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The Castle of Perseverance: Introduction


1 Scholarly argument over the appropriateness of the word "morality" continues. See Bawcutt, "A Note on the Term 'Morality.'"

2 On the possible use of mixed professional/nonprofessional casts for large plays, see Johnston, "Parish Playmaking," pp. 326–27.

3 A useful translation of the Psychomachia is found in Isbell, Last Poets of Imperial Rome, pp. 127–52.

4 King, "Morality Plays," p. 243.

5 See especially Craik, Tudor Interlude, and Happé and Hüsken, Interludes and Early Modern Society.

6 See Johnston, "Parish Playmaking," pp. 326–27.

7 See Mills, "Diagrams for Staging Plays," and Fifield, "Arena Theatres."

8 See, for example, the well-known miniature of the martyrdom of St. Apollonia by Jean Fouquet. A good copy can be found at <>.

9 Southern, Medieval Theatre in the Round. See, in particular, his reconstruction of the stage, pp. 123–42. Southern's interpretation assumes that "abowte" must mean "surrounding," but the word's meaning in the fifteenth century was quite broad enough to encompass both "surrounding" and simply "in" (see Oxford English Dictionary "about," 2).

10 Kelley, Flamboyant Drama, p. 32.

11 See Schmitt, "Was There a Medieval Theatre in the Round?," and Belsey, "Stage Plan of The Castle of Perseverance." The various arguments are summarized by Tydeman, English Medieval Theatre 1400–1500, pp. 78–85.

12 The complete videotape of the production, as well as a one-hour "overview" of the play are produced by the University of Toronto's Information Commons, and are available both for purchase and rental from .

13 Parry, "Margin of Error," pp. 42–50.

14 Parry, "Margin of Error."

15 Parry, "Margin of Error," pp. 54–56.

16 Bevington, The Macro Plays.


The surviving morality plays, or moral interludes, as they were generally known to their contemporaries, comprise a group of five texts dating from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries: The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, Wisdom, and Everyman.1 Each of these plays deals allegorically with the life of man and his struggle against sin, and their structure is for the most part based on a sequence of temptation, fall, and redemption. Scholars have been hesitant to call this group of plays a genre, since each play differs from the others in substantial ways. The Castle of Perseverance describes the whole ontology of man, opening before his birth and ending after his death and his judgment before the throne of God. Everyman, in contrast, deals only with the final journey towards death. The group of plays is held together, however, by their consistent use of allegorical figures, by their use (in most cases) of a central representative human figure (variously called Mankind, Everyman, or Humanum Genus), and by their personification of the forces of good and evil which act upon him. Some of the plays (Mankind, Wisdom) require either considerable theatrical resources and skill sufficient to imply that they may have been intended for professional performance; The Castle of Perseverance, on the other hand, with its large cast of thirty-three players (plus two heralds), is unlikely to have been intended entirely for professional players, but may well have been performed by a mixed group of professionals and nonprofessionals.2

The background to these plays lies in part in the allegorization of good and evil which found its earliest expression in the Psychomachia of the late fourth-century poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. This poem describes a battle for the soul of man in which seven evil characteristics (Idolatry, Lust, Wrath, Pride, Indulgence, Greed, Discord) are pitted against seven virtues (Faith, Chastity, Patience, Humility, Sobriety, Good Works, Concord).3 Since the battle takes place within the mind of man, there is no representative human figure. Prudentius' allegorical mode was immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages, and became one of the primary models for the allegorization of human characteristics, leading eventually to such texts as the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, as well as Robert Grosseteste's Chateau d'Amour. The second impetus behind the morality plays can be seen in the canon Omnius utriusque sexus of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which confirmed and elaborated earlier legislation and tradition requiring annual confession of all Christians, thus laying the groundwork for one of the most extensive educational programs in the history of the world. Faced with the necessity not only of educating the priesthood in the technical aspects and methodology of confession and penance but also of explaining to the laity the taxonomy of sins, allegory — the personification of individual sins, virtues, personal characteristics, or abstract qualities — was quickly adopted as an effective tool.

