Dramatic portrayals of biblical stories, characters, and themes have a long and complex history. Biblical dramas have been performed in churches to add to liturgical spectacle, outside churches in the form of miracle plays or parish clerks’ plays, and in city centers in the form of Corpus Christi dramas of mystery play cycles. Many countries have their own distinct, though often related, religious theatrical traditions. In places with a Christian presence, audiences often witnessed dramatic productions that conveyed directly or indirectly the stories within the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and also extrabiblical saints’ tales.

In Europe, countries such as Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and England have long been home to explicit dramatic engagements with biblical texts. Parallels and sometimes connections can be traced between these performances and productions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. For example, Spanish plays portraying the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth were adapted for performance in the Philippines when they were a Spanish colony. Today the plays are still performed around Easter, but the colonial Spanish language is now commonly replaced by the local and more widely spoken Tagalog language. This is one example of how a new translation and adaptation results in a biblical narrative taking on a fresh theatrical guise, thereby becoming relevant to a contemporary community. Dramatizations of the Bible serve a range of continually changing communal, devotional, and didactic purposes all over the world. To keep this essay within reasonable bounds, our focus will be primarily, though not exclusively, upon the English tradition.

Liturgical Drama.

The development of short dramatic scenes embedded within liturgy heralded the beginning of biblical drama in the Middle Ages, and such events are also sometimes deemed to be one of the foundational elements for English theater. Liturgical drama was primarily a technique to aid devotion within monastic communities, and was also used as part of the church liturgy to help those who could not understand Latin. It is possible that some of the earliest dramatic representations of biblical stories are to be found in the fifth century in the shape of tableaux vivants, in which performers stood in dramatic poses while the biblical story was retold. Evidence of the Bible being brought to life through dramatic performance within liturgical settings is to be found from the tenth century. The widely cited Quem Quaeritis (Whom do you seek?) is considered by many as the earliest example of English drama (923–934 C.E.), as well as the earliest example of liturgical drama: its dialogue between an angel and a visitor to the tomb is “embodied” and spoken aloud in the context of church liturgy. Although short performances within liturgy are one of the oldest surviving types of drama, there were other forms that contributed to the development of biblical drama.

Miracle plays or “clerk plays” were religious dramas performed by members of the clergy, sometimes with the help of choristers. These were commonly distinct from liturgical drama in that they were often taken outside church buildings into churchyards, town squares, and even beyond the walls of the city. Some suggest that they contributed to the development of the mystery plays and later the morality plays, though the evolution of biblical drama is by no means a clearly defined progression. The idea that plays controlled by the clergy who performed them within the liturgy and church developed neatly into dramas outside of ecclesial control and into spaces controlled by the secular city has been challenged (see Twycross and Carpenter, 2002). The evolution was more complex, with the church often supporting the “secular” productions, enabling them to take place. In many locations, priests continued to take leading roles, playing Jesus or Judas or other disciples.

Lay drama increasingly was to replace liturgical drama and other shorter performances; the vernacular language would replace Latin. At the same time, in many parts of Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, an increased significance was placed on the individual’s imitation of Christ. Personal devotion and imaginative projection into the suffering of Christ set the stage for Passion tracts, devotional literature, biblical art, and drama (Muir, 1995). Sermons, texts, and visual art all contributed to the form and content of religious drama. Enactments were part of a broader set of social practices that encouraged listeners, readers, and viewers to use their imaginations to step into new and liminal spaces, where the Bible was brought to dramatic life. Glenn Ehrstine (2012) argues that the use of devotional handbooks and participation in actual pilgrimages further informed late medieval affective piety. In other words, both texts that invited readers to make an imaginative journey to Jerusalem and sermons that encouraged pilgrims to embark on a physical journey to a holy site were among a number of practices that contributed to the religious and communicative environment in which biblical drama was performed.

Encouraging people to imagine themselves into biblical narratives and to evoke the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of these stories led to a blurring of the boundaries between private and public devotion. In a similar way, both the liturgical and mystery plays had the potential to provide audiences with an experience that invested their immediate surroundings with spiritual meaning. It is possible that they also enabled a communal and bodily response similar to that prompted by devotional handbooks.

Mystery Plays.

The interrelated biblical subjects in art, literature, and drama that resulted found creative, civic, and communal expression in the cycles of biblical drama in England now known as the mystery plays. The mystery plays dramatized biblical narratives in cities around England and other parts of Europe from the eleventh century to the middle of the sixteenth century. Also sometimes known as Corpus Christi plays, or in Spain as autos (acts) or misterios, and in Italy as funzione, it is probable that the mystery plays largely developed alongside and even independently of liturgical drama (Muir, 1995). The precise relationship is debated. Dramatic processions combined with short performances were sometimes used to bring the liturgy, and the Bible behind it, to life.

