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Structure, Characterization, and the New Community in Four Plays of Jesus and the Doctors Daniel T. Kline Although a Jesus and the Doctors play appears in all four extant English cycles and in the Coventry Weaver's Pageant, these plays have received remarkably little critical attention.1 Illustrating the critical disregard of the Disputation plays, Rosemary Woolf has commented: "The curious feature of the five surviving plays of the doctors is that four of them are closely related, Towneley, Chester and Coventry all being variants of the play first recorded in the York cycle. Why this dull and infelicitous version should have had such a diffusion is unclear."2 Contrary to Woolf, I contend that the Jesus and the Doctors plays in the York, Towneley, Coventry, and Chester collections should be considered important in their own right, and I will argue in this comparative examination that these plays present distinct, subtly nuanced portrayals of Jesus. My argument will proceed along four lines. First, the plays, similarly occupying a crucial location in each collection, initiate a controversy between the old law of the religious establishment and the new law voiced by Jesus, thereby foreshadowing a key element of Jesus' ministry and Passion in his youthful debate with the three clerics. Second, rather than simply being variants of a single play, each actually presents a distinctively structured version of the disputation. Third, each play's individual structure determines the characterization of the doctors, and their interaction with Jesus establishes a distinctive portrait of the child Savior. Finally, though the plays begin with a debate between Jesus and the clerics, the aftermath of the disputation DANIEL KLINE is Assistant Professor of English at Jefferson Community College Southwest in Louisville, Kentucky. 344 Daniel T. Kline345 is the articulation of principles which must be seen as the basis of new community—a new community distinct from the legalism of the pre-Christian era. The Doctors' plays under discussion include York's Christ and the Doctors of the Spurriers and Lorimers (York XX), the Towneley Play of the Doctors (Towneley XVIII), the Chester Blacksmythes Playe of Purification and Christ and the Doctors (Chester XI), and the Coventry Pageant of the Weavers. (Because the N-town play—identified by the rubric Modo de doctoribus disputantibus cum Iesu in templo—is not related to the others, I will not discuss it in the present paper.) A beginning point of comparison between the four Jesus and the Doctors plays which I wish to analyze is their similar transitional position in each collection.3 Generally speaking, the plays close the Nativity sequence while initiating a dramatic conflict that develops throughout the Ministry and Passion plays. In one example, the Chester Disputation presages the trial sequence in the Jewish leaders' concern for the old law and their antagonism against the new law proclaimed by Jesus. The Chester clerics, masters of Mosaic jurisprudence, scoff at the youthful Jesus' claim to knowledge of their legal system, and in the next play, the Bowchers Playe that dramatizes the Woman Taken in Adultery, the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus between "the lawe," which commands stoning for adultery, and "his owne lore" of mercy and forgiveness.4 This opposition finds dramatic enactment in the Passion plays, for the redemptive focus of Jesus' articulation of "a newe lawe . . ./ to helpe mankynd owt of his sinne" in the Chester Bakers Playe of the Last Supper (XV.73-74) harshly contrasts the punitive nature of the old law that condemns Jesus to death (XVI.296). The contrast of the old law to the new, particularly through the depiction of clerical jealousy toward Jesus, is also found in the Towneley collection. During the Towneley disputation, ?? Magister fears that the people will honor Jesus above the Jewish clergy (Towneley XVIII. 187-88), while in the Towneley Conspiracy Cayphas claims that Jesus tempts the people away from the established legal and ecclesiastical authorities (XX.9697 ). Before Pilate, Jesus is accused of trespassing against "oure lawe" (XX.724-44), an accusation that is also found in Chester's pageant de Passione Christi. The Towneley disputation thereby embodies in a brief set-piece a political and theological controversy that emerges in the other play...


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pp. 344-357
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