The Forms of Middle English Drama

Must look at the drama, must look at the drama.  That’s been running through my head and scribbled down in notebooks for as long as I have been working on this poetics project.  Drama in medieval England was drama in verse, so it has the potential to be a great source for my book.  But I have been very surprised by how purposeful and subtle the use of form is, especially to emphasise key moments in the action.  This post (the first of several on form in medieval English drama) shows some of the effects playwrights create with stanzas and rhyme.  This is perhaps very obvious to people who research and teach a lot of medieval drama, but it is new and fascinating to me.

Illustration of a pageant wagon by Ervina Boevé via the Hekman Digital Archive

The medieval English cycle and morality plays were written in a surprising range of different stanza forms, often changing verse-form within an individual play or pageant.  Sometimes these changes in form are the result of re-writing, updating or collaborative creation, but not always.  I’m certainly not the first person to point out how the authors of these plays use form purposefully and creatively (and let me know if you know of any more discussions).  Peter Happé has a useful article on Skelton’s Magnificence, pointing out how Skelton uses changes of verse-form creatively, and Avril Henry has a similar article on The Castle of Perseverance.  Richard J Collier’s book on Poetry and Drama in the York Corpus Christi Play has a great section on the verse-forms of this cycle.

Writing drama in stanzaic verse gives a playwright lots of possibilities.  He can let each character have a whole stanza (or several stanzas) as their ‘turn’ in a dialogue.  Or the playwright can let his characters share a stanza.  This works with lines too: two or three characters can speak short phrases which, when put together, make up a whole line.  There is a nice example in the York Cycle pageant of ‘The Fall of Man’.  Satan begins the play by outlining to the audience his plan to tempt Eve with lies.  After two whole stanzas, the third stanza is begun by Satan, but the third line is shared between Satan and Eve:

Satan:    “Eve, Eve!”
Eve:                             “Wha is thare?”
Satan:                                                              “I, a frende.”

The end of this fragmented line is signalled by frende, which rhymes with wende two lines above it.  This interchange incorporates Eve into a stanza which Satan is already ‘controlling’ and sandwiches her into Satan’s line.  In the lines that follow, Eve participates in and completes Satan’s stanza, joining in the pattern of rhyme upon which he is embarked. This agreement in rhyme anticipates how she will be persuaded by his words to eat the apple.

Illustration of demon costumes by Ervina Boevé via the Hekman Digital Archive

Some of this is merely practical: it would be pretty long-winded and tiresome if every character spoke in a whole line or whole stanza, especially if this was just a greeting and reply as in the last example.  But it also produces some useful contrasts: more solemn or formal addresses can be written in full stanzas, while shared stanzas or lines give the feel or more informal, extemporary speech.  Writing in verse has practical benefits – the predictable rhyme-scheme must have helped the actors to remember what came next.  But as well as its functionality, it’s clear to me that the playwrights were always conscious of their stanza form and what they could do with it.

Sharing a stanza, for example, between speakers can have the effect of slowing it up.  In the York Cycle ‘Second Trial before Pilate’ play, Pilate orders the scourging of Christ and turns him over to the soldiers.  The soldiers narrate their stripping and beating of Jesus, and the dramatist spreads the twelve-line stanza between four speakers, in a stanza which tortuously (in both senses) works through this collective abuse:

IV MILES     Late us gete of his gere, God giffe hym ille grace.
I MILES        Thai ere tytt of tite, lo, take ther his trasshes.
III MILES     Nowe knytte hym in this corde.
II MILES                                                            I am cant in this case.
IV MILES     He is bun faste, nowe bete on with bittir brasshis.
I MILES        Go on, lepis, harye, lordingis, with lasshes
And enforce we this faitour to flay hym.
II MILES       Late us driffe to hym derfly with dasshes,
Alle rede with oure rowtes we aray hym
And rente hym.
III MILES     For my parte I am prest for to pay hym.
IV MILES     Ya, sende hym sorow, assaye hym.
I MILES       Take hym that I have tome for to tente hym.

(for a translation of this stanza, see the modernization by
Chester N Scoville and Kimberley M Yates)

The stanza form in this play is usually abab4bcbc3d1ccd3, but this stanza has ababbcbccccc.  The playwright forgoes the expected rhyme pattern in order to bludgeon us with the same rhyme word, hym, just as Jesus is battered by blows (though of course the word itself focuses attention back on the suffering silent Christ).  The soldiers’ collaboration in this stanza, building the rhyme pattern between them in turn, mirrors their collaboration in the scourging.  As George T Wright writes about Shakespeare’s dramatic metre and his use of short and split lines: “Speech breeds speech, requires it, goads it, desires it.”  The stanzaic verse of medieval drama does this yet more insistently by working with the stanza pattern that the audience has already heard in operation in the play.  Each line gleefully and horribly builds the rhythm and pattern of the violence.

More next week on how these plays also use collaborative stanzas for celebration.  And also some thoughts on why these plays switch between different stanzas within one play, and how and why they use decorative patterns such as stanza-linking.

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