York Mystery Plays


Humanity of Christ in “The York Play of the Crucifixion”

June 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, there was an emergence of creativity and imagination. These ideals were portrayed throughout the fields of human inquiry — artwork and entertainment being especially affected. A powerful example of such a newly creative dramatic style is the emergence of “mystery plays,” or plays that depicted the change in portrayal of Christ’s humanity. In earlier times, the Catholic church was very strict as to the interpretation of the Bible, with the pope’s word or interpretation being the only one allowable. Anyone who strayed from this interpretation could be heavily punished. With the emergence of the Renaissance, creativity spread not only into the secular arts but also the spiritual arts. The Catholic church began commissioning a series of mystery plays to enlighten the people regarding the gospel, and to a different kind of Christ than they had previously known — a Christ who was no longer harsh, silent, cold, and nothing like themselves. Mystery plays, such as the “York Play of the Crucifixion,” helped to portray the humanity of Christ through the use of character, comedy, and setting. In “The York Play of the Crucifixion,” the humanity of Christ is, somewhat unexpectedly, also depicted through the character development of the soldiers.

In the play, Christ is being taken by four soldiers to the hill to be crucified. The four soldiers are unnamed, possibly to help make the soldiers more universal and relatable to the audience. With this device, the viewers, or readers, are now able to find more in common with these soldiers, and detect resemblances to the soldiers in their complete disregard of Christ. The soldiers show this disregard with comments such as “Then to this work us must take heed/ So that our working be not wrang/ None other note to neven is need/ But let us haste him for to hang” (25-28). These lines, spoken by soldiers one and two in the beginning of the play, introduce the audience to naivety of the soldiers, in that they have no idea of who they are crucifying. The soldiers, who represent all people, show how we can be blind to Christ and his atonement for us. The focus on Christ’s act of atonement, and our place in remembering his sacrifice, is portrayed in a very different way in the “York Play of the Crucifixion,” as compared to plays from earlier eras. The play is told by everyday soldiers, from mankind’s perspective, to better depict our relationship with Christ. He is seen as just another traitor to be crucified: “Come on, let kill this traitor strong” (32). By having this perspective set before it, the audience is better able to see its relationship with Christ as a blessing, as a gift we should take advantage of, instead of taking in the previous beliefs that centered on our debt and natural sin. Christ himself speaks a few lines in the play, which accentuates his divine mercy.

Through the disregard of the soldiers and the contrast with Christ’s constant passivity, both Christ’s humanity and his divinity are portrayed. “Almighty God, my Father free…Here to dead I oblige me/ For that sin for to save mankind/ And sovereignly beseek I thee/ That they for me may favor find/ And from the Fiend them fend, So that their souls be safe” (51-58). These lines, the first spoken by Christ in the play, show the reader His great humility and forgiveness. The lines, thrown in the mix with the complaints of the soldiers, invoke painful emotions for the audience. Furthermore, Christ’s humanity is show through references to his physical character, focusing on his bodily inflictions. ‘Yea, asunder are both veins and sinews” (147). This line shows the soldier’s focus on Christ’s human nature, on his bodily suffering, reminding the audience of His humanity. The character portrayal of both the soldiers and Christ help to emphasize His relationship with the common man, and His more human side.

