Shakespeare and Medieval Drama

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This article is associated with the Folger Institute's 2016-2017 year-long colloquium on Teaching Medieval Drama and Performance, which welcomed advanced scholars whose research and pedagogical practice explore historical, literary, and theoretical dimensions of medieval drama from the perspective of performance.

Why Shakespeare and Medieval Drama?

It is likely that the young Shakespeare saw Biblical drama performed in nearby Coventry, only seventeen miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. The mature Shakespeare's dramaturgy, language, characters, themes, and performance practices attest to the influence of medieval dramatic forms and traditions on his plays, ranging from Biblical dramas and miracle plays to morality plays and Robin hood plays. Medieval drama provides a rich aesthetic resource for contemplating the dramatic choices, conventions, and innovations of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The relationship between Shakespeare and medieval drama illuminates the complex theatrical milieu of late medieval and early modern England and helps us to better understand the history of theater and performance, dramatic literature, and religious reformation in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


Earlier scholarship exploring the relationship between Shakespeare and medieval drama emphasized three intertwined narratives that have been complicated, if not completely disavowed, by more recent scholarship—both in Shakespeare studies and in the Records of Early English Drama (REED). (The Records of Early English Drama, now available online, transcribe and compile surviving documentary evidence and civic records related to various kinds of performance in a host of English towns and cities up to 1642, the year the public theaters closed.)

The first narrative, "the suppression narrative," claims that "Corpus Christi cycles" or "mystery plays," as they were formerly called, were suppressed by ecclesiastical pressure as a result of anti-Catholic bias and anti-theatrical prejudice after the Reformation. The second narrative promotes the assumption that English drama follows a teleological trajectory, developing in a straight line from from medieval drama, which this narrative sees as a simpler, more didactic mode of amateur, artisanal, and religious theatre, and evolving into the more sophisticated, secular, professional theatre of Renaissance England. This evolutionary trajectory assimilates medieval drama to dominantly religious concerns, which are either hollowed out or noticeably attenuated by later dramas (especially those of Shakespeare) that have been aligned with more secularizing and modernizing movements. The third narrative all but dismisses the study of medieval drama on its own terms and suggests that drama before Shakespeare is only of interest insofar as it illuminates this trajectory and leads to a deeper understanding of the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Complicating the Background

Shakespeare and his contemporaries departed from earlier theatrical traditions in many ways, and the public playhouses were part of a new theatrical culture in London beginning in the late sixteenth century. But this does not meant that earlier dramatic traditions were inferior or irrelevant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. These earlier and alternate modes of theater and performance are aesthetically vibrant and theatrically distinctive in their own right. They also constitute a rich resource used by later dramatists for the purposes of imitation, comparison, and commentary.

Much critical emphasis has been placed on what were formerly called "mystery plays" or "Corpus Christi plays" or even "Corpus Christi cycles." While these terms were widely accepted several decades ago, more recent scholarship (much of it grounded in REED) suggests at least five key revisions to these deeply entrenched terms and the histories of early drama they sponsor:

  1. Not every medieval drama was religious, and/or Christian, nor was every religious drama a civic cycle comprised of pageants created by members of artisan and professional guilds;
  2. The term "Corpus Christi cycle" has been used to refer to a sequence of Biblical pageants that span the narrative of salvation history from the creation of the world to the Last Judgment. While this designation is true of York, which sponsored a "Creation to Last Judgment" cycle for the liturgical feast of Corpus Christi as early as 1377, it is important to remember that not every such civic cycle was necessarily linked to the liturgical feast. For example, the Chester cycle was only performed as a full "Creation to Last Judgment" sequence beginning in 1521, but the cycle was performed at Whitsun (Pentecost) and not on Corpus Christi.
  3. The feast of Corpus Christi, like other feasts in the calendar, saw the performance of a wide variety of drama. Some of this drama was religious and, as was the case with York, some of it took the cycle form. But there were other religious dramas performed (including saints' lives, Resurrection plays, and miracle plays) as well as non-religious dramas such as Robin Hood plays, church ales, and mummings.
  4. Not every "Creation to Doomsday" play was performed as a civic cycle in the streets of a city or town by members of guilds. While such a designation is true of York, Chester, and Coventry, it is not the case with Towneley and N-Town, which are manuscript compilations that conform to a "Creation to Doomsday" pattern, but the evidence does not suggest that these manuscripts are the records of a civic cycle. For a long time, the Towneley play was called the "Wakefield cycle," and the N-Town play was assumed to contain the texts of plays performed in Coventry and was referred to as the "Coventry plays" or the Ludus coventriae. Yet the documentary evidence has led scholars to overturn these assumptions, concluding that both N-Town and Towneley are manuscript compilations perhaps modeled on the "Creation to Last Judgment" structure rather than civic cycles.
  5. Not every "cycle" play is necessarily medieval. This is especially true of the Chester Cycle, which was performed as a shorter Passion Play as part of the Corpus Christi feast, but only around 1521 did the play become a full-blown cycle, at which point it was transferred to Whitsun. What is more, the existing manuscripts of medieval drama are far later than we might expect. The Towneley play, as well as the Chester cycle, survive in sixteenth-century manuscripts. (The Chester Cycle, for example, exists in five manuscripts that span the years 1591 to 1607). What is more, the York, Chester, and Coventry cycles, in addition to an enduring and popular tradition of Protestant Resurrection plays, such as the anonymous Resurrection of our Lorde (ca. 1530-1560), the only copy of which is held at the Folger (V.b.192), were performed well into the sixteenth century, if not late into Elizabeth I's reign.