The Corpus Christi processions and festivals celebrated the doctrine of transubstantiation and centered on the adoration of the host, providing the model and occasion for the dramatization of the biblical narrative. Corpus Christi was celebrated in England on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, between May 23 and June 24. The inherently theatrical nature of the Corpus Christi festival in Europe and beyond (e.g., in Central and South America), along with the procession of the host through the city center, also contributed to the development of these plays and provides an example of the compelling combination of spectacle, devotion, and drama (Muir, 1995). While in the Eastern Orthodox traditions icons would commonly be processed around the streets, in the Western Latin tradition it was the Eucharistic elements that would visually dominate proceedings as they were paraded through local neighborhoods.

We still have access to the original texts of a number of English mystery plays, largely from four cycles: York (48 plays remaining), Towneley/Wakefield (32 plays), Chester (24 plays), and N-Town, which is also known as the Ludus Coventriae cycle or the Hegge cycle (42 plays). There were clearly many other performing locations in England, such as Coventry, Cornwall, Norwich, and Newcastle, and several European cycles have also been preserved. These cycles often told the entire story of Salvation history including the Creation, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, Abel’s murder, Noah and the Flood, the Nativity, the Massacre of the Innocents, the raising of Lazarus, the Passion narratives, the Resurrection stories, and the Last Judgment or Doomsday play. While based upon biblical narratives, these plays were imaginative elaborations upon scripture, with a few (such as the Fall of Lucifer) going beyond the canon.

During the Middle Ages these plays were extremely popular and attracted large audiences. According to Christine Richardson and Jackie Johnston’s account of Medieval Drama (1991, p. 44), mystery plays mirrored the Bible in that they presented “a tapestry of memorable characters: tyrant kings, pompous prelates, eccentric prophets, talking donkeys, rough shepherds, loose women, beautiful people, and criminals—and at any moment a life can be transformed by an encounter with God, His Son or an Angel.” For these and other scholars this is evidence that the playwrights who contributed to these scripts included an abundance of “humour, music, pathos, dancing, tension, refinement and vulgarity” and they did not allow “piety to swamp their humanity” (Richardson and Johnston, 1991, p. 44). These plays combined the secular and the sacred in unexpected ways, sometimes being used to satirize those in power.

Spiritual purposes.

Mystery plays were not only spectacular and memorable; they also had significant spiritual, social, and didactic purposes. By presenting the Bible in the form of embodied drama, they were a means of instruction as well as of spiritual and devotional experience (Beadle and King, 2009; McMurray Gibson, 1989). The people who gathered to see these plays were also a part of the spiritual realities they portrayed. As Dee Dyas put it, the audience “were vital players in this epic drama, for the mystery cycles, the miracles or saint’s plays and the moralities were all designed to warn and win souls” (1997, p. 225). The structure of the plays and their use of symbolism and typology meant that the plays could present a linear narrative and at the same time connect the characters and events portrayed with both the individual lives of the people who watched them and the collective life of the city in which they were performed. These plays were simultaneously about the past and the present. “Cain’s rebellion and Herod’s pride were still snares into which anyone might fall; Noah’s obedience and Abraham’s faith were still models for all to imitate” (p. 226).

One of the most intriguing plays combining the past and the present is the Second Shepherds’ Play in the Wakefield Cycle, a play that precedes the biblical narrative with characters and events from the medieval world of its audience. A comic story of a sheep-stealing couple who hide a stolen sheep in a cradle and pretend it is their baby when the owners come looking, it mirrors the biblical story of the shepherd’s visit to the holy baby in the manger, inverting the story through boisterous farce, contemporary allusions, and references to other medieval texts. To maintain their deception when the shepherds see the “baby” with a snout, the sheep-stealing couple invoke popular stories about broken noses, elves, and changelings before one of them is beaten up, but not killed, by the angry shepherds (pastors).

Primus Pastor: deal falsely and dark; I would fain be wroken.Get a weapon, - go!Uxor (Gill): He was taken by an elf,I saw it myself.When the clock struck twelve, was he mis-shapen so.Secundus Pastor: You two are at one, that’s plain, in all ye’ve done and said.Tercius Pastor: Since their theft they maintain, let us leave them dead.

(Child, 1910, pp. 57–80)

This play switches between past biblical narratives and present topical concerns, the troubles of medieval marriage and dangers from sheep thieves among them, and touches on issues of piety and devotion. The same shepherds who are frustrated and violently angry are those who find themselves at the foot of the manger offering humble (particularly English and medieval) gifts to the Christ child.

The use of typology, a device which was capable of creating “the sense of a cyclical time” (Normington, 2007, p. 14), was not unfamiliar to people watching the mystery plays: it was already used as “an organisational principle in manuscript illumination, sculpture and stained glass” and was “a universal common part of the individual’s understanding of the Bible” (Richardson and Johnson, 1991, p. 16). Participants in these plays were not simply actors or spectators, they were worshippers brought together in a common goal of worship and devotion.

The past not only became present through these plays, it also appeared to become physically real. For many scholars the setting of the plays in the context of the Corpus Christi festival is significant. Pamela King (2006), for example, suggests that the plays, specifically the York Cycle, were shaped by Catholic sacraments and patterns of worship. With reference to the doctrine of transubstantiation and the centrality of the Host in the Mass, King writes: “The audience accustomed to going to look upon Christ in the form of the Host through the eyes of faith and devout imagination, either at the Mass or in the Corpus Christi procession, were treated to less theologically ‘real’ but more directly visually available representations of him in the pageants” (2006, p. 20). The same devotion accorded to the procession of the Host in the Corpus Christi procession is brought to the pageants in the Corpus Christi plays, both in the celebration of the bodily presence of Christ in the community and in the close link between the biblical narratives depicted in the plays and the liturgical readings that lead up to the Corpus Christi festival.

These plays did more than simply bring the liturgy to life. In her study of East Anglian mystery plays, Gail McMurray Gibson (1989) describes the dramatic and spiritual focus on the bodily suffering of Christ as an “incarnational aesthetic,” while in a theologically informed interpretation, Sarah Beckwith (2003) describes the cycle in York as “sacramental theatre” shaped by the simultaneously visible presence and invisible mystery of the Eucharist. In embodying this mystery, these dramas did not shy away from portraying cruelty vividly. Jody Enders’s (1999) study of the rhetoric of torture and theater of violence in the Middle Ages foregrounds the spectacle of violence that characterized the justice system, public punishment, and medieval drama. She observes that: “The citizens of Arles, for example, imported a professional executioner from Avignon to lend immediacy to the torture scenes of a Passion play they were staging” (1999, p. 189). Enders argues that the violence against Christ in these plays was a cathartic experience for the audience as it caused them to witness, participate, and judge acts of violence even as it reinforced links between pain, pleasure, and play.

Social purposes.

Mystery plays were put to many different uses and interpreted in many different contexts. Small-scale suffering, placed against spectacular backdrops of cathedrals, churches, or civic buildings, contributed to memorable dramas that would be used for both teaching and devotion. Victor Scherb’s (2001) study of the generic diversity of plays used to stage faith in East Anglia demonstrates how medieval drama was used as a container of devotional images used for didactic, mnemonic, and subversive purposes. Ruth Nisse (2005) explores the practices of interpretation that circled around the performance of medieval mystery plays, miracle plays, and morality plays. By placing them in the context of theological, political, and literary texts, she demonstrates how these plays became contested sites of interpretation.

The city centers as the place of performance linked the (biblical) past to the (medieval) present, investing city sites with layers of spiritual, political, religious, and symbolic significance as well as offering a permanent reminder for city-dwellers of the biblical narrative, which both emphasized the communal experience and triggered devotional practices. Theodore Lerud (2008) suggests that Corpus Christi plays did not simply contribute to the worship of the city or develop as literary or theatrical texts: they were cultural performances that had multiple social functions and elicited multifaceted responses as they linked devotional experiences to the physical spaces of the city. Corpus Christi plays memorialized “images” in specific places with symbolic significance and, according to Lerud (2008, p. 6): “[the] past was linked with present in a memorialization and celebration of Christ’s living presence in the life of the community.” This use of “external memory images” was a way for audiences to link the biblical narrative to the world around them and to prompt spiritual understanding and growth.

Beneath the surface of these plays it may be possible to discern complex social interactions and tensions. For example, Clifford Davidson and Sheila White (2013) employ a psychosocial approach to explore another way in which the mystery plays linked the biblical narrative to the lives of the people watching them. They harness recent studies in the psychodynamics of bullying to investigate some of the York Cycle’s most violent and disturbing scenes. They explain the longevity of the York plays by suggesting that they fulfilled a number of political, social, and religious needs, noting in particular how the Passion pageants “illustrate the complexity of the evolving and escalating nature of bullying dynamics” (p. 208). They suggest that the sociological and psychological context of medieval York, a society highly structured yet insecure and fragile because of the prevalence of coercion and political anxiety, shaped the extended and particularly brutal bullying scenes in the plays. The extreme bullying in depictions of Cain and Abel, Pharaoh, Herod, and the Passion itself is understood to be part of the “cultural work” of the plays in their context, so they view the plays as “much more relevant to the present day than dry academicism would care to admit” (p. 209).

Civic and economic purposes.

The combination of urban spectacle, communal creativity, and personal devotion made the plays and the Corpus Christi festival a highly memorable occasion and perhaps even one of the defining features of city life. As we observed earlier, the festival was held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and in England this allowed for maximum daylight hours in order to fit in the long cycle of plays that lasted from sunrise to sunset (Richardson and Johnston, 1991). Although performed as part of a large religious festival, the plays were financed and performed by the city guilds, each of which was in charge of producing and performing its own play, supported by the civic and religious authorities of the city. In York the guild responsible for the “Building of the Ark” was that of the shipwrights; the “Coming of the Kings” and “Adoration,” the goldsmiths; the “Last Supper,” the bakers; the “Crucifixion,” the pinners (who made nails); and the “Death of Christ,” the butchers—all of whom suitably matched their skills and goods to their play. This matching of skills and goods to the spectacle and devotion of the plays was not only a spiritual principle of the sanctity of daily labor but also an opportunity to display the prosperity of each guild and also of course for them to benefit economically and socially.

It was significant that the guilds were large and wealthy enough to provide the organization and resources needed to put on the plays to the standard required for the worship of God, the glory of the city, and the prestige of the guilds. References to the Coventry cycle plays in The Playe Called the Foure PP by John Haywood, in a 1526 jestbook, and in the Coventry Leet Book indicate not only the great popularity of the plays but also their ability to attract large crowds and contribute to the good name and fame of the city. For this reason royal and noble visitors to the city had these plays performed for them. Royal visitors to Coventry, such as Margaret of Anjou in 1457, Richard III in 1485, and Henry VIII in 1493, all saw versions of the plays—although Margaret of Anjou was reportedly disappointed because she missed the Doomsday performance by the Drapers because it was too dark (King and Davidson, 2000). Religious well-being was intricately tied up with civic and economic progress. As King suggests, the York Cycle contributed to civic pride and prestige in a way that was similar to religious worship: “worship held two related senses for the medieval civic community, conveying as well as ‘religious observation,’ the sense of ‘civic honour.’ ” (2006, p. 5).

Material culture and physical resources.

The physical and technological resources that were used to stage the plays and to create spectacle and entertainment show a great emphasis on realistic depictions of the biblical stories (Davidson, 1999). According to Enders there was an “extensive repertoire of fake blood, soft clubs, dummies, dolls, and mannequins” used to stage violence, torture, and death “as realistically as possible” (1999, pp. 192–193). In particular, both the crucifixion and the hanging of Judas required special skill to be both realistic on stage and safe for the actor. In Coventry in 1578 the Smiths’ Accounts record that Thomas Massy was paid for a new hook with which to hang Judas and for new bars of iron for the set in the pageant, both of which suggest attempts at realistic hangings for the man who betrayed Christ.

Less realistically represented were the devils, angels, and heavenly beings that littered the plays. The costumes used to represent these characters were at times symbolic or iconographic. They were often semantically expressive rather than historical or realistic. God was set apart from the other characters by his gold mask, used, according to Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter (2002), as an “emblem or sign” that allowed the actor to represent God without imitation or irreverence. Jesus was at times presented as both God and man through the use of a gold mask and a white costume marked with wounds, according to records from the York Mercer’s guild in 1433 (Meredith, 1985).

Rendering the holiness and reverence of these characters and avoiding accusations of imitating or dishonoring God required costumes to set him apart and acting that would capture the authority and poise of the Almighty. The opposite was true of the devil, whose mobility on stage and grotesque mask brought him closer to the audience. According to Twycross and Carpenter (2002), the devil’s masks were traditionally black and often double faced so that the devil would walk around on stage with a face turned toward the audience whether he was facing them or not. Some masks were made with a jaw that moved when pulled by a string, and most masks were subject to violence on stage as the devil inevitably received his comeuppance. Twycross and Carpenter (2002, p. 193) conclude from the Coventry Smiths’ and Drapers’ accounts that “the devyls hede” and “herodes heed” must have “taken a battering each year, as they are repaired fairly regularly.”

The End of Biblical Drama?

The last recorded English performance is widely cited as the cycle in Coventry which lasted until 1576, though there may have been a few less well-noted performances after this time. The Corpus Christi dramas in Catholic Western Europe and the mystery play cycles in England thrived right up to the eve of the Reformation, according to play-texts, guild records, and eyewitness accounts (e.g., Muir, 1995). The length of time these plays lingered in personal recollection and collective memory is evidenced in accounts of secret performances in private households, of the inclusion of characters and events from the plays into other, secular drama, and of the power of childhood experiences of them. An often recounted tale of an old Englishman, who, even in 1644, vividly recalled a childhood memory of “a man on a tree, and blood ran downe” from the Corpus Christi plays in Kendal, shows how long the plays lived on in private and public memory (cited in Cooper, 2010, p. 58). The Reformation in England during the sixteenth century is widely perceived as marking the beginning of the end for these plays. Mystery plays were soon stopped after a barrage of Puritan criticism and general interrogation of Catholic doctrine, festivals, and traditions (Dyas, 1997).

While the Reformation has been seen as the hostile force that put these rich and popular plays to death (Gardiner, 1946), more recent research has challenged the assumption that the plays were quashed by the Reformation. The York plays were still being performed late in the sixteenth century (Beadle and King, 2009), and even in the seventeenth century the cycle in Kendal was performed during the reign of James I (Cooper, 2010). Such research had led to the claim that the plays were not incompatible with Protestant beliefs (King and Davidson, 2000) and that the York plays were stopped by the spread of extreme forms of Protestantism rather than the Reformation itself (Beadle and King, 2009). Other scholars have argued that the plays were banned by the end of the sixteenth century as much “on political as on dogmatic grounds” (Muir, 1995, p. 162). Discussing a proclamation issued by Queen Mary in 1553, another in 1559 by Queen Elizabeth, and an Act of Parliament in 1603 by James I, John Elliott concluded that the “motives of the Tudor monarchs for keeping religion off the stage were generally political” (1989, p. 8).

Some Catholic cycle plays continued alongside the early growth of Protestantism in England, many plays being performed with the support of churches and private households that remained loyal to the religion and devoted to the old faith (Whitfield White, 1997). Others were heavily revised so that Catholic elements were changed to suit Protestant tastes, as was the case in Shrewsbury where a Protestant Passion play drew crowds of up to 20,000 people in the 1560s (Whitfield White, 1997). The appeal to Protestants of these plays can be seen in the commonly retold story of the weaver John Careles from Coventry who was imprisoned during the reign of Queen Mary because of his Protestant beliefs, but released from jail so he could take part in the performance of the plays (King and Davidson, 2000). The story is first told by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments and gives some indication of the importance of the plays to people who counted themselves Protestant as well as those who adhered to the old faith.

The Bible in Shakespeare.

With the suppression of the great mystery play cycles, a new outlet for spectacle and drama opened up as the theater was secularized and brought under the control of noble patrons and state censorship late in the sixteenth century. Yet there is no reason to suppose a decisive disjunction or lack of continuity between the old religious theater and the new secular theater. Early modern dramatists drew extensively on the Bible through allusions, quotations, and references, despite the fact that the Reformation had dealt a decisive blow to dramatic representations of religious subjects on stage, ending the rich tradition of mystery plays in England through a series of legislation in the 1570s (Streete, 2011). In its many forms the Bible was a pervasive and rich literary source for early modern England: in textual form it shaped stylistic and imaginative possibilities, in dramatic form it provided spectacle and public piety, and in visual form spawned an array of iconographic and symbolic images. Shakespeare, along with contemporary dramatists, would have not only heard this book read aloud in church or read it himself from the many published versions available in print in England, he would have heard it quoted and interpreted through countless sermons, pamphlets, and everyday conversations.

Recent scholarship on “medieval Shakespeare” has considered how the broad thematic concerns and patterns of narrative and character of medieval theater—such as the mystery plays, saints’ plays, and miracle plays—influenced Shakespeare (Cooper, 2010; Jones, 1977; Morse et al., 2013). It is clear that Shakespeare’s experience of the Bible, through drama and visual arts as a child and increasingly in printed and aural form later in life, was a pervasive source upon which he drew while writing his own plays (Cooper, 2010; Jones, 1977). For some scholars, Shakespeare was heir to the achievements of the late medieval mystery and morality plays, being “exceptionally well placed to catch by the tail the vanishing eel of medieval dramatic tradition” (Jones, 1977, p. 33). Emrys Jones sees parallels in terms of conception and structure in the fall of Duke Humphrey in Henry VI, Part 2, in Othello’s early attempted arrest and ultimate betrayal in Othello, and in the Passion sequence in the mystery plays. He suggests that the Passion was a dramatic paradigm that Shakespeare reworked in his own tragic sequences and argues that there is in Shakespeare’s plays “a large resonance of a kind which seems hardly explicable unless we refer back to the Passion plays” (p. 57). In an interpretative move that was once popular among critics working in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, innocent victims such as Desdemona in Othello and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale have been interpreted as Christ figures.

Other scholars have explored the influence of medieval mystery plays on Shakespeare in particular and on Renaissance drama in general. Helen Cooper uses the term “total theatre” or “cosmic theatre” to describe “the [medieval] conviction that the proper subject of the theatre is the whole cosmos, and that anything can be staged” (2010, p. 42). This kind of “total theatre” has a theological base in that the biblical story itself encompassed all of time from Creation to Final Judgment and necessitated the staging of supernatural beings, graphic violence, and logical impossibilities. This focus on action distinguished medieval drama from Classical drama with its distinctive focus on rhetoric. According to Cooper, an understanding of drama as embodied action that is meant to be seen is the defining feature of medieval theater that sets it apart from Classical drama, which, in contrast, she describes as a rhetorical construct that relies on language to report on the action.

The way medieval drama and cycle plays can shed light on a Shakespearean scene is also shown in O’Connell’s (2013) exploration of the mystery plays and Shakespeare. He describes how the copious use of stage blood in the mystery plays authorized the bloodiness and violence of Renaissance drama in general and also influenced Shakespeare specifically. He sees in Shakespeare’s use of blood an indication of his engagement with mystery plays, not only in the impression made by the presence of bloodied and gory bodies on stage but also in the strong connection between blood and innocence that Shakespeare perpetuates in his own plays.

Recent scholarship also explores Christianity as a source of controversy and creativity for Shakespeare and sheds light on the biblical texts and imagery that were part of the culture in which he lived and wrote (Daniell, 2003; Hamlin, 2013; Marx, 2000; Streete, 2011). Scholars have variously shown how Shakespeare reworked, revised, and reimagined the Bible for his own dramatic purposes. In his discussion of the similarities between the biblical book of Job and King Lear, Steven Marx suggests that “Tragedy is Wisdom Literature dramatised” (2000, p. 62). Shakespeare drew imaginatively on the Bible while writing his own plays in a process of inspiration and revision and, as Hannibal Hamlin (2013) points out, his use of ironic or parodic biblical allusions was evidence of both this poetic imitation as well as his classical training in rhetorical figures and imatatio. Iago’s cryptic statement in Othello, “I am not what I am” (1.1), is a parody of God’s revelation of himself in Exodus when he says, “I am that I am” (3:14), and Hamlin sees in Shakespeare’s use of such parody the added influence of his contemporary Christopher Marlowe.

