Mischief… and Death

Of all the characters in Mankind, Mischief is the most elusive and enigmatic. Mankind and Mercy are human, Titivillus is demonic, and whether we read the N’s as demons or human who personify worldly evils, their role as vices is apparent. Mischief is not really a vice, a demon, or a person, but inhabits some world between: his presence bodes ill for Mankind, but ‘mischief’ as a concept is not tempting in the same way as the worldly indulgences promoted by the N’s.

For our Mischief we have relied heavily on a brief note in ‘Aspects of the Staging of Mankind’ by Neville Denny (in Medium Aevum, 1 January, 1974, p. 252-263). Denny equates Mischief with “ ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’, and hence with despair as well as malice”, and finally makes the suggestion that perhaps Mischief was staged as Death- a Grim Reaper, possibly as part of a lingering tradition from folk plays. While I can’t claim that this idea hasn’t been used in previous productions, I haven’t seen it with this staging, and thought it an interesting idea to consider.

A return to the script with this idea in mind gave me arguments both for and against this interpretation of Mischief. The greatest “against” is the cynical comedy and, well, liveliness of Mischief. One has a hard time picturing a cowled and scythe-carrying Death capering about and teasing the vices in this manner. Perhaps of greater weight is a discrepancy which is not limited to this play but a seeming contradiction that has often puzzled me. Mankind is, in its totality, an exhortation towards Christianity and its teachings of redemption: why, if one holds such faith, should Death be an antagonistic or fearful figure?

To both arguments I can offer rebuttals. Faith is seldom absolute; the fact that it is faith, rather than fact, means that death, for all the hope that faith is intended to offer, remains the great unknown, and inherently frightening. Moreover, in the late fifteenth century, death was a frequent and familiar visitor. This is post-plague Britain; and while the first and most horrifying outbreak was more than a century in the past by the time Mankind was written, an outbreak in 1471, nearly contemporaneous to the play, had taken out another 10% of the population. Death as calamity and disaster would have been all too easy an idea to grasp. And ‘Death’ should perhaps not be seen as a single entity: a Death which arrives when one has been behaving as Mankind does with the Vices is to be feared, whereas a Death which arrives when one is a more holy state of being might be a benevolent figure. Nor is a lively Death an anomaly to a fifteenth-century audience, for this is the era of the Dance of Death, itself an artistic allegory of the end of the life for all. While not exactly comical, it certainly refutes our modern idea of the Grim Reaper as a silent, staid, lurking figure.

What tipped me over into trying the idea of Mischief as a death figure was simply reading his lines with that in mind. To many of them it makes no difference, but to many it creates a much more interesting layer of interpretation. “I am worse than nought,” he laments, “I, Mischief, was here at the beginning of the game and argued with Mercy….” Death is, of course, the final “nought” of unbeing, and has been present not merely since the beginning of the play, but since the beginning of creation. Mischief’s threats to cut off the injured body parts of the Vices becomes far more sinister when one considers the survival rates for amputation in the era of medieval medicine, and his encounter with the law (“the chains I burst asunder, and killed the jailer, yes, and his fair wife embraced in a corner”) certainly takes on a different hue if he also personifies the end of life.

Mischief as death makes sense of his difference from the N’s, as Denny suggests, as well as adding a nice layer of darkness to the scatological levity of the Vices, and raising the stakes on Mankind’s behaviour. It also makes Mercy’s gesture of compassion something beyond a theological salvation. Perhaps, knowing what is really at stake through his encounter with a Mischief who offers him an unforgiven mortality, Mankind will think twice before spending more time in the company of the Vices.