Mankind is also a late Medieval English morality play. The author is unknown, and there is a page missing from the text, but the basic subject is as follows:
Mankind is, well, man. Two other entities, Mercy and Mischief decide to play some sort of game for his soul. Mercy teaches Mankind to work, to eschew idleness, and stay away from idiots, specifically Newguise, Nowadays, and Nought, the vices, who are cronies of Mischief. These three show up and try to lead Mankind astray, but he just beats them up with his shovel and goes on with his business. The vices then enlist the help of Titivillus, the devil, who whispers lies in Mankind's ear, and tells him that Mercy is dead. Mankind then goes off with Newguise, Nowadays, Nought, and Mischief, and generally has a good time until they convince him to hang himself. He is about to do this when Mercy shows up and rescues him, and shows him the true path once more.
All in all, this play is bawdy, disgusting, and hilarious, and includes lots of word play, as all of the characters mercilessly mock mercy, who intersperses his speech with Latin phrases, and no small amount of bathroom humor either.
Although Mankind uses the structure and conventions of a morality play, the writer uses the identification of the lower classes with the audience, and other elements of carnival to undermine the official culture, and the only "good" character, Mercy, is nothing more than a figure of ridicule.
Language and Official Culture in Mankind
The use of Latin in the play Mankind serves to point out one of its major themes: that language and education are
one of the many ways that the "official culture" keeps the poor downtrodden, which inevitably breeds discontent and sin.
However, through an unconventional use of the morality play convention, the author of this play can simultaneously
subvert the official culture, comment on its absurdity, and seemingly uphold it.
Although Mankind uses the structure of a morality play, its themes are much more complicated than it might at
first appear. Mercy does not simply personify virtue, whereby man may see God. Mercy is a priest, and well educated,
compared to the ignorant vices. Mercy also represents the official culture in his dispensing of religion and proverbs
in a language the mass of people do not even understand. He tosses off quaint phrases, that or may not have anything to
do with anything: "Dominus dedit, Dominus abstulit." (The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.), and "Jacula praestita
minus laedunt," (Forseen darts hurt less.), for example. Mankind, under his guidance, repeats these catch phrases, but
doesn't seem to understand them very much. Far from any religious response to temptation, all Mankind can think to do
is to beat up his tempters with a shovel.
On the one hand, Mankind's ignorance and dependence on Mercy is part of the morality; man cannot be saved by his own
worth and works, but only through the grace of God. However, Mercy is not merely an abstract quality, and he is not God;
Mercy is a priest. He is an educated man, and a member of the clergy. This points out very clearly that Mankind must
remain dependent on the church for his salvation. This belief was of course quite widespread in the Middle Ages, and
served to reinforce the already enormous power of the Roman Catholic Church. In a society in which it is difficult if
not impossible for a poor man to receive an education, this power of the church served to cement the class boundaries.
If a man is not even able to read Latin, and thereby the Bible, then he has no control over the fate of his own soul, but
is entirely dependent on the clergy. In such a system, who would dare try to rise above his station?
The vices in Mankind are the uneducated, unofficial, unreligious class. They finally raise the question of
"So what?" In their attempts to lead Mankind astray, Newguise, Nowadays, Nought, and Mischief are having fun;
they are vulgar, obscene, and blasphemous, and they don't care. Specifically they are flouting Mercy's authority,
and throwing their doggerel Latin in his face, as if to say, "We don't need your Latin. We'll make up our own."
This is, of course, a serious threat to Mercy and the church, and so Mercy warns Mankind to stay away from them.
The only Latin phrases that seem to mean anything to the Newguise, Nowadays, and Nought are the ones that have to do
with the law, and thereby, death. The vices are clearly well informed of the punishments for their crimes, and the legal
process by which they might be convicted. That Latin would be the official language of the legal system as well as the
church shows just how closely the two are interwoven. Twice Nought recites part of a Latin quotation, followed
by a choking noise, indicating last rites followed by an execution. Newguise informs us that Mischief escaped hanging
because he knew his "neck verse" (as did Ben Jonson, incidentally); that is, he could read a Bible verse in Latin
and prove he was educated. The very existence of such a practice exemplifies this connectioin between the
official culture, education, and religion, as manifested in the common man's view of Latin. Knowing Latin did not simply
enrich your life, or help you prepare for a better fate in the next life; there were very demonstrable benefits in this
life, for possessing a skill that was beyond the reach of most men to acquire. This is the extent to which these
characters know and interact with religion--it is something that is done to them, rather than an actual sense of spirituality.
In such a context, Nought, Newguise, and Nowadays can be seen as real characters, not simply personified vices; they,
not Mankind, and not Mercy, were the figures the audience would have related to. With such a system stacked against
them, and God sitting at the top of it all dispensing judgment to all alike, who could blame their disdain?
Perhaps this is a somewhat more realistic view of "Merry Old England." These three are merry, they have fun, and the only
use they have for the "official culture," Mercy, is mockery. The only use they have for the "official language," Latin,
is mockery as well. Through obscene phrases, made-up words, and pure nonsense with Latin inflections, the three vices make
their contempt for Latin completely clear.
The morality play proved a useful convention for Mankind's author. His lively, rebellious characters are not a
threat to anyone so long as they are labeled "vice." Just as Shakespeare's fools can speak the truth when everyone else
is afraid to, so Mankind's vices can be whatever they want to, and are exempt from traditional morality and standards
The ending of Mankind is both disappointing and inevitable. Mankind is much more fun when he has strayed from
Mercy's teaching, and Mercy himself is pedantic and boring compared with the lively and interesting vice characters.
Plays like Mankind, and festivals, allowed the lower classes to escape from their drudgery, but as they must return
to their own lives, so must "good" overcome "evil."
Must the official culture dominate? Is it possible for the common man to rise up and escape the system? Today, perhaps
it is. In the Middle Ages, probably only for an hour or two.