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Sixteenth-century ‘agit-prop’: Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

Chris Ravenhall
ScotLit 22, Summer 2000

Sir David Lyndsay’s
A Satire of the
Three Estates

We have no text of any Scottish play before Lyndsay’s The Thrie Estaitis1 and for that reason alone the play has a significant place in Scottish theatrical history. Although there is evidence in various burgh records that performances of plays did take place there are no surviving texts to show what sort of plays these were. It seems likely that dramatic activity in Scotland was similar to the European tradition of biblical or morality plays at the feast of Corpus Christi and other religious festivals and secular plays to celebrate the change of seasons. Lyndsay includes aspects of both the medieval morality play and secular farce in The Thrie Estaitis. However, the way that he combines the existing dramatic traditions creates something new; a complex play whose purpose is not only to inform, instruct and entertain but also to encourage change. The Thrie Estaitis is not only the earliest Scottish play text it is also the earliest example of what, in twentieth century terms, has become known as "agit-prop" theatre. Like John McGrath and 7:84 Theatre company’s The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil in the twentieth century, Lyndsay’s play sets out to expose the evils he sees in sixteenth century Scottish society in the hope that members of society might be encouraged to agitate for change. Both players protest vehemently at injustices - injustices imposed by people who are in authority and experienced by the ordinary people who have no authority.

Lyall notes that "the audience which attended the performance of Ane Satyre of The Thrie Estaitis ... on 7 June 1552 were citizens of a deeply troubled nation" (p.vii).2 Scotland in the sixteenth century was in the throes of social, political and religious upheaval and all three of these facets of Scottish life are woven into the action of the play. There were questions about whether England or France would dominate Scotland at this time. There were constant battles with the English and concern about the proposed marriage of the infant Princess Mary (later Mary Queen of Scots) to the Dauphin of France. The Scottish nobles were feuding amongst themselves and by 1552 Scotland was in the grip of a famine to such an extent that the export of food was banned. The Catholic Church was a major landowner and there was a lot of resentment about claims on behalf of clerics for tithes and much litigation over non-payment. The abuse of power, sexual immorality and corruption within the clergy was common knowledge. Although Roman Catholicism was still THE Church in Scotland reforming ideas had begun to reach Scotland from Europe. Lyndsay is concerned with the many injustices that he sees in his society. He stresses that the primary responsibility for good government lies with the monarchy. The moral basis of the monarchy is examined in Part One of the play and only when that is sound can the more wide-ranging social and political change of society be undertaken in Part Two. The necessity for reform at every level of society is illustrated by the Interlude but Lyndsay’s prime target for reform is the Church. It’s not that he wishes to replace Catholicism with Protestantism; he is concerned with the Church’s abuse of secular power and neglect of spiritual duty rather than its doctrines. In Part Two, the three estates, Temporalitie (the lords), Merchand (the merchants) and Spiritualitie (the Church), are called by the King, Rex Humanitas, to attend a parliament and answer to the charges laid against them by Gude Counsell and John the Common-Weill.

The three sections of the play are in quite different styles or genres. Part One is very much in the tradition of the English medieval mystery play with characters who represent the somewhat abstract virtues and vices. The conventional battle between good and evil is for Rex Humanitas. Humanitas is both a representative of humanity, an extension of Mankind or Everyman from the morality tradition, and the King whose seduction, fall and redemption illustrate the connection between public role and personal morality. The reform of the nation cannot begin until the ruler has himself been reformed. Change starts at the top and works down.

Diligence opens the play with a religious blessing and a request for the audience to be silent. He can be seen as the narrator of the play; he is involved with the vices and virtues in Part One, with the Pauper in the Interlude and proclaims the reforms in Part Two before pronouncing a benediction on the proceedings at the end of the play. Although his diction is formal Diligence is the audience’s friend and he acts as a link between them and the action of and characters in the play. He acknowledges that the audience is there and addresses them directly. He draws them into the play by asking them to

Tak tent to me, my friends, and hald yow coy!
For I am sent to yow as messingeir. (l.14-15)

Rex Humanitas is the next character to speak. His role as human king implies dignity and this is reflected in the way that he speaks. On the page his first speech, in eight line ‘Monk’s Tale’ stanza, looks as if it’s a hymn and its content is religious - a prayer that he "may rewll my realme to Thye pleaseir" (l.83). By asking God to grant him grace and support that he might be a righteous king who commits no ‘deidis of defame’ (l.95), Humanitas is seen to be well-intentioned but is then shown to offer little resistance to the temptations offered by the vices.

