How does the late medieval morality play Everyman begin, and what are some ways to interpret its beginning?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The late medieval morality play Everyman opens when a "Messenger" speaks directly to the audience and asks them all to give their attention to this "moral play" (2) -- that is, a play designed (as most medieval plays were) to teach moral lessons. The messenger announces that the precise title of the play is The Summoning of Everyman. This title would already have suggested to most audience members what the subject of the drama would be: the summoning of every individual human to death and to appearance before God.

The Messenger then announces that the play "our lives and ending shows" (5). Interestingly, this phrasing suggests that although we live various kinds of lives (plural), our ending (singular) is the same: we all end in death. By using the word "our," the Messenger acknowledges that he is a mere human as well. He doesn't speak down to us (at least not figuratively, although he probably stood raised above the audience). We are therefore more likely to listen to his message.

The play, he continues, will show "How transitory we be all day" (6) -- in other words, how subject we all are to change or "mutability." Mutability was a favorite theme of medieval and Renaissance literature, and so it is not surprising that we should find that theme seem so blatantly emphasized at the beginning of this drama. Once again the Messenger shows, by using the word "we," that he is no better than the people he addresses.

The Messenger next declares that the meaning and subject "matter" of the play are wonderfully precious,

But the intent of it is more gracious

And sweet to bear away. (8-9)

These statements may seem ironic in a play that will end by depicting a man descending into his grave, but they make perfect sense from a Christian point of view (which is the point of view of the author, the play, and almost all members of the audience). The purpose of the play is to help us all prepare for death so that we can actually find it a joyous occasion (as Everyman later will). The author, then, has a literally "gracious" intent: he wants to help show us how to receive God's grace. The final effect of the play, then, should be "sweet" and pleasing.

In line 10, the Messenger actually alludes openly to the beginning of the Bible, but the allusion here also reminds us of our own individual beginnings: we should, the Messenger suggests, live our lives in the constant consciousness of death. We should continually remember that we are going to die and that life is partly a means of preparing for the right kind of death. Awareness of death will give meaning to our lives, and we should cultivate such an awareness even if we are happy or "gay" (12).

The Messenger declares that we all consider sin "in the beginning full sweet" (13), and surely this is true; otherwise we would not sin. However, the apparent sweetness of sin is short-lived, unlike the kind of spiritual sweetness promised in line 9.

Sin may cause eternal pain to the soul even when the body is dead (14-15). If we pay careful attention to the play, we will witness how all earthly pleasures fade (16-18). Now we should prepare for the appearance of God on stage, who will call "Everyman to a general reckoning" (19-20) -- that is, to a complete accounting of the sort that awaits us all.

The opening speech, then, announces many of the crucial themes of the play. The Messenger creates some suspense (will Everyman survive his reckoning?), but there are no doubts about the play's moral purpose.