Elements of Miracle Plays in Doctor Faustus

Elements of Miracle Plays in Doctor Faustus

A miracle play, 15th C
Quick Notes

Elements of Miracle Plays in Doctor Faustus

Drama evolved from religion. Greek drama evolved from a dance performed to Bacchus and other Gods.

Let us first discuss what a Miracle play is. Though the term Miracle is definitely associated by MatthewParis (English Chroniclers) and FitzStephen with Saints’ Plays, its use was quickly extended to Mysteries, or Bible Plays, which in England soon eclipsed the Miracles.

The Heroes of the Old and New Testamentsappealed more strongly to the national taste in England; and so it came about that the Saints’ plays wereearly allowed to lapse. 

The early authors of Miracles and Mysteries were Anglo Normans, and we assume them to have beenclerics.

Their authorities, the canonical and apocryphal Scriptures, were not accessible to laymen, and inthe age of constant strife, the church was the only assurance of leisure and learned hours. 

The Christianity and the Bible

The Christianity and the Bible offered many interesting themes for enactment. Another reason could havebeen that clerics thought it would be best for laymen to understand the bible and Christianity throughenactments as the Bible was a sealed book to the laity and few could read it. Hence the liturgical drama was born.

It is quite possible that the Miracle play would never have come into existence if the services ofchurch had been conducted in the vernacular. Thus the form of drama was adopted. Out of Easter Masssprang the earliest Liturgical drama and spread throughout Europe.

Early Easter rituals might have been too primitive to be called plays but later a dramatic presentation of the Descent into Hell came to be associated with the Good Friday and Easter Spectacles.

The Descent into Hell

The Descent into Hell or the Harrowing of Hellas it was called in England was one of the most popular of legends in medieval times. The subject wascapable of dramatic treatment.

The custom grew to form a procession on Easter Eve, without theChurch. In this way was formed the nucleus of liturgic-drama cycle which came to include every festivalof the ecclesiastical year.

Indeed the day was coming when the increasing vitality of religious drama made it impossible to retain as part of service for the day.


Written in Latin of a character wholly symbolic and ceremonial, the MiraclePlay in so far as it dealt not only with things supernal, but also with humble shepherds, cruel soldiers, andproud king, touched human life too closely to remain forever cloistered.

Although Easter andChristmas ceremonies, continued long to be the associated with the service of the church, other plays onsimilar themes began to be written for performance outside the Church.

The 13th Century

By the end of the 13th century, the representation of the Miracle plays had entirely passed into the hands of the laity, and more especially, of the great trade guilds who began to give performances in honour of their patron saints. 

These plays were of two classes, afterward confused but at first, kept quite distinct: Mysteries or Scriptureplays, and Miracles, plays dealing with the legends of the Saints.

The Church

As long as possible, however, the Church retained her association with both forms of drama, and the early Miracles and Mysteries were still writtenin Latin and performed in churches in monastery schools.

The earliest Miracle play written as distinct dramas and having no connection with the services of Church are supposed to have been those ofHroswitha, a Benedictine nun, of Saxony.

By the twelfth century, we have Le Drame D’Adam written entirely in French the first known vernacularMystery, and from this date, the secularisation of the religious drama kept pace with its popularity. 

The name Mystery as differentiating the Scripture Play from the Miracle Play seems to have come into use in the fifteenth century, by which time secular drama had already it’s rude beginning in France. 

In France where the Bible Play and the Saint’s Play flourished side by side, some distinctions of their functions might seem needed, but even in France, the terminology was not exact.

In England, where, oddly enough, the genuine Saint’s Play had never the popularity of the Bible Play, the term Miracle appears to have been employed as a generic title for Church Plays or sacred plays of all descriptions or kind.

Contemporary references prove this. Mystery, on the other hand, is a term quite recent adoption applied to Bible Playsexclusively. The ethical drama, Mysteries, Miracles, and Moralities, passed with the growth of great secular drama.

 Earlier the clergy wrote the plays and they themselves enacted it. However, if they did not appear on stage they encouraged such performances as work of piety, pleasing to God, and efficacious in warding off plague. 

The texts of the plays acted at York, Wakefield, Chester, and Coventry, are the only complete relics we possess of those great series of miracle plays between the year 1350 and 1500. These were acted all over the country with the greatest possible success.

