Home » drama » Performing a Medieval Play with Regard to 10 Aspects of Medieval Dramatic Performances Adri M Smit 2009066495

Performing a Medieval Play with Regard to 10 Aspects of Medieval Dramatic Performances Adri M Smit 2009066495





1.1 The Essay

p 3

1.2 About the Author

p 3

1.3 About the Play

p 4


Aspects of the Play:

2.1 Everyday medieval life

p 6

2.2 The influence of the church


2.3 Staging directives


2.4 Musical inclusion


2.5 Dance and other aspects of popular culture


2.6 Mythology and folklore


2.7 Medieval narrative


2.8 Costume


2.9 The manuscript


2.10 Art









Annex A



Annex B



1.1 The Essay

The following essay will take a look at a possible modern portrayal of the final scene from the medieval play known as The Play of the Wether by John Heywood, considered to have been produced in the years 1529 to 1533 (Walker, 2000:456). My choice in deciding upon this play was based on its complex nature. Not only does The Wether include an array of different characters, which Walker equates with Chaucer’s characters from The Canterbury Tales (ibid.), but these characters themselves present their various social classes vicariously and therefore put on display, in a vivid and comic fashion, the socio-historic tensions of the time.

The dramatic portrayal towards which end this essay will strive is a totalitarian, historically-accurate depiction of Medieval life. However, a few dramatic elements, such as the portrayal of certain aspects of the play’s characters and their overall pronunciation of Middle English, will need to diverge from this goal in order to achieve a level of familiarity to a contemporary, South African audience. In this, regard the play’s dramatic elements will be subjected to a frame of clarity with regards to contemporary, South African language uses and social practices. As for typically Medieval practices and social conventions, the portrayal of the latter will remain strictly accurate, as far as possible, in order to maintain a level of historical accuracy and information.

In this essay the various elements of The Wether will be described after which their suitable contemporary portrayal will be explored in terms of various sources of research done into these respective fields. The tone of this essay will therefore be both descriptive and analytical. Ten aspects of the play which will come under scrutiny include: everyday medieval life, the influence of the church, staging directives, musical inclusion, dance and other aspects of popular culture, mythology and folklore, medieval narrative, costume, the manuscript and, finally, art. The degrees to which each of these aspects influenced the creation and portrayal of Medieval dramas vary, and a chapter will therefor be designated to each ‘aspect’ in which the play’s practical characteristics will be enunciated and explored.

Of course there is no one way of ‘putting on a show’ and this essay, recognizing this timeless fact, will seek to offer more than one possible means of dramatic portrayal specific to the chosen play, but also relevant in terms of contemporary performances in modern-day Bloemfontein. The final scene of The Whether, by virtue of its inclusion of so many medieval stock characters, invites exploration into all of the play’s salient characteristics. From the analysis of the like it is my hope that readers may not only be inspired by and gain insight into the portrayal of the scene itself, but that they might be prompted to draw on it in an attempt to stage the entire play, if not others like it as well.

1.2 About the Author

The Play of the Wether by John Heywood (c.1529-c.1533), as described by Greg Walker in his Medieval Drama: An Anthology (2000: 456), is well summarized in the following description:

The play…explores a fundamental problem for monarchical government: how can a king reconcile and satisfy all the contradictory demands of the subjects for whom he is responsible, especially when, as during the early years of the Reformation, they argue vociferously for mutually antipathetic ends?”

According to Walker, (2000: 433), John Heywood (c.1497-c.1578) was a court musician and poet under Henry VIII during between the years 1519 and 1550. He shared the religious view of the likes of Sir Thomas More and other intellectuals whom he met through his marriage to Joan Rastell, the daughter of the printer John Rastell, in 1522. Even though his views were overtly Catholic he did not fall out of favour with the court when in the 1530’s the Protestant movement began. He created plays for such personages as Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury and he received for his services such rewards as a gilt cup weighing 23 ounces from King Henry VIII (1533). He wrote such plays as ‘Marque of King Arthur’s Knights’ under Princess Mary, creating other plays voicing his “appeal for religious toleration and moderation” at the same time (ibid. 2000: 433).

The Play of the Wether was one of two plays Heywood published with his name on the front cover, the other being The Play of Love (1534). These are both plays in the form of debates between different social characters, similar to The Four P’s, which is likely to have been produced about the same time. Though Heywood produced verses and continued to provide musical entertainments for the court throughout the 1540’s and 1550’s, he opposed Henry VIII’s claim to the lordship of England’s Church. After Queen Elizabeth enforced the Act of Uniformity in Religion Heywood went into self-imposed exile until such time as he died, around 1578, in Louvain.

1.3 About the Play

Walker (2000: 456) describes Heywood’s act in creating a play so obviously critical of King Henry VIII’s marriage, and the ensuing political tensions it caused, as having been “a bold political step”. In The Play of the Wether Heywood’s characters are representative of the different social classes of medieval society present at the time, such as merchants, gentlemen, washer-women and the like. The underlying tensions between these classes and, by extension, sexes, are a valuable testament to social relations of the time. Walker points out that this makes the play comparable to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (2000:456), which similarly portrays the various trades and walks of life that were to be found in the period and that were similarly paraded in the latter work through the discourse of the work’s characters.

King Henry VIII, after having dismissed his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey in 1529, took on a more ‘active’ role than his predecessors with regard to the management of his monarchy. In this play Heywood equates the King with Jupiter who, after deposing his father, Saturn, ascended to the throne of the Roman Gods to claim absolute power. After further claiming the title of ‘Supreme Head of the Church’ in 1533, Henry further cemented his position as ruler of both Church and State (Walker, 2000: 456).

Heywood’s play may be considered a form of commentary on both the way in which Henry ascended the throne and his resultant use of that new-gained authority (ibid. 2000: 456). Just like Jupiter who is approached by his subjects, each making contradictory demands, Henry is portrayed as the god-king whose authority places him in a difficult position. In the play Jupiter ultimately uses this power and responsibility to maintain things the way the were formerly, therefore refusing partisanship and managing to please all his subjects, however temporarily. Heywood seems to call for “tolerance in the face of social and religious divisions and the maintenance of the status quo” (ibid. 2000: 456), as though sympathizing with the king’s position. It is my own opinion that Heywood is not sympathizing with the king, but rather making an appeal to him to maintain the existing order of thing.

Further proof of the direct parallel between Jupiter in Heywood’s play and King Henry is the required acting space for the performance of the play. Heywood specifies that Jupiter is to occupy a ‘curtained and canopied throne’, behind which a number of musicians might be concealed. This calls for the play’s performance in the great hall which, with its ‘servants’ side’ and ‘elite side’ could be used to reinforce the humorous interplay between the characters which is required in sections such as the interlude (ibid. 2000: 457).

Another notable characteristic of Heywood’s play is his personification of ‘Mery Report’, listes as ‘the Vice’ (ibid. 2000: 456). This persona acts as the interlocutor between the audience and Jupiter, the messenger of the gods that is a “figure of misrule in the manner of the Morality Vices”. The inclusion of this character, who makes his first historic appearance in drama in this play, serves to foreshorten the social and political distance between the audience and the royal monarch. His character is akin to the court jester of the later sixteenth-century and his remarks, married to his nature, are significantly unchecked and humorous (ibid. 2000: 456). It is Mery Report and not Jupiter who is the master of ceremonies of the play.



2.1 Everyday medieval life

The most suitable work with which the launching of this essay’s main analysis might be accomplished is Daily Life in the Middle Ages, by Paul Newman (2001). The reason for this being that the work bases itself on the study of everyday medieval life, which will form the basis of all of my theories on the staging of The Play of the Wether by John Heywood. The Wether is filled with colorful characters, all of whom portray their social class. The interaction of these characters provide a further insight into the humor and tensions related to social standing and public interaction. First, a thorough look at the characters of Heywood’s The Wether is in order.

