The Pilate of the York Mystery Plays


  • Lee Jobling


The characterization of Pilate, one of the most complex figures in the Passion sequence of the Corpus Christi plays, has inspired few studies. Apart from Arnold Williams' book of 1950 on the Towneley Pilate and Robert Brawer's 1972 article on the York Pilate, this pivotal character is usually given perfunctory treatment by scholars of the English cycle plays. Of the four cycles, York has generally been considered to have the least consistent Pilate figure. This may, however, not be the case. A close study shows that he always attempts to be fair and just to Christ despite the constant haranguing of the Jewish priests. When he exhibits anger it is usually directed at them because of their blatant lies and deceit. He is, on the other hand, also shown to have recognizably human failings which lead him, in the end, to resign authority to the Jews and, thereby, become a party to a deed against which his own instinct warns him. As its dire consequences unfold, his fear impels him to encourage the suppression of the truth. Thus his earlier, token agreement with the Jews is consolidated, and he is forced to become at one with them in responsibility for the Crucifixion. Though he shows a desire to see Jesus treated fairly, he is also proud, sensual, and self-seeking, and it is these latter qualities that lead him into error.