Now let us look at the York plays. These plays are 48 in number. It is a noteworthy feature that in these plays even those characters most calculated to arouse the clamorous detestation of the audience are not wholly vicious.

Pilate, for instance, appears to be of somewhat benevolent disposition and a rigid observer of justice; while even Herod, always the villain of the piece in miracle play, is here shown as a sympathizer with those suffering under unjust oppression. 

The plays, on the whole, are reverent and seemly in tone, are full of dramatic life and energy. The subject extends from Creation of the World to the Doomsday.

Now and then the author seizes the opportunity to urge some point of doctrine or practice upon his audience, thus in the play of Cain and Abel, to emphasize the propriety of paying tithes he makes an angel deliver a message from the Deity: “The tente to tyne he asks, no more, Of all the goodes he haves you sente, full trew…” 

Comparison with Dr. Faustus

Comparison 1

Comparison with Dr. Faustus: In Dr. Faustus, traces of Miracle plays particularly of that of York can befound. Before the pact is sealed, Mephistopheles actually warns Faustus against making the deal withLucifer.

In an odd way, one can almost sense that part of Mephistopheles does not want Faustus to make the same mistakes that he made. Thus he’s portrayed as repentant.

Marlowe also seizes the opportunity to urge some point of doctrine or practice upon his audience, thus in the play to emphasize penitence and penance he makes an angel interrupt Dr. Faustus: “Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.” “Repent, and they shall never raze their skin.” 

Now let us look at the Wakefield Play also called Towneley Plays. The incidents introduced into the narrative are such as would appeal to a country audience. There is but little reverence or feeling in the plays, their feature is the great freedom from restraint and the boisterousness of the humor.

Comparison 2

Comparison with Dr. Faustus: Freedom of restraint and boisterous humor are both found in Dr.Faustus.Now let us look at the Chester Plays. The Chester Plays are more serious in tone than the others.

The humor, though the present is not as boisterous as in the Towneley series, and a didactic tendency is shown in the introduction of an Expositor, who at the end of each play explains its significance and lesson. This is the only series that shows any real effort to serve the religious object to which Miracle Plays were supposed to be directed.

Comparison 3

Comparison with Dr. Faustus: In Dr. Faustus, the chorus plays the role of an Expositor, explaining significance and lesson.Lastly are the Coventry Plays. They were 42 plays. 

These plays have a higher and more religious tone than those of other series discussed above. The humor is less exuberant and altogether the plays seem to have been performed with some idea of illustrating to the people the great truths of Christian Religion. The subjects covered the Creation of the World to the Doomsday.

Comparison 4

Comparison with Dr. Faustus: The truth of the eternal damnation and Hell is emphasized in Dr. Faustus. When Faustus blithely  — and absurdly, given that he is speaking to a demon — declares that he does not believe in hell, Mephistopheles groans and insists that hell is, indeed, real and terrible.

Thus we see that this feature of Coventry play is also present in Dr. Faustus. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus we can easily trace some of the characteristics of the Miracle plays.

In SceneIV of Act I, we find two devils, Baliol and Belcher, entering just to frighten the clown. Devils also appear in Act II, Sc. I and II and also in Act IV, Sc. Ill and Act V, Sc. II. 

The tradition of Chorus is also maintained. We find the Chorus introducing the story just before the beginning of the first scene and subsequently filling in the gaps in the narrative and announcing the end of the play with a very solemn moral.

The looseness of the structure is quite evident, and as in the Miracle plays the story centers around a single towering figure, Doctor Faustus.

From the very name of this type of plays, it is obvious that the main figures must have performed some outstanding miracles. And here in this drama, we find Faustusperforming amazing feats of Miracle. 

The most important feature of Miracle Play in Dr. Faustus is that it serves the purpose of educating the masses about the fate suffered by Dr. Faustus for deviating from the path of God.

The emphasis on eternal damnation and the picturesque horridity of hell and damnation serves the purpose of deterring people from committing the mistake which Dr. Faustus committed. 

To sum it all, Dr. Faustus cannot be considered as a Miracle Play but nonetheless, elements of Miracleplay are rife in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. 


1. E. Hamilton Moore (1907), English Miracle Plays and Moralities, Sherratt & Hughes, p1-30 

2. Sidney M. Clarke, The Miracle Play in England… On account of the Early Religious Drama  (1897), , William Andrews & Co., p1-453. C. Bhaskara Menon, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe  (1604), MacmillanPublishers Ltd

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