Mankind enters, announcing that we (i.e. mankind) come from the “earth and of the clay”. He recommends the whole congregation to God’s mercy, and hopes that they are all destined to live within His bliss; that will happen, he says, if we will control our “carnal condition” and “voluntary desires”. He then introduces himself:
My name is Mankind. I have my composition
Of a body and of a soul, of condition contrary.
Betwix them twain is a great division.
He is saddened to see the flesh having “governance” over the soul: it does his soul much ill, he says, “to see the flesh prosperous and the soul trodden under foot”. He approaches Mercy and kneels to him, asking for comfort. Mercy welcomes him and advises him to “eschew vice”. Mankind tells Mercy that he has heard of him – Mercy, he explains, is “near of [God’s] counsel”, and Mercy is valued above all of his other works.
Mercy tells Mankind to resist the temptation of the flesh, and speaks of the “battle betwix the soul and the body”. Mankind must not, Mercy continues, distemper his brain with ale or wine. “Measure is treasure”, Mercy pronounces.
Newguise, Nowadays and Nought re-enter “at a distance. They mimic Mercy and disturb his counselling”. They parody some of the examples Mercy has just given, and make more lewd jokes at his expense. Mankind asks who is speaking, and Mercy tells him that the three fellows will no doubt soon come near them, and warns Mankind that they can cause much sorrow. “Think on my doctrine: it shall be your defence”, Mercy tells Mankind, adding that he (Mercy) will have to leave soon.
Nowadays, overhearing, says that the sooner Mercy exits, the better. “Men have little dainty (meaning liking) of your play / Because ye make no sport”, Nowadays tells Mercy. Nought tells Mercy that his pottage will be cold if he does not quickly exit, and adds that he (Nought) loves “to make merry”. Nought also mentions that he has been with the “common tapster of Bury”, and has played the fool until he is weary – but he will go back there tomorrow. Newguise, Nowadays and Nought exit.
Mercy again warns Mankind that his enemies will soon be here, and tells him that he must “be not unkind to God... be his servant”. Mercy also references the story of Job, who was tested by God and still did not break faith, praising the Lord even when suffering immense hardship. Mankind must behave similarly, Mercy says, and be dutiful and loyal to God. Mercy then makes a particular warning against Newguise, Nowadays and Nought, who will, Mercy says, attempt to “pervert your conditions”. Mercy asserts that the three of them have not been to a mass all year, and tells Mankind to “give them none audience”, but instead to “do truly your labour and keep your holy day”.
Mercy also gives warning about Titivillus, the devil who collects idle words and carelessly spoken prayers, telling Mankind that Titivillus is invisible but omnipresent: “he will round in your ear, and cast a net before your eye”, Mercy says. Mercy kisses Mankind, and reiterating once more that Mankind must “do truly [his] labour”, exits, blessing Mankind in God’s name.
Left alone, Mankind says “Amen”. He writes, to remind himself, a passage in Latin adapted from Job, meaning “Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return”, on a piece of paper and makes the sign of the cross. Mankind then takes up spade, presumably to continue working. At that, Newguise enters, making more lewd jokes about sinful friars. Nowadays and Nought enter too, through the audience, to sing “a Christmas song”. Newguise and Nowadays make the audience repeat a line after Nought has first sung it. Their “Christmas song” is in fact a lewd song about someone “that shitteth with his hole”, and finishes with a chorus of “holyke”, a perversion of “holy” to sound like “hole-lick”.
Mankind tries to dismiss them, but the three continue to make rude jokes and mock Mankind’s small piece of land. Eventually, Mankind “strikes them with his spade”, “by the holy Trinity” – Newguise cries out “Alas, my jewels! I shall be shent of my wife!” Mankind kneels and thanks God that, thanks to His grace, has been able to chase away his enemies. As Newguise, Nowadays and Nought exit, Mankind reminds the audience that Mercy advised him to fight his enemies, and resolves to “convict them” (“conquer them”). Mankind then exits to fetch corn for his land.
Mankind himself is clearly located in his very first line: man comes from the earth and the clay, and accordingly, Mankind’s character is earthy, simple and honest. He is, perhaps more than Everyman in his fine clothes, a fair representation of the average farm-laboring medieval man and someone with whom the audience could easily and immediately identify.
The symbolism of Mankind beating away the three vices with his spade is similarly clear: that hard, physical work is the way to drive away evil. There is, in plays from this period, often an emphasis on the earthy, rustic ways of normal peasant life – in the Crucifixion play in the York Mysteries, for example, the Roman soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross comment on the quality of the craftsmanship in the nails they are using. It is a common trope in this period: idle hands are the devil’s tools.
It is interesting that, even before his initial conversation with Mercy, Mankind very clearly knows the difference between right and wrong, even confident enough in his religious belief to advise the audience about controlling their carnal desires. The conversation with Mercy serves almost as a catechism – a reminder of the basic principles of Christianity in a question-response format. Mercy might be seen to play the role of Mankind’s holy confessor; to hear his sins and worries, and to reassure him that God will be to him “adjutory” (helpful).
One of the interesting problems with Mankind is a contrast between the morals the play preaches and the morals of the play in performance. It is a oft-received truism that the devil always gets the best tunes, and it is certainly true that Nowadays, Newguise and Nought are far more lively, boisterous and entertaining as stage characters than Mercy and Mankind. It is, therefore, perhaps inevitable that an audience would far prefer their scenes to – for example – another long sermon on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross delivered by Mercy.
When, for example, the vices first enter, they try to persuade Mercy to do a dance. If we (and it does not seem unreasonable to) equate theater itself with dancing, might theatre itself be associated with immoral and irreligious behavior? Which, you might ask yourself, particularly to a largely uneducated medieval audience, would have been more entertaining – a sermon about Christian values and moral behavior or a dance? Which parts of the play might be classified as moral and which immoral? Though there is no doubt morally about which group of characters is right and which wrong, it has been very persuasively argued that theatrically, it is the immoral characters that provide the most entertainment. The audience, then, is presented with the very dichotomy that Mankind himself is: the tempting, enjoyable evil or the more stolid, but ultimately more rewarding, good?
It is interesting too that the audience are actually drawn into singing along with the Christmas song (which, naturally, turns out to have nothing to do with Christmas) before they know that they are singing a blasphemous song. This, perhaps, serves as a metaphor for how sin works: before you realize it, you have been tempted into joining in. “Divert not yourself”, says Mercy to the audience at the very beginning of the play; and the play itself bears out the necessity to keep alert for the devil.
Similarly, many of the comic moments have a darker, more serious message underneath. It is notable that, when hit with Mankind’s spade, Newguise cries out for his “jewels”, adding that he will be “shent of my wife” (probably meaning “my wife will be furious with me”). He means, of course, that Mankind has hit him in the testicles, yet – in another neat combination of a serious moral lesson with earthy, crude humor – he uses the euphemism “jewels” to refer to them, tying together his vanity with precisely the emphasis on worldly wealth and riches that the play itself disagrees with.
This is perhaps the key to understanding Mankind and a worthwhile reminder not to dismiss or ignore the cruder more bawdy parts of the play: they are there for a reason and deserve close reading just as the more serious ones do. Principally, then, the bawdy parts of the play tempt the audience into complicity with the irreligious parts of the play, before an eventual moment of guilty realization that, without knowing it, they have been drawn to the devil’s side. “This idle language ye shall repent”, says Mercy at the beginning of the play – and the mechanism of the play cleverly draws the audience into the same position.