The ten characters from The Play of the Wether, taken from Medieval Drama (Walker, 2000: 457):

Jupiter, a god, The Water Myller, Mery Reporte, the Vice, The Wynde Myller, The Gentylman, The Gentylwoman, The Merchaunt, The Launder (a washer-woman), The Ranger (a forest warden/gamekeeper), The Boy, the lest that can play.”

Jupiter, a god…

The play opens with Jupiter atop his throne, expanding on the great span of his dominion and explaining how the gods Saturne, Phebus, Eolus and Phebe came into disrepute, throwing their planets out of their orbits and causing terrible weather that has been damaging the earth. Seeing what damage this caused to the inhabitants of earth, these four assembled before Jupiter in order to surrender their powers over the weather into his command. Concluding thus, Jupiter calls all human plaintiffs to him who would have him provide them with certain weather. In the final scene, after each character has made his or her complaint to Jupiter’s messenger, Mery Report, Jupiter summons them all again to give him an account of their complaint and to offer them his verdict.

Jupiter’s announcement, which is to be his great solution to all the problems that are brought before him, is that all the weather should remain as it has been thus far. This is a very strange-seeming verdict, especially seeing as the god-king’s opening statement predicts change and contentment to all at his hand. He ends up dealing out temperance instead. One can imagine his manner therefore to be studious and cool, perhaps with a hunt of humor as he proclaims his final decision.

Jupiter does not interact with the various characters until the final scene, at which point Mery Report brings them in after dealing with them personally. It would therefore be probably that Heywood’s intent is for his god-king to make a big impression in this scene. His message of temperance and timely satisfaction of all needs alike seems most amiable and applaudable. Indeed audiences of the play would at this point be both surprised by the unusual solution of the difficult situation and their hope would be reaffirmed in King Henry simultaneously. The interpreter of Jupiter’s role would therefore have needed to be the very image of perfection, a highly-esteemed actor in the public’s favor and a suitable representation of King Henry VIII, for his own safety’s sake.

Mery Report

Mery Report is the character that Heywood calls ‘the Vice’ and Walker a “figure of misrule” that invites moral judgment (2000: 456). Mery Report is first to respond when Jupiter calls for a messenger, and though he is approaches Jupiter in mean attire and with poor manners, his smooth talk soon wins the god-king’s favour. He promises to be a good messenger by virtue of his aloofness to all people alike and it is this indifference that earns him the station of squire.

This character above all controls the speed and atmosphere of the play because he speaks directly to the audience, mocking each character that draws near and poking fun at their possible imperfections. He draws just as much fire in the process, setting different characters up against one another, even flirting with them where he can. He seems to have little to say that is good, however his very nature is what puts all the characters on the same footing before Jupiter. His efforts bring about the interaction between the everyman and the god-king and by extension the audience and their monarch. A dramatist playing this character must be of extraordinary build, whether exceptionally tall, skinny or tall, as long as he does not have a handsome countenance, lest he compete with his god-king.

Newman explains how the entertainers in medieval society were often dependent on their patrons for their income and living (2001: 181-182) and how they were expected to be able to recite poetry, sing songs or tell stories according to their lord or lady’s whims. Mery Report is such a personage. His poor manner and appearance is upgraded by the patronage of his king so that he fashions himself very important. He revels in his capacity to flaunt the expectations of the other characters by hiding his identity as squire from them until the opportune moment, when he can scold them for dismissing him and win them into his power.

The Gentylman

The Gentylman enters and is allowed to go to Jupiter directly with his plight. He asks for fair weather so that he may easily enjoy the sports that are his recreation. Newman explains very thoroughly what the kinds of recreation were that nobles were most commonly believed to have done (2001: 171-179). These included reading, hunting, falconry, participating in tournaments and fishing. Young nobles kept fit for war by hunting in their private forests. They spent great money and care up-keeping their estates. Rangers and professional hunters were often a part of their staff, as were minstrels and musicians, the likes of Mery Report himself.

