Morality plays were a popular genre in England for a long period of time 15th to 16th century by virtue of their central themes and intelligible plots. Through dramatizing stories and events in easily understandable for the illiterate masses manner, morality plays propagandized Christian morals and reinforced the church's teachings and doctrine. Central themes in this genre of the Medieval theatrical entertainment were the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, virtuous and sinful.
Mankind is a typical representative of the morality play genre. The play is a moral allegory, about a man called Mankind, a representative of humanity, who is tempted into sin and eventually finds redemption when he repents for his mistakes. Man is presented as a creature consisting of two parts - body and soul. The body represents human's carnal needs and it leads mankind into temptation, while the soul is pure and stands for the spiritual. Mankind illustrates the eternal battle of the human soul, of the dualistic clash between good and evil that we all carry within ourselves. At the beginning the main character is presented as a pious Christian, he knows that following Mercy's advices means following the right path, but later when he is presented with temptation he easily falls into the vices' trap. We see that the main protagonist represents humanity. We know what is right and what wrong but that does not mean that we always follow the right path. Humankind is often lured by temptation, seduced by sin and corrupted by evil. Mankind strays from the right path, he loses his way and through that God's mercy. The audience witnesses his fall, his succumbing to sin but they also witness his regret for his actions and repentance in the end of the play when he is forgiven for his sins.
The play opens with Mercy's appearance who instructs the audience in how they should behave. He highlights important qualities of the proper and good man according to the Christian doctrine from that time. Mercy tells people that they should not devote their love to "transitory things", that they should lift their eyes to the heavens and behold what is there and not on Earth, he preaches toward purity and humility. All these are qualities of the proper Christians. Those who live piously should not fear the last judgment for God will have mercy for those who had not let themselves be corrupted by evil and for those who had repented for their sins or The corn shall be saved and the chaff shall be burnt.
Later in his conversation with Mankind Mercy puts emphasis on the battle between the body and the soul, a theme widely discussed in morality plays, seen in religious contexts and many literary works. The body is regarded as something transitory, easily tempted into sin, and one should resist the temptations of the flesh if they want to be worthy of God's mercy.
Vita hominis est milicia super terram. (Latin.)
The life of man on earth is a battle.
"If you want to be rewarded by God you must be ready for the fight."
Further down we see that Mercy also focuses on the notion of moderation, when it comes to the consumption of alcohol, calling moderation a great treasure. Proverbs are common feature of morality plays and Mercy gives Mankind a good advice. A good man should reject overindulgence and should instead devote himself to work, so that he can defeat his spiritual enemy.
'Measure is treasure'. I forbid you not the use.
Measure yourself ever; beware of excess.
The play as a whole contains a positive attitude toward man. In the beginning the main character is presented as noble, honest and pure at heart. He believes in God and in his mercy, and is aware of his faulty nature, and that is why he seeks Mercy's guidance. Mankind is urged to be righteous, to be a good Christian.
The first time he shows on stage and the first lines he speaks foreground his association with hard work and earthiness and that brings him closer to the audience, highlights his image as a humble, hardworking and pious man, who lives by God's laws and makes an honest livelihood by cultivating his lands.
Of the earth and of the clay we have our propagation;
By the providence of God thus be we derivate-
To whose mercy I recommend this whole congregation;
I hope unto his bliss ye be all predestinate.
The image of Mankind is stereotypical and easily recognizable and that makes it more accessible to the audience, who can easily relate to him. The main protagonist is caring and good natured in the beginning, he follows Mercy's advices. Yet, just like all human beings he has free will and is sometimes tempted to indulge in pleasure or be lazy.
Mercy's speech on virtue is interrupted by Mischief, a leader to the three vices which are also called Worldlings, who mocks and distorts Mercy's words. Mischief, Nought, New Guise and Nowadays , just like all the characters in the play are personified allegorical figures. While Mercy represents God's good will and mercy, Michief, Nought, New Guise and Nowadays represent everything that is evil, vein and sinful. The vices' purpose is to tempt Mankind into sin in order to corrupt his soul and that becomes possible when Mercy leaves and Mankind is left alone with the Wordlings.
The first time when he is tempted by the three vices Mankind manages to fight them off with his spade, the instrument through which he cultivates his lands. This is a metaphor through which we see that hard work is one of the ways to fight the sin. Mankind manages to fight the three vices off , he shows that he really tries to be a good Christian and resist temptation. Yet, when Trivilus is summoned by the Worldlings, who collect money from the audience so that the demon would show, Mankind is faced with many hindrances and hardships in his work. His belief falters and he slowly starts walking away from what is right and good. He becomes lazy, stops going to church, stops praying and instead occupies himself with things that demand less labor or patience and bring immediate pleasure and gratification.
Without Mercy to guide him Mankind is lost, he quickly forgets what is virtue and even though he inwardly knows which decisions are right he fails to take them. Mankind is weak and unable to uphold he Christian principles he had declared for in the beginning of the play. When he is told that Mercy is dead he is even relieved that there would not be anyone to blame him or punish him for his failure to remain true to righteousness and the beliefs he had so ardently defended before.
Hurray!ÂÂ Mercy has broken his neck or is hanged by the neck high on a gallows.ÂÂ Adieu fair masters I'm off to the nearest alehouse.ÂÂ To speak with New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought and get me a floozy with a pretty face.
Interesting is the important role the audience plays. The people watching the play are dragged into the action too, they just like Mankind are goaded into sin, which contributes to the interactive nature of the Morality plays. When the demon Trivulus whispers in Mankind's ear that Mercy is dead the audience is asked not to tell, and by that becoming an accomplice in a lie.
Mankind's new friends, the Worldlings, make him promise to kill, steal and rob and by his consent the main protagonist conclusively gives himself to corruption and evil. Later when he hears that Mercy is not actually dead and is coming Mankind is swallowed by fear, shame and guilt for what he had done. The Worldings try to make him commit suicide and by that finally gain his undying soul. According to the Christian doctrine suicide is a mortal sin and those who take their own life have no place in heaven. However the vices do not succeed with their plan and Mercy comes back in time to give Mankind a chance for repentance, a chance for saving his soul and returning to the right path and Mankind embraces it.
To ask for mercy and hope to receive God's liberality shall be my ever present wish as you have counseled.
After he repents for his sins and is forgiven Mankind can start his new life. He has learned an important lesson and now he knows he should not weaken in the face of temptation. Man is a creature that possesses a will of his own and by that is free to choose his path. Humankind is faulty by nature but it also has the potential for being righteous and worthy for God's love should it follow the path of Christianity and choose virtue instead of sin.
Mankind is a typical Morality Play. It employs the characteristic features as the eternal battle between good and evil and places man in the middle, giving him the chance to choose his own path alone, by his own free will. Through interacting with the audience, using humor and bawdy songs the play comes closer to the people and by that achieves its goal, to preach morality and urge virtue. Mankind has a clear and important message and it is that even though humankind is inherently sinful, one still has a chance for redemption should they choose to follow the right path and look for repentance for their sins.