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11 Herod’s Reputation and the Killing of the Children: Some Theatrical Consequences

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Chapter Summary

From the story of the Epiphany in Matthew’s Gospel this chapter offers a brief account of the evolution of Christian attitudes to Herod the Great and how the slaughtered Innocents became subjects of devotional attention, the first martyrs for Christ. Taking then a variety of examples of how the story of the Epiphany captured the imagination of Christian poets and liturgical and religious playmakers the discussion proceeds to an examination of two plays from the Towneley collection, The Offering of the Magi and Magnus Herodes. Focussing on the character of Herod as presented there it is shown how his character can be interpreted as both violently threatening and yet obviously absurd. This ambivalence is brought out most strongly in Magnus Herodes where the Wakefield Master skilfully manages audience reception to see Herod as a character in a play, an entertainment in his own right, as much as a target for Christian vindictiveness. Herod’s envoi in the Towneley play is cheeky since it foregrounds the character’s humanity as against his culpability. In comparison with other examples this playwright seems to have been reluctant to join the almost universal moralising and condemnation of Herod in favour of a perfectly theatrical outcome.



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