The late medieval morality play titled Everyman teaches moral and religious lessons while entertaining its audience, and in fact it often teaches such lessons by entertaining its audience. Writers, speakers, and preachers during this period knew that keeping an audience interested – often through entertainment – was usually the best was to make sure that any moral, religious message was communicated. In particular, medieval writers (such as Chaucer and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) often knew that humor could be a particularly effective way to keep audiences paying attention so that lessons would be learned.
Examples in Everyman of the use of entertainment to convey moral lessons include the following:
- When Everyman asks Fellowship to accompany him into death, Fellowship immediately recants his earlier offer to help Everyman in every way he can. In fact, Fellowship says that he would not make such a journey to help even his own father – a remark that sounds funny and surprising when he says it but a remark that also teaches a lesson about how easily people often make, and then abandon, their promises.
- Even funnier is Fellowship’s remark that although he will not die with (or for) Everyman,
. . . yet if thou wilt eat, and drink, and make good cheer,
Or haunt to women, the lusty company,
I would not forsake you, while the day is clear,
Trust me verily!
The self-serving nature of this offer is obvious, ridiculous, and obviously ridiculous.
- Later, when Everyman asks whether his own cousin is willing to make the journey with him, his cousin replies, “No, by our Lady; I have the cramp in my toe.” This response – which always generates a laugh in the classroom – is funny, but it also teaches a lesson about how quickly people will find excuses to avoid tasks they want to avoid.
- A line or two later, Kindred, another of Everyman’s kinsmen, also refuses to accompany his desperate relative, but Kindred is more than willing to volunteer his maid to go in his (Kindred’s) place. This moment also always generates laughter, because it reminds us of the lesson that people are often willing to volunteer others for difficult duties.
- Funny in a different, darker way is the moment when Everyman tries to blame his predicament on his Good(s), or worldly possessions:
Everyman. O false Good, cursed thou be!
Thou traitor to God, that hast deceived me,
And caught me in thy snare.
The truth, of course, is that Everyman himself is the cause of his own predicament. If there is a traitor to God, it is Everyman himself. If Everyman has been deceived by anyone, he has been deceived by himself. No one other than he is responsible for the fact that he is in a “snare,” a word that makes him sound like a hapless victim rather than like a creature with reason and free will.
If we laugh at Everyman here, we must also laugh (sadly) at our own tendencies to try to blame anyone and everything but ourselves for the foolish decisions we make. Much of our laughter when reading or watching Everyman is the knowing laughter that results from recognizing common human foibles, including our own. The play teaches valuable lessons about pride and mutability, and it often does so by making us laugh at characters who remind us of ourselves and others we know.