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Counterfet countenaunce: (mis)representation and the challenge to allegory in sixteenth-century morality plays.

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.


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. Yet more significantly, the drama of this period manifests a striking self-consciousness about the limitations of the mode it deploys.

Theoretically, at least, personification allegory depends on the assumption that universal, abstract qualities exist, and that these can be fully and accurately represented by the individual figures that take their names; the transparency with which a name describes a character seems to entail a close, almost magical correlation between the two. Maureen Quilligan has argued persuasively that:

Allegory always presupposes at least a potential sacralizing power in language, and it is possible to write and to read allegory intelligently only in those cultural contexts which grant to language a significance beyond that belonging to a merely arbitrary system of signs. Allegory will not exist as a viable genre without this 'suprarealist' attitude towards words; that is, its existence assumes an attitude in which abstract nouns not only name universals that are real, but in which the abstract names themselves are perceived to be as real and as powerful as the things named. Language itself must be felt to have a potency as solidly meaningful as physical fact before the allegorist can begin. (6)

Such potency is apparent in the reliance that morality characters place on a name, as when Honest Recreation in Redford's Wit and Science (c. 1540) points out to Wit that he should be able to judge how much more worthy a companion she is than Idleness simply on the grounds of their names (p. 149). (7) It appears still more clearly when the mere use of a name summons the eponymous character, even when the speaker has no intention of calling him. In Youth (c. 1513), for example, Riot appears the instant he is mentioned (ll. 207-11); so too do Newguise, Nought, and Nowadays in Mankind, while in Wealth and Health (in a knowing take on this convention) a reference to 'Will' summons his negative counterpart, Ill Will (p. 283). (8) In sixteenth-century moralities, however, this magical correspondence between name and character is increasingly called into question as it comes under pressure both from the contradictions inherent in staging universals, and from changing perceptions of the 'truth' value of language itself. Many of the plays bear witness to a shift from the assumption that personification allegory is an effective means of 'cloaking' abstract qualities, providing them with a local habitation and a name, to questioning the effectiveness of allegorical representation. Some do so implicitly; others (including the plays discussed here), with various degrees of explicitness. Their allegory is thus very far from static: rather, the allegorical mode is interrogated in such a way that these plays can be seen to participate not only in the political and religious debates, but in the linguistic debates of the time.

The most conspicuous means by which morality plays test allegorical assumptions is the vices' adoption of false identities in order to gain influence over the protagonist. This is a feature of the vast majority of moralities of this period, to the extent that Thomas Dekker, writing in 1608, observed: 'All Vices maske themselves with the vizards of Vertues. They borrow their names, the better and more currantly to pass without suspition.' (9) However, it would be wrong to think of the adoption of false identities as a practice that originates in the sixteenth century. Vices are found disguising their true identities as early as Prudentius's Psychomachia, where Avarice disguises herself as Thrift; and the practice appears in medieval literature too: for example in the fourteenth-century allegorical poem, Winner and Waster, where Coveteousness adopts the same disguise. (10) In Medwall's Nature (c. 1499) the practice is more extensively used: Pride finds it convenient to be known as Worship, and other vices similarly change their names. (11) But despite its long history, in many sixteenth-century moralities the vices' deceit becomes more than a standard stratagem; it also challenges the very allegorical mode on which the plays depend.

On occasion, as for example in Lindsay's Three Estates or Udall's Respublica, the vices' assumption of false identities includes elaborate physical disguise. This kind of deception inverts the idea, common in other moralities, that the physical appearance of a character accurately reflects his moral state. In Mundus et Infans (1500), for example, the World gives Manhood new clothes to mark his entry into the service of Pride, while in Mankind the protagonist's coat is cut down to a modishly short garment when he comes under influence of the vices. In Impatient Poverty the protagonist is given a new garment when he agrees to live according to Peace's precepts, and in Wit and Science Wit is given Ingnorancy's coat to wear after he has fallen into Idleness. (12) Since each of these instances implies that allegory is transparent, the vices' assumption of physical disguises not only abuses their victims' trust, but challenges the wider allegorical assumption that external appearance reveals, rather than conceals, character. In Quilligan's terms, it substitutes allegory that needs allegoresis (which 'assumes that meaning is not manifest and must be dug for') for 'true' personification allegory, which 'manifests the meaning as clearly as possible by naming the actor with the concept' and ensuring that his appearance accurately reflects it. (13)

