Mystery Plays, Morality Plays, and Thomas Hardy: Exploring Theatre and Literature

Classified in Philosophy and ethics

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Mystery Plays

Mystery plays tell stories from the Bible and each play was prepared and presented by a trade guild on wagons that moved about the town. The cycles usually coincided with trade fairs.

Mystery Cycle

Mystery cycle is a collection of mystery plays with stories from the creation to the last judgement. Examples like: The creation of heaven and hell. The Annunciation or The Nativity.


Guilds were groups of tradesmen. Each guild was in charge of a different play. Mystery plays performed by local craftsmen's guilds had the economic and administrative means to stage them. They were often lavish and theatrical affairs arranged to coincide with trade fairs when lots of visitors came to the town. They used to act on wagons which travelled around the city, movable outdoor stages.

Morality Plays

Morality plays are a development of the mysteries and closer to our modern ideas of theatre. Often the work of one writer rather than growing over time like the mystery plays. Mainly 15th and early 16th century. They show allegories which show the dual nature of mankind and teach people how to live their lives and not succumb to temptation. More didactic. Dramatize moral struggle. The characters represented vices and virtues. E.g. Greed, Pride, Patience. Struggling for the human soul.

Thomas Hardy: Uniting Victorian and Modern Eras

The works of the English novelist, poet, and dramatist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) unite the Victorian and modern eras. In his novels and poetry Thomas Hardy presents the spectacle of England from Napoleonic times to World War I and after. He revealed the changes that overwhelmed Victorian England and made it modern: the decline of Christianity, the shifts from reticence to openness in matters of sex and from an agricultural to a modern economy, and above all the growing sense of the disparity between the enormous universe and tiny man.

Hardy enjoyed commercial success and was very popular but his work proved controversial. Particularly his representation of women. We find a Victorian realism style highly critical of much in Victorian society, though Hardy focused more on a declining rural society. It is set in the semi-fictional region of Wessex. His stories explore tragic characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances. They criticize those beliefs, especially those relating to marriage, education and religion that limited people's lives and caused unhappiness. Fate or chance is another important theme. Hardy's characters often encounter crossroads on a journey, a junction that offers alternative physical destinations but which is also symbolic of a point of opportunity and transition, further suggesting that fate is at work. This is particularly notable in Tess.

The Return of the Native

In The Return of the Native, Eustacia Vye combines the strength of a man with the beauty of a woman. Like the heath, Eustacia is untameable, dark, and wild. Her association with the heath illustrates her masculine qualities. The Victorian ideal displayed in Eustacia's feminine desires conflicts with this masculinity. Eustacia wants to escape the environment that keeps her from finding independence. Hardy creates an unconventional woman antagonized by the desires of passionate love and the independence of a male.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

A similar conflict occurs in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Tess, defined by sexuality, is characterized as a "lush bit of nature, a sexual being" In contrast with this sexuality; Tess possesses certain qualities inherent in males. The thriving passion of Tess serves two purposes in Hardy's novel. In her defiance of the Victorian ideal Tess is empowered and strengthened. This passionate sexuality also results in her isolation from society and ultimately her death. Portrayed as a strong woman, Tess is capable of proving her purity and innocence despite the criticism of a cruel Victorian environment.

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