Morality plays were popular in England for a long period which begins in the late medieval period and continues right up to the end of Shakespeare’s writing lifetime – from about 1400 to 1600. The word “morality” points the reader towards the genre’s central concern: dramatizing simple stories and events in a way which reinforces or makes manifest Christian morals and teachings. More generally, “morality” can refer simply to the matters of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and indeed, the morality plays often centrally focus on the battle between good and evil.
David Bevington, in his hugely important book Medieval Drama has defined the morality play as “the dramatization of a spiritual crisis in the life of a representative mankind figure in which his spiritual struggle is portrayed as a conflict between personified abstractions representing good and evil”, and, though it does not catch all of the surviving examples, this definition is a good starting point.
The moralities are certainly often peopled by – as Bevington suggests – “personified abstractions” and allegorical figures (Strength and Mercy are two examples from Mankind and Everyman respectively), but there are also more general types (such as Fellowship and Cousin from Everyman), and one must also be careful not to forget those exceptional characters who appear as themselves (God and Death in Everyman and the popular devil character Titivillus in Mankind.
There are about sixty surviving morality plays, many of which are anonymous, and GradeSaver has ClassicNotes online for Everyman and Mankind. There are two other important examples for the student of the genre. First is Mundus et Infans, which adapts and explores the common morality theme of transience and is one of the earlier recorded instances of the idea of the “ages of man”. The second is one of the longest that survive, The Castle of Perseverance, which follows the life of Humanum Genus and is almost 4,000 lines long.