It is easy, however, to overestimate the importance of both these influences. The Psychomachia provided only the most general model of an allegorical battle, while the nature of sin as presented in these plays was both well-known and orthodox, so the plays' purpose is less educational, more, as Pamela King describes it, "to confirm and to celebrate rather than to argue."4 From the late fifteenth century, the form and structure of the morality play was adapted in a variety of new directions, giving rise to a genre now most commonly known as the "Tudor interlude."5 Where the morality play takes as its subject the whole moral life of man, the Tudor interludes focus on specific aspects of this life: political (Skelton's Magnyfycence, Bale's King Johan), educational (Wyt and Science), or social (Youth, Hick Scorner).

The frequent use in the morality plays of a "Vice" figure distinguished from the allegorized sins, such as Backbiter in The Castle of Perseverance, Mischief and the three Worldlings in Mankind, and Lucifer in Wisdom, has been seen as influencing Shakespeare's Falstaff and Iago as well as Marlowe's Mephistopheles. Indeed, for many years this possible influence on the canonical plays of the Elizabethan theater represented the sole interest in the morality plays. Those days are now in the past, and performances of all of these plays (with the exception of the fragmentary Pride of Life) have shown them to be highly effective vehicles for moral thought based on a keen understanding of the potential of allegory as a technique for the concrete representation of abstract ideas.


The most comprehensive of the five surviving English morality plays, The Castle of Perseverance begins before the birth of Mankind (or Humanum Genus, as he is called in the speech headings) and concludes after his death with his ultimate salvation. The play opens with a sequence of "banns," the announcement of a forthcoming performance intended to be delivered as advertisement a week earlier. Blanks are left in lines 134, 145, and 148 for the insertion of the name of the town in which the play would be performed. This does not necessarily mean that the play was intended for touring, which (given its size) seems unlikely. Alexandra F. Johnston has argued that the text would likely have been used for performance at a chosen site, the name of which would then be inserted in the banns. The performance, probably involving the resources of a number of parishes, would have remained stationary, with the banns drawing in audiences from the surrounding countryside.6 That this performance situation could recur in a different location at a different time is suggested by the options for the construction of the ditch given on the stage plan. Variations between the banns and the playtext (the appearance of Conscience in the banns but not in the play; the intercession of the Virgin Mary at the conclusion, rather than the Four Daughters of God) would seem to indicate that the play was revised at some point, without the banns being brought up to date.

The play proper opens with boasting speeches (bringing to mind the ranting of Herod in the biblical plays) by Mankind's traditional three enemies, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Each of these speaks from his own scaffold, introducing his followers, the Seven Deadly Sins. World points out his chief henchman, Greed (Avarice, or Covetousness), whose central importance in the seduction of Mankind is signaled by his placement on his own scaffold. Flesh is accompanied by Sloth, Gluttony, and Lechery; the Devil by Pride, Wrath, and Envy. Mankind is born, perhaps from the bed which lies at the base of the castle. He points out his ignorance and helplessness, asking for God's grace; he introduces his two companions, the Good and Bad Angels, noting that every man has such a pair of advisors, one good and one evil. The two angels present their cases for the proper mode of life, and Mankind opts for the pleasures of the World. Introduced to the World by the Bad Angel, Mankind is dressed in fine clothes by the World's servants, Pleasure (Lust-liking) and Folly, and is sent with the help of the vice Backbiter to meet with Greed. Greed introduces him to the other Sins, who are called from the scaffolds of Flesh and the Devil, and Mankind takes his seat with them on Greed's scaffold.

