies the narrative. In spite of the fact that the story takes place over some years, the focus of the narrative is on the things that happen during a small number of particular days. What is more, a lot of the key scenes occur during the night and there is also a discernible feeling of the transitions represented by dawn and dusk, so that the succession of night and day becomes one of the vital structural patterns in Chaucer’s poem.

The next section of the analysis is related to the themes of the poem focused on love, different aspects of human character and also on the freedom of the will. The themes of Troilus and Criseyde are questions, it is as if the poem asks questions about the most important things in human life. One of them is related to love and it is clear that Chaucer devotes a special attention to this incomparable feeling. In fact, he includes so much discussion and reflection on the nature and value of loving that the poem turns into a debate about love. Some questions arise through the story but they are not answered directly and that produces an effect of openness which in a way invites the reader to participate in the debate. It is Pandarus who puts the view that love is irresistible and explains to Troilus that all humans are susceptible to love in two ways – spiritual or earthly:

‘For this have I herdseyd of wyselered,                                                                                                       Was nevere man or woman yet bigete

That was unapt to sufferen loves hete,                                                                                         Celestial, or elles love of kynde;                                                                                                                    Forthysom grace I hope in hire to fynde’.     (i. 976-80)


Pandarus then proceeds with considering his niece’s case in relation to the two types of love:


‘It sit hire naught to ben celectial

As yet, though that hire listebothe and kowthe;

But trewely, it state hire wel right nowthe

A worthi knight to loven and cherice,

And but she do, I holde it for a vice.’     (i. 983-7)


According to Pandarus, Criseyde is capable of ‘love celestial’ so the potential of that happening is expected to come. Another theme discussed in the poem is secrecy which reminds of the romance tradition. In his work Chaucer creates a society that does not allow privacy to his lovers and at the same time he gives his characters an intense sense that they must keep their affair in secret. That adds more tension and difficulty to the protagonists. The story reflects this concern for secrecy by focusing on a sequence of scenes involving disclosure. In Book II both Troilus and Criseyde are presented in ways that reveal their secret sides of character which they carefully hide. But there is something ironic in the public performance of a poem about an experience which is so private that depends on secrecy in order to continue.

The moral principle of honour is another theme in the poem. The heroine Criseyde tries to maintain her honour in Troy as best as she can and her uncle is also concerned for her good name. After Criseyde has seen her beloved ride past in triumph, the idea of the honourable connection with the prince enters her mind:


‘It were honour with pley and gladnesse

In honestee with swich a lord to deele,

For mynestat, and also for his heele.’     (ii. 705-7)


For Criseyde the worst thing which can happen is that people would learn about the affair, and in her solitude she tries to persuade herself that this love is honourable.                                                 Last but not least, come the philosophical themes about fortune and freedom of the will. Chaucer puts his characters in a position where they constantly interpret what happens in their lives in terms of fortune, destiny, and chance. In terms of the narrative, the future of the lovers is predestined. Freedom is also discussed here and especially the freedom of Criseyde and its restrictions. The whole sequence of action in Book II from the first visit to Pandarus to her entering Troilus’ sick-room shows that she is deeply aware of the freedom of action she possesses.

After turning special attention to the themes presented in the poem, the contribution of the stylistic variety should also be mentioned in analyzing this work. Language and style are crucial to the understanding of the poem. Style is of the essence both for the feeling of hopeful love, and for the feeling of lamentation and disappointment. The sheer multiplicity of styles and abundance of language contribute to the ambitious scope and variety of implication of the poem. ‘The choice of language is being made by a narrator who reminds his reader, by means of an analogy with sculpture, that there is always a choice of mediums and materials for expression’ (qtd. in Windeatt 314).

Analyzing the poem step by step – beginning with the sources of inspiration for the author, then going through the specifics of the genre and structure, discussing the themes and lastly the style of the work, provides the reader with a more detailed picture of the ‘world’ of the poem and proves again the exceptional abilities of the author to make us live in a fantasy while reading the poem.






