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.
Click here for help understanding how this dramatic tradition relates to (or is
opposed to!) Chaucer's elite, courtly narratives.
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
Characters: Everyman, God, Death, and allegorical
representations of the worldly things and spiritual attributes which will affect his
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
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:
- 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
"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.
- 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.
- What advantages do the morality play's stripped down characters give the author when
compared with the more common, "realistic," forms of the drama?
- Are there any effects in this play that are achievable only because of the use of
- How does an allegory's "truth" differ from the "truth" of other
forms of fiction?
- 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.
- How might this play be staged?
- What clues do you see in the dialogue that tell you what visual effects the artist
- What alterations might you make in this play were you to stage it with deliberately
contemporary props and costumes as opposed to a "historical re-enactment"?
- For some guidance, you might want to look at the stage
directions for The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1400), which survived with the script.
This is located on an enormously ambitious but incomplete website hosted by the
University of Victoria, Canada. You may find additional materials there which may
help your study of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare's
King Lear, since
both playwrights draw upon the morality traditions with which they know their audience
will be familiar. However, the site does not cite its sources for much of the
background information it provides, though excellent sources may be found in the "Bibliographies"
section. I consider this proof of the MLA format's superiority, because it insists
that you always cite sources on the page where they are relied upon!
- 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
- How does the author of Everyman represent Christian doctrine, and to what degree does he
respond to the common critique of the priesthood, etc.?
See especially lines 750-770 (and compare Chaucer's Parson, pages 92-3, lines 479-530).
You will see these issues again in the life of Margery Kempe.
- Good public theater typically treads the borderline between challenging the reigning
authorities and reinforcing their power. If it takes its challenges beyond a certain
limit, the authorities will suppress its performance and arrest the players (cf. the
prosecution of Lennox Rafael for Che! in the 1960s). How do you read the
cumulative effect of Everyman's critique of the worldly and the clerical
authorities? Is this play truly about "every man," or just
"you poor blokes standing in the audience"?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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.
- The text of Everyman and of Elckerlicj, its Dutch cousin,
are available for "parallel-text" study on the University of Michigan
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?
- 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,
Back to English 211, Syllabus View.