Everyman (after 1485) (ed. prin., London: Richard Pynson, ca. 1515)

Genre:   a morality play. The "moralities" were a fairly rich, late medieval genre which were encouraged by the church and civil authorities because they taught social and moral values through amusing dramatic actions. Morality characters are allegorical, and the plot's action must be interpreted as teaching something about the human condition. Other examples are Winner and Wastor and The Castle of Perseverance Are you an old hand at reading drama, or is this the first time you've read a play as a college English major?  If the latter is true, click here for some basic advice about how to read plays.

Form: rhyming verse in irregular meter and rhyme scheme, but tending toward rhyming couplets in four- or five-stress lines that often would be, if smoothed out by an editor, passable iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter.

Characters:   Everyman, God, Death, and allegorical representations of the worldly things and spiritual attributes which will affect his salvation.

Plot Summary:   After being summoned by Death to the court of his lord to make an accounting for the life which was lent him, Everyman seeks counsel and companionship for the dangerous journey. Many promise to accompany him, but few make good on that promise. Eventually, he learns to judge correctly what really matters to the health of the soul facing death, though not without a fair amount of grief that (paradoxically) usually produces laughter from audiences.  The topic of "man summoned by death" was commonplace during the fifteenth century.   Frequent warfare, bubonic and pneumonic plague, starvation, and crime made death a frequent and often public experience.  Another fifteenth century play on this subject, The Dance of Death, shows Death coming to persons from all walks of life, from emperors and popes to clerks and plowmen.  The play's epilogue, delivered by a "Doctor Macabre" (otherwise unidentified) is the etymological source of our adjective "macabre."  Plays, poems, and paintings on this theme proliferated from the fifteenth through the sixteenth centuries, and still can be found in modern contemplations of mortality.

Click here for "Death comes for the Gentleman" from Hans Holbein's woodcut series illustrating of the title. Click here for access to the whole series of woodcuts.


Issues and general research sources:

