Structure, Characterization, and the New Community in Four Plays of Jesus and the Doctors


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Although a Jesus and the Doctors play appears in all four extant English cycles and in the Coventry Weaver's Pageant, these plays have received remarkably little critical attention.1 Illustrating the critical disregard of the Disputation plays, Rosemary Woolf has commented: "The curious feature of the five surviving plays of the doctors is that four of them are closely related, Towneley, Chester and Coventry all being variants of the play first recorded in the York cycle. Why this dull and infelicitous version should have had such a diffusion is unclear."2 Contrary to Woolf, I contend that the Jesus and the Doctors plays in the York, Towneley, Coventry, and Chester collections should be considered important in their own right, and I will argue in this comparative examination that these plays present distinct, subtly nuanced portrayals of Jesus. My argument will proceed along four lines. First, the plays, similarly occupying a crucial location in each collection, initiate a controversy between the old law of the religious establishment and the new law voiced by Jesus, thereby foreshadowing a key element of Jesus' ministry and Passion in his youthful debate with the three clerics. Second, rather than simply being variants of a single play, each actually presents a distinctively structured version of the disputation. Third, each play's individual structure determines the characterization of the doctors, and their interaction with Jesus establishes a distinctive portrait of the child Savior. Finally, though the plays begin with a debate between Jesus and the clerics, the aftermath of the disputation is the articulation of principles which must be seen as the basis of new community-a new community distinct from the legalism of the pre-Christian era.

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