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Leicester Special Collections

Medieval Drama

Coventry mystery plays

James Halliwell's edition of Coventry Mystery Plays performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi. 1841.

We cannot be sure how much experience with Drama the young Shakespeare had, but we know that up to 1579 – when he was 14 years old – people in England would still be able to go and see some of the immensely popular medieval plays performed annually in the largest towns and cities around the country. It is not too far-fetched to imagine the Shakespeares going to Coventry – just 17 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon - to see one of England’s great cycles of Biblical mystery plays.

The Mystery Plays were the most popular and enduring form of medieval drama in Britain. They attracted thousands of people on the Feast Days of the old religious calendar to places such as York, Chester, Wakefield, and Coventry.  People came not only to see the great stories of the Bible being performed to them in public open spaces, but also to take part in the performances themselves. Another form of medieval drama was the Morality Plays. These were highly allegorical plays where characters were named after Christian virtues and also vices. Morality plays aimed to provide the audiences moral guidance that could lead them to Salvation. Both Mystery and Morality plays were amateur productions organized and funded by the most powerful guilds of craftsmen and merchants and constituted an important element in the religious, cultural, and economic life of medieval communities.  

Mystery and Morality plays were nothing like Classical Greek and Roman Drama. The Aristotelian units of time and space were completely ignored as plots could extend from the Creation to the Day of Judgement; from Egypt to the Promised Land. Kings, shepherds and clowns shared the stage with saints, angels, and demons. Blood and tears mixed with laughter and joy. Lines from the Scriptures mixed with everyday language.

After the banning of all religious drama, audiences would only be able to see such rich concoction of characters, emotions, and language on the stage of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres. And among the English Renaissance playwrights, the great ‘mixer’ of genres, sources, and dramatic traditions was William Shakespeare.