Maria Vaklina

Doctor George Niagolov

Medieval and Renaissance Literature

15 January 2013


Transience and Eternity in The Seafarer


The old English heroic elegy The Seafarer is part of the Exeter Book. It is a poignant and mournful poem about an old lonely person who has chosen a life of obscurity and suffering (“my heart wanders away, my soul roams with sea”), and uses his monologue to tell his complaints about being isolated from society because of his passion to sail. The speaker characterizes life as transient and, at the same time, eternal. While speaking he reveals the beliefs and moral values of his own age and culture. The Anglo-Saxon society that believes in God and Heaven but the society that also fights against dragons and wants to satisfy its needs with earthly pleasures. There is a constant battle between transience and eternity in the everyday life of these people; the flesh and the earthly life are mortal and they will pass (“I do not believe/ that this earth-weal still stands eternal.” 66-7) but the Heavenly kingdom and the soul of the person that will dwell in it forever are eternal. What the seafarer focuses his attention on through the whole elegy is actually the transitoriness of the material and the eternity of the immaterial, the divine.

In the Old English poetry as well as in most literary works we can find preoccupation with transience, the wonderment at the earlier civilizations’ death and the lament about human life and joy’s briefness. Going back to the etymology of the Latin word “transient” we find the meaning of something that is passing, the image is connected with a journey. The latter reminds us of the earthly journey of everyone on this earth; it is the journey to the eternity in Heaven. As every long travel this one cannot be finished without going through difficulties, terrible storms, happy moments, and all other colourful happenings that accompany the traveller.

I in toil-days

torment-time often endured,

abode and still do bitter breast-care,

sought in my ship many a care-hall,

horrible waves’ rolling, where narrow night-watch

often has kept me at the ship’s stem

when it dashes by cliffs. Pinched by the cold

were my feet, bound by frost’s

frozen fetters, where those cares sighed

hot about heart; (2-11)


In his journey the seafarer meets with the obstacle of being alone, isolated from society, having no one to talk to and no one to love, no one to share and no one to live with.

Nevertheless, the poet still rejects all the earthly pleasures and values which are part from the dead life on this earth. He has a disbelief in permanence in the permanence of each of “the riches of earth”, and he shows clearly that they are synonymous to life itself (Godden and Lapidge 174).


Therefore, praise of the living, of those speaking after,

is for each noble one best of words left behind—

that he so work, before he must away,

good actions on earth against malice of fiends,

brace deeds against devils,

that children of men after may praise him,

and his glory hereafter live among angels… (72-8)


From these lines we understand the division that the speaker makes between human-centred and God-centred afterlife blessings; the human-centred benefit is the glory that a person gains after living on this earth. This glory is what the speaker of an earlier poem Beowulf wants; his purpose is to fight against the dragon and after being killed to remain in people’s hearts and minds with his bravery, with the good deeds he has done for his people. This vicious glory is what people nowadays want to leave on this earth after their death. A “Praise of the living” point not only to the human but also to the divine beings and this is part of the God-centred blessings: to be with Him in eternity and praise His name. In the poem the speaker combines two traditions which are heroic and Christian and thus puts a contrast between two different types of permanence. The heroic tradition may be defined as the longing for “survival of honour” after one’s death; it is the individual’s wish for survival of their reputation, and the Christian tradition, on the other hand, characterized by hope for secure tenure in Heaven. The elegiac speaker concentrates his attention on the Biblical values, and the pursuit for spending the eternity in God’s Heaven.

Another prominent characteristic of the seafarer is that he is always an outcast who despite of his love to the trаnsiеnt earthly luxuriеs he doesn’t devote his life to gaining wealth. The speaker is on a journey to the true home, he is just a passenger on earth. Often his hope of the eternal life comes as a deep want for release from the pain, solitude, and mortality. In the following lines he speaks about this journey to the home:


