In the Middle Ages, the genre of drama reappeared after a very long time in Europe. This happened, in particular, in Great Britain and the main types of drama were the mystery, the miracle and the morality plays.
“The Castle of Perseverance” is one of the most famous morality plays and the most ancient ever found in its full length version. It was composed around the 15th century and, like the other plays of that time, its author is unknown. The language used in the play is Middle English, deriving from French and Old English, and it is one of the earliest dramas written in this vernacular language. In the text there are also some words and other elements that prove that this play was originally composed in the area of Norfolk, in Eastern England. The text of this play is preserved in Washington D.C. and it is part of a collection of ancient morality plays. The features why this play is still remembered nowadays are the valuable drawings included in the manuscript, the plot and its moral teachings.
What makes “The Castle of Perseverance” one of the most important morality plays are the drawings included in the manuscript. These drawings describe the stage where this play was performed and it is the earliest one ever found in Great Britain. Thanks to this picture, we can know that in the middle of the stage there was a tower (the castle which gives the name to the drama) and, under this, a bed, where the main character had to lay. The stage was also surrounded by a circular moat (a kind of channel around the castle) and this suggests that there might have been a theatre in the round, so the public probably surrounded the stage (as in the Roman amphitheatres).
Regarding the plot, it deals with the story of a man, named Mankind, who represents all the human beings in the world. When Mankind has to make an important decision, two creatures appear around him, in order to give him advice. These creatures are Good Angel, which symbolizes goodness and Christian morality, and Bad Angel, representation of evil and darkness. At the beginning of the play, Mankind decides to accept Bad Angel as his only advisor. So the main character starts to follow Word, Lust and Folly, symbols of the material sides of life. They dress him as a king, push him to do foolish deeds and to accept the Seven Deadly Sins. However, Mankind is eventually persuaded by two positive characters, Penance and Confession, to repent and to abandon his fake friends. In order to protect Mankind from temptations, Penance and Confession lead him to a safe place: the Castle of Perseverance. Mankind, inside the castle, lays on a bed while the Seven Virtues are fighting against World, Flesh and the Devil. The Virtues manage to defeat the enemies, but Mankind accepts the proposal of Greed to be again a wealthy man. Suddenly, the Devil shoots an arrow wounding Mankind in order to represent how death can arrive at any time. While the main character is dying, repenting for his bad deeds, prays to God to take his soul to Heaven. God forgives Mankind and lets his soul into Heaven.
Thanks to the plot of “The Castle of Perseverance”, today we know a lot about the mentality of the people of the Middle Ages. In fact, it is a play focused on the allegorical battle between good and evil over the soul of every human being in the world. In order to make this struggle equal, in the play there is the same number of good and evil characters. The soul can be saved only by virtues and good deeds, which protect it from temptations. The morality play, which gives a moral and also religious teaching, ends with these words of God: “Forever from the beginning, think on your last ending!“.
In conclusion, “The Castle of Perseverance” is not only a valuable example of English literature of the Middle Ages, but it is also an important way to learn about the traditions, the customs and the thoughts of that time. Thanks to a play like “The Castle of Perseverance”, to its stage drawings, to its plots and morals, we are allowed to relive past times just by reading theatrical scripts or watching the drama.