English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3 




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




*** 12. Mankind (the comedy) ***



Staging an Idea
Vol. 1A, pages 631-657 from Longman 3rd ed.

An internet text of "Mankind" can be found
 at U Maine site


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

How serious is Mankind? Does entertainment assist or contradict the moral?

How does the play compare or contrast with a modern play or film that you know?

What virtues and vices would you include as characters if you were writing a morality play about mankind or womankind? 





Images on this page are from a college student production of the play:



These notes are very freely adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003).

It is one thing to hear a preacher say that God is merciful. It is quite another to see it. Seeing is believing. Audiences that can't read, or don't care to, can watch dramatic allegory, and have their thoughts programmed even more effectively than literates are programmed by print. (Compare modern advertising.)  Religious and social propaganda in the Middle Ages found a happy medium in the morality play.

The lesson of Mankind is that everyone should stick to work and pray, but avoid drink, despair, adultery and suicide. (In other words, serve the nobles and clergy, Mr. Laborer: don't be saddened by your lot in life.) This message was no easier to accept in the Middle Ages than it is today, but its dramatic delivery in this play can make memory. Dramatic conflict holds attention, as colorful vices Mischief, Nowadays, New Guise, and Nought, and the devil Titivillus, brawl with the Priest Mercy for the prize of the plowman hero’s soul. The motif of contesting spirits begins with God and the serpent in Genesis but descends more immediately from Prudentius’ fourth-century Psychomachia (Battle of the Mind), in which personified vices and virtues do battle in epic terms.

While the moral of Mankind is as conventional as can be, the richness of its rural language is exceptional. The dialogue mixes pompous Latinate diction (and Latin and mock Latin) with irreverent Saxon street English of sarcastic, parodic and fighting words. The interplay of high and low styles of language focuses the conflict between righteous Christian preaching and simple gut emotion. The Shakespearean mix of kings and clowns is only 100 years or so beyond Mankind.

Mankind most often appeals nowadays because of its earthy humor and puncturing of authority. The play opens with Mercy’s pedantic and abstract 44-line sermon, first surveying man’s fall and Christ’s redemption, and then urging the play goers to mend their ways:

O soverence, I biseche yow yowr condicions to rectifye,
Ande with humilité and reverence to have a remocion
To this blissyde prince that owr nature doth glorifye,
That ye may be participable of His Retribucion.
                                (1ines 13–16)

The lecture is suddenly interrupted by Mischief, however, who scorns Mercy's "predicacion," and Mischief soon introduces New-Guise, Nowadays, and Nought, who begin to soon steal the show with slapstick comedy. When Mercy proudly announces "‘Mercy’ is my name by denominacion./ I conseive ye have but a lyttl favour in my communicacion," New-Guise replies, "yowr body is full of Englisch Laten!" (ll.122–24). To Nowadays’ sudden interruption, New-Guise snaps, "Osculare fundamentum!" [kiss my ass] (l.142), mimicking Mercy’s Latinisms. The play is full of this sort of irreverent word play; and the scatology surpasses the merely verbal when a character defecates on stage (ll.782–86).

This is a drama from East Anglia, seven hundred years after the Angles were "converted" by Pope Gregory's missionaries (recall Bede in Lesson 3), and the play can be seen in terms of the ongoing work of the Church to control fundamentally Saxon hearts and minds.  Most readers view the low comedy in Mankind as challenging Church authority, ultimately to affirm it, but the play is subject to interpretation, and stage performances can be directed to produce various impressions. Students may be reminded of the burlesque elements in "The Miller’s Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale."  Is Chaucer's Wife of Bath intended to be pro- or anticlerical? Is Mankind pro- or anticlerical? It may have been dangerous to criticize the Church, except in jokes and fooling.

Of course the Church also poked at secular society. The use of offensive language and bad behavior to make a serious point appears in many medieval sermons, where grotesque realism can seem out of place to modern readers. Preachers used concrete examples, such as the disgusting "Glutton" confessing his sins in Piers Plowman, to enliven abstract moral principles. Similarly the seduction of Mankind by New-Guise, Nowadays, and Nought can be seen simply as a dramatic illustration of Mercy’s opening warning against "thingys transitorye" (l.30).  And Mercy of course has the last word: "Your body is your enemy. Let him not have his will!" The audience can be seduced by the antics of the vices but ultimately forced to recognize their error.

Mankind’s profession as a farmer is a reminder of the timeless laboring Adam, but it is also a contemporary social reference to labor unrest in East Anglia. This character recalls the peasant hero Piers Plowman, but in his wayward guise he also represents an alarming specter of rebellion, the peasant given to newfangled desire and behavior that threatens the late medieval English food chain.




Does Mankind’s association of the vices with novelty reflect conservative anxiety about new opportunities for social mobility ("The Allegorical Theatre: Moralities, Interludes, and Protestant Drama," in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature [1999])? 



A forerunner of the Golden Age
Mankind provides a view into the evolution of Elizabethan theater. The scholar David Bevington argues that Mankind may be the first example of professional drama in England, as illustrated by the characters’ taking up a collection from the audience (ll.457–59; From Mankind to Marlowe [1962]). The play may have had a socially mixed audience similar to Shakespeare’s over a century later, as reflected in Mercy’s address to both "ye soverens that sitt and ye brothern that stonde right uppe" (l.29). The play’s episodic structure, alternating comic and serious scenes, also anticipates Shakespearean dramatic tradition.

Mankind is a bridge to a variety of famous Elizabethan plays, starting with Marlowe’s Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, whose devil Mephistophilis is descended from Titivillus: as in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth the hero's moral mistakes are not followed by the customary repentant ending of the morality play. The antics of the vice figures in Mankind anticipate the buffoonery of Shakespeare's clowns and fools, as well as the scheming villainy of Iago and Richard III.


woodcut cir 1500, man and vices


Early religious drama from Bartleby

Text of Mankind

Another text

Images related to medieval plays




If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.


 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess