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Comic Eschatology in the Chester Coming of Antichrist Leslie Howard Martin The Coming of Antichrist is in a twofold sense unique. Of the extant English Corpus Christi cycles, only The Chester Plays present a drama of Antichrist, and only the Chester Master among medieval writers conceives the character, elsewhere in­ vested with horrific attributes, as pervasively comic.1 The per­ sistent appearance of Antichrist in sermons, homilies, and art attests, however, to the universal credence once attached to the legend. Perennial warnings of Antichrist’s impending coming thrived upon preachers’ eagerness to foster a penitential spirit among the faithful. An early illustration of this sentiment oc­ curs in the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos; likewise the Cursor Mundi prefaces description of the Day of Doom with a summons to repentance.2 During the interval between Wulfstan’s sermon early in the eleventh century and the Cursor Mundi early in the fourteenth, writers progressively amplified the legend’s details. While many of these accounts use scriptural or liturgical bases wherever pos­ sible, the Libellus de Antichristo, written about the middle of the tenth century, possessed the greatest subsequent authority.3 In episode the Chester play concurs with the Libellus and tradi­ tion. Antichrist is to be the simia Christi, like Christ in action and statement, but arrogant and self-aggrandizing, expert in crime and deception, and a perverter of the Gospels. Yet the play’s tone and conception differ markedly from the numerous non-dramatic versions. In conjunction with its companion piece, the processional Prophets and Antichrist, and The Last Judg­ ment, the succeeding drama of eschatology which concludes the cycle, The Coming transforms the penitential monitions exempli163 164 Comparative Drama fled by the Cursor Mundi into comic affirmation of Christ’s power and ultimate triumph. The Prophets proves an ironic foreword to the farcical Coming, which itself serves as prologue and contrast to the splendor manifest in the occasion and domi­ nant personality of The Last Judgment. The traditional notion of correspondences between the ca­ reers of Christ and Antichrist clearly suggested to the playwright a parallel correspondence in the cycle’s formal structure. Use of a processus prophetarum akin to the Ordo Prophetarum of Latin liturgical drama4 before both The Nativity5 and The Coming invites contrast between the characters’ values and deeds. For The Nativity the formal, didactic procession functions in the customary way as a harbinger of the coming birth and redemp­ tion, and the stylized, sequential delivery of the prophecies gives way to the gracious atmosphere surrounding the “blessedfull bame” (VII, 581) so dear to the medieval English imagination. For The Coming, however, the prophets and Expositor, equally stylized and didactic in address, prepare for the irony of the en­ suing play by forecasting the deceitful miracles and eventual downfall of “£>at fals prophete,”6 and by yielding the stage in turn not to an infant “King borne in a maydens bowre” (VII, 567), but to a spurious “Messy,” full-grown, rampant, and ridiculous. Balaam and Balak (V) incorporates the prophets’ proces­ sion for The Nativity (VI), while that for The Coming of Anti­ christ (XXIII) constitutes a separate play, The Prophets and Antichrist (XXII). At the end of Balaam Old Testament proph­ ets advance successively to foretell the major events of the Messiah’s life. As Isaiah, Ezechiel, Jeremiah, Jonah, David, and Joel speak in turn, the Expositor interjects homiletic explana­ tions of each prophecy. In relation to the plays which follow, this sequence provides an index to the remaining New Testament events. Isaiah and Ezechiel prophesy the Incarnation (VI); Jeremiah describes the Passion (XVI); Jonah, the Resurrection (XVIII); David, the Ascension (XX); and Joel, Pentecost (XXI). As a conscious analogue to the procession in Balaam, The Prophets maintains this careful anticipation of whole groups of plays by preparing the audience for the next and final theme, eschatology. The parallelism between the two processions as formal introductions is thus reinforced by their simultaneous use as ordering devices within the cycle. The Sending of the Holy Leslie Howard Martin 165 Ghost ends the New Testament episodes foretold in Balaam. The prophets and the Expositor must now return to focus at­ tention upon the direction and meaning of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 163-176
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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