The Crucifixion: A Short Analysis of the Medieval York Play

The Crucifixion: A Short Analysis of the Medieval York Play

Michael Hall

1 Miles. We! Herke, sir knightis, for Mahoundis bloode!
Of Adam-kinde is all his thoght.
2 Miles. The warlowe waxis werre than woode!
This doulfull dede ne dredith he noght.
3 Miles. Thou schulde have minde, with maine and moode,
Of wikkid werkis that thou haste wrought.
4 Miles. I hope that he hadde bene as goode
Have sesed of sawes schall rewe him sore,
1 Miles. Thoo sawes schall rewe him sore,
For all his sauntering, sone! (61-70)

Jesus. Takes tente ye schalle no travaile tine!
Biholedes min[e] heede, min[e] handis, and my feete,
And fully feele nowe, or ye fine,
If any mourning may be meete
Or mischieve mesured unto mine [He prays.]
My Fadir, that alle bales may bete,
Forgiffis thes men that dois me pine.
What they wirke wotte they noght.
Therfore, my Fadir, I crave,
Latte nevere ther sinys be sought,
But see ther saules to save. (254-264)

The purpose of the soldiers’ remarks in the first passage is to give the viewer a sense of dramatic irony. According to the footnote associated with lines 65-70, the passage can be interpreted as: “You should be meditating, with all your might and main, on the wicked deeds you’ve done. ––I think he might better have stopped saying the kind of things he thought up. –He’ll sorely repent those words soon, despite all his babbling.” Basically, the soldiers are telling Jesus that he doesn’t realize the significance about what is about to take place. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The audience of the play already knows the outcome of the crucifixion, that is, Jesus dies and is resurrected on the third day, and therefore demonstrates that he is in fact God. They know, by their faith, that he is the true messiah, and does not need the soldiers’ ill-informed advice. However, this advice offered is exactly what somebody should be telling these soldiers while their working on, and torturing, Jesus. They are the ones who should be meditating over the wicked deeds they are committing. They are the ones who should be reflecting about the horrible thoughts of torture they are planning to inflict on their Lord. They are the ones, not Jesus, who will soon be repenting and asking for forgiveness. Overall, they are the ones who don’t understand the real significance of what is going on. And since the audience knows this, we have dramatic irony.

The characters in the play represent the extreme ends of mercy. The soldiers and Jesus are diametrically opposed to this point. On the one hand, there are the soldiers who are trying to perform an execution with the most pain possible. They are annoyed, however, when they see that their efforts have not phased the will of their victim who does not dread a painful death, but instead, continues to be concerned with humanity (62-64). Seeing this, they think he is mad to be thinking of others when he should be thinking of himself (63). On the other hand, we have Jesus who, despite his circumstances, demonstrates an unrivalled level of mercy. Instead of feeling hatred towards these soldiers due to the extreme physical and psychological torture (254-258), as I assume most people undoubtedly would, Jesus prays. Now he doesn’t pray to save his own skin, like his tormentors believe he should, but instead stands up for the soldiers before His Father when he says: “Forgiffs thes men that dois me pine./ What they wirke wotte they noght.” He asks God to forgive his tormenting executioners because “they know not what they do.” But he does not stop there. He continues “Therfore, my Fadir, I crave,/ Latte nevere ther sinnys be sought,/ But see ther saules to save.” Jesus doesn’t just simply ask this of God. Rather he “crave[s]” and desires that his Father save their souls, regardless of the pain they are inflicting on him, the Lord. This almost unfathomable response from Jesus shows a level of mercy that may not be possible by humanity, but something completely within the realm of the Creator. So we can clearly see how the these characters represent different extremes of the spectrum in regards to mercy.

One topic that I found of particular interest was the soldier’s mentioning of the Islamic messiah, Mohammed. In response to the true messiah, Jesus, the first solider states: “We! Herke, sir knightis, for Mahoundis bloode” (61). This statement seems odd because the crucifixion of Christ was over 500 years earlier than the birth of the Islamic prophet and the resulting religion. So obviously, Roman soldiers in the early 1st century would have no idea about the specifics of one of the world’s future religions. However, audiences in York during the medieval period would be quite familiar with the religion that was the cause of numerous wars during the crusades, and the motivating factor behind the growing Ottoman Empire in the east. In fact, it is probably that they may have associated the religion with evil, and more specifically, the work of Satan. So by having one of the soldiers mention the name of a prophet that was viewed at the time of the play as evil, the author was able to implicitly show how Satan was influencing the soldiers.

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