Medieval and Moving On


The students will demonstrate their understanding of Medieval Theatre by performing a morality play.



Materials Needed

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Related Documents

• Shakespeare Characters  Lesson4.ShakespeareCharacters



Lesson Directions

Anticipatory Set/Hook
Give the students a piece of paper – they should have writing utensils – and ask them to think about the morality play they will be performing today. We have learned that most of this type of theatre took place outside. But really, a morality play could be staged anywhere. Ask the students to draw a quick picture of their idea of the ideal place to do a morality play (ie: a forest, a town square, a field, etc.) Then ask them to draw, on the other side, an image of the space they would use if they had to stage it somewhere in the school, with their fellow schoolmates watching. Ask them to defend their reason for using that space. This should be turned into the instructor for evaluation.




Instruction: Clarification of the terms we missed in Greek theatre, and what will be expected of them in the timeline. What does it mean for theatre to be successful? It has to be remembered, it has to make a statement, it has to teach us something and it has to move us to action. Keep in mind that the type of theatre we are focusing on right now had little to do with entertainment and more to do with teaching the illiterate masses how to behave. Soon we will see how theatre was secularized and controlled by the government, but still, several playwrights found a way to spread their ideas and comment on society.




We have discussed Greek Theatre, which was based largely on the religious beliefs of the society and used as a means to praise the Gods, then we briefly discussed the Romans, and their thirst for entertainment. We again visited religious theatre in the Middle Ages and now, once again, we will see this pattern repeated as we move into the period called the interlude and the Reformation. We will see how entertainment takes the main stage, but educational theatre still makes its way through the red tape to teach its message.

In the first section of our History of Theatre, we looked at the beginnings of theatre in Greece, its migration to Rome, and its decline during the Middle Ages. In this section we’ll examine the rebirth of the theatre and its domination by a playwright of genius. It is during this period that theatre re-emerges from the Church and becomes secular theatre — although it remains largely under the control of the state, be that sovereign King or Republic.

Checking for Understanding: The students are then given about 10 minutes to rehearse their morality plays and then the class will go outside and watch the 2 groups perform. We will talk about what we saw, the choices that each group made and if it was successful, by the terms that we established previously.




The students will return to the classroom and to their seats. They will take out their notes and copy down the vocabulary words of the day for their timelines and we will move on with the lecture into the Interlude and Reformation.



Guided Practice:

Below is some interesting history of the eras about which we will talk. It is important to note that not all of this information is or should be used in the lecture. But the information can be found on the following websites:



The Interlude

Toward the end of the 15th century, there developed a type of morality play which dealt in the same allegorical way with general moral problems, although with more pronounced realistic and comic elements. This kind of play is known as the interlude.
The term might originally have denoted a short play or playlet actually performed between the courses of a banquet. It can be applied to a variety of short entertainments. including secular farces and witty dialogues with a religious or political point.
Although the transition can’t be documented adequately because so many texts haven’t survived, the term “interlude” is employed by literary historians to denote the plays which mark the transition from medieval religious drama to Tudor secular drama.
Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucres–at the end of the 15th century–is the earliest extant purely secular play in English.
Medwall was one of a group of early Tudor playwrights that included John Rastell and John Heywood, who ended up being the most important dramatist of them all. Heywood’s interludes were often written as part of the evening’s entertainment at a nobleman’s house and their emphasis is more on amusement than instruction. Heywood’s art resembles the modern music-hall or vaudeville sketch. The plots are very basic.
From the interlude, we see the beginnings of both English comedy – and the emergence of prose in George Gascoigne’comic play Supposes and English Tragedy.
Renaissance and Reformation
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, European Society was influenced by the Renaissance — a “rebirth” or rediscovery of the classical worlds of Rome and Greece — and by a movement toward nationalism — the building of coherent nation-states such as England, France and Spain (with Germany and Italy following later). The impact of these changes on the theatre went beyond mere secularization of an artform that had been dominated for centuries by the Church.
The Renaissance, while having a major impact on the other arts, had less influence on theatre in England than in Italy, where classic Roman plays were revived for performance. Of greater impact was the Protestant Reformation and the movement toward nationalism which accompanied the Reformation. The rediscovery of the classics did influence the development of the stage — first in Italy, then in France and England and the rest of Europe. It was in Italy that the first steps were taken toward the development of the proscenium, or “picture frame”, stage with which we are so familiar today.
In the England of the 15th and 16th Centuries, however, the proscenium stage was still in the future. The stages on which the works of a growing body of “play-makers” were performed evolved from the use of the enclosed courtyards of inns to stage performances. These “apron stages” were surrounded by galleries and were therefore “open” stages. Indeed, they were so “open” that members of the audience not only sat in the galleries surrounding the stage on three sides, and in the groundspace around the elevated stage, but on the stage itself. The emphasis was on dialogue as opposed to blocking or action, and the plays still had a moralistic tone. The themes of religious virtue were replaced by those of loyalty to government or to a stable society.
The term “play-maker” refers to the fact that the emphasis was on the performers. Troupes or companies of actors developed a repertory of plays for performance. These companies were still guild-like in their organization, with a group of owner-actors, journeymen and hirelings. The plays that were performed were based on simple plots or previous works, and a writer “made” a play more as a technical than a truly creative process.
The Protestant Reformation and the break of England from the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII influenced a change in this pattern. England in the 16th Century moved back and forth from Catholicism to Protestantism, back to Catholicism during the reign of Mary, and back again to Protestantism with the accession of Elizabeth I. For intellectuals, including those who “made” plays based on the works of the classic world, the choice between revival of Latin works (associated with the Church in Rome) or Greek works (associated more with Protestantism in the England of the time), could literally be a choice between life and death as a heretic. It’s no wonder that playwrights began to avoid a revival of the classics in favor of original, secular works of a general, non-political and non-religious nature.
Theatre companies were still somewhat beyond the pale of normal society during this time. Fear of plague that might be carried by the traveling companies, as well as the possibility of civil unrest that might be occasioned by patrons who had too much to drink, made civil authorities sometimes ban the performance of plays and even refuse entry into a city or town by the company. Theatres were also associated, in the minds of merchants, with temptation for idle apprentices to while away their time watching entertainment instead of working. In the view of the wives of play-goers, theatres were associated with the women of ill-repute who frequented the areas surrounding the play-houses and public inns where performances took place. Ultimately, these concerns led to the licensing of official companies by the throne, and the domination of theatre by the state.
The University Wits: The growing popularity and diversity of the drama, its secularization, and the growth of a class of writers who were not members of holy orders led in the 16th century to a new literary phenomenon, the secular professional playwright. The first to exploit this situation was a group of writers known as the University Wits, young men who had graduated at Oxford or Cambridge with no patrons to sponsor their literary efforts and no desire to enter the Church.
They turned to playwriting to make a living. In doing so they made Elizabethan drama more literary and more dramatic–and they also had an important influence on both private and public theaters because they worked for each. They set the course for later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and they paved the way for Shakespeare.
The University Wits were
· John Lyly (1554-1606) is best known for court comedies, generally for private theatres, but also wrote mythological and pastoral plays. Endimion & Euphues.
· George Peele (1558-96) began writing courtly mythological pastoral plays
· Robert Greene (1558-92), who founded romantic comedy, wrote plays which combined realistic native backgrounds with an atmosphere of romance, comedies.
· Thomas Lodge (1557-1625) tended toward euphustic prose romances. His Rosalynde provided Shakespeare with the basis for As You Like It..
· Thomas Kyd (155~94), who founded romantic tragedy, wrote plays mingling the themes of love, conspiracy, murder and revenge. Adapted elements of Senecan drama to melodrama. His The Spanish Tragedy (1580s) is the first of the series of revenge plays. In these plays, violence and grossness comes to the stage . One of the characters bites off his tongue and spits it on the stage. And we think Quentin Tarantino movies are wild!



Independent Practice:

The students will need time to process all of the information that they have been given today and in the class periods preceding this to put together their time lines. They will do so on their own and the teacher will monitor the classroom, asking questions, clarifying and helping where needs be.



Closure and Assessment: The instructor will check the progress of their timelines, asking individual questions about the information the students have received up to this point and assign the homework specified below.
We will now be moving on from the reformation into the Elizabethan and Jacobean age of theatre.




The students need to choose one Shakespeare character from the list and do a bit of research. They need to find out about the play that this character is from and write a brief summary about the play (which they can easily find online) and a description of the character. They will be presenting their findings before the class on Wednesday. The list of both major and minor Shakespeare characters is included below, but is not by any means comprehensive.