  1. Moralities may have been performed outdoors on fixed stages, like that drawn for the "Castle of Perseverance" (see #2 below), but it also might have been staged as a traveling show on a "pageant wagon," like those used to present the serial biblical stories of the "mystery plays" the Wife of Bath says she loved to watch.  (This link to D.G. Jerz's site [Seton Hill University--not Seton Hall--thanks, Dennis!] will allow you to explore a wide range of issues associated with our attempts to reconstruct performances of the mystery plays.)  How would watching the play outdoors with your neighbors in an English country village affect your experience of the play?  For some idea of how audiences may have responded, see Marlowe's tiny allegorical drama of the "Seven Deadly Sins" in Dr. Faustus, Scene 5, and note Faustus' interaction with the actors.  It would appear that reverent silence might not have been the norm.
  2. Any playwright will tell you that creating good characters depends a great deal on dialogue. Making characters distinguishable from one another, and making each character's speech appropriate to its nature, reveals the writer's craft as well as the writer's understanding of the world. If you look at the worldly characters, you can see in them a fine satire on human relations in crises that could be rendered historically realistic merely by changing the destination and summoner, and by giving the characters slightly less straightforward ways of representing their functions. For instance, Goods might become your stockbroker who, when he learns you're under investigation by the I.R.S., suddenly can't fit you into his schedule or tell you exactly what your account's net value really is.  In fact, the movie Wall Street (1988, VC 791.437 W187) achieves one of its greatest effects when it rises to pure allegory as the predatory investor, "Gordon Gecko" (i.e., a cold-blooded reptile) delivers his "Greed is good" speech to a rebellious stockholders' meeting.
  3. If Chaucer's Canterbury Tales ought to be read as a solo dramatic performance for a small court audience, Everyman is our first experience reading a text intended to be performed by a troupe of actors, probably outdoors with rudimentary costumes and scenery, before a mass audience of people from all the estates.
  4. Based on manuscript and dialectical evidence, scholars date Everyman around the year 1485 (363). By this time, the French church had declared itself independent of papal authority (1438), and the Gutenberg Bible had been printed (1458), stimulating a critical understanding of church doctrine among the literate commoners. The moral corruption and abuses of power Chaucer had satirized in the General Prologue portraits of the Monk, Prioress, Summoner, Pardoner, and Friar were increasingly the subject of debate within the church, though Martin Luther would not issue his Ninety-Five Theses until 1517, some 32 years later.
  5. Allegorical representations of Death as part of the human condition continue to emerge in modern culture.  In particular, two twentieth-century movies involved confrontations between living humans and the personified Death: Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956) and Mitchel Leisen's Death Takes a Holiday (1934).  In the former film, a medieval knight encounters a troupe of struggling jugglers in the midst of the plague, and becomes locked in a symbolic game of chess with Death for the sake of a young woman in the troupe.   In the latter, Death takes a vacation at an Italian villa to discover why humans cling so tenaciously to life when he comes for them.  Bergman's film makes use of traditional medieval roles in having the knight oppose Death in defense of one of the commoners, and even Leisen's film picks up a long tradition of "Death-the-lover/bridegroom" when the vacationing allegorical figure pursues a romance with a young woman who has become intensely attracted to him.  Each uses the function of allegory to explore how an invisible concept or idea can endanger us, puzzle us, or seduce us.  How else does modern literature or cinema explore the world of ideas as they affect our culture and lives?  Is there any substitute for allegory's direct, forceful, physical manifestation of an idea's operation in our lives?
  6. After the fall of the eastern Roman Empire to the Germanic tribes in 476 C.E., the classical theaters of the Romans, constructed upon models borrowed from the Greeks, fell silent.  For nearly five centuries there was no record of drama, at least in a secular sense.  However, Christians celebrating Mass enacted several dramatic recreations and evocations of biblical events, most obviously in the case of the Communion's re-enactment of the Last Supper.  During the tenth century in central Europe, some priests had the idea to dramatize the Resurrection with antiphonal choirs and costume in a ceremonial play called the quem quaeritis trope (from the Latin "Whom do you seek?").  From this tiny beginning, Anglo-European drama began again until the rediscovery of the Latin and Greek dramatic literature during the Renaissance.  How is drama linked to our understanding of the sacred, from classical times to the present?  What parts do actors play in our collective spirituality?
  7. To read Everyman as a dramatic work, you have to be thinking about additional literary devices such as characters "entrances" and "exits" as they go on and off the stage (or pageant wagon--see above for links to pages depicting outdoor performance practices).  You also should be thinking about formal structure as expressed in parallel or opposed actions (not helping, helping; offering excuses, offering wisdom; threats, promises).  The play's basic plot is so simple that illiterate peasants could get it: a lord summons his vassal to court for the periodic accounting of that which the lord had lent to the landless peasant, and the peasant seeks companionship and allies (remember our Anglo-Saxons?) to join him on that journey to judgment.  But wait--it's an allegorical journey, and the traveler, his lord/Lord, the summoner, and the friends, are all concepts or ideas, personified by actors on stage.  That's what makes it literature and not just a slice of life transcribed in language.  
  8. We will return frequently (if we can remember) to the question of when tragic and comic drama take on their current structural shapes (e.g., five acts?  protagonist has a flaw?).  For now, compare this play's structure and characterization with the classical Greek (C5 B.C.E.) model for how tragedy ought to operate.
  9. The text of Everyman and of Elckerlicj, its Dutch cousin, are available for "parallel-text" study on the University of Michigan "TEAMS" site.  Check them out and see whether you can find significant differences between the Dutch and Middle English versions.  One that occurs to me immediately is the assignment of the "Epilogue" of the Dutch text to "Doctor Macabre" in the English text.  Why replace a textual function (epi-after / logue-text) with a named doctor of theology no modern reader has been able to identify outside that page of a 1530 printed book?
  10. The text of Everyman is known to us from a single surviving copy of the first printed edition or editio princeps (ed. prin.) published in London by John Scot in 1530.  This volume passed through many hands between the Elizabethan period and the modern, at one time forming a tiny part of the William Miller library at Britwell Court.  Click here for the "biography" of this old estate, now a monastic retreat named Grenville Court, with news of the sad dispersal of the library at auction in the early twentieth century.  The lack of manuscript evidence for the poem's history between 1485 and 1530 raises several interesting interpretive questions.  Was the play every actually performed?  Or was it intended to be read aloud, as a "treatise" on salvation?  Try it--which way works better. 

For a fairly recent study which places the play in context within the emerging European morality tradition, see
Everyman & Company: essays on the theme and structure of the European moral play,
   ed. Donald Gilman  (N. Y. : AMS Press, c1989) [809.2 E92]

To see a sample quiz on Everyman, click here.

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