However, use of physical disguises is the exception rather than the rule. In many plays, the vices' disguise consists solely of the assumption of false names. In Lusty Iuventus, for example, Satan is so confounded by Iuventus's Protestantism that he asks his son Hypocrisy to corrupt Iuventus--which Hypocrisy does by assuming the name of Friendship. In the same play, when Iuventus has fallen into lustfulness and Abhominable Living appears, Hypocrisy addresses her as 'Unknown Honesty' (p. 28). A similar regard for the power of names underlies the determination of the two vices in Wealth and Health, Ill-Will and Shrewd Wit, to suppress the first parts of their names and to be known as plain Wit and Will; while in Impatient Poverty, Envy gains the confidence of Conscience by asserting that his name is Charity (p. 327), despite having already spoken to Conscience in such a way as to betray his true nature (p. 326). (14) In Respublica the protagonist is so attuned to names that when she overhears Avarice muttering to himself 'Remembre nowe my name ys maister policie. | all thing I tell yowe muste nowe goe by policie' (ll. 478-79), she exclaims 'Me thinke I heare the name of Polycye', and summons him in, thus setting in train her own ruin. (15)

Each of these cases of assumed identity answers the question 'what's in a name?' with a very decisive 'everything'. The vices show that they are fully aware of the allegorical assumption that the mere use of a name guarantees that its owner embodies that quality, and they exploit it in order to gain influence over the protagonist. Yet they themselves are fully aware that the assumption is a dangerously naive one--as Envy says after he has fooled Conscience:
 A, sir! This is not a jolly game
 That Conscience doth not know my name?
 Envy, in faith! I am the same:
 What needeth me for to lie?
 I hate Conscience, Peace, Love and Rest;
 Debate and Strife, that love I best,
 According to my property.

 (p. 329)

As characters do so often in morality plays, Envy here insists that he is wholly defined by his 'property' of envy. (16) Nonetheless, he simultaneously states that this 'property' need not necessarily be reflected in the name he assumes. On the contrary, his assumed name creates a false perception of what he is, which allows him to gain the trust of the virtuous characters. His verbal disguise thus exemplifies William Empson's perception that 'a word may become a sort of solid entity, able to direct opinion, thought of as like a person'. (17) It suggests that language may not (as allegory seems to assume) be purely mimetic, but may instead shape the reality it purports to describe.

This raises questions about the power of naming, which are considered with a greater degree of explicitness in Magnyfycence and Respublica. Envy's speech in Impatient Poverty is almost incidental, but in Skelton's and Udall's plays the business of assuming false names becomes of thematic as well as practical importance. Skelton's Magnyfycence is the earlier of the two, composed in about 1519 as a critique of the extravagances of the first few years of Henry VIII's reign. (18) It is a very fiscal morality. We discover the prince Magnyfycence's court in a state of good governance, represented by the characters of Measure and Welthful Felycyte; as his name implies, 'Felycyte' is presented as quite literally inseparable from wealth, and Measure takes very literally the proverb that 'measure is treasure' (ll. 114-25). (19) It is significant, then, that when the first of a long line of vices appears, he presents himself under the name of 'Largesse': he is, he persuasively argues, a fitting companion for a prince, who is obliged not only to govern his wealth wisely, but to make a substantial display of it for benefit of his people. His arguments are, on the face of it, impeccable; although contemporary advice to princes warns against excessive expenditure, it also warns against niggardliness. (20) However, even as Magnyfycence is persuaded to accept 'Largesse' in his service, a dubious figure enters behind his back and calls 'Largesse' by his true name: Fansy. Far from being a princely virtue, the figure who calls himself 'Largesse' proves to represent the fantasy, that quality of mind notorious for its poor judgement. (21)

Dire consequences follow. Fansy is only the first of a long line of vices to join Magnyfycence under assumed names; he is quickly followed by Counterfet Countenaunce, Cloked Colusyon, Courtly Abusyon, and Foly. Since Magnyfycence vanishes from stage immediately after he has accepted Fansy into his service, reappearing only when he is fully corrupted, the vices' successive appearances are for a long time the only means by which the state of affairs at Magnyfycence's court can be charted. Thus the audience experiences the corruption of his court entirely on an allegorical level: as the various vices introduce themselves, they proudly describe their double dealings and boast of their prowess. We have to imagine the effect they are having on the virtuous characters; we see them only in interaction with one another, and, although they declare their intention to discredit Measure and gain control of Magnyfycence's purse, we are given no particulars of the way in which they intend to achieve their ends.

The one strategy that the vices do discuss in detail is their assumption of false names--and this becomes a recurrent, almost an obsessive, concern. Early in the play, Counterfet Countenaunce asks whether Fansy and Crafty Conveyaunce have places at court under their own names. 'Why, wenyst thou, horson, that I were so mad?', exclaims Crafty Conveyaunce (l. 517), and he and Fansy go on to explain that Fansy has taken the name Largesse, while Conveyaunce goes by the name of Sure Surveyaunce. In a later scene Crafty Conveyaunce recapitulates for the benefit of another vice, Cloked Colusyon:
 I wyll passe over the cyrcumstaunce
 And shortly shewe you the hole substaunce.
 Fansy and I, we twayne,
 With Magnyfycence in housholde do remayne;
 And counterfeted our names we have
 Craftely all thynges upryght to save:
 His name Largesse, Surveyaunce myne.

