From Sin and Damnation to Crime and Punishment in Early Tudor Drama

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

University of Florence
5 min readApr 13, 2022

Roberta Mullini, University of Urbino Carlo Bo

Besides the great northern cycles of mystery plays, which deal with biblical episodes, early Tudor drama includes almost exclusively morality plays and interludes, whose didactic purpose is to show the wiles of evil and the route to Christian salvation. Their plots, more or less standardized from innocence to sin and the subsequent rise to salvation, always present wicked characters that tempt the local representative of mankind. Whether there are several and sundry vices or only The Vice, these characters are seldom punished for their actions, the emphasis being mainly on the final victory of good, unless some idea of secular crime accompanies their allegorical stories; in this case mundane justice is also administered. Early Tudor drama is not ‘crime literature’, but it can be investigated in order to ascertain its contemporary perception of crime, both on an individual and social level.

This article tries to highlight such aspects in a variety of plays, starting from The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1440) down to early Elizabethan drama (Ulpian Fulwell’s Like Will to Like, 1568, and Thomas Lupton’s All for Money, 1578). Covering such a long period, it will take into account the religious ‘divide’ since plots tend to move from the mainly Catholic ‘comedies of evil’, where penitence and salvation are always possible, to Protestant stories where individual responsibilities are underlined and tragic (or pseudo-tragic) endings are the consequence of evil demeanour. Besides religious changes, social preoccupations (like theft, vagrancy and murder) also affect early drama, so that bodily punishment is more and more often portrayed onstage as the aftermath of criminal behaviour. Moral and religious misdemeanour becomes open crime and society reacts to it by adding punishment to a ‘simple’ moral condemnation.

Drama, as ‘a mirror held up to nature’, portrays these changes: there are trials in Nice Wanton (c. 1547–1553), and in Respublica (c. 1553); people are put into the stocks and hanged in Sir David Lindsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis (1540–1554); Newgate is mentioned in many interludes as the place where earthly wrongdoers are imprisoned, and Tyburn is recalled as the notorious locale of death sentence by hanging.Discussing the problems connected to the definition of crime in early modern England, James A. Sharpe claims that one of the major difficulties for our comprehension, in addition to the lack of extant documentation for certain places and types of court, lies in the of tennon existing distinction between sin and crime:

The parish constable sending the unlicensed alehouse keeper to the quarter sessions and the churchwarden sending the adulterer to the church courts would have regarded themselves as participants in the same struggle: disorder and ungodliness were not really separable entities. … The inhabitants of Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian England were, to say the least, a little unclear on this matter. Even at the end of the eighteenth century, contemporary opinion held crime to be little different from immorality. (1999, 7)

Law and social historians have researched the extant legal documents of many courts and compared their results with the legislation introduced by the various sovereigns, in order to see whether and how local authorities enforced it. Some have also devoted their attention to gender aspects of the administration of justice against the background of social and economic changes, and found, for example, that ‘wives constituted the majority of female defendants accused of assault’, and that ‘[w]omen feature more prominently in the records of some lesser courts, and are much more visible in church court records’ (K. Jones 2006, 8). Jones also notes that ‘Christian morality and the virtues of honour and self-control clashed with secular values which defined male status and identity by physical aggression and sexual conquest, even for mature men’. As for the economic situations affecting possible criminal behaviour (one must remember, though, that what was often judged as illegal in late medieval and early modern times has now lost all its negative weight), employment decreases due to wars, epidemics, negative weather effects on agriculture, and unequal land distribution caused by enclosures have also been aspects studied by historians.

This is not the place to go into further details; nevertheless, what sociologists and historians have highlighted will be kept in mind when trying to analyse whether and how late medieval cycle and morality plays, and Tudor interludes record the secular law of their times. In other words, this article, in spite of the blurred separation of crime from immorality and from religious deviance, intends to investigate very early modern drama in order to spot traits of secular justice besides the omnipresent religious condemnation of vices and sins, and, consequently, traces of earthly punishment beyond the threat of hell and damnation. It must be kept in mind that, on the one hand, religious plays are efficacious theatre pieces as modern research and practice have shown, but on the other that they have always had didactic purposes, and that as late as 1562–1568 the Prologue of the interlude Like Will to Like, in itself not a religious play, states that its aim is to show ‘The advauncement of vertue, and of vice the decay’ (Fulwell 1972, l. 18), thus stressing its being in line with the same moral intent as preachers’ in the reformation of manners.

Moreover, it is worth noticing that the theatricality implicit in the administration of justice as such has always had great relevance in English drama, from the ‘Last Judgment’ episodes in the mystery cycles to the ‘Four Daughters of God’ sequence in The Castle of Perseverance, to the latter’s reappearance in Nicholas Udall’s Respublica. In a way, the mystery cycle episodes of Christ’s trial before Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate can also be interpreted as the foundations of religious and lay courts in Christian drama, respectively, in the same way as Christ’s buffeting and crucifixion represent the antecedents of later onstage punishments.It would be absolutely impossible to give an account of, or only to mention, the numerous late medieval and early Tudor plays which contain allusions to crime and punishment. The large number of references to prisons and worldly punishment in them may depend on the fact that the times were profoundly and quickly ‘a-changing’, the state was acquiring central power, towns were growing and becoming more densely populated, with an increase in offences which pushed parliament and the sovereigns to pass stricter and stricter bills in order to contain crime. What follows, therefore, should be considered as a first attempt to investigate the issue through analyses which, in the end, could simply be defined ‘case studies’, although with a wider reach than the individual texts.


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