Did Shakespeare watch a Passion Play? Part 1

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The short answer is yes, William Shakespeare most probably did watch a Passion Play. The dramatisation of the Passion story was a key part of the Mystery Plays. Shakespeare most likely witnessed the Coventry Plays as a boy. These told the Bible story from Creation to Judgment, and included the story of Easter.

Shakespeare probably saw a Passion Play in the form of the Mystery Plays in Coventry. Actors performed them during Whitsuntide or Midsummer feast days. This would have been before they were suppressed sometime between 1576 and 1579. He was certainly familiar with the  Bible stories and characters that were part of the great play cycle.

His own plays contain a number of allusions to the Mystery plays. You can find reference to Herod in Hamlet, Judas in Richard II and Pontius Pilate in Macbeth.

Herod was a bombastic and cruel tyrant who, according to stage directions raged ‘in the pageant and in the street also’. His explosive temper and excessive rants were well-known features of the plays and Shakespeare referred to them when he complained about out-dated acting styles:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant. It out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it.

(Act 3 Scene 2)