Mankind: Medieval Morality Plays

Mankind: Medieval Morality Plays Summary and Analysis of Section 4 (l.724-914)

Mercy trembles: he is extremely upset that Mankind has proved “so flexible” – that his allegiance has changed so quickly. “Man unkind wherever thou be!”, Mercy cries. He then makes a long speech reiterating Jesus’ sacrifice for mankind, and despairing that men everywhere have proved “so uncourteous, so inconsiderate”, and so “mutable”. Mercy then prays to “O good Lady and Mother of Mercy” for pity and compassion upon the “wretchedness of Mankind”. Mercy says that Newguise, Nowadays and Nought have “perverted Mankind”, and says that he, Mercy, who is Mankind’s “father ghostly” (spiritual father) will go to him and help. He exits, crying, “Mankind, ubi es?” – or in English, “Mankind, where are you?”

Immediately, Mischief and Newguise enter and parody Mercy’s distressed cry for Mankind. Notably, Newguise replies, ironically, “Hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic, hic” (“hic” is the Latin for “here”). Nowadays and Nought and then enter: they urinate “with their backs to the audience”. Nought urinates on his foot, and tells the audience to “be wise for shooting with your tackles”. Mischief, Newguise, Nought and Nowadays hold a quick parliament to decide what to do. Knowing that Mankind believes Mercy to have been hanged, Newguise suggests that they tell Mankind that Mercy is looking for him: thinking Mercy a ghost, he will then hang himself. This is soon agreed upon, and Mankind, re entering, does indeed try to hang himself with a rope and a gallows which Mischief immediately provides. Demonstrating what to do, Newguise puts his head into the noose.

At that, Mercy reenters with a whip and terrified, the “court of Mischief” all make to run away, Newguise nearly strangling himself with the rope. Everyone exits apart from Mercy and Mankind. Mankind throws himself on the floor and proclaims himself unworthy to even look on Mercy’s face. Mercy says Mankind’s “criminous complaint” wounded his heart, but all he requires from Mankind is not “gold or treasure”, but “humble obeisance”. Mankind says he cannot again ask for mercy, as it is “abominable” to continually ask for mercy and then continue to sin. The “justice of God” will not permit such a sinful wretch as Mankind to be restored, Mankind argues.

Mercy quotes in Latin from Ezechiel: “I do not wish the death of the sinner, if he can be converted”, and tells Mankind that his Last Judgment is not now and that Mercy shall “rule the matter”. Mankind still seems not to believe that such a request could be so quickly granted. Mercy replies that “in this present life, mercy is plenty, till death maketh his division”. While the body and soul are coupled, he who asks for Mercy shall have it, Mercy tells Mankind. Mankind, overjoyed, explains to Mercy (though how he knows isn’t clear) that Titivillus hung his net before his (Mankind’s) eyes and caused him to obey Newguise, Nowadays and Nought.

Mercy makes a long speech, explaining the significance of the mischievous characters, who are Mankind’s “three adverseries” (three enemies). Newguise, Nowadays and Nought together may be called “The World”; Titivillus signifies “The Fiend of Hell” and “The Flesh”, or uncleanness of the body, is the sinful rebelliousness of Mankind’s only bodily instincts. Mankind asks God for mercy. Mercy then prays to God to keep him from all evil, before finally, turning to the audience. He asks them to “search your conditions with due examination”, and remember that “the world is but a vanity”. “Mankind”, he says, “is wretched”, and therefore Mercy hopes that God will grant all of the audience Mercy, so they can be play-fellows with the angels, and live an everlasting life. The play closes with Mercy speaking, “Amen!”


Mankind is a play which takes huge pleasure in language and in linguistic complications. One has only to note, for example, the constant parodies made by the three vices and Mischief of what Mercy says to realize the sophisticated level of linguistic invention in the play as a whole. The playwright also shifts expertly between verse forms and rhyme schemes depending on who is speaking. The first section of Mercy’s very first speech, for example, is an irregular six-beat line (hexameter) rhymed ABAB BCBC: it feels formal, serious and the long lines serve to establish the serious matter at hand. This formality though is quickly upset upon Mischief’s entrance:

I beseech you heartily, leave your calcation,

Leave your chaff, leave your corn, leave your dalliation;

Your wit is little, your head is mickle, ye are full of predication.

But sir, I pray you this question to clarify:

Mish-mash, driff-draff,

Some was corn and some was chaff.

My dame said my name was Raff...

Read this aloud and you immediately get a sense of the riotous energy with which Mischief interrupts Mercy. The rhyme scheme is immediately more insistent – in this extract, for example (including the internal rhymes in lowercase) AbAccADbBBB. The forceful B rhymes at the in the last few lines (mash / draff / chaff / Raff) highlight the extent to which the energy of the speech is in sound and not in sense – the actual sense of the lines (‘Mish-mash, driff-draff’) is nonsense! The child-like repetition of certain phrases (‘Leave your...’ and ‘Your wit is... your head is’) add to the feeling of a crazy nursery rhyme created by this irregular, punchy verse. There is genuine invention about the way the Mankind playwright uses language to create different effects for different characters and moments in the play.

Moreover, language is also an important theme within the play itself, particularly the idea of interpretation. Mercy’s sermons are often exegetical – exegesis is the process of explaining and unpacking a text, and is usually used of ancient texts, and in this play, usually those written in Latin – and Mischief continually mis-interprets the Biblical texts Mercy quotes, twisting their interpretation to his own mischievous ends. Mankind himself, of course, misinterprets the loss of his corn and his inability to dig his land as some sort of sign from God – in fact, it is simply the actions of Titivillus.

Allegorical characters also foreground the idea of translation and interpretation. The audience is left to do the interpretative work and to realize that Mankind’s actions are not simply to be read as the actions of a character in the play, but allegorically as a representation of all mankind. It is an interesting moment, then, when at the very end of the play, Mercy unpacks and explains the characters the audience have been watching. There are three enemies to watch for in the world: the “Fiend of Hell” (Titivillus), the traps inherent in the World (Newguise, Nowadays and Nought) and the inherent sinfulness within human desire – Mankind himself. It is an odd moment structurally, however, when an allegorical character starts to explain and unpick the other allegorical characters – and draws our attention to the complexity of the play’s construction.

It is perhaps an obvious thing to add, but Mankind, far more than (for example) Everyman makes extensive and skillful use of the audience. We have already looked at the way they are drawn into the comic pleasure of sinning (see, for example, the Christmas Song that they are fooled into singing in the first section of the play) and here, even at the very end of the play, Mercy acknowledges that everything has been shown “before this worshipful audience”. The constant reference to and employment of the theater audience underlines the skill with which the Mankind playwright never loses sight of the dual purpose of the morality play: morally to educate as well as to entertain.

Though, until the mid 1970s, Mankind was condemned as “ignorant, corrupt and probably degenerate” and “the least learned of the moralities”, it is in this ability to hold two very contradictory ideas together that the unity of the play can really be appreciated. It is a matter of opinion as to whether the comic scenes are really “vulgar but not funny”, but it seems apparent that they are far from “irrelevant”. Indeed, there is much to be admired and appreciated about the subtlety of a writer who can build the pleasure the audience takes in comedy into a manifestation of the tempting nature of sin; and, indeed, twist so quickly from comedy into tragedy – Mankind, of course, seems at one point as if he might actually commit suicide. Though its humor is admittedly bawdy, and the prudish reader will shrink from it, if critics have realized one thing about Mankind in the last thirty years it is that its comedy serves a very serious purpose.