Morality plays typically contain a protagonist who represents either humanity as a whole or a smaller social structure. Supporting characters are personifications of good and evil. This alignment of characters provides the play’s audience with moral guidance. Morality plays are the result of the dominant belief of the time period, that humans had a certain amount of control over their post-death fate while they were on earth.
In Everyman, perhaps the archetypal morality play, the characters take on the common pattern, representing broader ideas. Some of the characters in Everyman are God, Death, Everyman, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength. The personified meanings of these characters are hardly hidden. The premise of Everyman is that God, believing that the people on earth are too focused on wealth and worldly possessions, sends Death to Everyman to remind him of God's power and the importance of upholding values. The emphasis put on morality, the seemingly vast difference between good and evil, and the strong presence of God makes Everyman one of the most concrete examples of a morality play. At the same time, most morality plays focus more on evil, while Everyman focuses more on good, highlighting sin in contrast.
Other plays that take on the typical traits of morality plays, but are rarely given the title of "morality play" are Hickscorner and The Second Shepherds' Play. The characters in Hickscorner are Pity, Perseverance, Imagination, Contemplation, Freewill, and Hickscorner. They blatantly represent moral ideals. In The Second Shepherds' Play, the characters are less obviously representative of good and evil, being primarily a trio of shepherds. But other characters such as Mary, The Child Christ, and An Angel show a strong moral presence and the importance of God in the play.
In early English dramas Justice was personified as an entity which exercised “theological virtue or grace, and was concerned with the divine pronouncement of judgment on man”. However, as time progressed, more moralities began to emerge; it is during this transitional period where one begins to see Justice begin to assume more and more the qualities of a judge. The Justice in Respublica begins to concern himself with administering justice on “the criminal element”, rather than with the divine pronouncement on a generic representative of mankind. This is the first instance where one may observe a direct divergence from the theological virtues and concerns that were previously exerted by Justice in the morality plays of the fifteenth century. The Justice in Respublica is personified as a “civil force rather than a theological one”. An evolution of sorts takes place within the morals and agendas of Justice, he begins to don on the Judicial Robe of prosecutor and executioner.
Another change envelops in the character of Justice during the sixteenth century in morality plays; Equity replaces Justice and assumes the judiciary duties previously performed by Justice. This changing of rulers, or preceding justices, is done when Equity declares that his brother Justice has been banished from the country and that he (Equity) will from now on take on the duties of the former monarch, Justice. This change of ruling heads is portrayed in the morality play, Liberality and Prodigality, where Equity serves Virtue in the detection, arrest, and punishment of Prodigality for the robbery and murder of Tenacity, a yeoman in the country of Middlesex. Virtue states,
So horrible a fact can hardly pleaded for favour:
Therefore go you, Equity, examine more diligently
The manner of this outrageous robbery:
And as the same by examination shall appear,
Due justice may be done in presence here.
(Liberality and Prodigality 377)
The meta phases that Justice undergoes during the sixteenth century in morality plays, from “Justice” to “Equity” further illustrates the evolution of Justice; not only did Justice change from a “theological abstraction to a civil servant”, but he experienced a corporeal change as well.
One may readily observe the evolutionary progression of Justice as portrayed in the plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One encounters Justice in the early-fifteenth-century moralities as a performer playing the role of a theological virtue or grace, and then one sees him develop to a more serious figure, occupying the position of an arbiter of justice during the sixteenth century. It is a journey of discovery and great change on which Justice welcomes one to embark as one leafs through the pages of morality plays.
Although the purpose of all morality plays is to instruct listeners on the means of receiving redemption, morality plays after the Protestant Reformation are of a distinctly different didacticism than the morality plays before the Reformation.
Morality plays before the Reformation teach a Catholic approach to redemption, with an emphasis on works and the sacraments, a view originating with Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 AD), Cyprian (d. 258), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The emphasis on works can be seen in the final speech in one of the most well-known of medieval morality plays, Everyman, in which there is a clear statement about the necessity of good works for the one who desires heaven:
Doctor: This moral men may have in mind;
Ye hearers, take it of worth, old and young,
And forsake pride, for he deceiveth you in the end,
And remember Beauty, Five-wits, Strength, and Discretion,
They all at last do Everyman forsake,
Save his Good-Deeds, there doth he take.
