The Castle of Perseverance
|The Castle of Perseverance|
Stage drawing from the only surviving manuscript of The Castle of Perseverance
|Original language||Middle English|
The Castle of Perseverance is a c. 15th century morality play and the earliest known full-length (3,649 lines) vernacular play in existence. Along with Mankind and Wisdom, The Castle of Perseverance is preserved in the Macro Text (named after its owner Cox Macro) that is now housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Castle of Perseverance contains nearly all of the themes found in other morality plays, but it is especially important (and unusual) because a stage drawing is included, which may suggest theatre in the round.
One of the earliest drawings of a stage and set design is preserved in the manuscript. In the center of the drawing is the castle from the play's title. The writing above the castle explicitly says that the audience should not sit in the area. At the base of the castle is a bed on which Mankind rests. The circle around the castle is labeled as a ditch, which the audience should not cross.
The five short text blocks around the circle label scaffolds for some of the characters, including God, Belial, and World. The map is oriented with north towards the bottom, which suggests that it is not merely some abstract suggestion by the playwright or scribe, but rather a real set design that may have been implemented—if not merely an literal implementation of the trope of 'a world turned upside down'.
Whether the drawing truly represents theatre in the round or not is debatable. Although the ditch circles the castle completely and it is stated that the audience should not cross it, nowhere does the text state that the audience should sit on all sides of the play. It is possible that they sat on only one or some of the sides.
This morality play traces the entire life of its hero Humanum Genus (Mankind) as he wages a fluctuating battle with evil forces. As the play begins, Mankind ignores the counsel of his Good Angel and allows his Bad Angel to lead him into the service of World. World’s servants (Lust and Folly) dress the hero in expensive clothes and lead him to the scaffold of Covetousness, where Mankind accepts the Seven Deadly Sins. All is not lost, though, for Shrift and Penance convince Mankind to repent and he is placed in the Castle of Perseverance where he will be protected from sin by the Seven Moral Virtues. Mankind's enemies (World, Flesh, and the Devil) attack the castle but are repulsed by the Virtues armed with roses (emblems of Christ’s Passion). Next, Covetousness tempts Mankind with an offer of wealth, and Mankind thinks about accepting. At this point, Mankind is struck down by a dart thrown by Death, illustrating that death may strike at any moment. As he dies, Mankind prays that God will deliver his soul from Hell. The Four Daughters of God (drawn from a medieval tradition) debate Mankind’s fate, and, in the end, God sides with Mercy and Peace (over Righteousness and Truth) and decides to pardon Mankind. The actor playing God ends the play with the admonishment,
- “Thus endyth oure gamys!
- To save you fro synnynge,
- Evyr at the begynnynge
- Thynke on youre last endynge!”
In Modern English:
- “Thus ends our games!
- To save you from sinning,
- Forever from the beginning
- Think on your last ending!”
The Castle of Perseverance shows the progression of Mankind from birth to death, illustrating his temptations and the process necessary for Christian salvation. The play pictures men in this world as besieged on all sides by sin with the only comfort and salvation coming from virtues.
- Chass.Utoronto.ca - Full modernized text
- D. Bevington. "The Castle of Perseverance." Medieval Drama. Houghton Mifflin Company/Boston. 1975, pp. 791–900