Nice Wanton is a work of drama from c. 1550 by an unknown author. Its genre is the ‘interlude’, a popular genre in Tudor times that grew out of the tradition of medieval morality plays. The moralities are allegorical works in which human qualities such as mercy, righteousness, pride and mischief are personified as characters who fall into dispute – virtues against vices – in a struggle for the human soul, represented by a Mankind figure. The terms ‘interlude’ and ‘morality’ are often treated as interchangeable as the genres are so strongly related. In the later morality plays and most of the interludes, the individual vice characters are subsumed into an individual Vice, a highly charismatic and entertaining figure of all-round evil. The Vice character has a clear influence on Elizabethan drama and villains such as Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas, and William Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Nice Wanton explores the moral ‘he that spareth the rod the childe dooth hate’ (sig. a1v). It follows the fortunes of three siblings, the good and studious Barnabas, and the lazy and wanton Dalila and Ismael, who play truant and bully the other children. Their mother, Xantippe, spoils them and does not correct their behaviour. Dalila and Ismael hang out with and are influenced by the Vice Iniquity, and sink into a life of drinking, gambling, sex and crime. Dalila, seduced by Iniquity, dies of syphilis. Ismael and Iniquity are tried and hanged for their crimes. Worldly Shame tries to prompt Xantippe to suicide, but she is comforted by Barnabas, who closes the play by advising the audience on raising children. Nice Wanton is a school play or a ‘youth’ morality, and is both the first English morality that verges on tragedy and the first with multiple Mankind figures. It was first printed in 1560 and is shown here, in full, in its 1565 edition.
Shakespeare’s Richard III and the Vice tradition
Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as a theatrical, charismatic and dynamic villain, has long been recognised as owing a debt to the Vice tradition from the moralities and Tudor interludes. Among the characteristics he adopts are his use of frequent conspiratorial asides to the audience, his self-consciousness and self-expressiveness, his impertinency, his use of farce and theatre, and his love of deceptive wordplay. In Richard III, Gloucester even makes the connection explicit: in an aside to the audience he claims, ‘Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word.’ (3.1.82–83)
There were two plays whose Vice characters were specifically called Iniquity, Nice Wanton and King Darius (c. 1556–65), but the name – which means ‘wickedness’ or ‘sin’ – was also applied to the Vice in general. It is the general tradition rather than any specific play that seems to lie behind Shakespeare’s work.
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