But beware, and they be small
Before God, he hath no help at all.
None excuse may be there for Everyman.
The importance of the sacraments is seen in the morality tale entitled Mankind. In this play, the sacrament of penance is emphasized when the allegorical character Mercy speaks to Mankind: “Come let us go to this cloister and incline your mind towards God. Don’t sin thinking that you are assured mercy, that itself is a sin. It’s not a good idea to take advantage of the Lord.”
Pre-Reformation plays emphasized the importance of the sacraments of the Catholic Church (such as partaking in mass and baptism), the church clergy, the church hierarchy, the church establishment in general, and the abstinence from the Seven Deadly Sins. Many of the morality tales were allegories and involved characters with names of Vices (e.g., Gluttony) and Virtues (e.g., Goodness). Their purpose was to direct the playgoers to pursue virtue and renounce vice.
Frequently a character representing a Vice would state, upon his first appearance, that he was evil. For example, in The Castle of Perseverance, a character called Lust-Liking states:
Lo, me! here ready Lord, to fare and to flee
To seek thee a servant valued and dear!
Whoso will by Folly ruled be,
He is worthy to be a servant here,
Who slips into the Sins Seven.
Even after this initial introduction, however, the Vice will continually reiterate to the audience that his nature is diabolic. Very often, the Vice presented will bring his character into criticism by the manner in which he presents himself to his audience, thus further demonstrating his wickedness. For example, the Vices in the earlier morality plays often spoke using vulgar language and by blasphemous swearing. Often, these curses were spoken in Latin, which being considered the holy language, made these curses even more offensive to the audience. Moreover, the Vices often made a mockery of religious practices sacred to the audience, thereby castigating themselves in the eyes of their audience. Deceit is another means by which the Vice exposes his wickedness to the audience and serves as an example to them of what to avoid in a righteous life. Furthermore, in the pre-Reformation play, the Vices denounce their own characters by acting violently toward each other, and toward the Virtues.
Whereas the pre-Reformation morality plays sought to reinforce the establishment of the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrine, the post-Reformation morality plays worked to destroy Catholic credibility and demonise the Catholic Church. Although post-Reformation morality plays were like its predecessor in that it also was concerned with the salvation of its audience, it differed in that it believed that the theology promoted by pre-Reformation plays was antithetical to salvation. Thus, a major shift in focus, from concern for the individual’s moral behaviour to concern for the individual's theological practices, occurred with the post-Reformation morality plays. The wave of Protestantism which fuelled the content of these plays dictated that more attention should be given to warning people against the Catholic Church than of their sinful nature. The means of redemption, according to the philosophy embedded in post-Reformation morality plays, is dependent upon the audience understanding the truthfulness of Protestant theology and verses and also the deceptiveness and wickedness of Catholic theology, whose best example is the secular play of Calderón.
The Vices in post-Reformation morality plays are almost always depicted as being Catholic. At times this depiction is achieved through their physical appearance. For example, Vices in post-Reformation morality plays would be dressed as cardinals, friars, monks, or the pope. Other times, the Vice comes out and states he is a Catholic, or elucidates that he is Catholic by swearing a Catholic pledge. Oftentimes, the Vice in post-Reformation plays admits that Catholic theology is flawed, and that by being Catholic the Vice is committing treason. Moreover, Vices often appear ignorant and naive, especially when it comes to their biblical understanding and knowledge of the New Testament. Often, morality plays coming out the post-Reformation period, ridicule ritualistic Catholic practices. Furthermore, these plays postulated that Catholics were opposed to moral behaviour and truthfulness, and that the Catholic Church warped the text of the bible to justify sinning. To deceive the victim of post-Reformation morality plays, the vice typically assumes a new name to disguise what actual vice he is.
Because the Vice is aggressively tied to Catholicism from the outset of the play, when the Vice is reprimanded and damned, so are his Catholic beliefs. Therefore, the Vice served as a central component to discrediting the Catholic Church in post-Reformation morality plays.
The role of the Virtues in post-Reformation morality plays was to preach a message of salvation based upon an individual’s faith and the grace of God. They promoted Protestant beliefs of original sin, the importance of bible reading and meditation, the marriage of clergymen, and the cleansing of sin only through Christ’s sacrifice; at the same time, they discredited the Catholic belief in transubstantiation.