Mystery Plays became a widely used and popular dramatic style in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance time period. This was a time of extreme creativity and expansion of human inquiry. Entertainment and artwork ceased to exist as people knew it. This change in literature brought a change in perspective for many people. One of the largest changes was found within the Catholic church and the way people viewed Christ. We are able to see this change in the mystery play the “York Play of the Crucifixion”. It is in that literary work that the humanity of Christ is shown through the characters of the soldiers.
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During this time in history the Catholic church played a monumentally large part in people’s learning and outlook on the world. The church had a tight grasp on the bible and the interpretation of it. The only person with the power and authority from God to interpret the bible was the Pope at the time. If you were to look elsewhere for other or additional interpretation you would be severely punished by the church. When the Renaissance began a new wave of creativity crashed into the secular learning and spiritual learning of the people. This could very well be the first time religion began to be questioned and individualized on such a large scale. As the control of the interpretation of the bible began to escape the Catholic church a new strategy was taken to enlighten people of their gospel.
The Catholic Church started to commission mystery plays as a way to teach people the gospel. The gospel that they wanted to be shared. The emergence of this drama brought in a new perspective of Jesus Christ. Before mystery plays Christ was typically regarded as a harsh and cold God. Not someone that people could relate to, but a silent authority. One of these mystery plays in particular uses a variety of ways to show Christ in a new light. The “York Play of the Crucifixion” uses characters, setting, and comical elements to show Christ in a new light. The largest glance into the humanity of Christ is through the part of the soldiers.
The mystery play “York Play of the Crucifixion” takes place during the time when Jesus Christ is being taken to the hill of Calvary to be crucified. He is being taken in this story by four soldiers. The soldiers are not given names in this work. It is interesting that the only identity they are given is found in their disregard of Christ. Perhaps the soldiers are not given names so that the audience is able to identify with them and find more of a connection between themselves and the soldiers. Not giving a name to a character causes them to be universal in nature, they could be anyone without a name.
The indifference the soldiers have towards Christ is shown in the remarks they make towards Him. “Then to this work us must take heed. So that our working be not wrang. None other note to neven is need. But let us haste him for to hang.”(25-28). These are the words on soldiers one and two towards the beginning of the play. This is how the author introduces the audience to these relatable characters. It is clear through these lines that these soldiers are ignorant towards the power and majesty of Christ. They do not know who they are helping to crucify. This can be related to many people on a personal level. It can be easy to not see what Christ has done for all of us through his atoning sacrifice. This portrayal of our duty and relationship with Christ is unlike the earlier works from this time period. The unique perspective of mankind’s relationship with Christ has began to shift.
The soldiers continue to show their ignorance through their comments, “Come on, let’s kill this traitor strong” (32). Christ is seen as a traitor. Someone who betrays a friend or principle. To the soldier’s dismay, Christ is anything but a traitor. This stark contrasted perspective of Christ gives the audience the opportunity to think of Christ’s relationship as a gift. Before this change in information Christ was typically viewed as a debtor of mankind. Men were in debt to Christ through the concept of natural sin. People were beginning to be able to see the humanity in Christ instead of the authority in Christ through the new genre of mystery plays.
While the soldiers are showing indifference toward their God, Jesus Christ, Christ is taking a passive approach to their taunting. The first words Christ speaks in the “York Play of the Crucifixion” create pain for the reader. Christ shows his forgiveness in the mix of hurtful protest from the soldiers. The soldiers see the task of leading Christ to His crucifixion as an annoying job. The obligation of taking Christ lacks prestige and skill in their eyes. Once they have reached their destination the soldiers begin to look at the cross and nailing that will be used to kill their Savior. One of the soldiers makes the remake, “It fails a foot and more. The sinews are so gone in. I hope that mark amiss be bored. Then must he bide in bitter bale. In faith, it was over-scantly scored”. This soldier is complaining about the quality and craftsmanship of murder tools. They are extremely oblivious to the weight of the situation they are experiencing.
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Christ remains quiet throughout the cruel and reoccurring calls of the soldiers. The soldiers begin to beat Christ and while this is happening the first soldier tells the second soldier to keep on beating Him, do not stop. This calls notice from the audience to the humanity of Christ. He is a God, but in this instant he is powerless to these insignificant soldiers that do not care about what He is doing for them. A God should be all powerful, making it easy to escape the grasp of four mere mortal men. Nonetheless, Christ remains silent and takes the blows from the four soldiers humbly.
The new genre of mystery plays helped shift the attitude and perspective people had of Christ. Before he was seen to be a cold authority figure through various outlets of literature and through the Catholic church. Through mystery plays people began to engage with Christ in a new way that shifted the perspective of Him from authority to humanity. The “York Play of the Crucifixion” helps people to better understand their relation to Christ through the characters of the soldiers.
- The York Mystery Plays. [Electronic Resource] : Death of Christ. Films Media Group, 2006. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03146a&AN=BYUID.4140224&site=eds-live.
- “Miracle, Mystery, and Morality Plays.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, Jan. 2018, p. 1; EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=funk&AN=mi117400&site=eds-live.
- Happe, Peter. Mystery Plays. 2018. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsled&AN=edsled.2748&site=eds-live.
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