In light of this scholarship grounded in the records of early drama, scholars generally prefer the more neutral term "Biblical drama" as an alternative to "cycle plays," "Corpus Christi cycle" and "mystery plays." While cycle plays were performed, the cycle form was by no means the dominant form of early drama; moreover, while York sponsored a cycle play for Corpus Christi, it is no longer accurate to assume that the "Corpus Christi cycle" itself represents the entire tradition of medieval drama.

Complicating Periodization

What then is "medieval drama" and what is its relationship to the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries? This question has invigorated scholarship on early English drama especially in the past decade. There is an ongoing debate among scholars about the benefits and drawbacks of the traditional periodic categories such as "medieval" and "early modern" or "pre-Reformation" and "post-Reformation." Recent work, both in medieval drama studies and in Shakespeare studies, has identified and analyzed both continuities and discontinuities between "medieval" and "early modern" drama. Period categories can be helpful in making distinctions, but they are also misleading because the idea of "the medieval" is itself a product of ideological bias that arose during the Reformation. Shakespeare's history plays, for example, embody his interest in dramatizing the medieval past: the history plays provide evidence for the ways in which Shakespeare himself was using drama to think about questions of periodization, as well as creating the idea of a medieval past in order to explore present concerns with the nature of government and religion in his own time. There is a strong movement in present scholarship to move past these categories. Now that REED is available online, the conversation will be more informed than ever, and new scholarly discoveries will continue to enrich this rapidly growing area of inquiry.


Past and Present

Shakespeare's allusions to "Herod," the famous ranting tyrant of Biblical drama, comprise his most obvious and well-known debt to medieval drama. (The most famous such allusion: Hamlet's admonition to the players that excess in performance "out-Herods Herod" [3.2.14-15].) But recently the influence of performance scholarship has attuned scholars to the ways in which Shakespeare also draws on scenes and structural devices from Biblical drama and morality play traditions. Much recent scholarly work focuses not only on the influence of medieval characterization, but also on the dramaturgical resonances between "medieval" drama and that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Performance studies and historical scholarship have become closely aligned in recent decades, resulting in the growth of performance as research. In Shakespeare studies the field of "original practices" has stimulated performances that employ sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rehearsal and staging methods. Interest in these areas has also contributed to the construction of theaters replicating the outdoor and indoor playing spaces of Shakespeare's London. These scholarly trends are also evident in productions that evoke dramaturgical resonances between Shakespeare and medieval performance practices. A notable example is The Royal Shakespeare Company's 2001 production of Shakespeare's First Tetralogy, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, entitled, "This England: The Histories," directed by Michael Boyd. This production employed multiple visual cues that suggested the three plays were built upon a mystery cycle structure.

Biblical Drama

Echoes of the "Harrowing of Hell" are found in Macbeth, Dr. Faustus, and The Jew of Malta, to name a few examples. Echoes of the "Slaughter of the Innocents" permeate Richard III, Macbeth, and Henry V. Throughout Shakespeare's corpus, we also find scenes with bloody corpses and resurrected bodies that allude to the Passion, Resurrection, and post-Resurrection pageants of Biblical drama. In the past fifteen years more attention has been given to the female characters as well. For example, studies have focused upon Mary Magdalene's relationship to Marina in Pericles as well as upon moments that evoke associations with the Virgin Mary, such as the abbess in The Comedy of Errors and Hermione in The Winter's Tale.

Morality Plays

The morality tradition has influenced both structure and character in Shakespeare's work. Plays from the tradition of the medieval psychomachia, such as Everyman and Mankind, have been analyzed as palimpsests for the psychological struggles of King Lear and Othello. Well-known "vice" characters," like Titivillus, influenced the characterization of Richard III and Iago, for example.


We also find scenes that elaborate various sorts of ceremony and ritual that, while Shakespeare and his contemporaries were forbidden (by official injunction) from staging religious or Biblical content explicitly, recall the influence of the liturgy, the sacraments, and Bible reading. Many such scenes abound in Shakespeare's plays but among the most noted are Ophelia's burial as well as the denial of Old Hamlet's last rites in Hamlet; the funeral procession for Henry V at the start of the Henry VI plays; the coronation of Anne Boleyn in Shakespeare and Fletcher's All is True; and the many on-stage marriage scenes, especially those in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.