The introduction, at line 102, of the vices, Wantonness and Placebo, brings another change in diction. Their speech is much less formal and is livelier and more conversational. The lines are shorter with lots of rhyming couplets. The content of their speech is much less elevated. Sandie Solace arrives drunk and loquacious and is ready to tell his life story. He comments that his mother, Bonie Besse, was only "twelf yer auld" when she "learnit to swyfe" (l.162) and leaves the audience in no doubt that he is proud that his mother was a whore who could cope with four and twenty men in "ane nicht" (l.173). The lack of subtlety or euphemism in the mention of sexuality and bodily functions is a striking feature of the play. It is perhaps surprising for a modern reader to discover words like ‘cunt’ (l.462) in a serious play with a religious message which was intended to be performed for an audience which would have included children and members of the Royal family. However, the cultural taboos of one generation may not necessarily have been taboos for an earlier generation. The medieval plays which are one of the sources for the first section of The Thrie Estaitis are quite ‘up-front’ about sexuality and frequently contain words which are used as profanities in the twentieth century. Scatological references and lavatory jokes are also common and feature in the Interlude of the play.

At line 191, the conventional morality play theme, of temptation and entanglement of the hero, begins. The three vices begin to tempt the King. Rex Humanitas chides them for encouraging him to "break commandment/ Directit be the Prince of Paradyce" (l.215-216) and they protest that lechery cannot be a sin because "Cardinals and Bishops generally/ To luif ladies thay think ane pleasand sport" (l.239-240) and emphasize that

...all the Prelats of this natioun,
For the maist part,
Thay think na schame to have ane huir,
And sum hes thrie under thair cuir. (l.253-256)

Lyndsay is beginning his attack on the Church and is directing the attack at the Church in this ‘natioun’, Scotland.

With the introduction of Sensualitie, at line 271, the diction changes again and becomes slower and more persuasive. The attractive qualities of Sensualitie are explicit in the text and the audience is invited to look at her appearance - her face, her clothes, her body with particular emphasis on her breasts. She comments that she has been active in all the courts of Christendom and Lyndsay has her stress that she has been especially active in "the Court of Rome" (l.286) which implicitly indicates the headquarters of the Catholic Church.

Rex Humanitas begins to succumb to the temptations of the vices and his fall from grace is marked by a change in his diction. The King’s speech patterns become similar to those of the vices. The short lines and rhyming couplets give an impression of his impatience for the arrival of Sensualitie. He instructs Wantonness to

Spair not for travell nor expance -
I cair not for na cost

and to ensure that she takes the summons seriously he sends her a ring. The King does appear to be having second thoughts about the idea of welcoming Sensualitie to his court at line 480, not because he believes that he’s sinning but because he’s afraid that he might make a fool of himself as he has no experience with women. However, Wantonness gives him some detailed instruction on how to begin and offers "first for to go to" (l.493) as a demonstration. By stressing the inexperience of Rex Humanitas in this light-hearted way Lyndsay is ensuring that the audience identify sympathetically with the King. He is not only the King he is also a representative of humankind and his temptation is that of humanity. This universality is underlined by Sensualitie’s speech, lines 499-525, in which she comments that "few or nane refuses me at all" (l.507). She is addressing the audience as much as the other characters when she points out that lust is experienced by everyone and its power will endure while "the warld endures" (l.511). After three lines of conventional compliments the King bluntly instructs Solace to "convoy this ladie to my chamber" (l.533)and the downfall of the King is achieved. The vices appear to have won.