The Gentylman is in his manner concise and to the point. He speaks respectfully to Jupiter, trusting that the god will provide him with good weather so that he, and those like him, might be preserved. He appeals to Jupiter by referring to his social rank, which he expresses as “the weale and heddes of all comen welth”. Mery Report makes fun of this statement, asking him whose head he thinks he is, seeing as Jupiter is head over all. The Gentylman is the first to gain a turn to speak when all the characters are summoned before Jupiter and his laud of the god-king’s pronouncement represents the resignation of all nobles to his majesty.

The Merchaunt

The Merchaunt is the second plaintiff to enter. Mery Report immediately makes fun of his honest appearance, pretending to take him for a priest and laughing at his naivety as he leaves. He is also allowed to speak to Jupiter personally and he makes his request for measurable winds that will carry his cargo ships to their destinations without storms or mist to endanger them. Mery Report wishes him a speedy journey to Chios whence he is headed, being too virtuous a character to Mery Report to stand. Ironically Mery Report must then journey far to fetch back him again before the final scene.

The Ranger

The Water Myller and The Wynde Myller…

Millers were of the lower-ranking members of medieval society. Their income was ensured by the providing of flour to bakers and other food producers, however they were dependent on farmers for grains to mill and on the weather for the punctioning of their machinery (Newman, 2001: 14-15). The first miller who approached the court of Jupiter in the play is the water miller, who complains of two much rain stinting his work. The wind miller comes in later complaining of too little rain for the same reason. Mery Report enjoys mocking them; he set them up against one another and retorts to the audience that they are silly for fashioning themselves over one another. He even mentions that he has both a windmill and watermill of his own. These millers both entreat him to bring their plight to Jupiter over that of their competitor.

The Gentylwoman

The Launder

The Boy

2.8 Costume

The first character we meet in Heywood’s play is Jupiter, whom we have already distinguished as King Henry VIII (Walker, 2000: 456). His newly-gained authority as Head of the Church at the time of the play’s creation is an aspect Heywood would not doubt have intended to depict, however vividly he would have chosen to do so. Henry VIII’s crown, which initially contained four images of Christ, was altered after the Reformation to contain the images of three of England’s former kings. The crown in itself would therefore be a powerful symbol for the depiction of the unity of England’s Church and state, attained by the king and no doubt encompassing of the image of Jupiter, the celestial god-king.

The reproduction of Henry’s crown for a modern production of The Play of the Wether would be both historically informative and symbolically suited, however the addition of a scepter and orb to Jupiter’s attire would strengthen the image of the newly-Coronated king in his new position of authority. The combination of English royal artifacts would however make for a very clear image of Henry VIII, which would be be necessary in terms of a modern portrayal of Jupiter in The Wether, however it would not have been the case in Heywood’s time.

Heywood, just like his later contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, made use of Roman mythological figures to depict the significance of certain characters in his works. In order to best convey the desired connotations of these characters the direct portrayal of these figures in mythological attire would seem most rational. In such a case Jupiter would be depicted as a perfectly proportioned, muscled figure, wearing loosely draped garments and carrying a scepter depicting the sun, over which he reigns. The placement of the Jupiter character on the required throne would most vividly depict the god-king persona that Heywood intended to portray.

Spi0035273   picture by Geoff Pugh   26/10/2001 illuminated manuscripts at the British Library. This miniature depicts four male figures, including a monk and a cleric, who have all been pierced by the arrows of the God of Love.

Spi0035273 picture by Geoff Pugh 26/10/2001
illuminated manuscripts at the British Library.
This miniature depicts four male figures, including a monk and a cleric, who have all been pierced by the arrows of the God of Love.


  • Walker, G. (ed.) 2000. Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

  • Newman, P. 2001. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

  • Mortimer, I. 2009. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. London: Vintage Books.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s