In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Morality Plays

  • Introduction
  • Documents and Records
  • Facsimiles and Digitized Manuscripts
  • Comparative Studies and Edited Collections
  • The British Isles and Ireland: Editions and Anthologies
  • The British Isles and Ireland: General Studies
  • The Macro Plays
  • Staging and Performance
  • Morality Plays in Early Modern England and Scotland
  • Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Spanish Empire

British and Irish Literature Morality Plays
Clare Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0177


The “morality play” is one of the most recognizable medieval European dramatic genres, yet much about this term, including the form’s status and influence, remains contested. While the label morality play is a useful one for modern scholars, its origins lie in 18th-century antiquarianism rather than in medieval categorizations. The idea of a distinct morality play genre or tradition is further challenged by the vast array of staging and dramaturgical conventions and techniques displayed by extant playtexts; in the range of different audiences, occasions, and spaces for which they were designed; and in the extent to which they overlap with other dramatic and performance modes (saints’ plays, biblical plays, sotties, debates, mummings, and interludes, for example). Nevertheless, a distinct collection of plays from premodern Europe share characteristics and conceptual and dramaturgic frameworks, justifying their analysis as a group. What links these plays, whether they are written in Latin or in the vernacular, is their sustained use of personification allegory and the clear exposition of a moral sentence. At the core of any morality play sits a central figure, a personification of, say, a universalized concept of “mankind” (Humanum Genus, Everyman, Mankind), an aspect of human nature (Man’s Desire in Menschen Sin en Verganckeljcke Schoonheit), or a specific stage in life (like Youth or the Child). Such figures often also act as a mirror or an avatar for the audience. French moralités often have two central figures who represent opposing moral paths. The plays’ central figures are accompanied by an array of abstract personifications representing virtues, sins, vices, temptations, moral distractions, bad and good advice, and facts of life. These could be faculties or qualities of humankind, such as Flesh, Raison, Wit, or Ignorance; temptations and forces in the external world, such as New Guise, Custom, or Goods; facts of human existence, such as Life, Death, and Kinship; human behaviors, such as Flattery or Deceit; social groups, such as Nobility and Clergy; personifications of God’s qualities, such as Mercy; as well as supernatural beings, such as God and the Devil or Good and Bad Angels. Every part of the performance is enlisted into the allegory, from staging, props, and costumes to the actions of and between performers. Whether the protagonist is saved at the end of the play varies, but often an alignment is explicit between the life journey of the mankind figure and that of Adam, connecting the life of the individual with the great scheme of cosmic history.

Documents and Records

Of vital importance to the study of any premodern dramatic form or performance mode are the records and documentary sources that supplement, enrich, and contextualize the written, textual sources. Thanks to a number of groundbreaking projects, these sources are now more widely available and made accessible through modern collating, editing, and, where necessary, translation. The Records of Early English Drama (REED) is by far the most ambitious and extensive, but its focus is limited to English sources, though there are volumes dedicated to Wales and Scotland as well. The Malone Society Collections and Lancashire 1984 are more concise and are arranged differently from REED, but they also have their place and are often a more manageable place to begin such research into premodern performance in the British Isles. Meredith and Tailby 1983 and Tydeman 2001 both extend the geographic range of the records, edited and translated to include material from across medieval Europe.

  • Lancashire, Ian. Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain: A Chronological Topography to 1558. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442674097

    While obviously not as comprehensive as the volumes in Records of Early English Drama (REED), this reference work is a valuable addition, drawing together a selection of performance texts and records from across the British Isles from the Romans to the Elizabethans. The entries are gathered by region and then by location going alphabetically, each given a summary of contents and bibliographic information. The volume also includes illustrations and maps.

  • Malone Society Collections.

    Founded in 1906, the Malone Society aims to publish reliable, scholarly editions of early modern playtexts. The society has also produced a number of collections of medieval and early modern dramatic records and sources, which students of morality plays and interludes may find helpful.

  • Meredith, Peter, and John E. Tailby, eds. The Staging of Religious Drama in Europe in the Later Middle Ages: Texts and Documents in English Translation. Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph 4. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1983.

    Translates texts and documents of specifically religious drama from across medieval Europe into modern English, making available crucial sources that would otherwise be inaccessible to students and non-specialists. The entries are arranged thematically according to staging and production, performers, audiences, and special effects. They do not relate specifically to morality plays, but they do give an insight into the performance traditions that produced them and so how they might have been staged.

  • Records of Early English Drama (REED). 28 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1979–.

    This vast project, running since 1979, aims to locate, transcribe, edit, and publish documentary evidence for performance in the British Isles from the late medieval period to 1642. The volumes provide invaluable information on the variety, contemporary ideas about, and practicalities of premodern performance generally. Volumes are available in print (from different publishers) but a growing number of volumes are available online. See REED Online and REED Pre-Publication Collections. The project is ongoing.

  • Tydeman, William, ed. The Medieval European Stage, 500–1550. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    One of the few books to draw together documentary sources for medieval European drama and performance, and, as such, it is an invaluable resource for students seeking to explore the subject in more detail. The book is divided into ten sections, six focused on primary sources from specific regions (Britain, France, Italy, etc.) and four on specific themes (“The Inheritance”) and forms (“Latin Liturgical Drama” and “Customs and Folk Drama”).

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