Play 12, Joseph's Doubt


Abbreviations: MP: Mary Play, ed. Mere­dith (1987); PL: Patrologia Latina, ed. Migne; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.n.: stage name; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases.

As the main scribe was incorporating the Mary Play into the larger manuscript, it is likely that he worked Joseph's Doubt about Mary into the Marian material. Dramatically, this was an interesting move, but editors such as Meredith (MP, p. 124) and Spector (S 2:460, 540) argue that this play was never part of the larger Mary Play. It is possible that Joseph's Doubt is an earlier play that the main scribe was reluctant to excise or is a later play (or a revision about the same vintage as the Purification Play) that he wished to place into the man­uscript. The Banns does describe this play (lines 170–82), announcing it immediately after the Annunciation. Although it interrupts the central material of the Mary Play as it precedes the Visit to Elizabeth, there is a kind of appropriateness at this point as the secular world breaks in upon Mary's revery. According to John 10, Christ is the door — the door of the sheepfold and the door to heaven. Mary, likewise, is just such a door, well closed and guarded, especially during her preg­nancy. The primary scriptural text behind the idea is Ezechiel 44:2: "And the Lord said to me: This gate also shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut for the prince." The passage was glossed by Christian commentators, such as Ambrose, as a sign of the Virgin Mary ("Mary is the door which was closed and not to be opened" — De instiutione Virginis, PL 16:320 [my translation]). This link of the closed door or gate with Ezechiel comes as no surprise here, since "Ezechiel" made the point earlier in the Root of Jesse Play, when he, anticipating Mary as centerpiece and thereby introducing the Mary plays (8–13), asserts: "I, Ezechiel, have had also [a vision] / Of a gate that sperd [closed] was trewly / And no man but a prince myght therin go" (7.46–48). See Gibson's fine essay "'Porta haec clausa erit,'" which includes detailed discussion of the trope in Latin commentaries and fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English vernacular literature, and several manuscript illuminations of the idea. E.g., "She was eke the gate, with the lokeʒ breght . . . Of whech sumtime the prophete had a sight / Ezekiel in his vision / Wheche stoode euere close" (Lydgate, Life of Our Lady, lines 328–32). The keeper of the gate is also prominent in Marian lore in representations of the Visitation. The opening of the door can have sexual connotations, the point here being that Mary is pregnant though the door has remained locked, a point which is addressed comically through the "undo the door" motif as Joseph returns. See Vasvari, "Joseph on the Margin," pp. 170–83, on secular analogues to the sacred cuckolding from French farce, fairy tale (the Snow Child), and fabliaux, to the Mérode Altar triptych, books of hours, and various paintings of the life of Joseph that include his tools and several mousetrap jokes.

This play material of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity is placed vari­ously in the different English play versions: "Doubts of Joseph" plays are found in the Coventry Shearmen and Taylors' pageant; Chester Play 6 (at the beginning of the Nativity); in Towneley Play 10 (after the Annunciation but before the Visitation); and in York Play 13 (after the Visitation but before the Nativity). Even though the play is based on Matthew 1:18–25, this N-Town version draws heavily from apocryphal sources such as the Protoevan­gelium and Love's Mirrour.

1–20 An octave followed by three quatrains.

1 Undo youre dore, undo. The undo-the-door trope is common in Middle English romances (see especially the Squire of Low Degree, which, with its repetition [lines 5 and 8] enacts a comic affect that is to be taken quite seriously). That the door is locked against the husband by a pregnant wife heightens Joseph's doubts as he attempts to un­der­stand the mystery that has just been laid out so magnificently in the previous play. But as Joseph demonstrates love for his wife even though he cannot under­stand the events and returns to the wilderness rather than harm her, he merits the revelation that the angel bestows upon him so that he may re­turn in faith to ac­com­pany his pregnant wife in public as they go to visit Eliza­beth. That the "undo the door" command is repeated twice more (lines 5 and 8) suggests "Trinitarian significance" to Gibson, "'Porta haec clausa erit,'" pp. 151–52.

3, s.n. Susanna is one of the maidens left with Mary in the Marriage of Mary and Joseph Play, lines 357–58.

8 "Open the door — his will should be done!" Mary behaves as the obedient wife eager to welcome him into this new world in which she finds herself. See Coletti ("Purity and Danger," p. 83) on the way that Mary's virginal status and the physi­cality of her pregnant body challenge "traditional ideologies of gender" along with "contradictions sustained within the sex and gender system."

16 But as the sonne. Mary, the lantern of God, outshines the sun. Her countenance is initially blinding to Joseph.

21–48 Two thirteener stanzas followed by a couplet.

26 Thi wombe to hyghe. Joseph, unable to look her in the face, observes her womb, which he reads both rightly and wrongly. His response probably evokes laugh­ter — the audience, who appreciate the incongruity even as he does and does not — "Ow, dame, what thinge menyth this?" (line 34). For an extended discussion of the literary, theatrical, and figurative art stagings of Joseph as cuckold in a fabliau world, see Vasvari, "Joseph on the Margin," pp. 163–89. Woolf puts the matter adroitly when she obseves, "the fabliau world exists only in Joseph's imagination, while Mary still lives in the spotless and serene world of the Annunciation" (English Mystery Plays, p. 173). See also Moll, "Staging Disorder," p. 148.

34 what thinge menyth this. See note to 7.41–44 above. Mary not only embodies the Temple of the Old Testament and the New Testament Church, but her son will become the fulfillment of both. In this regard, as Owst notes, she is the perfect woman (Literature and the Pulpit, p. 21).

42 Compare York Play 13, line 103, and Towneley Play 10, line 195.

49-83 A thirteener stanza followed by a nine-line stanza, followed by another thirteener.

55–56 Olde cokwold, thi bow is bent / Newly now after the Frensche gyse. See Vasvari's dis­cussion of the stanza and Joseph's shame (lines 71 ff.) in terms of secular literary and visual types ("Joseph on the Margin," pp. 170–73). On the bending of the bow and French guise as representation of lechery, see Spector (S 2:461), citing Baird and Baird ("Fabliau Form," p. 160) and Handlyng Synne (lines 4151–52), among other references.

81–83 Proverbial language. See Whiting B604.

84–117 A quatrain followed by three ten-line stanzas.

96–97 The Mosaic punishments for adultery are found in Leviticus 20:10, Deuter­onomy 22:22, Ezechiel 16:40, and John 8:5. See also Spector, S 2:461.

118–46 A nine-line stanza followed by two ten-line st