Skip to main content

Origin of Drama in English Literature

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.


The origin of the drama is deep-rooted in the religious predispositions of mankind. Same is the case not only with English drama, but with dramas of other nations as well. The ancient Greek and Roman dramas were mostly concerned with religious ceremonials of people. It was the religious elements that resulted in the development of drama. As most of the Bible was written into Latin, common people could not understand its meanings. That’s why the clergy tried to find out some new methods of teaching and expounding the teachings of Bible to the common people. For this purpose, they developed a new method, wherein the stories of the Gospel were explained through the living pictures. The performers acted out the story in a dumb show.


Mysteries and Miracle Plays

In the next stage, the actors spoke as well as acted their parts. Special plays were written by the clerics, at first in Latin and later in the vernacular French. These early plays were known as Mysteries or Miracles. The very word Mystery shows its ecclesiastical origin, since the word comes from the French Mystere derived from ministere, because the clergy, the ministerium or ministry ecclesiae, themselves took part in these plays. In England the term Miracle is used indiscriminately for any kind of religion play, but the strictly speaking the term Mystery is applied to the stories taken from the Scriptures narrative, while Miracles are plays dealing with incidents in the lives of Saints and Martyrs.


Secular and Religious Origin of Drama

The history of drama is deeply rooted in lay and religious annals of history. It may be well at this point to sketch the main lines of development, before dealing in greater detail with the early plays that merged gradually into Elizabethan drama. Pausing them to consider the lines of development shown by the drama from Plantagenet times down to the era of Elizabeth, we find certain distinctive stages, whilst underlying the entire movement is a twofold appeal. The drama appeals to two instincts deeply rooted: i. The craving for amusement ii. The desire for improvement. This twofold appeal accounts for the complex origin of the drama, and enables us to differentiate the lay from the sacred element.

Drama as Entertainment

Regarding the lay element and the craving for amusement, we note that in the Middle Ages, the juggler, the tumbler and jester ministered to the needs of the time. They are found in the twelfth century, and Langland tells us how gaily and unblushingly they flourished in the fourteenth century, though the serious-minded, wished to restrain them to a modest hilarity. Much of it was very primitive fooling, but there were dialogues and repartees of which fragments only have survived. The Middle Ages solely needed a Pepys. Of these entertainers, the jester was the best. He lived by his wits in a very literal manner, disgrace and death following upon an unsuccessful sally, and he survived into Shakespeare’s day, though fallen then from his high state to play the fool between the acts of a play. What he had been at this zenith we may judge from the picture of Touchstone, of Feste, and the Fool in Lear. Such debates as The Owl and Nightingale influenced the development of the drama; for before Chaucer’s time some of these were turned into story.

Importance of the Pageants

The most important entertainments of the Middle Ages, however, were supplied by the Pageants and the May Games, and by the Mysteries and Miracles of the Church. Roughly speaking, we may say that the Juggling and Clowning heralded the coming of Farce and Comedy, the Pageants anticipated the Historical Drama, while in the May Games we have a foretaste of the Masques and Pastoral Plays so popular in Elizabethan times.

Drama Inside the Church

Passing from the lay to the sacred element, it is remarkable what use the Church made of the rough humorous already noted in the clowning and debates. The Church made skillful use of these, moulding them to her purpose and, in the parlance of a familiar tag, combining instruction with amusement. Drama is obviously inherent in the very ritual of the Church, and the Mass itself was factor in dramatic development. The season of the year suggested the subject matter of plays: Christmas, Easter, stories derived from the Bible, called Mysteries, stories from the lives of the Saints, called Miracle Plays. Early in the Middle Ages the clergy celebrated Holy Days. Christmas, Easter, etc, by playing scenes from the Life of Christ. The first positive stage in the development of the drama is marked by the performance of these stories in the Church.


For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Miracle plays are about:
    • Bible Stories
    • The lives of Saints
    • Religious Teachings

Answer Key

  1. Bible Stories

From the Church to the Marketplace

The second stage is reached when the play emerges from the Church into the marketplace. This was effected when the guilds were entrusted with the performances in the fourteenth century. It was customary for each craft to represent a play according to its particular trade. The work was very seriously taken by the guilds, lack of confidence and competence and unpunctuality being met by heavy fines.