Called by the Good Angel, Confession and Penitence invite Mankind to leave Greed; his initial reluctance disappears when he is pricked by the sharp lance of Penitence. He leaves Greed's clutches, and is invited by the Good Angel to take up residence in the Castle of Perseverance, where he will be protected by the seven cardinal virtues, Meekness (Humility), Abstinence, Chastity, Charity, Patience, Generosity, and Busyness (Industry). Once Mankind is ensconced in the castle, Backbiter begins to stir up trouble by pressing the World, the Flesh, and the Devil to punish their attendant sins for losing Mankind's allegiance, and then by assembling all the forces of evil to mount a siege of the castle. Each of the sins fights with its opposite virtue, and after a substantial onstage battle (including the Devil's appearance with fireworks, as described on the stage plan), the sins are defeated by the virtues with a shower of red roses, symbols of the Passion. But the battle is not over. During the fight, Mankind has grown old, and as the virtues triumph, Greed quietly approaches the castle and suggests to Mankind that now, in his old age, it would be appropriate to take some comfort in the world and enjoy his remaining days. Greed's arguments are persuasive, and to the virtues' dismay, Mankind leaves the castle to follow Greed. But his pleasure in his newfound wealth is interrupted by the figure of Death, who stabs Mankind with his lance. As Mankind lies dying, the World sends a young man who is to be known only as "I-Don't-Know-Who" to take away Mankind's riches. With his last words Mankind places himself in God's mercy.

At the moment of Mankind's death (presumably on the castle bed, where he was born), his Soul emerges from under the bed. Since Mankind died in a state of sin, the Good Angel is unable to help his Soul, and the Bad Angel carries it off to the Devil. But Mankind's last request for mercy has summoned the Four Daughters of God — Truth, Justice, Peace, and Mercy — who approach God's scaffold to plead the case for and against Mankind's salvation. With God sitting in judgment, Truth and Justice present the details of Mankind's sins, claiming that his deathbed repentance is insufficient for his salvation. Peace and Mercy present the case for Mankind, that to his repentance must be added Christ's sacrifice. God judges in favor of Mankind, and directs the Daughters to remove the Soul from Hell (the Devil's scaffold) and bring it to the seat of judgment, where the Soul is received into Heaven through God's mercy. Finally, to end the play, the actor playing God steps out of character and invites the audience to draw the proper moral conclusion, that from the beginning of our lives we should consider our endings.


The Castle of Perseverance is unique among English medieval plays in its provision in the manuscript of a stage plan. Such drawings are known from plays on the continent, but no other English play includes such a wealth of information on the intended physical layout of the stage locations mentioned in the text and the stage directions.7 The stage plan and a transcription of its text appear before the text. Some aspects of this drawing are unambiguous. Situated at the outskirts of the playing-place (platea) are five "scaffolds," four of them at the compass points, each assigned to a major character in the play: God in the east, the World in the west, Flesh in the south, and the Devil in the north. The fifth scaffold, for Greed, is placed in the north-east between the scaffolds of God and the Devil, perhaps implying that money in itself is morally neutral and can be used either for good (almsgiving) or ill (overindulgence in the things of the world). The stage plan gives no indication of the structure of these scaffolds, but other illustrations, primarily continental, suggest that they were simply platforms with one or more sets of steps for access and seating for at least the scaffold's primary resident.8 Painted backdrops would certainly have been a possibility.

The placement of the crenellated castle at the center of the acting area is also clear, as is the provision for Mankind's bed under the castle. To the right and left of the castle the position of Greed's "copbord" is given, and although it is not entirely clear what "at the ende of the castel" means, "be the beddys feet" would suggest its placement. The castle clearly stands on legs so that the bed beneath it is visible, with the upper part of the castle enclosed by stonework, perhaps painted on canvas. The castle must have room for nine people: the seven cardinal virtues, Mankind, and the Good Angel. Since they all speak, they must all be visible, and the virtues' throwing of roses (a symbol of the Passion) to defeat the sins would suggest that they must be on a higher level than the ground. The castle, therefore, likely had an upper level allowing its residents to appear above the crenellations. The bottom of the stage-plan page includes costume details for the Devil and for the Four Daughters of God.

