Why is Everyman surprised by Death? What was his mind on?

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At the beginning of the anonymous medieval play, Everyman, written in about 1500, the Messenger tells the audience that Everyman is "a moral play."

A "moral play," or morality play, is an allegory in which the lead character, who often represents humanity, encounters characters who personify various aspects of life and death and good and evil. Through these characters, the lead character—and the audience—are encouraged to live a good and moral life.

After the Messenger's introduction to the play, God appears and complains that mankind has been ignoring him.

GOD: Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God;

In worldly riches is all their mind.

God then speaks in the role of Jesus Christ, and He recounts how the crown of thorns was put on His head and how He died on the cross for mankind's sins. But now, mankind forsakes Him and indulges "in the seven deadly sins damnable" and "liveth so after his own pleasure."

The scene is set. God decides to call mankind to a reckoning. God summons Death to bring Everyman to Him, along with whatever Everyman can show Him that will allow Everyman to enter into Heaven.

Death sees Everyman going about his daily life, totally unaware of Death's approach. Everyman's mind "is on fleshly lusts and his treasure."

Death first tells Everyman that he's sent from God and that Everyman must go on a journey to find those things that can answer to God for his life. Everyman is surprised and protests that he's been caught unawares, "This blind matter troubleth my wit," and he needs more time "To give a reckoning longer leisure I crave," because he's simply not ready: "Full unready I am such reckoning to give."

Everyman realizes that doesn't know with whom he's been talking, and he asks the stranger who he is.

DEATH. I am Death, that no man dreadeth.

For every man I rest and no man spareth;

For it is God's commandment

That all to me should be obedient.

Everyman is totally taken aback.

EVERYMAN. O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.

Very few people expect death to come to them in the midst of their daily lives, so Everyman's surprise at Death's arrival is perfectly reasonable and realistic.

Equally realistic is Everyman's attempt to bribe Death into going away and coming back some other time.

EVERYMAN: In thy power it lieth me to save,

Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind,

Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have,

And defer this matter till another day.

Death says he can't be bought and that there's nothing Everyman can do to escape his reckoning before God.

Everyman goes through the first four stages of grief and loss proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross a half-century later in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

Death remains unmoved by any of Everyman's reactions and tells Everyman to prepare to meet God.

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Death remains unmoved by any of Everyman's reactions and tells Everyman to prepare to meet God.

DEATH. Nay, thereto I will not consent,

Nor no man will I respite,

But to the heart suddenly I shall smite

Without any advisement.

And now out of thy sight I will me hie;

See thou make thee ready shortly,

For thou mayst say this is the day

That no man living may scape away.

In time, Everyman reaches the fifth Kubler-Ross stage—acceptance—and he reluctantly begins his journey to find those things that he can take with him to God to account for his life.

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When Death reveals his identity to Everyman, Everyman expresses his surprise, saying (in line 119),

O Deth, thou comest whan I had the leest in mynde!

Why is Everyman taken aback? Both Death and Everyman offer evidence that his mind was on material goods and sensual gratification. Death, presumably, has the power to see inside Everyman's mind. Before he approaches Everyman, he tells the audience what the mortal is thinking about (lines 80-82):

Loo, yonder I se Eueryman walkynge.

Full lytell he thynketh on my comynge;

His mynde is on flesshely lustes and his treasure.

("Lo, yonder I see Everyman walking, full little he thinks on my coming; his mind is on fleshy lusts and his treasure.")

Later, after Everyman goes looking for companions to take with him to face judgment, we get more confirmation that his habitual orientation was to think about these base things. He thinks first of Fellowship, noting that they've spent many days of "sport and play" together:

We haue in the worlde so many a daye

Be good frendes in sporte and playe.

We're given a better idea of what this "sport and play" consisted of when Fellowship says he'd be happy to accompany Everyman if they were going to party:

And yet, yf thou wylte ete & drynke & make good chere,

Or haunt to women the lusty company,

I wolde not forsake you whyle the daye is clere.

("And yet, if you will eat and drink and make good cheer, or haunt to women the lusty company, I wouldn't forsake you.")

When Everyman meets Goods, he says,

Alas, I haue the loued, and had grete pleasure

All my lyfe-dayes on good and treasure.

("Alas, I have thee loved, and had great pleasure/ All my life-days on goods and treasure.")

It seems that Everyman was too distracted by thoughts of "fleshy lusts" and wealth to consider his own mortality. He was taken by surprise because he had allowed those pleasures to drive out any awareness that life is a test, and that Death could take him at any time.

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