Allusions to the Bible abound in Shakespeare’s plays, along with classical and topical references. They show his creative use of biblical material, and they exist alongside contested notions of political theology and religious controversy. Contested and fluid concepts of mercy, grace and forgiveness are found in The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure. Recent scholarship has demonstrated the way Shakespeare “co-opted religious ideas for ironic or theatrical purposes” as well as to interrogate religious ideas that were hotly debated in his own day (Hamlin, 2009).

Such scholarship redirects the study of the influence of the Bible on Shakespeare and his early modern contemporaries away from stale biographical explorations and toward more fruitful analysis. The desire of Victorian readers to find in Shakespeare’s plays evidence of Christian morals and religious beliefs, which underpinned works such as Shakespeare’s Knowledge and Use of the Bible by Charles Wordsworth (1880), has been replaced. Although there may still be some anxiety to prove Shakespeare’s devout Protestantism or hidden Catholicism, modern scholarship situates the study of Shakespeare’s use of the Bible in a matrix of creative imitation, theological tension, and political influence.

Biblical Drama from the Seventeenth through the Twentieth Century.

Despite a strong biblical presence in the secular theater of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, mystery plays in England went underground in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, existing only in popular theatrical forms that included puppet shows or village mummings. In contrast, villagers in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau were faithfully fulfilling their vow to perform a Passion play every 10 years. In the nineteenth century when the Examiner of Plays enforced the law that all religious plays were “ineligible for licence” in Great Britain, Oberammergau demonstrated continuity and longevity. In fact, this play drew many admiring English visitors, mainly young men on the Grand Tour, but also Protestant ministers and men entering the Church of England. They came to see the unspoiled piety and dramatic devotion of the villagers in the Bavarian hills.

In The Passion-Play in the Highlands of Bavaria, Alexander Craig Sellar (1871, p. 9) wrote of the “vivid impression” of the “strange spectacle” he had witnessed 10 years previously in 1860. He noted the crowds of people making their way to the play as to the shrine at the end of a pilgrimage: the Franciscans and Capuchins, the Bavarian women with their colorful headdresses and umbrellas, and the Englishmen, serious, complacent, and dressed in gray suits. His description of performance and crowd response focuses on the spiritual nature of the performance, the earnestness and simplicity of the villagers in this remote and “uncontaminated” village, and the devotional response of the audiences. Later commentators also noted that this kind of dramatic pilgrimage had a strong effect on those who visited. As Elliott wrote:

"The first sight of bearded peasants in the streets of the village stirred feelings of awe in the visitors as great as any they were to feel in the theatre. When the actor who was to play Christ was pointed out to them, whether behind a shop counter or seated at a table in a tavern, they lapsed into hushed silence as though in the presence of the Galilean himself." (1989, p. 27)

Sellar also experienced, without question, the anti-Semitic thrust of the play. His description of the crucifixion scene expresses his religious involvement in the events portrayed but also this aspect of the Oberammergau performance that has since drawn more attention from Jewish revisionists:

"The religious feelings were uppermost, and man’s inmost sympathies were called out by the mysterious significance of the whole performance. … With strange emotion you gazed upon the executioners as upon wild beasts when they tore his mantle into shreds, and cast lots for this vesture; and the Jewish race appeared hateful in your eyes, as you watched them gathering round the cross, looking on the man they had crucified, and railing at him, and taunting him with his powerlessness and his pain." (1871, pp. 45–46)

In Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play (2001), James Shapiro describes the specific and unique scrutiny of this play and ongoing censorship because of its anti-Semitism and historic connections with Hitler. He explores the use of the Bible to tell a story of Jewish people as greedy, brutal, and avaricious. Biblical stories become intertwined with different stories about Jewish people and twisted into specific form to fit with religious stereotypes and prejudices. The Oberammergau story has since been adapted so that scenes in which Jewish people have in the past been presented as avaricious have been changed, and certain costumes such as pointed hats that resemble devil’s horns have been replaced. In particular, Old Testament references that make use of interpretive license or symbolic references to Jewish people as undeserving of God’s grace have since been cut or modified.

The Bible and Theater Today.

In England today a revival of biblical drama has resulted in numerous productions of medieval mystery plays and contemporary Passion plays, each with their own purpose and agenda, and each subject to a range of interpretations based on dramatic, historical, literary, theological, psychological, and anthropological methodologies and perspectives. Dorothy Sayers’s radio drama The Man Born to Be King (1943) and T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral (1935) helped pave the way for the revival of public performances in Britain of plays with biblical plots and characters. The 1951 Festival of Britain initiated this revival with performances of the York mystery plays in the grounds of York Minster and the Chester Cycle in the Chester Cathedral Refectory. Some writers describe this festival as a unique celebration of place, time, and community as Britain emerged from the war, celebrated the anniversary of the Great Exhibition, and looked ahead to the future (Beckwith, 2003; Normington, 2007). Other adaptations followed and included performances, using both the York and Towneley manuscripts, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977.

Wagon performances.