I, far hence,
foreigners’, pilgrims’, homeland should seek.
For there is none so proud in heart over earth,
none so good of his gifts nor in youth so keen,
in deeds so brave, to him lord so loyal,
that ever no sorrow he has of seafaring,
of what the Lord–God’s will–brings him to.
Nor is his thought on harp or on ring-taking,
on woman’s delight or on the world’s hope,
nor on aught else save the tossing of waves:
he ever has longing who hastens on water.
Groves blossom, make fair the dwellings,
brighten the plains–the world hurries forward:
all these urge him, doomed of mind,
his spirit to sojourn on which he so minds,
to depart far on flood-ways.
So the cuckoo urges, mournful of voice;
summer’s ward sings, forebodes for me sorrow,
bitter in breast-hoard. That one does not know,
man blessed with comfort, what some endure
who widest must lay the tracks of the exile. (37-57)


At the end he is eager and ready for “the joys of the Lord” (King James Bible, Nehemiah 8:9). He longs for the life after the end of his voyage to Heaven in the following terms:


Therefore, now, heart turns beyond its breast-chamber,
my mind’s thought with mere-flood,
over the whale’s home, wide in its turning,
over earth’s regions-comes back to me
eager and greedy. (58-62)


The Anglo-Saxon belief of the transience of this world goes hand in hand with the belief of its end in the eternity and the preparation of the earthly life for a more enduring one. To the seafarer God’s will is more powerful than the person’s thought. The speaker ends with the words:


Let us consider where our true home is;

and then let us think how to come thither;

and then also strive that we indeed come there,

into the blessedness there everlasting,

where life is long in love of God,

hope in the heavens. So, to the Holy One

thanks that he honored us, master of Glory,

God of Eternity, in all our time. AMEN. (117-24)


The problem of the eternal nature of human soul is deeply rooted in Old English literature. It stems not only from the Biblical passages but also from the real events from the creation of this world. The Anglo-Saxons believed in the Biblical imagery from the very beginning of all existing up to the end (the return of the Messiah, the Judgment day, the New Heaven and the New Earth). The eternal bliss in the Heavenly realm is for the worthy who believed in Christ and whose sins were forgiven once and for all. What follows after living unworthy on the earth was spending eternity “into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” (KJV, Mark 9:43b,44).

The sea-voyage of the speaker is a metaphor for the experience of exile and the hunger of the soul for the eternal life. He longs for the Heaven which he compares to the royal mead-hole where the Lord of lords dwells in the eternal communion of the angels and the saints. The seafarer realizes that all that man can achieve is temporal and it will pass away, the Kingdom of Heaven and the hell are the things that will last forever. The earthly life of people “soon shall pass” and the human soul is the only thing that will exist forever.

Wanes all this noble host; joys have departed;
weaker remain and rule this world,
live here afflicted. Glory is humbled,
honor of earth grows old and withers,
as does now every man over this Middle-Earth.
Old age fares over him; bright face grows pale;
gray-haired, he grieves, knows former friends… (86-92)


The secular pleasures must not be important because the older a person grows, the weaker he becomes, the closer to eternity he reaches.

Transience and eternity are the two worlds that we encounter in our lives living on this earth. Our task is to seek for the belief in God and leave as much as we can the secular pleasures so that at the end of our journey we would be worthy to dwell in our true house forever and not to be tortured in hell for eternity. This is the moral lesson of the elegiac poem The Seafarer to people from all ages. It not only shows the right path to the eternal heavenly bliss to the Anglo-Saxons of those days but also to the present travellers who love the transient luxuries and don’t have the courage or power to cease the mortal longings and turn their back to the transient.




Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987.

Sanders, A. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994.

Carter, R. and McRae, J. The Routledge History of Literature in English. Routledge, New York and London, 2001.

Alexander, M. A History of English Literature. Macmillan, 2000.

Godden, M and Lapidge, M. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Online Sources

“Loneliness in The Seafarer by Bradley and The Wife’s Lament by Stanford.” 13 Jan 2013

Russell, Tony, Allen Brizee, and Elizabeth Angeli. “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford U.P. 2012








Rumiana Mihaylova

Dr. Georgi Niagolov

English Medieval Literature

15 January 2013


The Image of Man in the Medieval Morality Play: Mankind


The morality play in Medieval English literature developed as a dramatic form of moral instruction which had a marked entertainment quality. The comic elements helped to drive home a powerful moral message about man’s oscillation between virtuous life and wrongdoing, between high spiritual aspirations and love of worldly riches. Man is symbolically placed at the centre of theatrical depiction, where the battle between the primeval forces of good and evil happens both within and outside the human soul. This interplay between psychological and externalized moral conflict accounts for the multiplicity and multidimensionality of man’s experience. His journey from innocence to temptation and his path to salvation through repentance are the main concern of Mankind, a play which traces man’s fall from grace and his subsequent redemption from sin.