Stage Properties Introduced

Performances were given on car or scaffolds in the open spaces of the town. There was no attempt at scenery, but attention was giving to stage properties. There was a monstrous head with a movable jaws to represent Hall; and in addition to a rich costume the actor had some symbol to denote his part.

Element of Humour

The play of Noah shows us the amalgamation of English humour and didactic purpose. Though, the drama had its source in holy story, in the method of narration we can trace the influence of the old English amusements-the pageants and May games, the juggler’s horse-play, and the quips of the jester. On the whole, Miracle plays proved more popular than Mysteries, probably on account of their fresher subject matter. Each big town possessed its own cycle of plays i.e., York, Chester, Coventry.


The Morality Plays

The third stage is the rise of Morality Plays. The Mystery and Miracle Paly gave rise to the Morality and Interlude. In the Miracle and Mystery plays, serious and comic elements were interwoven. Now they part; the Morality presenting the serious and the Interlude the higher side of things. The Morality was frankly didactic. The characters typified certain qualities e.g., Sin, Grace, Repentance. The Interlude aimed merely at amusement. Everyman and Four P’s of Heywood are best examples in this regard.

Moralities began to be acted in the reign of Henry VI and like the miracle plays continued to flourish until the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. The morality, as we have said, is a drama in which the characters are allegorical, symbolical, or abstract. The main purpose of the play is didactic. The allegorical characters to be found in some of the earlier Miracle plays owe their importance to religious sources. They are not essential to the story. One of the earliest morality plays was The Castle of Perseverance, a drama of the old faith. The spiritual progress of mankind from the day of his birth to the Day of Judgment is set forth in this drama.

The Interludes

The Interludes dealing with the Old Faith gave place to others that set forth the teaching of Reformation, e.g. Hyche Scorner, Lusty Taventres, New Custom etc. Others concerned the New Learning, Nature of the Four Elements, The Trial of Treasure etc.

Emergence of Modern Drama

The Moralities with their allegorical characters led to greater attention being paid to the plot, whilst gradually the abstract personification began to emerge into real people with individual idiosyncrasies. The Moralities, like the Miracles, were adapted to the audience. Comic scenes were introduced to relieve the seriousness of these medieval “problem” plays. The Vice, a character peculiar to the Morality, was allowed to enter between the scenes and amuse the people with a character. A number of plays exist in which the transition stages of the Morality can be plainly discerned. Comedy and Morality in Town Tiler and his Wife, Tragedy and Morality in King Canbyses and Apius and Virginia, History and Morality in Bales’s King Johan.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq


boukary saratou on May 06, 2020:

Please I would like to know if the Byzantin people are the first practionners of bullfighting

Muhammad iqbal on February 23, 2020:


anonymous on November 11, 2019:

thanks for the info

Salma taj on October 26, 2019:

Easy to understand....great

Divya on September 27, 2019:

This is superb, excellent and very easy to understand, it's very helpful

Abdul razzaque on September 20, 2019:

This is wondrful it helps us more and more.

Thank u

Emmanuel on September 19, 2019:

Thanks for such an insightful updates

Mike Oxmaul on September 16, 2019:

very informative

Saba Tajir on August 27, 2019:

Very informative.

vicky on August 25, 2019:

very informative.. thank - you so much.

B.R. Kumawat on July 05, 2019:

A very splendid account of drama has been lectured here. It awakens the slept spirit of English Literature in an India-like nation where the professors are there in their marathon sleep due to which English Literature has acquiesced an absurd state at higher education. I salute the composer of this content.

Goodness on May 10, 2019:

Nice work sir, it has helped a lot of people including me. Thanks again

Auwal I Ibrahim Nigerian on March 24, 2019:

Thanks it's helpful for me

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 24, 2019:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am glad it helped you.

YUSUF A.B. UMAR on March 24, 2019:

Very interesting and a welcome development. I am lecturer in one of Universities in Nigeria and I believe it'll really assist me and my student's in broading our knowledge with the current happening in literature. Thank you very much once again.