 (ll. 637-43)

At this point, Counterfet Countenaunce and Cloked Colusyon decide to join Fansy and Conveyaunce at court. Countenaunce inquires anxiously, 'But shall I have myne olde name styll?' (ll. 647), and it is swiftly decided that he shall be named Good Demeynaunce, while Cloked Colusyon is to become 'Sober Sadnesse', specifically because Magnyfycence will have him 'in the stede of sadnesse' (ll. 680, my emphasis). Similar discussions occur yet again in the later scenes where Courtly Abusyon takes the name Lusty Pleasure, and where Foly assumes the name of Consayte, or 'wit' (ll. 958-65; 1306-9). The way in which Crafty Conveyaunce speaks of Colusyon's renaming indicates the significance of these verbal disguises, emphasizing that their purpose is to substitute the name of virtue for the thing itself. Names that truly and transparently reveal the nature of the character to which they are attached are abandoned in favour of names that deceive by pointing to the thing they are not. It is only appropriate, therefore, that when Magnfycence returns to stage in his newly corrupted state, his soliloquy reveals that he has now thoroughly mistaken the meaning of his own name, conceiving 'magnificence' to consist exclusively in a display of wealth and tyrannical behaviour, rather than in the judicious control of the state. As Crafty Conveyaunce implies, the assumption of false names really is the 'hole substaunce' of the plot.

Skelton is not alone in paying such detailed attention to the question of naming: something very comparable occurs in Respublica, Udall's morality play of 1553.Written shortly after Mary succeeded to the throne, the play appears to identify the sufferings of England under its past two rulers, and to express the hope that the accession of a new, Catholic queen will redress the balance. (22) Yet its interest in allegory is almost as marked as its interest in England's political and religious condition. It is even possible that it inherits these concerns from Skelton; the outline of the plot with which Respublica opens refers to the vices who 'by cloked collusyon | And by counterfaicte Names [hide] theire abusion' (ll. 23-24), in lines that clearly echo the names of two of the vices in Magnyfycence. Whether or not there is a direct influence, Respublica strongly recalls Skelton's play in the prominent role it gives to discussion of the vices' new identities. Although its vices employ physical as well as verbal disguise, the adjustment of their dress is almost an afterthought; the main emphasis is on their names. In the very first scene we encounter Avarice declaring his intention to introduce himself to Respublica under the name of Policy:
 What my name is, and what is my purpose
 Takinge youe all for frendes I feare not to disclose.
 My veray trewe vnchristen Name ys Avarice
 which I may not have openlye knowen in no wise,
 For though to moste men I am founde Commodius,
 yet to those that vse me my name is Odius.


 Therefore to worke my feate I will my name disguise
 And call my Name polycie in stede of Covetise.


 The Name of policie is of none suspected,
 Polycye is ner of any cryme detected,
 So that vnder the Name and cloke of policie
 Avaryce maie weorke factes and scape all Ielousie.

 (ll. 69-74; 79-80; 83-86)

Avarice's speech might almost serve as a gloss on Crafty Conveyaunce's less transparent observation that the vices in Magnyfycence will counterfeit 'Craftely all things upright to save' (l. 643). And the importance of false names in Respublica is emphasized in the later scene where Avarice oversees the 're-christening' of his fellow vices, Adulation, Insolence, and Oppression. He begins by pointing out just why their own names will not do:
 Shall Respublica here youre commendacion,
 by the name of Flatterie or Adulacion?
 or when ye Commende me to hir, will ye saie this
 Forsouthe his name is Avarice or Covetise?
 And youe that sholde have wytte yst your descretion
 Bluntlye to goe forth, and be called Oppression?
 an youe Insolence do ye thinke yt wolde well frame
 If ye were presented to hir vnder that name?

 (ll. 349-56)

Like Envy in Impatient Poverty, and Crafty Conveyaunce in Magnyfycence, Avarice spells out the 'need to lie': that is, the need for vices to break with allegorical transparency if they are to be true to their own bad characters. But although the vices are more than willing to be 'new cristened' by Avarice, they have some difficulty in making the new names stick. On learning that he is to be called Honesty, Adulation responds: 'I thanke youe, Avaryce. Honestie Honestie' (l. 390), and this leads to an ill-tempered exchange in which Avarice hopelessly tries to force Adulation to remember all the vices' new names at once:
AVARICE Avaryce ye whooresone? Policye I tell the.

ADULATION I thanke youe Polycye. Honestie, Honestie.
 Howe saie youe Insolence? I am nowe Honestie.

AVARICE We shall att length have a knave of youe Honestie.
 Sayde not I he sholde be called mounsier Authoritye?

ADULATION Oh frende Oppression, Honestie, Honestie.

AVARICE Oppression? hah? is the devyll in thye brayne?
 Take hede, or in faithe ye are flatterye againe.
 Policie, Reformacion, Authoritie.