The use of comedy in “The York Play of the Crucifixion” also serves to emphasize the humanity of Christ. The soldiers, common, everyday men, are preoccupied with their task, which is seen by them as menial and even annoying. There are comedic lines in the play, as well as an underlying current of humour throughout. Specific line examples can be found in a soldier’s complaining of the craftsmanship of the cross and nailings: “It fails a foot and more/ The sinews are so gone in/ I hope that mark amiss be bored/ Then must he bide in bitter bale/ In faith, it was over-scantly scored” (107-112). These lines can be seen as operating on several levels. In one way, they offer comedic relief to such an emotional theme. In another, they serve to engage the audience. Offering a contrast with earlier interpretations of Christ’s suffering, a comedic feel helps to draw in people to then hear a greater message. However, the comedy also operates as a contrast between the humility and submissiveness of Christ. A more painful example of their humor arises when the first soldier tells the second to continue beating Christ: “Strike on then hard, for him thee bought” (101). With the jokes and complete disregard of respect that the soldiers have, emphasis is put on the quietness of Christ, further calling attention to the theme of his humanity and of our relationship with Him. The comedy offers a realistic setting, allowing us to further relate to the soldiers. Furthermore, the actual setting of the play offers emphasis on the humanity of Christ. The play takes place in one, static setting, allowing the characters and message to appear timeless. By putting the soldiers in such a setting, the audience is further able to relate to their experience. The lifting of the cross is also significant, in that, from an audience’s standpoint, their focus has been primarily on the soldiers, but now is on Christ. It is an appropriate ending as it reminds again the audience of our duty in remembering Him, and how his humanity allows us to be able to have a divine relationship with Him.

“The York Play of the Crucifixion” is a prime example of the emerging creativity of the Renaissance. With previous depictions of Christ, in art as well as literature, as harsh and cold, the new portrayal of his humanity through mystery plays helped the people to hear the gospel and feel Christ’s love in a new, more engaging, and more interpretive way. In “The York Play of the Crucifixion,” various elements of character, humour, and plot work together to emphasize our relationship with Christ through his humanity.

Work Cited

Reidhead, Julia, ed. “Christ’s Humanity.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. A. New York City: Norton, 2012. 440-47. Print.

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The Presentation of Death in ‘The Flood’ and ‘The Crucifixion’

February 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

The York Mystery Plays were performed at the annual Corpus Christi feast which celebrated the body of Christ. The 48 plays, which represent sacred Christian history from The Creation to Judgement Day, aimed to entertain and educate people on the key events of Christianity. The theme of death is prominent throughout ‘The Flood’ and ‘The Crucifixion’, indeed, the death of Christ is seen as not only the centre of the York cycle, but remains as the most pivotal moment in Christian history to this day. Both pageants depict death as a punishment; something which is either widely occuring, or directed more personally at one victim. In ‘The Flood’ God is disillusioned with the sinful acts of humanity and seeks to cleanse the world of all people who have disappointed him, which demonstrates a wider aspect of death as a punishment. In ‘The Crucifixion’ a more personal level of punishment is looked into, as Christ is nailed and stretched to the cross as a result of his political and social disruption to society. The plays also utilise the presentation of death on stage in order to deter audience members from sinning and receiving the same fate as the supposed perpetrators in the plays. The Corpus Christi feast ensured that folk traditions such as the mystery plays, were performed to entertain, and death is portrayed throughout the plays as somewhat humorous and ironic. Mrs Noah and the soldiers are both utilised in order for the audience, who would have been deeply religious, to mock and marvel at their foolishness.

In both plays, death is presented as a punishment, albeit both for different crimes. In ‘The Flood’, God becomes disillusioned with the humanity he has a made after observing their sinful acts. He reveals to Noah in Latin: ‘dem dixit repentheth me’ (he repenteth that he ever made mankind) which demonstrates his deep dissatisfaction with the world that he has granted life to. He creates a flood to cleanse the world and orders Noah to build an arc and preserve the best of life. Nature is used as a form of destruction, and the power imagery ‘all that has bone or blood/ shall be overflowed with the flood’ demonstrates the sheer mass destruction that God intends to create. This imagery elicits attention, as the element which usually helps growth now works in all of its strength to prevent it, preventing nature as an unbreakably strong form of destruction. Similarly, in ‘The Crucifixion’, Christ’s nailing to the cross is drawn out due to the inability of the soldiers, who make errors in measurements which result in Christs limbs having to be stretched. Soldier three exclaims ‘the foulest death of all/ he shall die for his deeds’ and the repetition of the plosive consonant ‘d’ resonates harsh sounds, which resonate to the painfulness of the death which Christ ensured in. The 14 line stanzaic form and rhyme scheme of ABABABABCDCCCD adds regularity to the structure, but also contributes by prolonging the process of nailing Christ, which presents his punishment as gruesome and painful.