Vinodhini on March 05, 2019:

I am first year English student,thank you for this details I know about this details.

v.selva gayathri on February 25, 2019:

this essay is very useful for me .because i am first year student of englishliterature

Somebody on January 14, 2019:

It has helped me,thank you so much

Uzair Ali on December 31, 2018:

Thanks sir .it a vary use full article for me

Shafiq kotwal on December 17, 2018:

Thank you sir....

Rasanarafik on December 09, 2018:

Thank you sir this is very useful to me..

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on December 01, 2018:

Thanks for your comments. I am glad it helped you!

Madhubala on December 01, 2018:

Im a first year student of english literature Thank you sir,this article has helped me a lot . i have more information in this article . This article is useful for me very easy to understand so thank you for giving this article ,sir.once again thank you......

Shila1319 on November 22, 2018:

I am a first year student of English literature and your article has helped me a lot. Thank you so much.

Dharsheni on November 10, 2018:


nishath on November 06, 2018:

thank .so much information i have

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 05, 2018:

Kamal on September 13, 2018:


Annu verma on September 01, 2018:

Thank you sir this is very helpful for me

Muhammad Zahid on July 12, 2018:

writing style is very nice and easy to understandable

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 27, 2018:

Aso on June 26, 2018:

hi brother do you have face book or email I wanna contact you

____short____cake____ on June 02, 2018:

This was really helpful ❤️ thank u so much!

Nahida Batool on May 19, 2018:

Thank you sir.... This is very helpful

ogbonna onyebuchi Samuel on May 06, 2018:

Well done great man

Jojo Metha on February 09, 2018:

sir can you please tell me which book you used or from which book of yours you took ref. from.

Sharjeel ansari on February 01, 2018:

Thank you

Priya seetha on January 25, 2018:

Really helpful

Malavika on January 08, 2018:

thank u sir for your good information

Niraj kr Rana on November 22, 2017:

Thank you so much sir.....

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 15, 2017:

Thanks for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

Amrita on October 30, 2017:

Thank you so very much sir ....

Neha on October 08, 2017:

nice and so important information sir

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on October 08, 2017:

Thanks for your comments! on October 07, 2017:

Great Job Sir

Najam Sultan Maan on September 20, 2017:

Good information.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on September 06, 2017:

Thanks Amelia for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

Amelia Mbotto Kyaka on September 06, 2017:

This is helpful information. Importantly brief and yet truthful. Am relieved that i did not have to read long articles about the important developments of Drama/Theatre and performance. And yet, I have also been inspired to do an in depth study some time later.

Aranya sagar on July 22, 2017:

Very useful loved it...

IDMSK on July 11, 2017:

great job man i am also the student of English Literature keep going up, nice article about the Origin of Drama.

Aditya raj on June 20, 2017:

very nice

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 11, 2017:

You are welcome. Please, visit my YouTube channel for videos about literature. Here is the link:

Shugufta Bashir literature student on June 11, 2017:

Thankx for giving this comprehensive passage.

Needs more and more information about English literature

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 26, 2017:

Thanks for your comments. I am glad it helped you. on May 26, 2017:

Very good. I liked it very much!

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 22, 2017:

You are welcome. Please, visit my Youtube channel for videos related to English literature. Here is the link:

profsalman on May 21, 2017:

Thanks for this comprehensive passage. Prof. Awad Salman , Sudan, Shendi University

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 15, 2017:

Thanks Rupail Vashishth for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

Rupali vashisth on May 15, 2017:

very nice ...its easy to understand...simple language,creative work

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 08, 2017:

Thanks for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

Aditya Raj on March 07, 2017:

It's become useful for me..

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 01, 2017:

Thanks for your comments.

Nida bukhari on February 28, 2017:

Very informative

Indrani Bhowmik on January 15, 2017:

Very helpful and reliable material .

Preeti on January 12, 2017:


Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on December 07, 2016:

Thanks for your comments.

arshi hayat on December 06, 2016:

very easy to understand

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 22, 2016:


EDGAR WILSON on November 21, 2016:

nice materials

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on September 09, 2016:

Thanks Suvankar Sur for your comments.

suvankar sur on September 09, 2016:

very much helpful

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on May 11, 2015:

you too

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 10, 2015:

Thanks Akriti Mattu for your comments! Yes, I do love literature. Have a nice day.

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on May 10, 2015:

Nice post.Voted up.

You seem to be a lover of literature :)