The play’s eponymous protagonist Mankind is a concrete individual character who stands for every man and for the whole of humanity – he is a ‘generalized human figure’ (Happé, 80), whose exploration of the ways of good and evil turns into a metaphor for human life itself. The other allegorical characters of the play – Mercy and his villainous counterparts – are personified ‘complete psychological entities’ (Beadle, 248). It is entirely through their agency that man’s voyage of discovery is initiated and mediated. The mischievous devil and his henchmen are projections of man’s susceptibility to sin. By depicting man’s attributes as distinct dramatic personae with unquestioned authority over him, the play enables man to speak directly to the powers in his psyche that are contending for dominance over his soul. The angelical and the diabolical engage in a game of ruse and delusion whose outcome is morally suited to the purpose of the play – to show the tribulations of man’s fundamental choice between virtue and vice and to leave spectators with an acute awareness of which scenario they should follow if they want to have hope of eternal salvation through God’s benevolence.

The play’s only virtue, Mercy, is Mankind’s instructor and God’s messenger whose duty is to remind man of Christ’s sacrifice and of the transitory nature of life on Earth. Mercy directly addresses the audience, making them part of the dramatic action and the didactic story that is about to unfold before their eyes. Mercy’s sermon is interrupted by Mischief who irreverently parodies Mercy’s style of speech, which anticipates the imminent conflict between good deeds and idleness. Later on, after Mankind succumbs to the temptation of vice, he will mimic different patterns of behaviour – both physical and verbal, thus indicating his affiliation to either Mercy or Mischief. The very encounter of these two characters serves as a signal for the dialectic opposition characteristic of human existence and is the source of dramatic tension. Even before Mankind has appeared on the microcosmic battleground of the stage, all the prerequisites for testing man’s unswerving faith are laid out.

Mankind is depicted as an honest ploughman who sees hard agricultural work as remedy against sloth and sinful life. According to Pamela M. King, labour can be metaphorically extended to signify spiritual and religious effort (Beadle, 249). The play’s protagonist can be construed as an archetypal representation of the fallen Adam (250), who was condemned by God to hard work to earn his living and is ‘often depicted in the visual arts with a spade’ (250). Mankind’s spade is his only prop which turns into a weapon (both metaphorically and quite literally – when he tries to chase away the proponents of bad behaviour) and ironically – into the instrument of his moral corruption (when Titivillus deceitfully prevents him from cultivating the land, which triggers Mankind’s desperation and abandonment to sin). Mankind is aware of the inherently dual nature of his existence – he is a corporeal and a spiritual being, whose soul should have precedence over the flesh. The battle between these who leading forces is allegorically re-enacted through Mankind’s dramatically contrived encounter with the Vices, which reinforces the vision of worldly life as a theatre of incessant war.

Under the guidance of Mischief, Mankind is tentatively tempted into a life of self-indulgence by the three ‘distraction vices’ (249) – New Gyse, Nowadays and Nought, but they cannot easily sway either Mercy or Mankind who do not find sinful life alluring. Then, the Vices revert to summoning the real Devil – a mercenary and calculating Titivillus, who ingeniously deprives Mankind of his occupation and consequently – of his spiritual quests. Mankind becomes a debased creature entrapped in a vicious circle of idleness and lack of moral consciousness. He is determined to forsake his religious devotion and is quickly lured into the bawdy merrymaking of the lifestyle that the Vices insidiously advocate. Even his clothing is refashioned to suit the requirements of the new ‘guise’. At the point when Mankind becomes so disillusioned with himself that he resolves to hang himself, Mercy intervenes to instil humility in him and deliver him from his predicament. All these vicissitudes acquire a more personal and at the same time universal dimension through the involvement of the audience that is not merely a passive spectator but is engaged as an active participant in the dramatic action. The spectators of the play are on numerous occasions explicitly invited to transcend the fictional world of the play and reflect upon their own moral decisions and actions. The attraction of sin is convincingly demonstrated to pertain to every man, and this is why the audience is treated as a secret accomplice and evaluator of the schematic decline of Mankind’s moral integrity.