ADULATION Hipocrysie, Diffamacion, Authorytie.

AVARICE Hipocrisye, hah? Hipocrisie, ye dull asse?

ADULATION Thowe namedste Hipocrisie even nowe by the masse.

AVARICE Polycye I saide, policye knave polycye.
 Nowe saye as I sayd. adulation Policie knave policie.

AVARICE And what callest thowe hym here? adulation Dyffamacion.

AVARICE I tolde the he shoulde be called Reformacion.

ADULATION veraye well. avarice What ys he nowe? adulation

(ll. 391-407)

On the surface, the scene is pure comedy at the expense of the dunce Adulation, but it has further resonances. Most obvious of these is the way in which Adulation fails to understand the difference between Reformation and Defamation or Deformation. This is thoroughly in keeping with the religiously conservative tone of the play: Adulation's confusion suggests that Reformation may be identified as a vice rather than as a virtue. But the exchange has allegorical as well as political or religious implications. Although Adulation remains Adulation at heart, he declares 'I am now Honestie', as if his renaming had altered his essential condition. Moreover, the way in which one word is substituted for another suggests that, far from being mimetic, names are merely sounds that need not bear any relation to reality, and are thus endlessly interchangeable. The implication of the exchange between Avarice and Adulation (and by extension the implication of the renaming of all the vices) is that names are purely a matter of convenience and 'convention': that there is no essential correlation between the thing designated and the word used to designate it. But if the vices' quarrel suggests that words are able to mean what the speaker would like them to mean, and thereby to influence our perception of the way things are, this is diametrically opposed to the assumption that underlies personification allegory, that there is a magical correspondence between name and character. Thus Respublica, like Magnyfycence, can be seen to undermine the very mode on which it depends.

Such a challenge to the 'sacralizing power' of language raises questions about its representational function, and this in turn connects these morality plays to the linguistic debates of the time. The vices' strategy anticipates, on a practical level, Bacon's perception in his New Organon (1620), where his discussion of the 'idols' or false apprehensions that prevent the clear and rational apprehension of the world includes the assertion: 'Credunt enim homines, rationem suam verbis imperare; sed fit etiam vt verba vim suam super Intellectum retorqueant & reflectant.' (23) Although in this passage Bacon is writing of careless definition (that is, the slipshod rather than the wilfully misleading use of words), the wider context of his discussion, in which he asserts that such carelessness is one of the primary means by which men are prevented from coming to a clear understanding of the natural world, reveals that he too is very much concerned with the affective power of words; as he writes in an earlier chapter: 'Mala & inepta verborum impositio, miris modis intellectum obsidet. [...] Verba plane vim faciunt intellectui, & omnia turbant; & homines ad inanes, & innumeras Controuersias, & commenta, deducunt.' (24) His comments come at the end of a century in which intense attention was paid to linguistic matters. The sixteenth century is notorious for the rapid expansion of the English language, brought about primarily by the widespread borrowing of foreign (especially Latin) words, and for the ensuing debate over the usefulness of what became known as 'inkhorn' terms. (25) Although, on the face of it, the debate is perhaps not obviously connected to the use of allegory in moralities, one of the concerns that was repeatedly voiced in the course of it nonetheless demonstrates that dramatists writers with linguistic concerns were addressing comparable questions about the representational function of language. Just as the allegorists found themselves challenging the allegorical assumption that language exists in a magically mimetic relationship to the outside world, and then restoring it at the end of their plays, a number of critical writers found themselves responding to linguistic change with almost wishful allusions to the ancient idea that there might be an innate connection between a word and the thing it 'stands for'.

The question of whether there is such a 'natural' connection, or whether designations are purely arbitrary is, of course, not peculiar to the sixteenth century; it has its roots as far back as Plato's Cratylus, in which Socrates famously mediates between Hermogenes, who insists that names are arbitrary, and Cratylus, who prefers the idea that they in some way reflect the essential nature of the thing they name. The argument recurs in various guises throughout later antiquity and the Middle Ages, frequently with reference to Adam's naming of the animals or the story of Babel, both of which suggest that language was given by God as an absolutely transparent system of signs. (26) In the sixteenth century, vestiges of the debate informed the long-running and heated scholarly dispute over the best way to augment the English language. As Douglas Gray has demonstrated, neither the enthusiasts for borrowing new words from Latin nor their opponents wholly identify with the 'natural' position, but it is nonetheless possible to trace signs of a desire to believe that language might work in that way in the works of writers such as Sir John Cheke and Richard Verstegan, both of whom tellingly deploy terms such as 'natural' in stating their views. (27) Although Cheke is not opposed to all borrowing, he does declare himself of the opinion 'that our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges [...] For then doth our own tung naturallie and praisablie utter her meaning, when she bouroweth no counterfeitness of other tunges to attire her self withal.' Verstegan similarly opposes borrowing on the grounds that 'when wee have gotten from them [i.e. other languages] as many woords as wee wil, they can neuer carry a true correspondence vnto ours, they beeing of other nature, and originall'. (28) While both Cheke and Verstegan assert that their arguments are grounded in the desire for a practical, comprehensible language, there are glimpses of an underlying assumption that English, in remaining 'true' to its roots, also remains 'transparent' or truly representational. Both writers manifest a kind of nostalgia for a perfect correspondence between sign and signified that is shared by dramatists such as Skelton and Udall.

