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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 enfold before their eyes. Mercy's sermon is interrupted by Mischief who irreverently parodies Mercy's style of speech, thus anticipating 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 conceived of 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 (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 allegoric world of the play and the concrete conventionalized nature of theatric 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 ethic 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 set 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 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, pauses 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 theatric 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 is 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 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.