Mercy is the first character to enter, and the first speech of the play tells the audience that God (“The very Founder and Beginner of our first creation”) should be praised and magnified among “us sinful wretches”. He tells the audience that God’s own son died to redeem mankind – concluding that “Mankind was dear bought”. Mercy then introduces himself as the “very mean” (the true means) of “your restitution” (mankind’s restoration) and warns against succumbing to temptation.
Sovereigns (perhaps meaning noble people) and “brothern” (perhaps meaning everyone else) alike should not “prick” their “felicities” (fasten their hopes) on transitory things, but “lift your eye up” to God and his mercy. Mercy’s opening speech ends ominously with the promise that there will be a certain day of judgment, a “strait examination” (strict test) in which “The corn shall be saved, the chaff shall be brent” (the corn will be saved, but the chaff burned).
Mischief enters next, speaking in a highly mischievous bouncy rhyme scheme, mocking the lines that Mercy has just spoken:
I beseech you heartily, leave your calcation
Leave your chaff, leave your corn, leave your dalliation...
Mercy asks Mischief why he has come, and Mischief replies that he has come for “a winter-corn thresher”. Mischief then makes a parody exegesis of Mercy’s lines about the corn and the chaff, deliberately misinterpreting them in an irreverent way. Mischief concludes that the corn will become bread, the chaff horse food, and the straw will be used for fires. Mercy asks him to stop, and tries to get him to leave, but Mischief says he has come to “make you game” (to have fun with you).
At this point, a leaf is missing from the Mankind manuscript, so we know that there are about 70 lines of text that were written here, but do not survive. G.A. Lester deduces that “lines 98, 111, and 417-8 imply that in the missing portion, Mercy spoke of Newguise, Nowadays and Nought, and argued with Mischief”.
Newguise and Nowadays enter with Nought, “whipping him to make him dance”. Nought asks what would happen if he broke his neck, but Newguise and Nowadays reply that they do not care – they just want him to keep leaping about for their amusement. Nought curses them both – and a dance follows. Mercy tries to send them away, but Nought suggests in response that Mercy should take his clothes off and have a dance himself. Mercy refuses to dance.
Nought comments that the three of them heard Mercy say something, but Newguise was asleep and Nowadays had a cup of alcohol in his hand, “ready to go to meat”. Mercy comments that “wretches delight in their sinful ways”. Nowadays threatens Mercy that he will find them to be shrewish if he says things against them, and Nought trips Mercy up. When Nowadays, Nought and Newguise introduce themselves, Mercy is horrified: “Ye betray many man!”, he says.
Mercy then tells the three his name, and they mock him for being “full of English Latin”. They ask him to translate from English into Latin:
I pray you...
To have this English made in Latin:
‘I have eaten a dishful of curds,
And I have shitten your mouth full of turds’.
Nought then makes some lewd jokes about pardons and indulgences, and Nought, Nowadays and Newguise exit.
Mercy thanks God that he has a “fair deliverance” of the three “unthrifty guests”, who he pronounces “worse than beasts”. To live in the way they do, Mercy continues, is “worse than any felony or treason”. When people like them come to be judged, Mercy says, it makes Mercy weep, because they can have no comfort or counsel: “such as they have sown, such shall they reap”.
It is no accident that the play begins with a speech from Mercy, as his speeches are crucial to understanding the religious and moral content of the play. Mercy’s speeches often serve as small sermons, explaining and unpacking Christian ideas for the audience. Several themes, many of which are central parts of the play’s moral teaching, are immediately established in this opening address: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and its import for all of humankind; the need to avoid temptation, and the transitory nature of all life on Earth. This last one is perhaps the most important of all – like Everyman and many of the other morality plays, Mankind is centrally concerned with reminding its audience that their worldly life on Earth will soon be over, and therefore that it is their everlasting life (in heaven or hell) on which they should be focused. This life is transitory, but your behavior during it decides what happens to you after death.
It is important to understand the complicated nature of allegorical characters to fully appreciate Mankind. The first thing to realize is that these are not characters as we understand them in the modern sense, post-Shakespeare and Stanislavski. Though it is not true of all literature of this period, in morality plays, there are usually allegorical figures rather than what we might consider “rounded characters”. Allegory is a difficult literary device to understand and explain: a form of metaphor in which abstract ideas or principles are represented as concrete characters, figures, or events.
What does this mean? Well, rather than the writer spending any time or energy trying to make a character resemble a “real person”, or to be emotionally convincing, complicated (in terms of personality, behavior or action) or surprising, the writer makes a character simply represent – or personify – one attribute. Rather than a character being “Hamlet” and full of contradictions (maybe a coward, maybe a brave avenger; maybe a misogynist, maybe a good boyfriend and son; maybe a Protestant, maybe a Catholic) you have a character called “Mankind”, who simply represents all mankind.
It is a far simpler, less rich, less complicated view of character than the modern one. It also means that there is a strange double vision in the way that the play works. When Mankind speaks, you are hearing the words of the character Mankind, advised by his “father figure” Mercy and tormented by the “Court of Mischief” – but you are also hearing an attitude that might be in some way associated with humankind. If strength could speak, for example, what would it say? Critics have, in recent years, really emphasized the problems of combining the moralistic and the dramatic in this way.
This first section of the play foregrounds the battle between good and evil (very often dramatized thus in morality plays) before the audience is even introduced to Mankind. We meet Mercy, we meet the three vices and Mischief, and then we see them argue with each other. It seems very likely that, at the moment in the play where a leaf is missing from the manuscript, a challenge was agreed upon between Mischief and Mercy: Mischief arguing that he could win Mankind to sin and Mercy proclaiming that Mankind’s faith and good behavior will hold firm. Mankind, to look at it one way, is not the central character of the play – he is merely the battleground on which the battle between good and evil will be fought out, and which will win out in the end provides the dramatic tension of the piece.
Tonally, though, Mankind is by no means overtly serious. The Mankind playwright had a real gift for juxtaposing the serious and moralistic with the bawdy and crude, and the end of Mercy’s first speech is an excellent example: curtailed by some very bawdy, riotous humor which directly parodies what he has just said. The Christian morals of the play quickly become bawdy, crowd-pleasing humor.
This juxtaposition is a good way to consider Mankind as a whole, and a clever stylistic device used by the playwright clearly to delineate the forces of good and the forces of evil. Rhyme scheme, rhythm, and the formality of the language help to create a sense of two polarized forces fighting for dominance. A reader only has to compare, for example
"Prick not your felicities in things transitory" with the couplet-rhymed "shitten your mouth full of turds" speech to realize that this is a play that can embrace the earthy and the holy, the bawdy and the spiritual. There is something in Mankind, as the play itself realizes, for the “sovereigns” who are (perhaps literally, in the theater building) important enough to sit down, and the simpler “brothern” who stand (like the groundlings in Elizabethan times).
Finally, one other question to consider is when Mankind is set? The time setting is clearly winter (Mischief arrives as a “winter corn-thresher”) but the play does not make it clear whether it is Christmas (as the “Christmas song” implies) or Shrovetide, the period before Lent. Scholars have spent much time examining at which festivals or festivities the play could have been staged in the hope of understanding more about its original performance conditions.