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Early English drama: The Castle of Perseverance

This 15th-century staging diagram is from a set of manuscripts known as the Macro Plays.

Full page showing schematic tower inside a double circle. Handwritten text in and around the image provides explanation but is too small to make out here.
The Castle of Perseverance, in the Macro Manuscript, ca. 1440

This staging diagram from a 15th-century English morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, is a principal source for theories of how late medieval drama was performed. Set outdoors, it appears to show a circular ditch or moat, perhaps intended to keep spectators out of the main acting area. In the center is the “castle”—a platform on which some of the actors stood. The bed of the character Mankind is located directly below, with the direction, “And there shall the soul lie under the bed until he shall rise and play.”

Less lyrical, but more startling, are the directions for the actor playing Belial (the Devil), a figure who may have stood on one of the five scaffolds shown outside the ditch. Reflecting the medieval association of the Devil with firecrackers, these notes instruct, “He that shall play Belial look that he have gun powder burning in pipes in his hands and in his ears and in his ars when he goeth into battle.”

The diagram is from a set of manuscripts known as the Macro Plays (named for an 18th-century owner, the Reverend Cox Macro), which remains the most important source of knowledge of the early English morality plays—allegorical dramas, with characters like Mankind and the Seven Deadly Sins, which preceded the more realistic theater of the Renaissance.

Two of these plays are unique to this manuscript: The Castle of Perseverance, which dates from between 1400 and 1425, making it the oldest known English morality play to survive, and Mankind, written about 1465. A third play in the manuscript, Wisdom, from between 1450 and 1500, does exist elsewhere, but in an incomplete form.

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