The conventions of the medieval morality play dictate that the triumph of vice over virtue is only temporary. Audience expectation would be that repentance and redemption would follow the fall from grace. While Lyndsay is writing within this tradition he is also extending it; moving it from the personal to the political arena. The collapse of morality at the court leads to the corruption of the whole kingdom. This is illustrated by the scene between Chastite and the Taylour and the Sowtar and their wives, from l.1288-148, by the Pauper in the Interlude and by Johne the Common-weill in Part Two. Divyne Correction makes an explicit connection between the ruler and the state of the nation when he comments that

...quhen the King stands at his Counsell sound,
Then welth sall wax and plentie, as he list,
And policie (good government) sall in his realm abound. (l.1594-1596)

He goes on to ask "Qhat is ane king?" and then tells the audience that a king is

Nocht bot ane officair,
To caus his leiges live in equitie,
And under God to be ane punischer
Of trespassours against his Majestie:
But quhen the king dois live in Tyrannie,
Breakand justice for feare or affectioun,
Then is his realme in weir and povertie,
With shamefull slaughter but correctioun. (l.1613-1620)

Gude Counsall and Divyne Correctioun effect the repentance of the King in the rest of Part One but, for Lyndsay, the King’s redemption is only achieved once his reformation of society is complete. In order that reform might be undertaken a parliament has to be convened and, at line 1910, Diligence makes the proclamation. The Thrie Estaitis moves from the moral abstractions of Part One into a consideration of the social, religious and political ills of sixteenth century Scotland. The concern of the Interlude and Part Two is the state of the nation.

The broad humour and almost slapstick comedy of parts of the Interlude are light relief between the conventional religious message of Part One and the formal debate and judgement of Part Two. But, it is light relief with a serious purpose. First of all it moves the action of the play into a ‘real’ Scotland. The characters of the Pauper and the Sowtar are not abstractions but the representatives of ordinary people. Many of Lyndsay’s audience would have experienced the same privations and oppressions as the Pauper and some might relate to the marital difficulties of the Sowtar and his Wife. The Pardoner illustrates one aspect of Catholic doctrine which the Reformers most disliked. He represents the abuses committed by the clergy and the system of buying pardon for sins. The Pardoner offers ridiculous relics like the anus of "St Brydis kow" and the snout of "Sanct Antonis sow" (l.2105-2106) as a means of purchasing redemption. He grants divorce in return for "fyve shillings", a "schaipping knyfe" (l.2139) and a penance. The farcical nature of the penance, where the Sowtar and his wife have to kiss one another’s arse, is underlined by the Pardoner’s comment that he thinks "the carle is glaikit" (l.2179). Lyndsay not only introduces the ‘real’ world into the play he also focuses on the main target of his criticism. He shows how the greed of the clergy, the abuse of power by the Church and dubious theological doctrine are a major source of suffering for the ordinary people of Scotland.

At the beginning of Part Two the Thrie Estaitis are led in by their associated vices. There is surprise from the other characters that the Estaitis are walking backwards and Divyne Correctioun asks them what "is the cause that ye gang all backwart?" (l.2389). Spiritualitie’s reply that

...we have gaine sa this mony a yeir.
Howbeit ye think we go undecently,
We think wee gang richt wonder pleasantly (l.2391-2393)

indicates that this manner of proceeding is customary for the Estaitis and that they think that a long established custom is the right and only way. The entrance of the Thrie Estaitis in the manner is an indication of Lyndsay’s theatrical skill and this one simple device carries multiple meanings. The sight of the Estaitis walking backwards is a striking and memorable visual image for an audience. It undermines the potential for the Estaitis to make an entrance that could be interpreted as dignified and fitting for their status. In order to make sure they don’t fall or bump into things they have to be lead by their vices which implies a reliance on their vices. They are obviously literally ‘out of step’ and out of touch with reality if, as Spiritualitie says, they have adopted this mode for "mony a year" and believe that they "gang richt wonder pleasantly". When Rex Humanitas informs the Thrie Estaitis that he intends to punish anyone that "dois the Common-weil doun thring" (l.2402) Spiritualitie protests and suggests that the Parliament is postponed "till ane uther day" (l.2411). However, Divyne Correctioun and Diligence ask that any man who is "opprest" come forward to give a "bill" (statement) (l.2419). It is Johne the Common-weill who takes up the cause of ordinary people and who, with supporting evidence from the Pauper, gives evidence against Temporalitie and Merchand. These two Estaitis eventually accept the criticisms and promising that they will

