Everyman eText - eText

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

The use of plays to educate the16th century English audience on virtues, the predominance of archetypes and flat characters, and the simplicity of plot are staples of the genres known as Cycle and Morality Plays. Most members of a typical audience of the time could barely read or write, and the teachings of the Church were predominantly in Latin; therefore, the theater was a seemingly perfect way to reach and instruct the population. The drama evolved from the Bible, so the stories were familiar and could be capitalized upon; the plays were, therefore, sanctioned by the religious authorities, which had in the past and would in the future, condemn actors and acting. Traveling “tropes” of players would set up a stage in a small town and perform for the residents. Frequently, members of trade guilds also were part of the cast.

While the characters in Everyman and The Second Shepherds’ Play are one-dimensional, they do provide the impetus for some later Elizabethan drama (Marlowe’s Faust, for example), and these two are considered the epitome of this type. However, audiences soon lost interest in the simplistic drama being presented and demanded more realistic, elaborate, and compelling theater, which set the stage for the rise of Elizabethan drama.