The story of Magnificence is that of a young, impressionable aristocrat who drifts away from his schooling in the measured mean of governance while falling under the sway of a succession of vices (McCarthy 159).
The play is found in the manuscript: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library Dyce 25.F.44 (MS Dyce 49), pp. 4-106 and also has a print witness: Magnyfycence, A Goodly Interlude and a Mery (STC 22607) printed by P. Treveris and J. Rastell circa 1530.
The date of composition has been disputed (as most of Skelton’s work), yet the majority of scholars seem to agree that it was written around 1515-16. This is due to ‘Kynge Lewes of Fraunce’ in line 280-82 which is believed to be a reference to Louis XII, who died on January 1515 (Scattergood 436). Additionally, ‘wache’ in line 350-52 seems to refer to the tense situation between France and England, which existed in early 1515 (433). However, Leigh Winser argues that Skelton wrote this play before he reached Diss in 1504 because the ‘wache’ is a reference to the border patrols set up by Henry VII during Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion and the ‘Kynge Lewes of Fraunce’ is subsequently a reference to Louis XI (Winser 14-25). Furthermore, Paula Neuss in her edition of Magnyfycence dates the play to be written between 1520 and 1522 (Neuss 17). In 2010, however, Scattergood asserts that the commonly accepted date of composition currently is 1519 or shortly afterwards as the play concerns Henry VIII and the expulsion of his Privy Chamber staff – his minions – from the Tudor household (Scattergood Occasions 213).
The allegory of Magnyfycence has been seen as an ‘experiment in secularisation’ to the extent that it anatomises the saeculum, providing insight in the mechanics of society. Nevertheless, J.M. Crawford argues, unlike an allegory like Piers Plowman the play does not concern society as a whole, but is limited to the royal court (Crawford 370). Phoebe Spinrad discusses how Magnyfycence was an important ‘governance’ play that might have been written for the young Henry VIII and continued to be important throughout the sixteenth century (433). She notes how the vices in Magnyfycence are present in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which has clearly been influenced by the morality tradition, though but few times related to Skelton (Spinrad 445).
Although many other works of Skelton are deemed to be anti-Wolseyan satires referring to the political conflicts between Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, it is unclear whether Magnyfycence is truly anti-Wolseyan. R.L. Ramsay, in his edition of the play (1908), argues that the play is an attack on Wolsey since “the philosophical allegory is based on the concept of liberality found in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics” (Scattergood 433). This, subsequently, shows a connection to political power struggle of Henry and Wolsey. William Nelson, also, states that the play is an attack on Wolsey as he clearly indicates: “the morality … is directed at Cardinal Wolsey” (337). Yet more recent research has shown that it is unsure whether Ramsay’s and Nelson’s argument can be true since anti-Wolseyan texts appeared only from 1520 onwards. The play, however, is possibly dated from 1519 and is therefore too old to belong to the anti-Wolseyan tradition. Even though Wolsey gained power in 1515 due to his instalment at court the peak in his reputation came later. In fact, it was his appointment as papal legate a latere in 1518 “which engendered the opposition of both clergy and the old nobility” (100). Furthermore, Harris indicates that the real opposition against the Cardinal only started in 1520 (102). Heiserman agrees with the fact that the play cannot be anti-Wolseyan; however, his argument focuses on the statement that “the proper use of wealth is the play’s principal issue” (433). In fact, instead of being anti-Wolseyan, Scattergood asserts in 2010 that Skelton’s play actually supports Wolsey’s policy in regards to Henry VIII’s Privy Chamber (Scattergood Occasions 213). The Privy Chamber is an area where the courtiers had the powerful position to talk to, influence, and take advantage of the king on a daily basis, which worried the king’s council immensely and caused the expulsion of the king’s favourites. Moreover, as Scattergood observes “access and talk are very much at the centre of Magnyfycence: it is basically an intrusion story in which words are used as weapons” (213). In short, the play is a warning against trusting the wrong people in a royal household (214).
Magnyfycence was not merely a play but is called an interlude by the character Cyrcumspeccyon: “A myrrour intercleryd is this interllude” (l. 2524). Due to its length, it may seem quite remarkable that the play is addressed as an interlude since interludes were often small plays or musical acts that were placed in between larger plays such as morality plays. Nonetheless, the term is often used for the broader genre of drama (OED). It is interesting to note that many sixteenth-century interludes were “the product of schoolmasters like … Skelton, whose presumed final payment as the young Henry’s tutor gives him too title of schoolmaster” (McCarthy 157). Subsequently, interludes were often deemed to have didactic purposes. This collides with the fact that the interlude Magnyfycence associates the printer Rastell with the period in which he promoted drama “with a general didactic purpose rather than religious reforms” (156). McCarthy, moreover, states that it may have been possible that due to its ‘didactic purpose’ the play may have been written for “chapel children or a song-school” and more specific, for the school in Westminster where Skelton resided at the time when the play was written (156). Other scholars do not mention this specific fact.
Even though Magnyfycence shows some stage directions within the text, only little is known about the performance of the play in its own time. The play could have been acted by only five actors and “the action is evidently meant to be continuous since the stage is never empty and since there is no indication of act or scene division” (Scattergood 434). McCarthy argues that one of these five actors had to be a boy since references are made to his youth and small size (154). In light of Ramsay’s argument about the continuity of the play, Scattergood states that the stage must have had two exits so that characters were able to continue the flow of the performance by entering the stage while other characters were leaving at the same moment (433). It is unclear whether the play was performed for a courtly or public audience and whether the play was staged at court or in, for example, a market-hall.