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1 COMPAEATIVE i ama Volume 28Winter 1994-95Number 4 The Devil and Society in the English Mystery Plays John D. Cox The social function of devils in the mystery plays (and indeed in early English religious drama as a whole) has generally been understood in one of two ways. The first grew out of theories by the plays' earliest and most influential interpreters, who explained devils with a developmental view of increasing secularization : as drama moved out of the church and was written and performed in the vernacular, it became more hospitable to elements that were extraneous to the biblical stories or even subverted them, as in the case of the blasphemy and obscenity sometimes voiced and acted out by devils.1 Originally the product of a dualistic Victorian moralism and progressive Whig liberalism, this view has been adapted by Marxist critics, who argue that devils are vestiges of folk drama that embodied peasant resistance to official religious orthodoxy and high culture .2 In this view, the social function of devils is to provide a subversive expression for class frustration and protest. In reaction, interpreters who are more sympathetic to the plays' religious subjects have argued that stage devils are consistent with structural and thematic patterns of the play's informing theology. This view of devils, like the original one, has also taken various forms, from V. A. Kolve's argument that laughter 407 408Comparative Drama at devils in a modern production of the Towneley cycle provided a "comedy of victory" over evil to Hans-Jürgen Diller's careful analysis of "speech forms" to demonstrate that the "harsh, bitter, and funny" realism of the platea "is part of the original make-up of the genre, not a late, popular and irrelevant addition."1 While Diller acknowledges the social ambiguities of devils and their human accomplices, Kolve puts evil creatures firmly in their social place, arguing that comedy gives them their due only at the bottom of the cosmic hierarchy: "God is in control, the evil and the demonic behave stupidly because that is their nature, and the proper reaction to this example of the Tightness of things is laughter."4 Socially, this view is precisely the opposite of the first, for in this view stage devils function to reinforce the existing power structure. What I would like to suggest here is that these opposing views about devils are partial ways of seeing the same social complexity. Devils need not be understood either as exuberant subverters of a hegemonic social order on one hand or as risible examples of failed attempts to challenge cosmic order on the other.5 For stage devils are closely related to the Devil of traditional religion, who is consistent with but not reducible to the Devil of theology. While operating supportively within the bounds of traditional religion, stage devils indeed point to considerable social resistance in the plays, but the social ambivalence they generate is very different from that described by Chambers, Rossiter, and their critical heirs. I Stage Devils and Traditional Religion. As John Bossy and Eamon Duffy have pointed out, pre-Reformation religion was more than a set of ideas that people believed or disbelieved; it was a "cultural system," in Clifford Geertz's phrase, encompassing everything in the life of the community, from birth to death, at all social levels, taking its inspiration from one liturgical celebration after another, year in and year out.6 The Devil was ubiquitous in this system, because his influence accounted for everything that was wrong, not merely in obvious moral or religious terms (committing the seven deadly sins or sacrilege) but in sickness, death, accidents, crop failure, and social conflict of all kinds. One of the major purposes of liturgical participation throughout one's life, from baptism to the last rites, was therefore to reject and defeat the Devil, and innumerable liturgical John D. Cox409 celebrations in the course of every year performed the same purpose for the community.7 To take a specific example, one of the most memorable annual feasts was Rogation, the only liturgical procession not abolished by the reformers, celebrated during the advancing spring on three successive days before Ascension, the sixth...


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