The dramatic and staging features of the play presuppose a distinct ‘metatheatricality’ (Happé, 17). There is a constant fusion between the materialized allegorical world of the play and the concrete conventionalized nature of theatrical performance, between man and Mankind. Spatially and temporally complicit in the cosmos of the morality play, the spectator is drawn into ‘a moral arena’ (Styan, 42) which stands for the whole world, with its vast array of physical and experiential phenomena. Man is the object of moral exploration but he is also compelled to realize how his own behaviour can be the parallel of Mankind’s impertinence and neglect of God. The audience is confronted with the same dilemma as Mankind – whether to be taken in by the skilful machinations of the Vices or to resist the subversion of ethical norms. In order to become a witness to how vice perverts man, the audience is technically made to assist and effect Mankind’s corruption, thus entering the role of the remorseless villain. The spectators are faced with the impossibility for the play to continue if they refuse to pay for Titivillus’s appearance. If the devil were absent from the play, there would be no instigation for the dramatic conflict – the battle of and for the soul of Mankind would lose its artistic and psychological validity. The juxtaposition of aesthetic and moral reality, of bold comedy and solemn sermon is a powerful tool for putting forward the moral lesson of the play.

The stark contrast between the play’s two sets of characters, with Mankind in between, is rhetorically and narratively constructed. The Vices display an extremely irreverent and forward behaviour; they revel in scatological and blasphemous jest, they distort and manipulate language. Their overtly playful actions and often nonsensical words hold the audience in awe and suspense, which makes them highly amusing and attractive characters. They even enter into conspiracy with the spectators, allowing them to see things that are inaccessible to Mankind and empowering them to get an illuminating glimpse at the secret strategies of the Vices to gain power over human consciousness. The central villain of the play, Titivillus, poses an ultimate challenge to the spectators’ perceptions by claiming to be invisible – he is more of a magical, supernatural creature that manages to captivate the audience’s attention and imagination by offering them a double perspective on Mankind’s – and their own – psychomachia. The theatrical games, songs and tricks are there to demonstrate the human predilection for idleness and enjoyment. The enticement of the play’s humour and the potential pleasure derived from decoding the allegorical story are a meta-artistic comment on man’s role as an experiencer and observer of life who is given the agency of a moral judge with a universal ‘obligation of moral choices’ (Ford, 60). Man is induced to see beyond the manifestations of insolence and the liberties of thought and language and to realize the consequences of living without moral principles and ideals.

Mankind’s spectators were given the opportunity to bridge the allegorical distance between man and dramatic persona in the same way as an individual attempts to get at the inner workings of the mind and the way they govern human deeds. It is in the overlap of the carnivalesque and the religious, the transient and the eschatological, the material and the eternal, that mankind can find the means for self-exploration and discover that mercy, whose promise is to make humanity ‘pleyferys wyth þe angellys abowe’ (Mankind, line 914), is the human faculty to seek and believe in forgiveness.


Works Cited

“Mankind”. Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Ed. Greg Walker. Oxford: Blackwell

Publishers, 2000. Print.

Beadle, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.

Ford, Boris, ed. The Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Books, 1954. Print.

Happé, Peter. English Drama Before Shakespeare. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman

Limited, 1999. Print.

Styan, J. L. The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Victoria Lukanova


Instructor: Dr. Georgi Niagolov

Course: Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Winter Term 2012/13


The Image of Man in the Morality Play: Mankind


            Medieval drama constituted a large and inseparable part of the cultural and social life of the time. It served the purposes of entertainment and instruction, of affirming the existing status quo and of subtly undermining it by questioning some of its principles and practices. In any case the drama of the period was a tool for exerting control as well as for bestowing a feeling of relative freedom, and as such it was equally indispensable for the peasant, the lord and the Church. Before reaching the magnitude of the Shakespearean plays, the English theatre underwent a long way of development beginning with the somewhat crude mumming performances and liturgical plays, strictly embedded in the frame of the Church, going through the more permissive mystery plays and rounding off with the individual and secular approach of the morality plays. Without each of these preliminary stages the status and quality of the nascent Renaissance drama would have been unthinkable. What is more, each of these stages points to a phase in the development of human thought and ideology and marks the path from Medieval to Renaissance man.

