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  • Tyrants, Tudors, and the Digby Mary Magdalen
  • Heather S. Mitchell-Buck (bio)

The “ranting tyrant” was the superstar of the early English stage. Characters like Herod, Pilate, and Caesar were dressed in the most lavish costumes, assigned the longest and most elaborate speeches, and often supplied the actors who brought them to life with a substantial wage.1 Scholars have conventionally seen the tyrants of biblical drama primarily as comedic figures or embodiments of pride, but these tyrants have much more to offer their audiences, whether in the fourteenth century or the twenty-first.2 Like all actors playing the part of kings, they remind us that the person of the ruler is distinct from the office that he holds. They invite authors, actors, and audiences to imagine how the role of a king ought to be played, and to participate in a discourse of virtue and self-governance applicable to monarchs and commoners alike.

The Digby Mary Magdalen offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to tyrants: Tiberius, Herod, Pilate, Cyrus, the World, and the Flesh begin many of the play’s early scenes with their competing claims of power and supremacy, and the second half of the play is dominated by the story of the King of Marseilles. As a whole, the play presents a world in which the values and practices of tyrants are deeply entrenched. However, the play also suggests a unique solution in its eponymous character. Mary Magdalen, a virtuous noblewoman deeply involved in the faith and politics of her world, is presented as the means by which tyrannical regimes may be effectively redirected towards a more proper, Christian end. Although Mary Magdalen is by no means “typical” biblical drama (if such a thing can even be said to exist in such a small corpus of surviving play-texts), it nonetheless draws on its audience’s familiarity with and expectations of the genre and thus offers a perfect crucible in which to consider the tyrants’ political significance. [End Page 241]

The plays in which these tyrant figures appear are conventionally referred to as “medieval drama.” However, they continued to flourish throughout the reign of Elizabeth and even beyond: the final cycle performances in York and Chester took place as the first permanent theaters were opening in London, and the manuscripts of Chester’s Whitsun plays continued to be copied until the early seventeenth century.3 The continued popularity of the tyrants in these plays suggests an enduring frustration with royal power that claimed to rule both state and church in the name of “the common good,” yet never hesitated to prioritize national conformity and obedience at the expense of local tradition and individual belief.

Unlike many other plays of the period, no performances of Mary Magdalen have been definitively documented. However, John Coldewey has suggested that some of the Digby plays, including Magdalen, may have been performed at a drama festival in Chelmsford, Essex in 1562,4 approximately 40–50 years following the date of the only surviving manuscript of the play.5 Coldewey’s proposal has been the subject of some skepticism; Paul Whitfield White reminds us that the town was an early protestant stronghold, with local gentry and church leaders who eagerly supported the Elizabethan Settlement, and he finds it unlikely that Mary Magdalen or any other play “so deeply rooted in Roman Catholic doctrine and devotional practice” could have been performed there in 1562.6 Although the protestant leanings of the community must, of course, be taken into account, this cannot be the only factor used to determine which plays were included in the festival.7 Coldewey’s comparison of the stages, props, and costumes recorded for these performances suggests that, were Mary Magdalen not part of the Chelmsford festival, an unknown play of similarly elaborate scale, with a similarly large cast and a remarkable overlap of scenes and characters, must have been performed.8 Without a large body of available protestant drama to choose from, a play as spectacular as Mary Magdalen might have been selected in hopes of turning a tidy profit, no small consideration given the outlay of expenses made for the festival: more than £21 was invested...


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pp. 241-259
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