From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Morality plays are a type of theatrical allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him to choose a godly life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th century. Having grown out of the religiously based mystery plays of the Middle Ages, they represented a shift towards a more secular base for European theatre.
History of morality plays
At the dawn of the 15th century morality plays were common throughout medieval Europe as didactic plays intended to teach good morals to their audience. Plays like Condemnation des banquets by Nicolas de Chesnaye, The Castle of Perseverance, Everyman are all surviving plays that were written and performed with this intention.
However, by the 16th century these plays started to deal with secular topics as medieval theatre started to make the changes that would eventually develop it into Renaissance theatre. As time moved on morality plays more frequently dealt with secular topics, including forms of knowledge (in Nature and The Nature of the Four Elements) questions of good government (Magnificence by John Skelton and Respublica by Nicholas Udall), education (Wit and Science by John Redford, and the two other "wit" plays that followed, The Marriage of Wit and Science and Wit and Wisdom), and sectarian controversies, chiefly in the plays of John Bale.
Morality plays only gradually died out as tastes changed towards the end of the sixteenth century. Throughout his career Shakespeare made references to morality characters and tropes, suggesting that the form was still alive for his audiences, at least in memory, long beyond the period of its textual flowering.
Characteristics of morality plays
Most morality plays have a protagonist who represents either humanity as a whole (Everyman) or an entire social class (as in Magnificence). Antagonists and supporting characters are not individuals per se, but rather personifications of abstract virtues or vices, especially the Seven deadly sins.
Morality plays were typically written in the vernacular, so as to be more accessible to the common people who watched them. Most can be performed in under ninety minutes.