How might one compare and contrast Everyman and Doctor Faustus as morality plays?

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Everyman, composed in the late 15th century by an unknown author, is a good deal more simplistic in its presentation of good and evil than Christopher Marlowe's 1592 play Doctor Faustus. The Everyman character is, as his name suggests, just an ordinary man, someone with whom the audience of a late medieval morality play would instinctively identify.

Everyman is a straightforward allegory which presents its audience with a clear message as to what they must do if they're to be saved. Allegorical characters such as Beauty, Strength, and Discretion leave the audience in no doubt as to the values endorsed and of the relative importance of each such value in determining whether or not Everyman's pilgrimage from this world to the next is successful. In Everyman the message is morally uplifting and clear, and the ending happy.

In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, however, there is no such happy ending. Faustus is ultimately torn limb from limb by devils before his mortal soul is carried down to hell. If Everyman is aimed at a mass audience, Marlowe's masterpiece has a more educated, sophisticated crowd in mind. There are clearly complex—and subversive—philosophical and theological ideas at work here.

Unlike the Everyman character, Faustus is not an ordinary man; he is a brilliant and highly-trained scholar. But unlike Everyman, he's not solely concerned with faithfully adhering to the path of righteousness; he also wants to accrue enormous power and prestige. Whereas Everyman is constantly beset by all manner of temptation and diversion right throughout his spiritual quest, Faustus succumbs straight away to the forces of darkness, jeopardizing his mortal soul in return for twenty-four years of earthly power and fame. Although Faustus later repents, expressing a desire to walk in God's path, he remains susceptible to devilish influences.

One possible summation of the main difference between Everyman and Doctor Faustus is that the former tells us what we ought to do whereas the latter tells us what we ought not to do.

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Everyman, a Tudor-era play by an unknown author, and Doctor Faustus, a 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe, are both concerned with religious themes and morality. Both consider how one is to live life righteously while also showing what is to be done to avoid punishment in the afterlife. The similarities essentially end there.

For one thing, the titular protagonist of Everyman is a generalized figure. He represents the ordinary person and therefore has no outstanding personality traits that render him unique. Faustus, a polymathic scholar, is an individual with immense intellectual gifts. Moreover, he has a strong personality marked by arrogance, pride, and vanity.

Everyman has a happy ending: Everyman is saved at the hour of death and is able to enjoy paradise with God in heaven. Faustus ends up being damned due to his pride. Although he tries to repent, his efforts are unconvincing and arrive too late. Ultimately, he is dragged away to hell.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Doctor Faustus is its subversive streak: Marlowe's plays typically questioned social norms and featured heroes who defied convention. When Faustus meets his ultimate fate, the chorus laments his end rather than condemning him. A traditional morality play would not celebrate or even mourn Faustus due to his wicked ways, but Marlowe's ambiguous tone suggests sympathy, perhaps even occasional admiration.

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The anonymous work known as Everyman and the play by Christopher Marlowe titled Doctor Faustus are both “morality plays” in the simplest sense, since both attempt to teach moral, Christian lessons.  Everyman is a “morality play” in the strictest sense of the term; Doctor Faustus is not, if only because it was written for a permanent public theater.  Other similarities and differences between the two works include the following:

  • Like most medieval morality plays, Everyman is anonymous, whereas the author of Doctor Faustus was well known in his time and actually courted publicity.
  • Both plays begin with speeches made directly to their audiences, and both plays end in the same fashion. Yet Everyman  ends happily, whereas Faustus does not.
  • Both plays focus on a central character whose life and flaws are offered as examples of how not to live.  Of course, by the end of Everyman, the title character has become an exemplary figure in the most positive sense of that adjective, whereas Faustus remains, throughout his play, a character whose example we are meant to reject.
  • The characters in Everyman are allegorical and representative, as even their names suggest.  They symbolize ideas or kinds of persons. The characters in Faustus, however, are for the most part meant to be seen as much more realistic individuals.
  • God appears onstage in Everyman; by Marlowe’s day, such an appearance would have been considered sacrilegious.
  • Comedy is used in both plays to counterpoint (but also enhance) the essentially serious message of each work.
  • Both Everyman and Faustus wish that they had never been born.
  • Both Everyman and Faustus have opportunities to repent, but Faustus never takes advantage of such chances.
  • Both Everyman and Faustus come into contact with figures who try to help them, but Faustus rejects such help while Everyman accepts it.
  • Everyman seems a far more wise and thoughtful character at the end of his play than he had been at the beginning. Faustus, at the end of his play, is, if anything, even more foolish than he had been at the start.
  • Everyman seems a far more abstract and representative figure than Faustus, who is much more strongly individualized.
  • Everyman emphasizes the importance of salvation through the persons, rituals, and other methods associated with the church, such as priests and confession.  Faustus, at least in the final scene, seems to emphasize the possibility of salvation through a direct, personal relationship with Jesus, as when Faustus exclaims,

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;

Yet I will call on him – O spare me, Lucifer!

The irony of Faustus’s final four words here is that rather than calling on Christ, he calls on Lucifer. Yet the play strongly suggests that if he had called on Christ he could have been saved. In Everyman, salvation is accomplished through the means prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church, whereas Faustus seems to reflect more a Protestant idea of salvation, with no need for a priestly mediator.


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