Yet this nostalgia arises precisely from the growing realization that the theory of 'natural' correspondence was no longer tenable. From the late fifteenth century onwards, English scholarship and teaching were increasingly influenced by the work of continental humanists such as Poggio, Bembo, and Valla. On the one hand, their determination to restore a classically pure Latin, with their concomitant insistence on returning to the etymologically correct meanings of words that had been 'corrupted' by long use, may well have contributed to a revival of interest in the natural theory of language. (29) Yet, on the other hand, their work revealed the inadequacy of such a theory by drawing attention to the way in which words change their meanings and develop new ones over time. Moreover, one consequence of their influence in England was a greatly increased emphasis on rhetoric in Latin teaching in schools. This, too, inevitably emphasized the shaping rather than the mimetic power of words, thus dealing a further blow to the idea of natural representation. (30) It is against this background of a heightened awareness of the contingency of meaning on the levels both of scholarship and of everyday grammar school teaching that both linguists and allegorists were confronted with the question of how language might work.

It is perhaps not surprising to find these questions addressed more or less explicitly in the work of writers such as Skelton and Udall, since both were involved in the debate on other levels too. Skelton's poem Speke Parrot (c. 1519-21) manifests an intense concern with the way in which language teaching affects society, and both Skelton and Udall were active as translators, contributing to the striking increase in the number of translations out of Latin into English in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This phenomenon was in part attributable to the new emphasis on Latin as an eloquent language. Despite long traditions of devotional, satirical, and literary writing in the vernacular, the new focus on Latin as an eloquent rather than simply a useful language, combined with a growing awareness of the divergence between English dialects, gave rise to the suggestion that English was innately defective; and while some translations were undertaken purely for the practical purpose of making available in English information that would otherwise exist only in Latin, others were undertaken explicitly as assertions of confidence in the vernacular, or as a vehicle for the introduction of new words into the language. But whatever the professed purpose, the increased practice of translation (like the new emphasis on the teaching of rhetoric) necessarily entailed thinking about language as language; the realization that what could be said in Latin could not be said in precisely the equivalent way in English inevitably drew attention to the gap between words and things, and the potential for a language to contribute to as well as describe a world-view.

For translators such as Skelton and Udall, the inside knowledge of the process of translation contributes to their awareness that language is never purely mimetic. Skelton's translation of Diodorus Siculus consistently stresses that a writer's choice of words affects the way in which he portrays his subject, while Udall's preface to his a translation of Vermigli's A Discourse or Traictise ... Concernynge the Sacrement of the Lordes Supper (c. 1550) describes his aims in terms that reflects on the way in which words mean:

Now this boke I haue laboured to make as plain as I could do, and therefore in som places I haue either altered or leaft the scoole termes whych otherwise would haue made the thing more derke, and brought it as nere [as] I could to the familiar phrase of English speakyng, or els haue added suche circumstaunce of other woordes, as might declare it and make it plain. Wherfore thoughe for the cause abouesaide I mai seme in some places to haue somewhat swerued from the precise woordes of the latin booke: Yet I trust it shall to the fauourable and indifferent reader appere that I haue not any thynge degressed from the autours mynde. (31)

For both writers, the practice of translation entails thinking explicitly about how language means: whether the same 'truth' can be conveyed in terms different from the original ones, and if so, what that implies--whether it suggests a nonmimetic quality in language.