In the Flood, the presentation of God’s disappointment in the world is resonated through the acting space, which works in attempt to deter the audience from sinning. For example, the actors board the arc which is wheeled away, symbolic of the cleansing that God put into place. As the audience are left alone, a sudden realisation occurs that they too could be sinners, and to avoid being cleansed, they should ensure that their Faith in God does not falter. In this respect, death is presented through the play as a consequence and warning, and the close proximity between the audience and actors in the York streets helps to convey this. Additionally, the casual conversations of the guards allow for the audience to feel as if they easily could have been the ones nailing Christ to the cross, as at the time, the soldiers had no implication of their actions as crucifying sinners was a tradition that stretched for over 500 years. This conjures emotions of guilt, sadness, and responsibility, which is contributed to by the staging and small and windy streets of York. This sees audience members crowded into small spaces close to the action, which involves them emotionally and creates a sense of intimacy. This is reinforced by Christ’s speech, in which his last moments he exclaims ‘all men that walk by way or street/ behold mine head, mine hands and my feet’. This powerful couplet heightens a sense of guilt from the audience, who are all personally blamed for Christ’s position, demonstrating how death in the York Plays creates a deep sense of audience involvement and acts as a warning to crowds, in this case, to consider the treatment of their fellows.

The York Mystery plays also present death using dramatic irony, which as well as educated the audience, provided them with a humorous refreshment from the sincerity of the topics being presented. The Tudor period often on the comic effect of a sharp-tongued wife in order to provide relief to the audience, and Mrs Noah successfully provides an interference for Noah, who has a time limit on his task set by God. Noah exclaims ‘Oh woman art thou wood?’ when Mrs Noah refuses to get onto the arc, having ‘tools to truss’ instead. Indeed, Mrs Noah appears foolish in her ignorance of Noah’s prophecy, and V.A Kolve proposes her as ‘the root form of the shrewish wife’. The educated audience would be able to parallel her to Eve, who represented those who refused to follow God. Her foolishness, represented in Noah’s exasperation: ‘for to her harms she takes no heed’, is ironic as she appears to have no sense of the peril she could be in, and it is recognisable that if Noah hadn’t earned salvation from God, Mrs Noah would have been amongst those who perished in the flood, adding dramatic irony to the play. The humorous interlude works to entertain, but also elicits attention to the very serious topic of the end of the world, in which only a fragment of the population survived. In the Crucifixion, the soldiers struggle to carry Christ on the cross: ‘the lifting was not light’. As the audience would be deeply educated on the history of Christianity, they would have believed that Christ carried to sins of the world, hence his heavy weight. The naivety of the soldiers is emphasised as the third soldier tells Christ: ‘thou should have mind.. of wicked works that thou has wrought’, implying that Christ should consider his sins. However, in this moment the audience become superior to the soldiers, who realise no implication of what they’re doing, and in fact the audience would view them as the ones who sinned in the eyes of God. Their obliviousness is demonstrated further by their trade of pining, which suggests they’d be skilled in wood, however, their inability to complete the job without difficult perhaps parallels to their naivety that is expressed through their work, and reiterates the York Play’s use of irony and humour in presenting the serious topic of death.

Overall, the York mystery plays treat death within the two plays studied as a serious topic, although lightened up with the addition of humour, which reemphasises that the plays were performed for entertainment purposes, as well as to educate and remind the audience. Simultaneously, the element of audience involvement which is implemented through the staging and presentation of acting, serves as a constant reminder that the audience could be just as guilty in God’s eyes, and that death is never far away from those who sin.

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