An emerging wave of Shakespeare scholarship—not only scholarship on Shakespeare and religion but also scholarship on Shakespeare and earlier dramatic traditions—is exploring the ways in which certain aspects of liturgy, sacramental theology and theater, and Reformation-era debates over translation and interpretation offer ways not simply to chart thematic connections or textual allusions but rather to develop theoretical frameworks for responding to questions about language, human subjectivity, class divisions, and political conflict in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

In the Classroom

When teaching Shakespeare and medieval drama in a classroom context that includes student discussion, it is helpful for the instructor to let the students largely determine how to put the texts in conversation with each other. That is, if the instructor finds a broad resonance of some kind between a Shakespearean play and a medieval play, merely assigning them together as a speculative pairing can organically encourage the students to find connections and make arguments. What is more, instructors will want to help students think critically about two kinds of possible intersections, namely: (1) How do we read the Shakespearean text differently when we put it in conversation with the medieval play? and (2) How do we read the medieval play differently in light of our study of Shakespeare?

Say, for example, the two texts under consideration were the Digby Mary Magdalene and Shakespeare's Pericles. One could launch a discussion using the following questions:

  • What are the similarities and differences in the portrayal of the respective sea storm episodes in Pericles and the Digby Mary Magdalene?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the portrayals of Mary Magdalene and Marina in Pericles?

Or, to take a different sort of example, what if we were to consider a different kind of performative text—say John Lydgate's Triumphal Entry of Henry VI—and compare it to the royal pageantry in Shakespeare's Henry VI plays? We could pose a similar set of questions:

  • How do Lydgate's verses (which, as Claire Sponsler and others have shown, are more poetic verses written to commemorate a royal entry rather than a performative script acted out during that historical event) reflect on the institution of kingship, the king's royal body, and the civic body of London? How does Lydgate's presentation of Henry VI compare to and contrast with Shakespeare's?
  • In what specific ways does Shakespeare stage royal ceremony, and how do these ceremonies converge with and depart from what we see in Lydgate's text?
  • What can we make of the key formal, structural, and linguistic differences between these two texts? How does Lydgate's text, which is a set of poetic verses connected to a performative event, differ from and Shakespeare's, which is more properly a dramatic script?

It is important that the instructor clarify that the texts be read side by side and not hierarchically; the pairing should not model any sort of literary "development," but rather explore the rich dramatic and theatrical characteristics which become apparent when we approach the texts using this method. It is helpful to focus on a pairing of individual scenes for close study and work out from there to the larger implications of the analyses.

The following six poetic, theatrical, and textual topics work well for teaching the plays side by side:

  1. The portrayal of extreme and/or poignant emotional states in the characters
  2. "Type" characters or "stock" characters: the fool, the vice, the tyrant, the comic/tragic villain
  3. The shifting and blending of the comic and the tragic, not only in a single scene, but also in a single line of dramatic verse
  4. The ambitious staging of events across time and space
  5. Bawdy, witty wordplay that intertwines the sacred and the profane
  6. Textual allusions, whether to the Bible, to the liturgy, or to different dramatic traditions and genres

Suggested Pairings for Close Reading

  • Pericles and the Digby Mary Magdalene
  • The Merchant of Venice and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament
  • Henry IV, Part 1 and The Pride of Life
  • King Lear and Everyman or the Brome Abraham and Isaac
  • Shakespeare and John Fletcher's Henry VIII (All Is True) and King Johan
  • The Winter's Tale and the Resurrection / post-Resurrection episodes from Biblical drama
  • Julius Caesar and the Judas episodes from Biblical drama
  • King John and the Brome Abraham and Isaac
  • The Henry VI plays and John Lydgate's Triumphal Entry of Henry VI

Recommended Reading

Beckwith, Sarah. Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011.

Chambers, E.K. The Mediaeval Stage. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1903.

Clopper, Lawrence M. Drama, Play and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Cooper, Helen. Shakespeare and the Medieval World. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Cummings, Brian and James Simpson, eds. Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dessen, Alan C. Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 1986.

Gardiner, Harold C. Mysteries' End. New Haven: Yale UP, 1946.

Goodland, Katharine. Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate 2006.

Hirschfeld, Heather.The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2013.

Johnston, Alexandra F. "The Feast of Corpus Christi in the West Country." Early Theatre 6.1 (2003): 15-34.

Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Kolve, V.A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1966.

Lin, Erika T. Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2012.

Morse, Ruth, Peter Holland, and Helen Cooper, eds. Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Parker, John. The Aesthetics of Antichrist: From Christian Drama to Christopher Marlowe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2007.

Perry, Curtis and John Watkins, eds. Shakespeare and the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Schreyer, Kurt, A. Shakespeare's Medieval Craft. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2014.

Walker, Greg. "When did 'The Medieval' End?" Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English, ed. Elaine Treharne, Greg Walker, and William Green. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 725-38.

Wasson, John. "The Morality Play: Ancestor of Elizabethan Drama." The Drama of the Middle Ages: Comparative and Critical Essays, ed. Clifford Davidson et al. New York, AMS Press, 1982.

Zysk, Jay. Shadow and Substance: Eucharistic Controversy and English Drama across the Reformation Divide. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

Page written by

Katharine Goodland, City University of New York

Jay Zysk, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Mariah Min, University of Pennsylvania