Mankind: Medieval Morality Plays

Mankind: Medieval Morality Plays Summary and Analysis of Section 3 (l.413-723)

Mischief enters, very upset that Mankind – advised by Mercy – has beaten away Newguise, Nowadays and Nought with his spade. The three of them enter, limping, and Mischief, acting like a cooing mother, attends to their injuries: “Alack, fair babe, ba me!”, he says. Mischief offers to cut off the bits that are injured (head, arm and “jewels”) and the three refuse! Nowadays has the idea of bringing in someone to consult about bringing “the matter of Mankind” to an end.

Nought plays a flute to attract Titivillus. Newguise, Nowadays and Nought take a collection of money from the audience in order to pay Titivillus to appear visible to them. Titivillus then enters, “with net”, and asks each of the three for money; they all tell him that they do not have any. Titivillus then discovers and confiscates the collected money from behind Nought’s back. Titivillus then warns the audience to beware (“caveatis”) of this “able fellowship” of Nought, Nowadays and Newguise. The three of them complain to Titivillus about the injuries Mankind did to them, and he resolves to “venge your quarrel”. Newguise, Nowadays and Nought then exit to go and steal from various men, named in the play, who were probably people of local importance when the play was first performed.

TItivillus remains onstage to speak with Mankind. He tells the audience that he will try to corrupt Mankind’s good intentions. He tells the audience that he himself is invisible, and will hang his net out to deceive Mankind’s sight; he also puts a board into the earth so Mankind will find it difficult to dig. Mankind then enters with a bag of grain, which he sets down – and Titivillus immediately steals. Mankind begins digging – he cannot, of course, see Titivillus – but his spade strikes the board. He then discovers that his “corn is lost” and resolves to give up his spade “for now and for ever”, throwing it down.

Mankind kneels to prey, and Titivillus talks into his ear, causing him to stand. Mankind, now in “obvious discomfort”, exits to go to the toilet, leaving his rosary beads. Titivillus boasts to the audience that he has made Mankind arise; and tells them of tricks to pass brass coins off as silver ones.

When Mankind enters, he has decided that Evensong lasts too long – and tells the audience he will not go to church so often. He is “near irk” (quite irritated) of both “labour and prayer”, he says. Mankind then feels his head very heavy, and decides to go to sleep. Titivillus asks the audience to keep quiet so as not to awake Mankind, and resolves to show them “a pretty game”. Titivillus then whispers to the sleeping Mankind that Mercy stole a horse and a cow from his master and ran away, but was hanged at the gallows. Titivillus whispers to Mankind that Mercy is not to be trusted, and that he should ask mercy from Newguise, Nowadays and Nought , as they “can advise thee for the best”. Titivillus adds that Mankind should abandon his wife and take a mistress. Titivillus then exits, bidding the audience a gleeful farewell. Mankind awakes, having believed what he was told when he was asleep.

Newguise enters, having stolen a halter, which he tells Mankind is “Saint Audrey’s holy band”. He tells Mankind that Mischief has been tried and put in prison. Nowadays enters with stolen church gold, which he wants to sell for “ale, bread and wine”. Nought enters, though he hasn’t managed to steal anything. Then Mischief enters, “with broken shackles fastened to him”. He claims to have broken his chains and killed the jailer. Mankind asks mercy of Newguise, Nowadays and Nought for hitting them with his spade, and kneels to them. Nowadays immediately recognises that this is the work of Titivillus.

Mankind is welcomed back into the “court of Mischief”. He takes off his gown, which Newguise exits with, and shortly returns having cut it down considerably. Nought is unhappy with the way it looks, and exits to “mend it”. Mischief summons Mankind to him and commands him to sleep with men’s wives, to go to the ale-house early on Sundays, and to cut the throats of men and steal from them. Mankind says he will. Mischief then says that there are only six deadly sins, and that lechery is not one. Nought comes back in with the gown, now “ridicously abbrievated”. They put the gown onto Mankind and chase him around. Mercy enters and sees Mankind with the “court of Mischief”, but, as Newguise, Nought, Nowadays and Mischief exit, Mankind promises to speak with them “tomorn or the next day”.