Clearly, such a background is likely to have an effect on writers of allegory; indeed, Helen Cooney has attributed a fifteenth-century English 'crisis of allegory' precisely to the emerging influence of the work of continental humanist writers such as Valla. (32) Yet it is not only in Skelton's and Udall's moralities that language becomes the subject as well as the medium; something comparable occurs across the genre. In Wealth and Health, for example, the question of language is raised through a breakdown in communication. The Fleming Hance speaks a mingle-mangle of Dutch and English that borders on the incomprehensible. 'Be Got's drowse! ic myself bin cumpt heye scon lansman; | Ic mot in ander land lopen, all is quade dan' are his first lines on entering, and he continues in this vein; trying to persuade Good Remedy that Wealth no longer dwells in England, he declares that 'Wealth is lopen in an ander contry', and when Good Remedy dismisses him as a 'drunken Fleming', he concludes: 'Mot ic net mare herebin woder sal ic gewest kiskin; | Ic wil to de kaizer gan, dar sall ic wal skinkin' (pp. 299-301). (33) In a play that is much concerned with the wealth of the English nation, Hance's impenetrable accent is clearly intended as a negative portrait of the foreign immigrants who have (in the playwright's view) depleted its resources. Matters have come to such a pass that Hance is feeling the pinch himself (hence his determination to leave for another country), while Good Remedy declares outright that 'There is too many aliants in this realm; but now I, Good Remedy, have so provided that Englishmen shall live the better' (p. 300). Serving as a shorthand for difference, Hance's bastard speech is thus clearly part of the play's satirical attack on those people it portrays as a drain on the nation's resources; yet it nonetheless addresses the question of language too. Immigration and linguistic borrowing are linked by various writers on the English language, among them Richard Mulcaster, who speaks of words borrowed from other languages as 'bond to the rules of our writing [...] as the stranger denisons be to the lawes of our cuntrie'; Samuel Daniel, who refers to them as 'free-denizens in our language' who have established themselves there without seeking permission of the authorities; and George Chapman, who declares that he will 'give pasport' to just a few new words. (34) The personification of words by each of these three writers (which is seen also in Cheke's reference to 'counterfeitness') is on the surface a long way from the use of Hance's foreign speech as a marker of difference. The connection appears to be merely a metaphorical one, as Mulcaster, Daniel, and Chapman draw on an established fear of foreigners such as Hance to fuel their attack on linguistic newcomers. However, the opposite is also the case. The way in which Hance's speech is represented shows a fear of linguistic chaos (or 'non-natural', non-mimetic language) as well as a fear of foreigners. The mangled transcription not only signals difference, but by demonstrating the breakdown of communication, it also suggests that (in a post-Babel world) language cannot be 'natural'; the clear gap between utterance and comprehension shows it to be 'conventional'. Like Magnyfycence and Respublica, then, Wealth and Health at least momentarily raises questions that challenge allegorical assumptions.

In Redford's Wit and Science, a still more striking challenge arises when Ingnorancy proves himself so ignorant that he is incapable even of learning his own name, and Idleness (who clearly has nothing better to do) determines to teach it to him syllable by syllable:
IDLENESS Go too, then; spell me that same!
 Where was thou born?

INGNORANCY Chwas i-bore in England, mother said.


IDLENESS And what's half Ingland?
 Here's Ing; and here's land. What's 'tis?


INGNORANCY 'Tis my thumb.

IDLENESS Thy thumb? Ing, whoreson! Ing, Ing!

INGNORANCY Ing, Ing, Ing, Ing!

IDLENESS Forth! Shall I beat thy narse, now?


IDLENESS Say no, fool! say no.

INGNORANCY Noo, noo, noo, noo, noo!

IDLENESS Go to, put together! Ing!




IDLENESS Forth now! What saieth the dog?


IDLENESS Dog bark? Dog ran, whoreson! Dog ran!

INGNORANCY Dog ran, whoreson, dog ran, dog ran!

IDLENESS Put together: Ing!






IDLENESS Forth now; what saith the goose?


IDLENESS His, whoreson! his!

INGNORANCY His, his-s-s-s-s!

IDLENESS Go to, put together: Ing.







INGNORANCY His-s-s-s-s-s-s.

IDLENESS Now, who is a good boy?


IDLENESS Go to, put together.

(pp. 152-54)

And so it goes on. Here there is no question of a satirical attack on foreigners, but the emphasis on the breakdown of representational language remains. Still more than the exchange between Avarice and Adulation in Respublica, this syllable game suggests that verbal designations are entirely arbitrary. Not only is Ingnorancy's name broken down into quite random constituent parts, which he is unable to put together except by rote and which fail to contribute in the slightest to his understanding, but the way in which Idleness introduces the syllables ran and his (the latter of which is not even a true syllable in Ingnorancy's name) disconcertingly alludes to the idea that there is a natural correspondence between words and the things they designate. Those who believed that words reflect something of the innate essence of what they describe frequently adduced onomatopoeic words as evidence, but Idleness and Ingnorancy between them manage to undo even this very basic correspondence: Idleness arbitrarily proposes 'ran' as the noise a dog makes, while Ingnorancy's first instinct is to represent the sound of the goose as 'lag'. On one level, the spelling game is a mere interlude-within-an-interlude--a joke--just as the vices' assumption of false identities in many of the other moralities is a generic convention. Yet like the vices' adoption of false names, this exchange too addresses the question of how words mean in a way that reflects the linguistic concerns of the time and implicitly brings into question assumptions about the transparency of language, the correspondence between sign and signified on which allegory depends.

