Internet Shakespeare Editions


The mystery cycles

By permission of the British Library.

From the unassuming beginning of the Quem Quaeritis trope grew a series of plays of increasing length dealing with all the major events in the Christian calendar, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment.

By the end of the fifteenth century, traditions of acting these plays--known as "mystery*" plays--in cycles were established all over Europe. In England the cycle at York contained over forty plays, and took two days to perform.

Staging the mysteries

The plays were staged on travelling platforms--decorated carts-- that moved about the city to various "stations" to allow different crowds of people to watch. This graphic shows part of an elaborate set stage for a passion play in France in 1547.

On the staging of the mystery plays.

The York Plays are available on line from the University of Virginia. The Townley Cycle is available on line.


  1. The term "mystery"

    The plays were performed by the local guilds, or craft associations of masons, carpenters, and so on. Crafts were known as "mysteries," because of the special knowledge that was passed to the apprentice from the master.

    They are also known as "Miracle" plays, because of the miracles they re-enact.