( England: 1370-1500)
David N. DeVries
"Great wits are sure to madness near allied, And thin partitions do their bounds divide."
-- Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel
As David Bevington writes, "Vice is more appealing than serious moral instruction" ( Medieval Drama798). Or, to put it another way, evil is fun. Throughout the Middle English drama, and particularly in the morality plays, it is evil that gets the laughs. Thus vice is humanized through the agency of comedy, and temptation is made comprehensible and, in a sense, contained precisely because we can laugh at it. Like much medieval humor, the comedy of the vice is rough; and its very roughness indicates something about its social status within the symbolic economy of late medieval English culture. So effective is much of the drama in its work of laughing that some readers have been put off altogether. For instance, one late Victorian apologist for the "moralities" felt compelled to defend the plays by pointing out their moral purpose: "First, and most important, is the reminder that the Morality, though usually exhibiting a most disgusting freedom of language in its scenes of vice, coupled often with a purely animal and sensual joy in the luxury of sin, had as its constant purpose a desire to edify" ( Mackenzie, viii). How the plays were able to exhibit appealingly "disgusting" characters and "edify" at the same time is my central topic. As I shall argue, it is the Vice figure himself who does much of the double work of the plays.