Beyond this we begin to tread on less firm ground, though it is important to bear in mind that the stage plan is not a scale drawing, and that the physical relationship between its elements may be governed by the necessities of text placement. The principal problem in interpreting the stage plan has been the position of the ditch which surrounds the castle. Richard Southern thought it would have lain around the outside of the platea (following the plan's description that the water is "abowte the place"), and would have been a means of separating a paying audience.9 This interpretation has been followed by many, such as Michael R. Kelley, although we have no evidence elsewhere in the fifteenth century of provisions taken for the separation of audience, nor for advance payment (the audience is asked to pay to see the devil Titivillus in Mankind, but only during the play).10 More recent readings of the stage plan take the ditch as encircling the castle itself and interpret its distance from the castle on the drawing as the scribe's recognition that he would need space to write a significant amount of explanatory text. By this reading, the ditch would form a moat around the castle, and might well be the ditch from which Sloth empties the water of grace at line 2329. This is not a perfect solution, since the stage plan's description of the ditch allows that the space "be strongely barryd al abowt" as an alternative to digging a ditch, and it is difficult to see how such a fence or wall could be used dramatically for the water of grace.11 All of these aspects of the manuscript's stage plan were tested in practice in the full production of the play at the University of Toronto in 1979, under the direction of David Parry. That production was videotaped, and has been highly influential in demonstrating the likelihood that the ditch is intended to encircle the castle itself, not the entire acting area.12


The Castle of Perseverance is found uniquely in the so-called Macro Manuscript, named for a previous owner of the manuscript, the Reverend Cox Macro (1683–1767) of Bury St. Edmunds, Norfolk. Now housed in the Folger Library, Washington, DC, as MS V.a.354, the volume presently contains Wisdom and Mankind as well as Castle, and these three plays are commonly known as the "Macro plays" or the "Macro moralities." The volume does not represent a single manuscript; the three plays in their separate manuscripts were first bound together along with three other manuscripts in 1819, and then in the following year were rebound in a volume containing only the three plays. The Castle of Perseverance is now the third play in the volume, occupying folios 154–191. Two leaves are missing from the text, after line 1601 and line 3029. Since the scribe normally wrote about forty-eight lines to the page, each of these missing passages must have been about 100 lines long. An error in binding has put two sheets out of place, but the text is clear at these points and the proper order can easily be reconstructed.

The text was copied by a single scribe around 1440, and he was without question working from a previous manuscript. The pointed shoes which Pride recommends to Mankind had gone out of fashion by around 1425, so the most likely dating for the composition of the play (as opposed to its surviving manuscript) is sometime in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.


Most of the play is written in a variant of the "bob and wheel" stanza familiar from such alliterative texts as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though the playwright also uses rhyme consistently and alliteration frequently but irregularly. About three-quarters of the stanzas are thirteen lines long, consisting of two quatrains (most commonly rhyming abababab) followed by the "bob and wheel" of five lines, rhyming cdddc. Most of the remaining stanzas are of nine lines, beginning with one rather than two quatrains. There has been considerable discussion over the possibility of multiple authorship; Jacob Bennett argued that three authors were likely involved, one composing the Banns (lines 1–156), one the bulk of the play from line 157 to the appearance of the Soul (line 3120), and a third author (perhaps revising an earlier ending) adding the colloquy of the Four Daughters of God (from line 3021 to the end). Considering the style of writing and the vocabulary of the various parts of the play, the argument in favor of more than one author for the play itself is not strong, though a good case can be made for a different author for the Banns.

The playwright's use of alliteration frequently leads him to end a line with a phrase used more as a tag or filler than for its meaning. This is especially common as the Three Enemies or the Seven Sins describe the extent of their influence by means of a phrase whose real meaning is "everywhere." The bulk of these tag lines are made up of a pair of prepositional phrases with a contrasting but alliterating pair of nouns as their objects; among these would be such phrases as "be dykys and be denne," "be fen and flode," "be strete and stalle," "be strete and stye," "be sompe and syke," "be downe and dyche," etc.


