Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Castle of Perseverance

The Castle of Perseverance is a medieval Morality Play that is of particular interest because its manuscript contains detailed instructions for staging it, including a sketch of the stage layout.

Currently, the Folger Shakespeare Library houses the manuscript, which shows a castle surrounded by a circle. Written in the circle are the words: "This is the watyr a-bowte the place, if any dyche may be mad, ther it schal be pleyed, or ellys that it be strongely barryd al a-bowt; and lete nowthouer many stytelerys be with-Inne the plase."

The ditch (or sometimes barred fence) seems to have acted as a division between the audience and the actors. Outside the ditch were five scaffolds, each housing some of the play's many characters. On the north scaffold was the demon Belyal, who according to the stage directions would have "gunne-powder brennyn In pypys in his handis and in his eris, and in his ers." It might seem strange to us to envision a medieval actor with pipes filled with gunpowder coming out of his hands, arse, and ears, but that appears to be how they staged the play.

Toward the end of the play, the four Daughters of God appear, namely Mercy, Righteousness, Truth, and Peace. According to the staging instructions, Mercy is to be clothed in white, Righteousness in red, Truth in green, and Peace in black. After the central figure of Mankind has succumbed to sin and died, the daughters plead before God for his Soul. Mercy urges the salvation of Mankind, stating:

     For the leste drope of blode
     That God bledde on the rode,
     It hadde ben satysfaccion goode
          For al Mankyndys werke....

Righteousness isn't so sure. She declares:

     Lete hym a-bye his mysdede!
     For, thou he lye in hell and stynke,
     It schal me neuere ouer-thynke.
     As he hath browyn, lete hym drynke!

Truth agrees, and backs up her sister, saying:

     Rytwysnes, my syster fre,
          Your jugement is good and trewe.
     In good fayth so thynkit me;
          Late hym his owyn dedis rewe!

Fortunately for Mankind, Peace speaks up for him, urging:

     Pes, my syster Verite!
          I preye you, Rytwysnes, be stylle!
     Lete no man be you dampnyd be,
          No deme ye no man to helle.

The three sisters bring the case before their Father, God. I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say, "the leste drope of blode" that Christ "bledde on the rode" does not fall in vain.