The morality play, of which Everyman is the best extant example, and the mystery play are the two principal kinds of medieval drama. The mystery play is a dramatic re-creation of a story from the Bible, its aim being the elucidation of the revelation therein. The morality play, by contrast, is an allegorical form, peopled by personified abstractions such as Beauty, Justice, and Fortitude and types such as Everyman, Priest, and King. Here the subject matter is admonitory, particularly concerning death. As Albert Baugh pointed out, it is difficult to discover precise sources for the subject matter or the dramatic method. There are, however, certain parallels with medieval sermons, which often bolstered moral exhortations with allegorical examples. Indeed, allegory is pervasive in medieval literature, as is, for that matter, concern for a happy death. It is not known, however, how these evolved into the particular form of the morality play.
Few morality plays have survived, and only Everyman remained sufficiently well regarded in later times to be dignified with performance. One reason for the unpopularity of the genre is the limitation of dramatic complication resulting from the static nature of the personifications. The characters are of necessity simple, and there is no possibility of change except perhaps in a central protagonist like Everyman. As a result, there can be little psychological insight and little diverse movement that invigorate earlier and later drama.
Like all forms of allegory, the method is essentially intellectual. The active involvement of the spectator is not through emotion so much as it is in the discovery of the meanings of characters and the significance of the configurations in which they are arranged. Allegory engages the mind and Everyman succeeds well in representing a complex, highly specific, theological system at the same time that it generates, by juxtaposition and order, sufficient immediacy to give force to the moral exhortation. The structure is elegant and compact. There is no attempt to catalog the deficiencies of Everyman’s past life; rather, the play focuses on the poignant hour of death and implies what Everyman is and what he ought to be at that critical moment.
Because of the allegorical method, it is easy to trivialize the significance of the play by reducing it to the identification of the personifications. To do so would be to miss the power of its abstractions and the complex view of life that is represented. A play about the reaction to imminent death, Everyman with its configurations of characters implies much about how life should be lived. God initiates the action with the premise that all human beings are to be called to give an account of their actions. As the plot develops, it would perhaps be more accurate to refer to the central character as Anyman, but the use of the name Everyman implies that the experience is not random, not what might happen, but paradigmatic of what will happen and how people ought to respond.
Everyman turns to his valued, habitual companions for comfort on his difficult and dangerous journey, but the play does not present a pageant of specific sins. Instead, Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods are summary abstractions, which are not particular sins in themselves but rather examples of the distractions that divert people away from positive direction toward God and salvation. Thus Everyman’s failures are represented not by a static series of vices but by the vital enticements that took too much of his attention. The conception is a Dantescan analysis of sin as a turning away from God.
In the theology of the play, salvation obviously cannot come by faith alone, since it is imperative that Everyman be accompanied to judgment by Good-Deeds. However, Good-Deeds is so infirm because of Everyman’s prior misdirection that a prior step is necessary: Everyman is entrusted to Knowledge for guidance. The implication is that knowledge of the institutional Church and its remedies is necessary for the successful living of the good life. Knowledge first directs Everyman to Confession, one of the tangible means of repentance and regeneration. Once Confession takes place, Good-Deeds begins to revive, as contrition and amendment free the accumulated merits of past virtuous actions.
Knowledge also summons other attainments, which can travel at least part way with Everyman. Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits are all auxiliary human accomplishments that can help and comfort human beings along their way, though none can persevere to the final moment of judgment. As they fall away, one by one, the play presents the process of death. Beauty is obviously the first to depart in this telescoped version of an individual’s demise. Strength follows as life ebbs. The last of the attainments to leave is Five Wits, the sensual means through which human beings acquire whatever understanding they gain in life.
In the end, even Knowledge, the representative of the human intellect, which builds on sense and is a higher power than sense, cannot go the whole distance with Everyman. The respect for Knowledge in the play’s implied theological system is enormous: Knowledge plays the pivotal role in informing Everyman of the way to salvation. However, in the final analysis, only Good-Deeds can descend into the grave with Everyman because it is only the efficacious result of knowledge in right living that merits eternal reward.
An examination of the abstractions and their arrangement in Everyman reveals the complex shape of medieval Christianity. The play suggests a means to salvation everywhere consistent with the prescriptions of the medieval Church: There is an ultimate accountability, but human beings have the capacity, through faith and reason, to direct themselves toward God by using the institution of the Church, which enables them to do the good required of all.