It is fascinating that Mankind is ensnared by Titivillus, the first thing the devil does is cause him to feel frustrated about his work: it is the lack of his corn and his inability to dig (both of which are dramatised with traditional comic stage business) that cause him to lose his faith, throw down his spade and turn to evil. There is, the play reinforces, only a short distance between not working and not being a good Christian.

Yet the comical stealing of Mankind’s corn also hides a serious economic point. Corn was big business in medieval England, and a corn shortage would not simply lead to mild frustration: it could mean serious financial hardship and, perhaps, a real food shortage if there was a bad winter or a bad harvest. If the original audience were – even slightly – to read their own situation into Mankind’s (and, after all, his name invites precisely that reading) they might find the dramatist’s posed situation of a corn shortage uncomfortably close to home. It is, the play cunningly points out, little frustrations that can lead to large sins: fidelity to God is, in fact, something deeply interwoven with everyday life.

At the beginning of the play, Mankind himself makes the important distinction between the soul and the body, a dichotomy often emphasized in morality plays. He describes himself as “Of a body and of a soul, of condition contrary”, emphasizing that “Betwix them twain is a great division.” The dichotomy is one that can be seen in the stylistic separation in the play between the more grotesque comic scenes and the serious scenes, but it is also one actually dramatized explicitly in this section.

Mankind, for example, is trying to pray when Titivillus whispers in his ear, and tells him to get up – “Nature compels”, Titivillus says. The stage direction has Mankind arise “in obvious discomfort”: he needs to go to the toilet. It could potentially be a hilarious moment on stage, but below the surface lies a serious thematic point: Mankind has allowed the needs of the body to displace the needs of the soul. The earthly desire has halted Mankind’s prayers; and again, it is “Nature” – man himself – who proves his own worst enemy on the road to salvation. What this section shows us is the brilliance of the Mankind playwright, able to marry with real subtlety and skill bawdy, crowd-pleasing humor with a serious thematic and religious point.

This section also introduces us to Titivillus, who is one of the more important characters to understand when studying Mankind. He would likely have been known as a character and as a name to the play’s original audience: he features in many other European literary and dramatic sources, and even in sermons. Titivillus is traditionally invisible and - as he does in this play, particularly when compared to the three vices and Mischief – presents subtle, insinuating form of evil which goes undetected until it has almost completed its work. The obvious symbolism of his net reinforces the sense of subtle, unnoticed entrapment which marks the way he traditionally tempts people into sin.

One fascinating thing that Mankind tells us about the character of Titivillus is that he was so popular that the players seem to be able to take a collection of money from the audience before his appearance. It is almost certain that the original audience would have understood that Titivillus was the “man with a head that is of great omnipotence” that Newguise advertises before the collection is taken. Titivillus probably wore some sort of false head or grotesque comic mask, which was the traditional way of representing him. Symbolically, of course, the collection parodies the collection that takes place during a church service: another cleverly constructed moment where the audience are – distracted by the pleasure they take in the comic theater they are enjoying – unwittingly supporting sin.

One important question to ask of the play is whether the comedy of sin leads to a moment of guilty realization – and if it does, when is that moment? It is certainly possible that it could be played in a number of ways, depending on choices made by the director or actor. Look for example at the moment that Mankind does renounce his faith and throw down his spade: could the blasphemy here perhaps have struck the original audience into guilty horror? They had encourage and enjoyed the vices and Titivillus, but now the actions of those characters have led to serious blasphemy. The beauty of the construction of Mankind is that, by making the audience complicit in the tempting pleasure of theatrical sin, it can suddenly turn on them – and breed in its Christian audience a genuine sense of religious guilt.