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"Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished": Medieval Dramatic Eschatology in Shakespeare John W. VeIz An Elizabethan dramatist whose early memories of theater centered on annual productions of a mystery cycle would unconsciously think of serious drama as driving Ideologically toward an eschatological resolution. This is an artistic cause and effect which apparently operated in William Shakespeare's life;' it seems very likely that he learned how to think about plays from seeing what was shown with defiant civic commitment and special emphasis in the streets of Coventry in the last years of the Corpus Christi cycle there. And a substantial number of plays in his canon include eschatological scenes, usually in Act V.2 To understand how Shakespeare, as an impressionable boy, might have felt about the annual event, one should recall that though it may have been somewhat subdued in its last years because of official opposition and economic depression, the Coventry cycle was once so proud a spectacle that it lent its name to the very genre. 3 People, including royalty, came from all over England to see the famous plays; there is a pleasing historical irony in the modern analogy whereby visitors flock annually from all over England (and the world) to Stratford, drawn by the RSC productions of Shakespeare's plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre—where there is a box set aside for the Royal Family. The Coventry cycle was finally suppressed in 1580, when Shakespeare was sixteen years old.4 He may JOHN W. VELZ, Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, has published and lectured extensively on the classical and medieval background of Shakespeare; he is currently engaged in writing a study tentatively entitled Shakespeare and the Shapes of Medieval Religious Drama. 312 John W. VeIz313 have seen it several times, perhaps every year from a young age. Like other cycles, the Coventry cycle was in part intended for the economic well-being of the city: one object was to draw spectators from such outlying communities as Stratford who would spend money in the Corpus Christi fair, the shops, and the inns of Coventry.5 It is plausible to believe that the Shakespeare family made the thirty-mile round trip to Coventry often, perhaps annually, because what William saw in the streets of Coventry seems to have impressed him deeplyß The Coventry mysteries are represented by only two pageants now, but the cycle ended with a Doomsday play, as other English cycles regularly did.7 Clifford Davidson has extrapolated a tentative account of the lost Coventry Doomsday pageant from records of the iconography of the Last Judgment in the Drapers' chapel of St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry (destroyed by bombing in 1940), from the records of the Drapers' guild in the 1560's and 1570's, and from other miscellaneous sources.8 It seems obvious that what Shakespeare would have seen in his youth was at once schematic, emblematic, stately, and violent (Christ seems to have had his feet on a combustible world which went up in flames during the play, reflecting 2 Peter 3.10, 12; an earthquake seems also to have been simulated ). The dead—the damned costumed in black, the saved in white—-were apparently resurrected for Judgment (as they were in the extant Doomsday plays from the other cycles); the corporal works of mercy specified as criteria for salvation in Matthew 25.34-46 may well have been in some way represented or at least enumerated (as they were at York). Had Shakespeare had the access that we have to the four surviving complete English cycles, the composite he could have seen would include in addition pleas for justice (with a certain ironic significance from demons demanding their due—in the Towneley Judgment ), a fully articulated debate among Righteousness, Mercy, Truth, and Peace (N-town before the Incarnation, and rationalizing it), a sharp cleavage without compromise between the saved and the damned (in all cycles), and above all the central judging figure of God. What appears only mediately (Pope, Emperor, King—paired off, saved and damned—speaking in rotation in the Chester Judgment) is the Dance of Death that Harry Morris has stressed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 312-329
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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