In the light of these recurrent concerns, it is unsurprising that moralities of the later sixteenth century show a decreased dependence on the allegorical mode. As Spivack has argued, the morality plays of the third quarter of the sixteenth century--those written before the final extinction of the genre--bear witness to a gradual substitution of history for allegory: 'that is, of a literal plot, real or imaginary, for a metaphorical one; and of literal personages, real or imaginary, for type figures and personified abstractions'. While it would clearly be a dramatic oversimplification to claim that the challenge from within the moralities themselves to the very foundations of allegory is the only reason for this development, it is likely have formed a contributing factor. Although Spivack argues that the shift towards history 'is not a development within the nature of the morality plays themselves; rather it is the intrusion of an alien element that expands until it puts an end to the formal existence of the allegorical drama', some of the grounds for the shift are innate. (35) Plays such as Bale's King Johan and Lindsay's Satire of the Three Estates demonstrate how the use of historical figures might in part evolve from the tradition of the vices' assumption of false names--and might, too, serve in partial answer to the challenge to allegory inherent in these plays: Bale's Sedition disguises himself not as an abstract virtue, but as Steven Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury; while Dissymulacyon becomes 'Simon of Swinsett'; Usurpid Power becomes The Pope; and Privat Welth, the Cardynall Pandulphus. In both plays, the disguises include actual historical figures as well as figures who are more generic, but nonetheless human, rather than abstract. The main purpose of this slight alteration to the convention of disguising is, of course, a satirical one: to present (for example) the historical Steven Langton as Sedition in drag is a way of dehumanizing him, rendering him no more than an abstract vice. The suggestion in all cases is that the Catholic Church is simply a hotbed of vices in disguise. Yet in addition the change neatly sidesteps the question of the truth of representation, and can therefore also be seen as a response to the acknowledgement implicit in so many earlier moralities that allegory is a problematic mode.

Sixteenth-century morality plays can thus be seen not merely to become increasingly secular, political, and polemical, but in doing so to reflect the multifaceted and frequently contradictory thought about language that was current at the time. Plays such as Magnyfycence and Respublica do not quite suggest a full-blown 'crisis' of allegory; each play ends with the restoration of both political order and true resemblance, thus implying that words too can be restored to their 'true', stable meaning. Yet, at the same time, the plays' challenges to allegorical assumptions use established morality conventions to query whether the 'natural' theory of language is a possible one; the plays might be seen to function as an instance of the sixteenth century asking itself (in Foucault's words) 'how it was possible to know that a sign did in fact designate what it signified'. (36) They should therefore not be thought of merely as a static medieval survival, but rather as a means of engaging with the changing perception of the way in which language functions, responding to an awareness of the contingency of meaning fostered by continental humanist influence and by attempts to augment the vernacular so as to render it both adequate and copious. For the duration of the vices' deception, they make a practical and dramatic contribution to the theoretical sixteenth-century debate as to how language means, going so far as to challenge the mode on which they themselves depend. In this respect, then, morality plays are very far from static; rather, they are intimately engaged with some of the most persistent linguistic questions of the day.


University of Bristol

(1) C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. 232; John Watkins, 'The Allegorical Theatre: Moralities, Interludes, and Protestant Drama', in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. by David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 767-92 (p. 767).

(2) See Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to his Major Villains (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 61-62, 206-11; Howard B. Norland, Drama in Early Tudor Britain, 1485-1558 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), pp. 37-47; and cf. Watkins, 'Allegorical Theatre'.

(3) For the dating of King Johan see Peter Happe, John Bale (New York: Twayne, 1996), pp. 89-91; for that of the Satire see Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, ed. by Roderick Lyall (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1989), pp. ix-xiv.

(4) Greg Walker, Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 2.

(5) Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1964), pp. 25-69; cf. Spivack, Allegory of Evil, pp. 126-27.

(6) Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 156.

(7) All citations from Wit and Science are from Recently Recovered 'Lost' Tudor Plays, ed. by John S. Farmer (London: Early English Drama Society, 1907); the edition has no line numbers. For the dating of the play see John Redford, Wit and Science (Oxford: Malone Society, 1951).

(8) All citations from Youth are from Two Tudor Interludes: The Interlude of Youth and Hickscorner, ed. by Ian Lancashire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980); all citations from Wealth and Health are from Farmer's Recently Recovered Plays. In Mankind, the lines in which Mercy mentions the vices by name are missing from the sole surviving manuscript, but Nought declares that Mercy has summoned them: 'I heard you call "Newguise, Nowadays, Nought"--all these three together'; see Mankind, in Three Late Medieval Morality Plays: Mankind, Everyman, Mundus et Infans, ed. by G. A. Lester (London: A. & C. Black, 1981), l. 111.

(9) Thomas Dekker, The Belman of London (London, 1608), sig. E2v.

(10) See Watkins, 'Allegorical Theatre', p. 770. For further examples see Spivack, Allegory of Evil, pp. 85-86, 155-61.

(11) Henry Medwall, Nature, in The Plays of Henry Medwall, ed. by Alan H. Nelson (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1980), ll. 836-38, 1200-30.

(12) See further Richard Hillman, Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 69-73.

(13) Quilligan, Language of Allegory, p. 31.

