The passage chosen for the textual analysis in this assignment is the one from Mundus et Infans. This play is one of the brightest examples of the Medieval morality plays (Lester 2002). The drama doctrine of this period is characterised by the ability not only to depict the heroes with the help of language choice but also entitle them with a moral function that serves as a lesson for the audience (Normington 2009). In Medieval Europe, people’s lives were dominated by the church (Fitzgerald & Sebastian 2013). The single recognised religion was Christianity, and people’s beliefs of moral behaviour were based on it.
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Along with other plays of the period such as The First Shepherd’s Play, The Second Shepherd’s Play, Mankind, The Temptation of Christ, and the Women Taken in Adultery, Mundus et Infans presents a rich source of lessons in morality that are revealed both by the character’s language and manner. The key tasks of the essay are to provide a detailed textual analysis of the passage from Mundus et Infans and show how the language reflects the moral function of the character in the play. Although the play Mundus et Infans was discussed at a seminar, I find its moral value rather high and consider a more detailed analysis a reasonable idea.
Mundus et Infans is translated as The World and the Child. One of the most prominent themes described in this play is the process of growth and maturation of a human being and his interaction with the other people and the world around him. The main protagonist evolves throughout the play, moving through different stages of a human lifespan and transforming into a man from an infant (Lester 2002). In the context of the entire play, the passage under analysis represents the second stage of the protagonist’s development that is referred to as Wanton. The form search of this word in the Middle English dictionary (2001) gives the following result: “restraint or morals, morally lacking.” Thus, the name of the character speaks for itself, presenting a mischievous and an unruly child, full of energy and ignorant of authority. The character has no respect for the established rules of behaviour. The moral function of Wanton is to show how children should not behave and demonstrate inappropriate conduct. In the passage, the behaviour and personality of the protagonist are communicated using the first-person narration. Such choice of narration makes an impression of a rebellion and refusal to see oneself as a person who should follow the general order of conduct. By giving Wanton the right to speak for himself, the author entitles him with even more mischief and disrespect to the moral rules of the period.
In Middle English, the word “shame” stands for several concepts: dishonour, the emotion appearing from the perception of disgrace, and the apprehension of dishonour or likely disgrace (Flannery 2012). In Mundus et Infans, the character clearly does not express shame in any of the mentioned dimensions. On the contrary, Wanton is boasting his misbehaviour and takes pride in all of his wrongdoings. The language of the passage is rich in words whose meanings contribute to a better understanding of Wanton’s moral function. The analysis of the chosen extract brings the reader to a list of various features, characteristics, and behaviours that serve as the description of the protagonist. Wanton says, “I can, with my scourge-stick, / My fellow upon the head hit, / And wightly from him make a skip, / And blear on him my tongue” (Mundus et Infants n.d., lines 80-83). These lines indicate the character’s cruelty. “Scourge” has a meaning of “a whip, lash; a whip used for torture or punishment” (Middle English dictionary 2001).
Therefore, using this tool to hit a playmate is an excessively brutal act. This action could have one of two meanings – either Wanton states that hitting his fellows is something he regularly does, and thus he calls the tool he uses for beating a scourge-stick, or the stick is something that is expected to be used by the child’s supervisors to punish him for being naughty. However, Wanton has no respect for the adults and is not afraid of being punished, so he stole the stick to use it on his peers. The second version is likely more accurate since in the following lines of the excerpt as the protagonists will elaborate about his lack of respect for authority. When Wanton says that he can disappear “wightly,” he boasts his agility since the meaning of this word is “bravely” (Middle English dictionary 2001). However, the author implies another shade of meaning here: “swiftly” (Middle English dictionary 2001). Therefore, while Wanton gives credit to his ability to beat people, the audience takes away a moral lesson of it being wrong to hit people and run away in an attempt to avoid punishment.
Further, Wanton provides a detailed explanation of his behaviour when a brother or a sister attempt to discipline him: “If brother or sister do me chide,/ I will scratch and also bite; / I can cry and also kick, / And mock them all by row” (Mundus et Infants n.d., lines 84-87). The word “chide” means “to quarrel” (Middle English dictionary, 2001). Thus, this is another example of immoral behaviour when, instead of resolving the issue with a conversation, the character decides to resort to physical abuse. Probably the greatest reflection of disrespect to the moral values of the Medieval rules is reflected in the following lines: “If father or mother will me smite, / I will wring with my lip, / And lightly from him make a skip, / And call my dame shrew” (Mundus et Infants n.d., lines 89-91). Respect to one’s parents is one of the highest virtues, and here we see the character proud of not conforming to this moral rule. Not only does Wanton run away from fair punishment, but he also offends his mother greatly. “Shrew” means “a rascal, rogue; a wicked person; an overbearing woman; a malicious wife; a malicious blabbermouth” (Middle English dictionary 2001). It is highly improper to call anyone such word, and calling one’s mother a “shrew” is the highest expression of the absence of any morality or respect.
In addition to his interactions with people, Wanton also describes his relationship with nature by saying, “Yea, sirs, I can well geld a snail, / And catch a cow by the tail— / This is a fair cunning!” (Mundus et Infants n.d., lines 100-102). As we can see, the boy’s cruelty to animals is even greater than to people. “Geld” means “castrated” (Middle English dictionary, 2001). Therefore, it is quite habitual of the character to hurt the animal species in some ways that no ordinary child or even an adult could have ever imagined. Again, such a way of conduct contradicts the norms of moral dictated by religion that predominates in Medieval times (Fitzgerald & Sebastian 2013). The child’s depiction of himself portrays him as the one who does not know boundaries or respect rules. His way of learning is crossing the lines and not thinking of the consequences.
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Apart from the choice of language that helps to reflect the moral ideas, the style and tone in Mundus et Infants also serve the purpose of emphasising the character’s behaviour. The text itself is written in a manner that makes it easy to understand that the speaker is a young child. For example, there is a repetition in the following lines: “Aha! A new game have I found! / See this gin? It runneth round. / And here another have I found! / And yet mo can I find” (Mundus et Infants n.d., lines 92-95). The speaker uses the words “found” and “I find” several times as if unable to remember synonyms. This way of speaking is common for children whose vocabulary is not as rich as that of an adult. Also, throughout the entire passage, Wanton describes himself using rather short sentences which can characterise him as a child who has not yet started his education, because such skills as eloquence and the ability to create compound sentences require training.
Moreover, Wanton’s speech seems rather selfish and filled with boastful statements of what he can do. This tendency points at the self-centred perception of the world common for young children. The ego-centrism of the child’s perception of the world and communication can also be explained by the underdeveloped perception of ethics and morality.
The analysis of the excerpt from Mundus et Infants was aimed at demonstrating how the language reflects the moral function of a character. The choice of words in the analysed passage indicates the absence of moral norms and disrespect to the rules of behaviour. With the help of the Middle English dictionary, it is possible to identify that the words used by Wanton are offensive, and there is a lot of cruelty in his actions as well as in language choice.
Fitzgerald, CM & Sebastian, JT (eds.) 2013, The Broadview anthology of medieval drama, Broadview Press, Peterborough, Canada.
Flannery, MS 2012, ‘The concept of shame in late-Medieval English literature’, Literature Compass, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 166-182.
Lester, GA (ed.) 2002, Three late Medieval morality plays: Mankind, Everyman, and Mundus et Infans, Bloomsbury, London, England.
Middle English dictionary 2001, Web.
Mundus et Infants n.d., an excerpt from Seminar 1 handout.
Normington, K 2009, Medieval English drama, Polity, Cambridge, England.