My aim in this essay will be to highlight the image of man in one of the above stages of spiritual and cultural evolution, namely the image of man as seen within the scope of the morality play. I will try to demonstrate that in the context of Mankind, man is presented as an oscillation between good and evil and between virtue and vice, and it is a matter of choice which of these poles he will opt for. In this respect, despite the obvious moral message in accordance with the norms of the genre, we can discern the first features of the early modern man – the man faced with the freedom of choice.

Although for its most part Mankind conforms to the conventional plot structure of the morality play, it displays an unusual originality as far as language and staging are concerned. The plotline evolves according to the traditional allegorical scheme of the period where the main protagonist is tempted into sin by the devil, but after a period of remorse for his moral weakness and a subsequent repentance, he is saved by the mercy of God. Basically the plot revolves around the battle between vice and virtue for man’s soul and it is through his own downfall that he realizes that real happiness does not lie in the earthly ephemeral pleasures typified by the Flesh, the World and the Devil (here presented as New Guise, Nought and Nowadays), but in the eternity of the soul, which could be achieved only through virtuous life and in compliance with the religious laws and the Christian creed. As far as the formal features of the composition are concerned, these have been preserved in Mankind so that the didactic function of the morality play remains intact.

On the other hand, however, this piece of medieval drama exhibits some strong deviations from the established model of the genre. Its most striking feature is the great dynamics of the action achieved by the relatively small number of the cast, as compared to that of other plays, as well as its palpable liveliness and theatricality. Indeed, the play is considered the “liveliest” and most “theatrical” of the moralities of that age (Walker 2000 ) which, as Prof. Mincoff comments, is indicative of the way in which English drama was evolving – towards a more professional, secular and original approach (Mincoff 1998). The strict rigidity of language and performance have given way to a more natural, accessible, and eventually more entertaining staging of the play where the audience are not mere passive spectators about to be instructed in the moral principles of life, but are actively involved in the performance, by being addressed both collectively as in Mercy’s speech at the beginning “O ye soverens that sytt and ye brothern that stonde ryght uppe,” (29) or a few lines later by Mischief who invites them to: “Onschett yowr lokke and take an halpenye. ” (52)[1]. Later in the play certain members of the audience are even called by name, a device which caters both for a comic effect and for certain implicatures, referring to their moral and social status of the quoted individuals. It seems that the whole nature and idea of theatre slowly begin to change; its function is no longer so much to moralise and instruct as it is to entertain and provoke an active participation and interpretation through such techniques as ridicule or questioning of dogmatic norms and beliefs. An example of the latter is found at the very beginning of the play where Mischief undermines the seriousness and validity of Mercy’s homiletic speech by directly abusing him verbally: “Yowr wytt ys lytyll, yowr hede ys mekyll, ye are full of predycacyon.” (line 47) and challenging the rationality of what he preaches:

Corn servit bredibus, chaffe horsibus, straw fyrybusque.

ys as moche to say, to yowr leude undyrstondynge,

As the corn shall serve to brede at the nexte bakynge. (57-59)

Undoubtedly, the authority of the vice and his role in the play are such that they could not thoroughly disrupt the overall didactic purpose of the play, still a slight ironical wink is made at the teachings of the Church which begin to sound somewhat outdated at the dawn of a new age of thinking. This understanding of the play is reinforced by the usage of language and stage behaviour which were to appeal to the larger masses.

