4 August 2011 

For our latest post we’re pleased to have a contribution from Helen Cooper, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance in English at Cambridge University. Professor Cooper was also the first woman fellow at University College, Oxford. Her latest book is ‘Shakespeare and the Medieval World’.  Here she discusses the influence the Mystery Plays might have had on Shakespeare….

In their combination of spectacle, civic pride and religious observance, the mystery plays were the late medieval equivalent of the play festivals of ancient Athens. They were acted in towns and cities throughout England, from Norwich to Newcastle, Coventry to Chester. In their fullest form, they enacted the whole history of humankind from the Fall of Satan through the Creation and Passion to the Last Judgement. They were associated with the feast of Corpus Christi, which was celebrated with processions that sometimes incorporated tableaux representing the major events of the Passion and Redemption, like the present-day Easter week processions in Spain. The origins of the plays may lie in the elaboration of these tableaux into short dramatic pageants, which eventually took on an independent life of their own as they were combined into great dramatic cycles.

Corpus Christi Day fell close to midsummer, so it allowed for a generous performance time for the plays, from daybreak to dusk. Although some were designed to be acted in a single location, many were performed on wagons drawn through the streets of their home city, each wagon pausing at appointed places for its pageant to be acted. Each pageant was typically the responsibility of a single craft guild, sometimes chosen for its appropriateness. At York, for instance, the shipwrights were in charge of Noah’s Flood; at Chester, the cap-makers had responsibility for the pageant of Balaam and the ass, which required the making of a head for the talking donkey.

The Corpus Christi plays, as they were generally known, lasted until late in the sixteenth century, but by then they were being attacked from all sides, and only a handful of texts now survive. They belonged with the Catholic theology that the Reformation had rejected; they represented God on stage, and elaborated in imaginative and even comic ways on the pure Word of God as contained in the Bible, in apparent contradiction of the Second and Third Commandments. The government wanted them suppressed because the crowds that came to see them might threaten disorder. And the humanists scorned them because with their great range of time and space, their mixing of grief and laughter, and their wide embrace of all social classes from kings to shepherds, they broke all the recently-rediscovered rules that Aristotle had laid down for correct drama and that Greek and Latin playwrights had faithfully observed. They largely disappeared in the course of Elizabeth’s reign, sometimes to the annoyance or grief of the citizens who regarded them as a source both of local pride and of income. York’s cycle had its last performance in 1569, Coventry’s ten years later – by which time Shakespeare, living not far away in Stratford, was already 15, and could well have seen it. Places that were more out of the way managed to continue for longer. Kendal maintained its cycle into the reign of James I in the seventeenth century. As late as 1644, an old man could remember how when he was young he had seen ‘a man on a cross, and blood ran down’.

As that image suggests, the plays were deeply memorable. Shakespeare and his audiences would not have had to see a cycle to know that Herod was regularly presented as a bombastic tyrant with an explosive temper, but the excessive acting style that Hamlet describes as ‘out-Heroding Herod’ would mean a lot more to spectators who had seen it for themselves – and Coventry had a notably bombastic Herod, who is instructed in a stage direction to rage in the street as well as on the wagon-stage. Coventry also had a particularly famous devil who acted as the porter at the gates of Hell, such as is recalled by the Porter of Macbeth. Most importantly, however, and in marked contrast to humanist drama, the mystery plays acted their action, whether that was the fall of Lucifer from Heaven to Hell, or the full violence of the Crucifixion.

That readiness to stage anything and everything, and to enlist audience complicity in the make-believe that the stage could show the impossible, was the most important thing that Shakespeare and his contemporaries inherited from the mysteries. The invisible fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are no problem to an audience familiar with the idea that God could be put on stage, nor the shifting between Egypt and Rome in Antony and Cleopatra to anyone accustomed to a drama that could encompass Heaven, earth and Hell. Their dramatis personae encompassed the whole of mankind, a stage where princes and artisans belonged side by side, participated equally in joy and disaster and came to a common Judgement. The cycles offered themselves not as comedies or tragedies, but simply as ‘plays’: as imaginative recreations of whatever in heaven or earth could be imagined. The traditional motto of the Globe belonged equally to them: Totus mundus agit histrionem, best translated perhaps not as ‘All’s the world’s a stage’, but as ‘Everyone plays a part’, audience and actors alike.