The Common-weill for till defend
From hence-forth till our lives end (l.2716-2717)

are reconciled with Johne the Common-weill. The focus narrows to Lyndsay’s particular target, Spiritualitie. The third Estait remains unrepentant and argues that the Church is exempt from "temporal punition" (l.2705) and is answerable only to God via the Pope. Spiritualitie threatens that anyone who speaks against the Church is guilty of "heresie" (l.2996) and will be "brunt incontinent"(l.3004) i.e. go straight to the hellfires with no chance of eternal life in heaven. Divyne Correctioun invites Johne to "schaw furth your faith" (l.3021) by reciting the Creed to prove that he is a "gude Christian man" (l.3043). Johne manages to get through most of his confession of faith but when he gets to the section which is concerned with belief in the Church he breaks off and protests that although he believes in "Sanctam Ecclesiam" (l.3037) he does not believe in the divine rights of the "bischops nor thir freirs" (l.3038) because in spite of their vow of chastity they "sard (copulate) up the ra raw and doun the uther" (l.3040). Spiritualitie continues to protest against his trial but various witnesses are called and the case against him is documented and analysed and becomes a powerful indictment of the Church.

Eventually, with the King’s consent, all the vices are executed or banished. Johne the Common-weill is given a place in the Parliament and Divyne Correctioun explains that

Blist is that realme that hes ane prudent king
Quhilk dois delyte to heir the veritie,
Punisching thame that plainlie dois maling
Contrair the Common-weill and equitie. (l.3810-3813)

The way is now clear for the necessary reforms of society and these are proclaimed by Diligence. The decisions of the Parliament, from line 3823 to line 3973, concentrate on reform of the Church which has been Lyndsay’s prime target in the play. Although in the play the legislation is enacted the religious Reformation in Scotland did not take place until around ten years after the first performance of The Thrie Estaitis. Lyall suggests that the arrival of Foly and his sermon which precedes Diligence’s final benediction, does not, as some critics have suggested, "undermine" the reforms of the parliament nor is it "merely compensation for an audience which has put up with long debate" but that it

serves to remind us that the outcome remains in doubt, and that the real world beyond the play a start has yet to be made. (p.xxxi-xxxii)

Diligence tells the audience that he’s off to visit "the tavern" (l.4669) and, after a performance that has lasted around nine hours, many of the audience would doubtless join him.

The length of the play and the language of the dialogue are two major problems for a twentieth century audience or reader. The play’s language may cause some difficulty when reading the text and although a glossary is provided by Lyall at the foot of each page it is easy to forget the meaning of a word that appeared hundreds of lines before. It may have been more useful to have an alphabetically ordered glossary at the end of the text. The language is more accessible in performance as the meaning of unfamiliar words is often illustrated in the context of visual effects and gesture. However, the opportunities to see a performance are very limited. A notable production, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, in an acting edition by Robert Kemp, was a part of the Edinburgh Festival in 1948. More recently, the ill-fated Scottish Theatre Company performed The Thrie Estaitis at the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall at the top of the Mound in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1980s. Performances of the Scottish Theatre Company production ran for around four and a half hours and, in spite of the cuts to the original text, did manage to maintain the sense of variety of styles in Lyndsay’s writing. Because of the length of the text, and in order to fit the play into a conventional performance length, the temptation for a director is to concentrate on one aspect of the play so that the focus is on the farcical episodes or the morality theme. It is notable that few modern performances emphasize the political dimension.

Lyndsay was a champion of the common people in sixteenth century Scotland. Ane Satyre of The Thrie Estaitis is a lively and entertaining play in which Lyndsay, through his scathing criticism of the injustices in his society, agitates for change in society and in its institutions. It is, above all, a political manifesto.


1 For convenience, and brevity, references to Ane Satyre of The Thrie Estaitis will be shortened to The Thrie Estaitis.

2 References to the text of Ane Satyre of The Thrie Estaitis are taken from the Canongate Classic edition published in 1989 with introduction, notes and commentary by Roderick Lyall and are given for the line number in the play and page number in Roderick Lyall’s ‘Introduction’.

Copyright © Chris Ravenhall 2000


Last updated 18 August 2010.