(14) All citations from Lusty Iuventus are from The Dramatic Writings of Richard Wever and Thomas Ingelond, ed. by John S. Farmer (London: Early English Drama Society, 1905). All those from Impatient Poverty are from Farmer's Recently Recovered Plays. Neither edition has line numbers.

(15) All citations are taken from Respublica, ed. by W. W. Greg, Early English Text Society, o.s. 226 (London, 1952).

(16) For further examples see Spivack, Allegory of Evil, pp. 127-29. For discussion of the phenomenon see Sarah Carpenter, 'Morality Play Characters', Medieval English Theatre, 5.1 (1983), 18-28.

(17) William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952), p. 39.

(18) Both the language of Magnyfycence and its thematic concern with the (mis)use of rhetoric suggest that it was composed close in time to Speke Parrot, which is dateable to 1519-21. I am grateful to Jeanne McCarthy of Oglethorpe University for pointing out this connection. For a dating to 1519 on historical grounds see Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 61-72.

(19) All citations from Magnyfycence are from John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, ed. by John Scattergood (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).

(20) See Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Gouernour, ed. by Henry Hubert Stephen Croft, 2 vols (London: Kegan Paul, 1880), II, 111-13; Peter de la Primaudaye, The French Academie (London, 1586), pp. 434-57; and Sir John Fortescue, The Governance of England, ed. by Charles Plummer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885), pp. 118-26.

(21) The name suggests that Fansy is, in traditional morality fashion, one of Magnyfycence's own faculties, and thus that it is his own weakness that paves the way for his downfall. See further Jane Griffiths, John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), p. 66.

(22) See further Douglas F. Rutledge, 'Respublica: Rituals of Status Elevation and the Political Mythology of Mary Tudor', Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 5 (1991), 55-68. However, as Greg Walker has demonstrated, many of Mary's courtiers were implicated in the abuses of Edward's reign:Walker, The Politics of Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 181-84.

(23) 'Men believe that their reason rules words but it also happens that words turn and bend their power back upon the intellect.' Text and translation are from The Instauratio magna, Part II: Novum Organum and Associated Texts, ed. by Graham Rees with Maria Wakely (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 92-93.

(24) 'Shoddy and inept application of words lays siege to the intellect in wondrous ways. [...] Words clearly force themselves on the intellect, throw everything into turmoil, and side-track men into empty disputes, countless controversies and complete fictions' (Instauratio magna, pp. 80-81).

(25) See further Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 203-08; and R. F. Jones, The Triumph of the English Language (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1953), pp. 1-213.

(26) See further Roy Harris, The Language-Makers (London: Duckworth, 1980), pp. 33-78; Ernst Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. by Willard R. Trask (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), pp. 495-500; and Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 38-46.

(27) Douglas Gray, 'A Note on Sixteenth-Century Purism', in Words for Robert Burchfield's Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. by E. G. Stanley and T. Hoad (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988), pp. 103-19.

(28) Sir John Cheke, Letter to Thomas Hoby, 5 July 1557, repr. in the introduction to Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster (London: Arber English Reprints, 1870), p. 5; Richard Verstegan (Richard Rowlands), A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp: Robert Bruney, 1605), sig. Gg4v.

(29) See Gray, 'Note on Sixteenth-Century Purism'.

(30) See further Nicholas Orme, English Schools in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1973), pp. 87-115; and Arthur F. Kinney, Humanist Poetics: Thought, Rhetoric, and Fiction in Sixteenth-Century England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986).

(31) Pietro Martire Vermigli, A Discourse or Traictise ... Concernynge the Sacrement of the Lordes Supper (London, 1550), sig. iv-ivv. For Skelton as translator see Griffiths, Skelton and Poetic Authority, pp. 38-55.

(32) 'Skelton's Bowge of Court and the Crisis of Allegory in Late-Medieval England', in Nation, Court and Culture: New Essays on Fifteenth-Century English Poetry, ed. by Helen Cooney (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), pp. 153-67.

(33) 'By God's devil! I myself am as good as a native here; I must go to another country and things go very ill.' 'Wealth has gone to another country.' 'I am not able remain any longer where I have been comfortable. I will go to the king, I'm sure to suit there.' Hance's syntax is mangled and many of his words have been deliberately misrepresented; I have interpreted 'drowse' as 'droes' (devil or fiend); 'kiskin' as 'geschikt' (well suited, comfortable); and 'skinkin' as 'schikken' (to suit or please).

(34) Mulcaster's Elementarie (1582), ed. by E. T. Campagnac (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), p. 174; Daniel, Defence of Ryme (1603), in English Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. by Brian Vickers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 453; George Chapman, Dedication to 'Achilles Shield', in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. by G. Gregory Smith, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), II, 305.

(35) Spivack, Allegory of Evil, pp. 62-63.

(36) Foucault, Order of Things, p. 47.
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Author:Griffiths, Jane
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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