Research Stream


Paul Megna
The University of Western Australia


Emotion and Ethics in Middle English and Medievalist Drama

By combining a historical enquiry into emotion’s role in Middle English drama with an anthropological examination of modern Passion Plays, this project explores the aesthetic and ethical principles at work in the long and varied tradition of dramatising Biblical emotions. 


Drawing on historicist and literary critical methods, Paul Megna analyses Middle English dramatic texts that anxiously foreground their capacity to teach their audience to behave ethically. These texts do so, Megna posits, in response to the criticism, voiced in contemporary anti-theatrical polemics, that religious drama solicits ethically suspect pleasure, rather than reverential compassion or dread. Turning to Middle English drama’s modern descendants, Megna incorporates anthropological and sociological methods to investigate how the performers and audiences of modern Passion Plays respond to similar questions concerning ethics and emotion. Between 2016 and 2018, Megna is attending Passion Plays throughout Australia. Interviewing actors and audience members, he will pursue questions including: Do the producers and consumers of modern Passion Plays understand these plays as exercises in medievalism? To what extent do their understandings of the devotional value of Passion Plays align with those of their medieval precursors? Do modern Passion Plays contain any of the anti-Semitic undercurrents common, but not ubiquitous, in their medieval precursors? In addition to live performances, Megna examines cinematic Passion Plays including Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (1990) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), as well as popular and critical reactions thereto. 

Image: Crucifix, ca. 1150–1200, Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1935, Made in Castile-León, Spain. Metropolitan Museum.