Everyman


Everyman
(ca. 1485)
   Generally conceded to be the finest example of the type of late medieval drama known as a MORALITY PLAY, Everyman (or, more properly, The Summoning of Everyman) was produced between 1485 and 1500. As is the case with all moralities, Everyman concerns the moral life of an individual human being, representative of all people (hence the name Everyman), and depicted through the use of personified abstractions, or ALLEGORY.
   Although the ultimate source of the story seems to be an allegorical tale of Death’s messenger contained in the much earlier work BARLAAM AND JOSAPHAT, more immediately Everyman may be an English translation of a Dutch play called Elckerlijc, known to have been produced for a festival in Antwerp in the 1490s. Some scholars, however, believe that the Dutch play is a translation of the English one. Though Everyman survives in four early printed versions, none is dated, so it is difficult to establish the priority of either text.Whichever was first, the plays have some differences but both seem to show the influence of a late 15th-century ascetic movement popular on the continent called Devotio moderna.
   The play begins with a personified Prologue who describes the audience as “sinners” and exhorts them to pay close attention. Next comes a monologue by God, who laments the fact that human beings have turned away from him and prefer worldly goods. God sends his messenger, Death, to summon Everyman to come to him and make an accounting of his life. Everyman, stunned by Death’s unexpected approach, first tries to bribe the messenger with money. He then asks for leave to find someone to accompany him on the journey. Death allows this, but one by one, when they learn where he is bound, Everyman’s friends desert him: Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods all fall away. Goods responds to Everyman’s charge that he was led astray with the observation that the man has misled himself. Now at his lowest point, Everyman finds Good Deeds so weak and weighed down as to be nearly buried. But Good Deeds agrees to accompany him, and Knowledge shows Everyman how to strengthen Good Deeds: He must go to confession and perform penance for his sins. This done, Good Deeds is strong enough to make the journey. Other friends that Knowledge has made known to Everyman—Strength, Beauty, Discretion, and Five Wits (his five senses)—stay with Everyman only to the edge of the grave, but will go no further. Nor can knowledge stay with Everyman beyond Death (for Knowledge is only a guide through this life), but Good Deeds does go into the grave with him. In the end a learned Doctor of Theology addresses the audience, expressing optimism that Everyman will be saved. The play is brief and builds inexorably toward its conclusion as, one by one, Everyman’s fairweather friends desert him. Its structure follows commonplace medieval religious ideas, as the first group of abstractions (Fellowship, Goods and the like) were considered to be gifts of Fortune, while the last group (Strength, Beauty and others) were considered gifts of Nature. But only gifts of Grace are eternal, and those came through the sacraments Everyman performs before his death. The play thus reflects orthodox doctrine, as set out by St. AUGUSTINE, that salvation cannot come from good deeds alone, but only through grace—and the vehicle of grace is the church. The play uses the extended metaphor of a journey, playing on the conventional metaphor of life as a pilgrimage. It also incorporates the biblical Parable of the Talents, in which the servant who has buried his single talent is condemned when his master comes for an accounting. The mercantile, accounting motif must also have been particularly effective among the burghers of a city like Antwerp.
   While the play lacks some of the broad humor created by characters such as the VICE in other morality plays, and while the versification (in tetrameter couplets irregularly interspersed with quatrains) is sometimes weak, Everyman remains, even today, a powerful play, driving home its stark warning about the inevitable end of life and about the human need for preparedness.
   Bibliography
   ■ Conley, John. “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman,” Speculum 44 (1969): 374–82.
   ■ King, Pamela M.“Morality Plays.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, 240–64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
   ■ Kolve, V. A. “Everyman and the Parable of the Talents,” in Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, 316–40.
   ■ Van Laan, Thomas F.“Everyman: A Structural Analysis,” PMLA 78 (1963): 465–75.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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