Lecture Twelve
Everyman
 

Everyman is an example of a Morality Play, an allegorical dramatization of the conflict between good and evil.   Morality plays dramatize Christian moral problems.  By their very nature, they are didactic. 

Allegory is used throughout the play: 

1. The names of the characters
2. Sins are bonds that tie Good Deeds to the ground
3. Confession is a river as well as a Holy Man
4. Contrition is a garment
5. Death is a literal hole in the ground

Since Everyman was written at the end of the Middle Ages (1475), it has some remnants of Middle English, for example, "wete" (know); "verily" (truly, really); "weenest" (thinkest); "gramercy" (thanks).  Like The Inferno, it reflects the views of the Medieval Church:

1. Life is a struggle between good and evil.
2. Salvation is the central goal of life.
3. Things of this world are fleeting and insignificant.
4. The Church is a necessary guide to salvation.

During the Middle Ages, people had to contend with the Goddess Fortune and her Wheel ("The Wheel of Fortune").  Life was like a Ferris wheel with riders both at the top and at the bottom of the wheel.  In just a moment, each person's position could change.  Whatever position one was in, no matter how successful, catastrophe could strike; one could instantly tumble down Fortune's Wheel.  This precarious view of life may explain why death played such a prominent role in the daily lives of the people.  At any time, a man might die.  The nearness of death was particularly strong in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the black plague affected large areas of Europe.

Death appears unexpectedly in Everyman, suggesting that one should always be prepared at anytime to die.  Everyman, however, is shocked when Death arrives.  He is not prepared for his reckoning with God.  In his time of need, he is deserted by his casual companions, his kinsman, and his wealth.  He can take none of these things with him to the grave.   He can take with him only what he has given:   his good deeds.  At the moment Death arrives, however, Everyman's  Good Deeds is sick and weakly.  His sins have rendered her too weak to stand:  "Here I lie, cold in the ground./Thy sins hath me sore bound,/That I cannot stir" (ll.486-488).

He has neglected Good Deeds and instead placed too much emphasis on things such as Fellowship and Goods.  Goods is immobilized, unable to stir because of the chests and bags full of gold lying upon and around him:   "I lie her in corners, trussed and piled so high,/ And in chests I am locked so fast,/ Also sacked in bags--thou mayst see with thine eye--/ I cannot stir" (ll.394-398).  The lesson, of course, is that earthly possessions weigh one down in the quest for salvation.  If Everyman had loved Goods moderately and given some to the poor, he would not be weighted down by them now (see lines 429-434).

 

Over and over again, the point is made that man can take with him from this world nothing that he has received, only what he has given.   Once Everyman goes through the various offices of the Church, his Good Deeds can rise and speak for him.  She tells Everyman, "Fear not, I will speak for thee" (l. 876).  As a redeemed Everyman and his Good Deeds descend into the grave, Angels sing.  The Doctor comes on stage to reiterate the moral, a point made over and over again in Medieval literature:  "For, after death, amends may no man make" (l. 913).  "Thus endeth this moral play of EVERYMAN."

Study Questions for EVERYMAN:

1.  How is Everyman characterized at the beginning of the play and at the end?
2.  How are the personified abstractions characterized?
3.  What other  uses of allegory appear in the play?
4.  What is the significance of the order in which Everyman's friends drop out of the final procession?

1999-2002 Dr. Beth Jensen. All rights reserved.