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Sovereignty in the Digby Mary Magdalene John W. Velz Criticism has always regarded the play of Mary Magdalene in MS. Digby 133 as an amorphous work. In 1885, in the first major study of the play, K. Schmidt spoke of its “abweichenden züge,” and of its “gänzlich überflüssigen scenen,” l and the view that the play lacks unity has prevailed to the present. Arnold Williams speaks for the tradition when he says: This sprawling play is hardly memorable dramatic art. Charac­ terization, the interplay of character and situation, the purposeful selection of incident to embody theme, of these it has scarcely any.2 The traditional view has been nourished, doubtless, by F. J. Furnivall ’s edition,3 which places the heading “ Part II” before the King of Marcylle’s first speech at line 925, indicating a sharp break in the action. Further support for the assumption of disunity comes from the generic eclecticism of the play. Mary Magdalene is plainly a hybrid: the raising of Lazarus (Scenes 19-20) and the Hortulanus (Scene 25) could have been borrowed from some Mystery cycle; juxtaposed with the former early in the play are scenes containing the allegorical characters and ethical situation of Morality plays; following the latter in the last half of the action are the romantic adventures and miraculous conversion associated normally with Miracle plays. The play has a very large cast and an episodic plot; typically char­ acters are introduced, maintain a relationship to Mary for a few brief scenes, and then disappear permanently. Moreover, the play covers a span of more than thirty years and takes the audience the length of the Mediterranean Sea three times. Yet, eclectic, episodic, and sprawling as it is, Mary Magdalene is not the product of an undisciplined mind. The unknown dramatist had a controlling purpose— a theme which he consistently wove through the panoramic action, animating and unifying it and often coloring it with an ironic tone. The theme is sovereignty, the true sovereignty of God which the play repeatedly contrasts with false claims to dominion made by men. Rival claims to sovereignty are introduced as a motif in a prologue of five scenes; the forty-seven scenes which follow repeatedly and ironically echo this motif. Four of the first five scenes (the first and 32 John W. Velz 33 third, introducing Tiberius Caesar, and the fourth and fifth, introduc­ ing Herod and Pilate) are universally condemned as an “ unpardonable obstruction to the smoothness of the dramatic action’’^ because they have no reference to the actual legend. Aside from the oppor­ tunity of introducing comedy, they are merely a device to show the net of circumstances closing in upon Christ, and with him, upon the body of his followers, to which the heroine belongs.5 But these four scenes, like the second scene which introduces Mary’s father, Cyrus, are in harmony with the leading theme of the play. Indeed it seems probable that they suggested to the dramatist his theme of sovereignty— at least in part; boastful claims to power were a technique of pejorative characterization in the traditional Mystery plays from which the dramatist borrows in the early scenes of Mary Magdalene. Moreover, the dramatist was writing in an era much con­ cerned with rival claims to sovereignty in society. Michael Wilks has shown in a recent study that in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries sovereignty, temporal and spiritual, was the focus of European political philosophy.6 Caesar begins the play with the traditional demand that the audi­ ence maintain silence; he expects to be obeyed, he says, because he has divine power: of heven and hell chyff rewlar am I, to wos Magnyfycens non stondyt egall, for I am soveren of al soverens subjugal On-to myn empere, beyng in-comparable, tyberyus sesar, wos power is potencyall.7 And he goes on in the same vein for ten further lines, until it becomes obvious that he protests too much. His bombastic claims to power are, of course, familiar enough, reminiscent of the conventional claims of boastful tyrants in the Mystery cycles. But Tiberius’ is just the first of a long succession of false claims to dominion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 32-43
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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