The Academy: session abstract and readings

Literature, Lecture 1: English Medieval and Renaissance Drama – creating the audience

Richard Swan

Part 1: Medieval Morality Plays: Preaching to the masses?

We will start with a brief overview of the origins and types of English drama in the Middle Ages, before focusing specifically on the longest of the extant Morality plays, The Castle of Perseverance, in order to examine four ideas:

- Why Morality plays are important and are as effective now as when they were written.
- The complexity and theatricality of the plays as examples of dramatic art.
- Their influence on later drama, with particular reference to Shakespeare.
- The role of the audience as active participators rather than passive recipients.

There is a tendency to assume that medieval drama, standing as it does at the dawn of the English theatrical tradition, will be crude or simplistic. The opposite is rather the case. Plays like The Castle of Perseverance are both sophisticated in themselves, and also represent a remarkably modern kind of play-making. Their affinities are rather with twentieth-century theatre than with the more naturalistic styles of the intervening centuries, and their engagement with the audience is much more direct.


See the Academy 2015 readings page for attendees.

what's happening next

Battle of Ideas Festival 2019

Saturday 2 & Sunday 3 November 2019, Barbican, Silk Street, London