Introductory banns ("proclamations, announcements") appear in several other plays, including The Pride of Life, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, and the N-Town Plays, and were likely a common mode of publicizing an upcoming performance. The usual format of the banns involves a summary of the action of the play and an invitation to attend a performance. This invitation is sometimes locally specific (as in both Castle and the N-Town Plays), with a blank space or place-marker left to allow the speaker to insert the name of the town in which the performance will take place (see lines 134, 145, and 148). The time for the performance is usually made clear: Castle will take place "this day sevenenyt" — a week hence. The speaker(s) of the banns are often styled as "vexillators" (heralds or standard-bearers), from Latin "vexilla" (banner).


An unusual problem in the text of Castle is the frequent appearance in the manuscript of single lines of Latin (often scriptural quotations) which are clearly not a part of the metrical structure of the stanza. In some cases, the content of these lines also appears in English as a part of the stanza, although, as David Parry points out, the sense of the Latin does not always correspond to the English, and some of the scriptural quotations seem more like reflective comments on the playtext.13 Some of these lines are written in the manuscript as though they were part of the playtext, some of them appear as glosses in the margin. Parry's 1983 dissertation concluded, I think rightly, that these lines were not intended as part of the play.14 It is most likely that they were added to an earlier manuscript of the play as marginal or interlinear glosses on the English passages which translate them, and either in the present manuscript or a close ancestor of it were mistakenly incorporated into the text of the play. Parry concludes that of the forty-six extra-metrical Latin lines, seven do make sense as part of the playtext. These are the single line of Mercy at 3313a and the six lines of God after 3562.15

I have followed Eccles' practice of printing the lines where they occur in the manuscript but not including them in the line numbering. In performance it is very likely that these lines should not be spoken, though it should also be noted that there are also in the play lines of Latin (see, for example, lines 3271–73 and 3284–86) which are a part of the metrical structure of the stanza and should be spoken.


The present edition is based on a fresh transcription of the manuscript from David Bevington's facsimile edition.16 The text has been lightly modernized: manuscript thorn (þ) has been replaced by th ("þis">"this") and yogh (3) by y ("3et">"yet") or g ("3ive">"give") as appropriate. The manuscript's interchangeability of u and v (and sometimes w) to indicate v ("euery">"every") has been rationalized; w has been left when it indicates u ("abowt"). Ampersands (&) have been expanded to "and." Manuscript spelling is relatively consistent: "se" is used for the verb of vision, "see" for a large body of water. Since the scribe uses "the" both as the definite article and as the second person oblique pronoun, the latter is adjusted to "thee" in the text. Final e, which must be pronounced in polysyllabic words, is indicated by an acute accent ("chastité"). Where appropriate i has been replaced by j ("iustice">"justice"); initial ff has been replaced by F. Unambiguous scribal errors and passages damaged in the manuscript have been silently corrected; details of such corrections can be found in the textual notes. Major emendations are indicated with square brackets. For purely practical reasons, I have adopted Eccles' division of the play into twenty-three scenes. These divisions are generally quite clear in the action of the play, but there is no manuscript justification for them.

The manuscript indicates the metrical scheme of each stanza with brackets, placing the first and last lines of the "wheel" to the right of the bracket enclosing the rest of the lines; as an indication of this manuscript distinction, the lines written to the right of the brackets are indented.


Indexed as item 917 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:
  • Folger Shakespeare Library MS. V.a.354 (Macro Manuscript)

Bevington, David, ed. The Macro Plays: A Facsimile Edition with Facing Transcription. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1972. Pp. 1–154.

———. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975. Pp. 796–900.

Eccles, Mark, ed. The Macro Plays. EETS o.s. 262. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Pp. 1–112.

Furnivall, F. J., and A. W. Pollard, eds. The Macro Plays. EETS e.s. 91. London: Oxford University Press, 1904. Pp. 75–188.

Happé, Peter, ed. Four Morality Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979. Pp. 75–210.

Schell, Edgar T., and J. D. Schuchter, eds. English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Pp. 1–110.

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