Discussing how modern mystery plays are related to their medieval counterparts, Richard Beadle and Pamela King (2009) identify two categories of modern productions: those based on reconstruction and those based on adaptation. Since the 1950s the city of York has witnessed a wide range of reconstructed and adapted versions of the medieval York Cycle of plays. As well as open-air performances, which have become popular in the wake of the 1950s revivals, reconstructions of the York mystery plays in the 1970s also experimented with processional performances using wagons, shedding much light on medieval performances and original practices. Here groups of actors move from site to site around York’s city center with a wagon that carries their set and their props, while audiences largely remain in a single position. Beadle and King note that while watching the pageant of Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt, one could still hear Herod raging in the distance at the previous pageant site. They also note the use of the street as well as the pageant as a performance space, such as when Joseph solicits the sympathy of other men among the audience on the street over his plight about Mary’s pregnancy.

Other scholars note how wagon productions also show the advantages of the plays’ linguistic features. According to Peter Happé (1999) the repetition of words and structures that reiterate ideas, the use of versification, and alliteration are a great help in the open air, as is the ability to project one’s voice and engage large crowds. Furthermore, he explores the whole city’s involvement and festive participation in the plays, which arises in modern productions that perform at stations within sight (and sound) of previous stations: “This peripheral or even subliminal awareness has proved to be quite striking in the modern revivals of processional performance of the Chester and York cycles” (1999, p. 51).

Modern productions of the mystery plays that seek to recreate medieval practice have been invaluable in providing audiences with an understanding of the medieval context of the plays and in forging links with their city’s past. The processional performances on wagons, however, have not been as popular as other kinds of processional performances or as popular as the fixed-stage performances. They run into difficulties in modern cities which do not cater to historical re-enactments involving wagons or processions along historical routes and medieval scripts and at times register a tension in reconciling historic theatrical practices, the constraints of performing in a modern city, and elements of authentic community drama. Such a tension is noted by Beckwith when the communal or religious elements of the original performances conflict with contemporary historic or tourist interests: “between the plays as a theatre local and participatory—in short, a community theatre staged by and for its participants—and the plays as both an artistic spectacle and a tourist enticement” (2003, pp. 16–17).

Fixed-stage mystery plays.

On the other hand, less historically focused and fixed-stage performances are proving increasingly popular. Mystery plays are increasingly performed as large-scale community events with adapted (and abridged) scripts, huge casts of volunteers, professional actors playing Christ (and the devil), sophisticated sound and lighting equipment, and modern theatrical techniques. Interestingly, in the light of King’s (2013) recent research on early English Passion plays as a distinct genre, modern productions of the mystery plays may be more similar to these medieval biblical dramas than to medieval mystery plays. King identifies a dramatic tradition of Passion plays that had an expansiveness of movement, large-scale staging, and elaborate action that could not have occurred on a pageant wagon. Furthermore, this dramatic tradition, in its communication with the audience, served to domesticate the epic in a way that was dramaturgically distinct from the medieval mystery plays. King’s description of early English Passion plays as a subgenre of medieval dramatic traditions offers an interesting perspective on contemporary community-based performances of the Bible that have a similar expansiveness of movement, staging, and audience engagement.

Indeed, this expansiveness is what gives modern adaptations of the mystery plays such appeal as community drama today. Margaret Rogerson identifies this community aspect as one of the significant differences between medieval cities gathering for their great religious and civic festivals based on the Corpus Christi plays and modern groups reconstructing or adapting them for a range of purposes. She describes the transformation of the York mystery plays, “once the expression of a community’s piety” (2009, p. 81), into modern community plays that bring people together to celebrate the history of their city and affirm their present identity and collective experiences. She charts the development of modern mystery reconstructions and adaptations in York with reference to Brechtian stage techniques and elements of the Artaudian theater of cruelty, as well as the emerging influence of community theater as “theater of the people.” Modern performances allow for dialogue between England’s multicultural and religious present and the Christian heritage of the plays, and this blending of the secular and the sacred has much to offer modern audiences.

This can be seen in a number of recent productions. For example, Katie Normington, in her discussion of the Coventry Millennium Mysteries, which were set in the ruins of the cathedral and symbolically drew on the postwar suffering and regeneration of the Coventry community, notes that the plays work best when “they are produced for very specific occasions and conditions” or “undertaken for specific celebratory reasons or to fulfil the needs of a particular expression of local identity” (2007, p. 146). As community dramas, they offer opportunities to explore local concerns and re-examine shared histories; the religious elements of the plays are relevant mostly because they embody “values pertaining to Christian notions of community” (p. 23). Modern mystery plays not only displace the religious focus of the medieval plays, they similarly displace audience expectations of theater and spectatorship. Normington also sees new productions of mystery plays as motivated by the desire to “challenge the predominantly fixed staging forms which dominate modern-day theatre practice,” the desire to “find a relevance for religious dramas today,” and the desire to “develop a sense of community identity amongst the participants and spectators” (p. 18).

Processional Passion plays.

