Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Counterfet Countenaunce: (Mis)representation and the Challenge to Allegory in Sixteenth-Century Morality Plays

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Counterfet Countenaunce: (Mis)representation and the Challenge to Allegory in Sixteenth-Century Morality Plays

Article excerpt

This chapter examines the use of personification allegory in a number of sixteenth-century morality plays, focusing in particular on the vices' use of assumed names in Skelton's Magnyfycence and Udall's Respublica. It argues that these plays manifest a striking self-consciousness about the limitations of the allegorical mode, and that they thereby both reflect and contribute to contemporary linguistic debates. They should therefore not be thought of as a static medieval survival, but rather as making a practical and dramatic contribution to changing sixteenth-century perceptions of how language signifies.

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It is tempting to think of sixteenth-century allegorical drama as a form that resists innovation. C. S. Lewis implied as much when he wrote of allegory as the dominant mode of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; more recently, John Watkins succinctly restated the case, asserting that 'the allegorical drama written in England during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is one of literary history's most static genres'. (1) It is clear, of course, that there are significant differences between the sixteenth-century interlude and its predecessor, the fifteenth-century morality play. As has often been observed, moralities such as The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1400), Mankind (c. 1465-70), and Everyman (c. 1500) are concerned with the salvation of man's soul; sixteenth-century allegorical drama, by contrast, tends to focus instead on social or secular matters, addressing man's secular welfare rather than his spiritual fate. (2) Moreover, its concerns are frequently political ones. Plays such as Skelton's Magnyfycence (c. 1519), Udall's Respublica (1553), and the anonymous Wealth and Health (1557) and Impatient Poverty (1560) have as their common theme the government of the state. Even those plays that do address questions of faith are less concerned to illustrate the common lot of Catholic man than they are to present polemical religious argument; in Lusty Iuventus (1540), for example, the temptations to which the protagonist is subjected are predominantly Catholic practices, to be resisted by focusing on the word of God alone, while in Bale's King Johan (1538-39; 1558-60) and David Lindsay's Satire of the Three Estates (1552), the true (Protestant) religion is central to good governance. (3) In many cases, as Greg Walker has argued, these plays do not just reflect political issues, but are themselves political acts that contribute to contemporary debate on religious divisions, on immigration, and on the country's political, social, and financial health. (4) Rather than focusing reassuringly on ultimate truths, they respond to the contingencies of the time; while they may take a conservative stance as often as a radical one, the stance is in response to specific historical circumstances and conflicts, rather than a reflection of universal values.

However, despite the fact that the function of the morality play alters quite radically between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it continues to employ personification allegory. This leaves it vulnerable to a charge of stasis on two separate counts. Apart from the apparently unquestioning adoption of an existing mode, personification allegory is itself frequently perceived as static: as Angus Fletcher has argued, characters that personify one or other abstract quality cannot help but go on behaving as their name states that they will. (5) Wrath must always be wrathful; Envy must always be envious; and conflicts between personifications must thus be endlessly renewed without hope of resolution. It could therefore be argued that sixteenth-century moralities not only hark back to a means of representation with its roots in the late classical period (for example, in Prudentius's Psychomachia), but that, in doing so, they confine themselves to a mode which spectacularly 'makes nothing happen'. But is this really the case? The shift from theological to secular concerns might itself be said to mean that the morality's conflicts become less than 'eternal'; if they are played out in the context of this world rather than the next, they are necessarily finite. …

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