The anonymous, fifteenth century English morality play Everyman was first published in 1508. It relates through allegory the tale of a dying Everyman and the items and qualities he most values, which attend to him in his death. The play opens with a messenger preparing the way for God, who after an opening meditation commands Death to seek out Everyman and warn him that God sits in judgment of Everyman’s soul. Death approaches Everyman and foretells his demise, telling Everyman that he will now undertake the pilgrimage of the soul and stand before God to be reckoned. Everyman pleads to be released from his journey, even begging for the journey to be delayed if only for a day, but Death reminds Everyman that he comes for all people in their turn. Everyman laments at his fate and attempts to find comfort and companionship for his journey.
First he looks for solace among his friends, allegorized by Fellowship. Initially, Fellowship seems very concerned about Everyman’s grave state and pledges his undying fealty and assistance, but upon discovering that Everyman undertakes the journey to Death, Fellowship abandons Everyman to his own fate. Next, Everyman turns to Cousin and Kindred, believing that familial bonds will prove stronger than those of Fellowship; but, family, too, despite professing their love for and support of Everyman, abandons him in the time of his greatest need. Next, Everyman turns to his own material possessions, his Goods, which Everyman has spent a lifetime amassing. Everyman believes that his Goods will accompany him on his pilgrimage to judgment, but his Goods, too, forsake Everyman, leaving the lamentable figure wailing over his fate.
Now, in his moment of greatest despair, Everyman considers his own good deeds. Calling for his Good Deeds, Everyman can hear only a weak and faint reply, since his Good Deeds are but small in comparison to Everyman’s sins. Nonetheless, Good Deeds advises Everyman to call upon his knowledge, to act as counsel in this hour of need. Knowledge comes when called and prepares Everyman for Confession; after making an honest and penitent accounting of his life, Everyman finds Good Deeds strengthened and able to rise from the dirt. Good Deeds and Knowledge urge Everyman to call upon his other attributes—Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits—to aid him in preparing for his journey. This they happily do, each offering their support and proffering some wisdom to aid Everyman on his final pilgrimage. Each of his qualities pledges to stand by Everyman, but as he approaches his own grave, each is taken aback. First Beauty abandons him, then Strength, then Discretion, and then finally his own Five Wits. Eventually, even Knowledge warns Everyman that he, too, will abandon him but only at the very end. Thus Everyman learns that he may only take Good Deeds with him to the grave and with him as he stands before God.
Everyman’s suffering, honest, and penitent confession, buoyed by his Good Deeds, allows him to be brought into the Kingdom of Heaven. As an angel welcomes Everyman into heaven, Doctor, a figure who represents a wise theologian in medieval times, comes on stage and gives the play’s moral. The Doctor warns that Everyman’s friends, family, and material possessions cannot take the final journey with him and that even Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits will abandon him. The Doctor also warns that if the size of Everyman’s Good Deeds is too small, they will not be sufficient for him to enter into heaven. Yet, the Doctor concludes, if Everyman makes an honest confession and can make a clear accounting of his own good deeds, then the Kingdom of Heaven will belong to Everyman.