The majority of modern Passion plays are similar to modern mystery plays in that they are large-scale community events led by a handful of professional actors and theater crew and undergirded by a large amateur cast and a host of volunteers. These Passion plays are similarly expansive community-based performances, but they differ from modern adaptations of mystery plays in that they portray the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (sometimes simply his Passion and death), rather than the whole Bible from Creation to Last Judgment. Most are processional, taking the drama into the streets and city squares as free, public performances of the Passion story fittingly performed over the Easter holiday weekend. Unlike the wagon plays, discussed earlier, in these plays it is the entire audience who often has to move from setting to setting in order to watch each new scene. Peripatetic audiences are brought together by peripatetic performers.

Some of the groups putting on Passion plays today have church affiliations or ecumenical impetus and locate themselves in the tradition of religious drama for devotional and educative purposes. For such groups, it is significant that the beginning of dramatic traditions in England was religious and that the stories of the Bible were performed within churches as liturgical drama and out on the streets in the form of mystery plays from the Corpus Christi Cycles or medieval Passion plays. In 2008, the Winchester Passion united large sections of the historic city, including Winchester Cathedral, the University of Winchester, Winchester Community Choir, and the British Army and Navy. It located the story of Christ’s Passion in the civic spaces of everyday life, and it drew attention to the symbolism of the city locations and to contemporary resonances in the Passion narrative. In addition, it was an invitation to enter into a devotional experience. A similar impetus was behind a Passion play in Brighton in 2011, which drew a crowd of thousands to the historic Western Pier. Iconic images of Jesus and his followers walking along the beach among holiday-makers and the three crosses of the crucifixion in relief against a backdrop of blue sky and sea reinforced the contemporary resonances of the performance. An ecumenical production that promoted unity among the diverse churches in the area, it also aimed to be a community-building event, drawing people who never go to church into an experience of the Passion in their own local community.

While exemplifying many aspects of what Ann Jellicoe (1987) describes as community drama, such as building community and strengthening relationships between people, Passion plays also seem to foreground the ambivalences that characterize religious life in a multicultural society. Issues of political sensitivity, cultural relevance, and religious freedom are negotiated as biblical performances spill out into public spaces. In 2014, the Cowley Road Passion play in Oxford reached an impasse with the local council, who at the last minute refused to grant permission for the play to proceed without a proper council permit. As recounted in The Independent, in an article titled “Oxford City Council Apologises after Passion Play It ‘Mistook for Live Sex Show’ Is Cancelled,” one of the local council’s licensing officers had not realized that the play was a religious performance linked to Good Friday. The play’s organizers expressed concern about the lack of understanding and support for such public performances but were already planning a performance for the next year.

Many modern Passion play producers believe that there is a need to make the Bible story intelligible and meaningful to a postmodern audience that is secular in outlook and lacking a shared knowledge of the Bible. Consider, for example, the aims of the director and producers of Wintershall’s Passion play. Biblical dramas have been performed by the Wintershall Players since about 2005, enabling people to experience the events of the Bible and in effect being a “visual Bible” for people who do not read it anymore. Since 2010, the Passion play has offered a large-scale experience for more than 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday, an experience live-streamed to countless others via the Internet. This production included more than a hundred actors, a donkey and two horses, sophisticated sound equipment, and large screens capable of showing the gruesome detail of Christ’s painfully realistic torture and death. For the spectators who come to remember Good Friday and tourists visiting London’s most famous square, the events of Christ’s last week unfold around them almost like a Hollywood blockbuster, combining spectacle with an invitation to devotion.

Other groups putting on Passion plays today bypass the religious significance of the Passion story in secular productions and focus on the ability of the story to speak to and for their community. Several recent plays have gone beyond the original biblical text, largely overlooking the medieval mystery play tradition, instead adapting the story in order to resonate with local collective experiences of communal memory and suffering. Such resolutely secular productions recognize the opportunity for exploring community identity, a shared past, and individual suffering offered by the biblical narrative.

For example, in 2012, a Passion play titled The Gospel of Us was performed over three days at different sites around Port Talbot, Wales. While the Welsh actor and Hollywood star Michael Sheen took the lead role of an enigmatic “Teacher” who was crucified, the play also echoed the suffering of the town, which had been cut in half and partially destroyed through the building of the M4 motorway. Contemporary Passion plays, like the reconstructions and adaptations of the medieval mystery plays, show how versatile the biblical story is and how it has been appropriated by local communities to tell the story of their own lives, their collective heritage, or shared suffering.

Legacy.

The rich and diverse history of the Bible in theater in England and beyond has left its mark on both early modern secular drama and contemporary community drama. Biblical drama lends itself to a range of creative interpretations and purposes, from didacticism and devotion to historical re-enactment, communal remembering, and dramatic re-enactments. In its rich multiplicity, it has been a source of inspiration for an infinite diversity of literary, dramatic, and artistic representations. This essay is, on the one hand, an introduction to some of these representations and, on the other, an invitation to further explore the fertile interplay between the Bible and theater—an area ripe for ongoing research.

[See also ENGLISH LITERATURE, EARLY MODERN; MEDIEVAL LITERATURE; MODERN LITERATURE; MUSICALS; RITUAL ART; and SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM.]

Bibliography

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Linzy Brady and Jolyon Mitchell