With time drama became increasingly vernacular and popular in its nature, a fact which suggests its greater influence over the people. In Mankind this is illustrated in the sharp distinction between the language of the Church (as represented by Mercy) and that of its usurpers (Mischief and the other vices). The first is markedly solemn, stiff and authoritative, whereas the latter is bawdy, raucous, cheeky and peppered with scatological references, whose effect is highly humourous and exhilarating. Together with the numerous pranks, mischievous tricks and physical technicalities, language becomes a device to win the audience over and to divert its attention from the more serious matters of the sermons and the religious teachings of the day. This is not to say that the morality play has lost its formal function, but that it has gained a new dimension which reflects on the changing nature of man – man appears to have become more bold and independent in his interpretation of the world and his place in it; he has been given the right to choose which way to take – the righteous or the sinful and this idea reverberates the philosophy of the emerging age of Humanism where man is perceived in his intermediary, but central position in the Universe and thus incorporates both divine and pernicious qualities and it is a matter of individual choice which ones he will cultivate. [2] This notion is further backed up by the principle of synthesis, which implies that man harbours both good and evil and constantly oscillates between the two (I am referring to Bachtin’s theory here), but ultimately, it is the job of the Church to steer man to the more virtuous principles.

On another level the play invites the reader to place the ever-shifting nature of man in the carnivalesque spirit of the popular culture of the time. The disorder of the human soul can be perceived in the light of the general upsetting of balance in the medieval world at certain times of the year – vice overturns virtue, bad language suppresses formal speech, boisterous activities and crude primitive needs replace obedience and decency; there is a sense of chaos and permissiveness which violates the established order of society, mocks and questions authority and disrespects the norms peaceful existence. Such practices were to a great extent licensed by the Church and the state and functioned as an outlet for any accumulated discontent and as symbolic preparation for a new cycle in the religious, as well as biological life of the people. As it is, Mankind was most probably staged in the days between Christmas and Lent and can be interpreted as mirroring a period of mirth and joy when the order of normal life gets turned upside down, so that it can be restored again with the resurrection of Christ and the salvation of man that is to follow; further, it can be seen as celebrating the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring.[3] Such an interpretation of the play would not be amiss if we consider the various grotesque elements in it connected to body and verbal language. In my opinion, these elements are indicative of the birth of a more liberating understanding of the world and the ways in which it operates, and again confirm the heterogeneous and consequently unique nature of man. Laughter and entertainment start walking hand in hand once again, as was the custom in the Antiquity and it seems that this new concept of drama – as both instructive and entertaining, marks the end of a somewhat dark and dour period in the history of man and the arrival of optimism, individualism and more personal freedom. As a result of these tendencies, man emerges as the quintessence of the divine, embodying seemingly incompatible principles of good and bad, sublime and primitive, earthly and heavenly, but which ultimately make up the image of one whole complete being.

Using as a starting point the text of the morality play Mankind this paper makes an attempt to outline the new direction which English drama takes at the close of the 15th century. In its evolution theatre gradually begins to take a more secular and individualistic approach, outstepping the boundaries of the Church and relying increasingly on creativity and originality. These changes reflect the growing complexity of man and his ever expanding knowledge of the world around him and within him in anticipation of the complex, multi-faceted image he is to acquire in the Renaissance.

Works Cited

Happé, Peter. English Drama Before Shakespeare. London and New York: Longman, 1999. Print            .

Mincoff, Marco. A History of English Literature. Sofia: Pleiada, 1998. Print.

Richards, Christine and Johnson, Jackie. Medieval Drama. Macmillan, 1991. Print.

Styan, J.L. The English Stage. A History of Drama and Performance. Cambridge: Cambrigde University Press, 1996. Print.

Walker, Greg, ed. Medieval Drama: an Antology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Web Publications

Kathleen M. Ashley, M., Kathleen and Ne Castro, Gerard, ed. “Mankind”. In: Mankind. Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2009.Web.<>

MacDonald, Rick, transl. “Mankind”. Web. <>

[1] Later on in the play, just before Titivillus enters, a small fee seems indeed to have been collected from the members of the audience, as indicated by the text and according to scholars (Prof. Mincoff 1998, p.199 among other) this was the first instance of such a practice and an indication that theatre was becoming a professional occupation.

[2] As postulated and expanded by the Italian Humanist and thinker Pico della Mirandola in his Oration on the Dignity of Man.

[3] In my interpretation here i draw on M.Bachtin theory of the Carnival and the grotesque.