Mankind: Medieval Morality Plays

Mankind: Medieval Morality Plays Quotes and Analysis


It may be said and verified: Mankind was dear bought;

By the piteous death of Jesu he had his remedy.

He was purged of his default, that wretchedly had wrought,

By his glorious passion, that blessed lavatory.


This is from Mercy's first speech, and is one of many moments when he seems to almost preach a sermon to the theater audience. It is interesting that "Mankind" is capitalized; it is the character "Mankind", rather than the more general "mankind" that Mercy is discussing.


Of the earth and of the clay we have our propagation;

By the providence of God thus be we derivate-

To whose mercy I recommend this whole congregation;

I hope unto his bliss ye be all predestinate.


These are the first lines that Mankind himself speaks on stage, and they immediately foreground his association with earthiness and hard work: man comes from the earth and the clay. Mankind, of course, later on, is seen working at his land - so there is a continual link between him and labor. Moreover, it is interesting that he addresses the theater audience as a "congregation" - a word more usually used in church.


'Measure is treasure'. I forbid you not the use.

Measure yourself ever; beware of excess.'


This is Mercy, giving Mankind sound advice before he meets the three vices again. It is quite common for proverbs to feature in morality plays, and "Measure is treasure" was probably a commonplace saying at the time the play was written. "Measure" here means "being measured" - i.e. being restrained with things.


Go and do your labour - God let you never thee! -

Or with my spade I shall you ding, by the holy Trinity!

Have ye none other man to mock, but ever me?


This is the start of the speech which ends with the stage direction "Strikes them hence with his spade", and it can again be seen from the first line that Mankind tries to push the vices towards hard work. The play endorses the idea that the devil makes work for idle hands, and the symbolism of Mankind chasing away vice with his spade is one of several reinforcements of the value of labor.


Alas, my jewels! I shall be shent of my wife!


This is one of many examples of a double meaning (or pun) in the play: Newguise, having just been hit in the testicles by Mankind's spade, complains that he shall be 'shent' of his wife - that his wife will be furious with him. "Jewels" here means testicles - and it is interesting that the word "jewels" is associated with testicles: in that one word, we see Newguise's genuine physical pain, but also, metaphorically, his concern with earthly wealth (exactly what the play warns us against).


Ever I go invisible - it is my jet -

And before his eye thus I will hang my net

To blench his sight.


Titivillus announces to the audience his traditional ability (his "jet", here, means "fashion") to go unseen, shortly before he subtly manages to convert Mankind away from Mercy's good advice. Note too the violent sound of "blench" and the gently insinuating rhyme, which add to the more comically sinister tone of Titivillus' speech.


Talks in MANKIND's ear Of thy prayer blin.

Thou art holier than ever was any of thy kin.

Arise and avent thee! Nature compels.

MANKIND gets up, in obvious discomfort


Titivillus whispers, unseen, in Mankind's ear while he is trying to pray, and distracts him from his spiritual task by making him need the toilet. This cleverly draws out the distinction between soul and body, heaven and earth that Mankind himself foregrounds early in the play - Mankind's spiritual prayers are interrupted by his bodily "Nature". "Blin" here means "stop" or "cease".


Your criminous complaint woundeth my heart as a lance.

Dispose yourself meekly to ask mercy and I will assent.

Yield me neither gold nor treasure, but your humble obeisance.

The voluntary subjection of your heart, and I am content.


Mercy advises Mankind that he can indeed be forgiven for what he has done. Note too the central theme of morality plays of spiritual welfare over earthly wealth; Mercy just wants "obeisance" meaning obedience, and not "gold nor treasure".


Ye have three adversaries, and he is master of hem all,

That is to say, the Devil, the World, the Flesh and Fell...


This is right at the end of the play, and Mercy advising Mankind what the play has really been about. Mercy goes on to explain the significance of the play's characters: Titivillus represents the devil himself, and the three vices represent "the World" and their temptations toward sin and away from God. Mankind's other enemy, though is himself: his flesh and his skin. "Adversaries" here means "enemies", and "Fell" means the skin.


Now, for his love that for us received his humanity,

Search your conditions with due examination.

Think and remember the world is but a vanity,

As it is proved daily, by diverse transmutation.


This is from the very final moments of the play and Mercy's final speech, which turns to the audience (or "congregation", as Mankind puts it) to address them directly. You see here the purpose of the morality play itself: to remind people to look carefully at their lives, and bear in mind that the world is "but a vanity", and heaven is where they should focus their energy and attention.