Seventeenth Century Passion Play
Even though public performances of Mystery Plays and Passion Plays had been suppressed during the Reformation, there are still references to performances and their influence on into the seventeenth century.
Thomas Beard wrote Theatre of God’s Judgments Wherein is represented the admirable justice of God against all notorious sinners, both great and small in 1631. In it, he includes a story of an actor who was killed during a performance of the crucifixion. He described how the actor died:
[The actor who] played Christ’s part, handing upon the Cross, was wounded to death by him that should have thrust his sword into a bladder full of blood tied to his side.
Beard went on to describe this as the vengeance of God. You can read more about this story in Anne Righter’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Chatto & Windus 1962/ Penguin Shakespeare Library 1967).
There is another reference to Passion Plays coming from 1644 when a Puritan cleric called John Shaw encountered a man who only knew about the crucifixion because he had seen a play as a child. Shaw, who had travelled to Westmorland to instruct the local people, was horrified that most of them had little or no knowledge of the Bible.
While he was there, he interrogated an old man to find out whether he knew anything about salvation through Jesus Christ. The old man eventually recalled that he had once seen a play “where there was a man on a tree, and blood ran down”.
You can read more about this in Helen Cooper, Shakespeare and the Medieval World (Bloomsbury: London, 2010).