What are the significances or functions of characters from whom Everyman sought help help in The Summoning of Everyman?
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The characters from whom Everyman seeks help in the medieval morality play titled The Summoning of Everyman can be divided into several broad categories.
Fellowship (that is, friends), Kindred (that is, family), and Goods (that is, worldly possessions) are the first three characters from whom Everyman seeks assistance. They make up one category of potential helpers. Each of these three “characters,” however, is more disappointing than the preceding one. Everyman’s friends refuse to help him by being willing to die with him, but then we might expect our friends to feel less interested in our welfare than we expect our family members to be. Thus, when Everyman’s friends refuse him, we are not entirely surprised. We are more surprised when his family members also refuse to help him, because we might have expected family members to take a deeper interest in the welfare of “one of their own.” The refusal of worldly Goods to help Everyman is not especially surprising, particularly since medieval theology repeatedly taught people not to put their trust in worldly prosperity. The real surprise of the encounter with Goods is not that he refuses to help but rather just how sarcastic and full of venom he seems to be when announcing his refusal. Everyman’s friends and family, at least, felt sorry for him; Goods takes actual pleasure in Everyman’s predicament. The irony, of course, is that Everyman confesses to having loved his worldly goods even more than his family and friends.
Good Deeds, the first member of a second category of theologically sanctioned characters, is one of the most important characters Everyman encounters on his journey. She immediately knows of his predicament (unlike the first three characters), and she immediately offers to help him (again, unlike the first three). At this point, though, she cannot walk because Everyman has not done enough good deeds in his life to give the character named Good Deeds the strength to proceed. Yet her sister, Knowledge, is there to assist him, and she speaks two of the most famous lines from the play:
Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide,
In thy most need to go by thy side. [side note: this splendid couplet was printed in every copy of every book published in the wonderful Everyman’s Library of classic texts.]
Good Deeds and Knowledge are reliable companions in life, unlike friends, family, and worldly goods, who often prove unreliable. Knowledge leads Everyman to Confession – a character who represents a crucial stage in the purgation of sin, according to medieval Catholic theology.
The friends who accompany Everyman later in the play make up a third group of characters: Strength, Beauty, Discretion and Five Wits. None of these characters or traits, however, persists after we die; none of them can follow us beyond the grave. Only our Good Deeds can do that, as the playwright shows in the very memorable final episode of this drama.
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