The anonymous, fifteenth century English morality play Everyman was first published in 1508. It relates through allegory the tale of a dying Everyman and the items and qualities he most values, which attend to him in his death. The play opens with a messenger preparing the way for God, who after an opening meditation commands Death to seek out Everyman and warn him that God sits in judgment of Everyman’s soul. Death approaches Everyman and foretells his demise, telling Everyman that he will now undertake the pilgrimage of the soul and stand before God to be reckoned. Everyman pleads to be released from his journey, even begging for the journey to be delayed if only for a day, but Death reminds Everyman that he comes for all people in their turn. Everyman laments at his fate and attempts to find comfort and companionship for his journey.
First he looks for solace among his friends, allegorized by Fellowship. Initially, Fellowship seems very concerned about Everyman’s grave state and pledges his undying fealty and assistance, but upon discovering that Everyman undertakes the journey to Death, Fellowship abandons Everyman to his own fate. Next, Everyman turns to Cousin and Kindred, believing that familial bonds will prove stronger than those of Fellowship; but, family, too, despite professing their love for and support of Everyman, abandons him in the time of his greatest need. Next, Everyman turns to his own material possessions, his Goods, which Everyman has spent a lifetime amassing. Everyman believes that his Goods will accompany him on his pilgrimage to judgment, but his Goods, too, forsake Everyman, leaving the lamentable figure wailing over his fate.
Now, in his moment of greatest despair, Everyman considers his own good deeds. Calling for his Good Deeds, Everyman can hear only a weak and faint reply, since his Good Deeds are but small in comparison to Everyman’s sins. Nonetheless, Good Deeds advises Everyman to call upon his knowledge, to act as counsel in this hour of need. Knowledge comes when called and prepares Everyman for Confession; after making an honest and penitent accounting of his life, Everyman finds Good Deeds strengthened and able to rise from the dirt. Good Deeds and Knowledge urge Everyman to call upon his other attributes—Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits—to aid him in preparing for his journey. This they happily do, each offering their support and proffering some wisdom to aid Everyman on his final pilgrimage. Each of his qualities pledges to stand by Everyman, but as he approaches his own grave, each is taken aback. First Beauty abandons him, then Strength, then Discretion, and then finally his own Five Wits. Eventually, even Knowledge warns Everyman that he, too, will abandon him but only at the very end. Thus Everyman learns that he may only take Good Deeds with him to the grave and with him as he stands before God.
Everyman’s suffering, honest, and penitent confession, buoyed by his Good Deeds, allows him to be brought into the Kingdom of Heaven. As an angel welcomes Everyman into heaven, Doctor, a figure who represents a wise theologian in medieval times, comes on stage and gives the play’s moral. The Doctor warns that Everyman’s friends, family, and material possessions cannot take the final journey with him and that even Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits will abandon him. The Doctor also warns that if the size of Everyman’s Good Deeds is too small, they will not be sufficient for him to enter into heaven. Yet, the Doctor concludes, if Everyman makes an honest confession and can make a clear accounting of his own good deeds, then the Kingdom of Heaven will belong to Everyman.
One day a Messenger appears to announce that in the beginning of life, human beings should look to the ending, for they shall see how all earthly possessions avail little in the final reckoning. Sin may look sweet at first, but in the end it causes the soul to weep in pain.
Then God speaks. All living creatures are unkind to him. They live with no spiritual thought in their worldly possessions. The crucifixion is a lesson they forget. Human beings turn to the seven deadly sins, and every year their state grows worse. Therefore, God decides to have a reckoning, lest humankind become more brutish than the beasts.
At an imperative summons, Death comes to receive his instructions. He is ordered to search out all human beings and tell them that they have to make a pilgrimage to their final reckoning. Death promises to be cruel in his search for everyone who lives outside God’s law.
Spying Everyman walking unconcernedly about his business, his mind on fleshly lust and treasure, Death bids him stand still and asks him if he forgot his maker. Death announces that God dispatched him in all haste to warn Everyman. Everyman is to make a long journey, and he is to take with him his full book of accounts. He is to be very careful, for he did many bad deeds and only a few good ones. In Paradise, he will soon be forced to account for his life.
Everyman protests that Death cannot be further from his thoughts. Death, who sets no store by worldly goods or rank, is adamant; whom he summons must obey. Everyman cries in vain for respite. Then he asks if he must go on the long journey alone. Death assures him that he can take any companions who will make the journey with him. Reminding him that his life is only his on loan, Death says he will return very shortly, after allowing Everyman an opportunity to find companions for his journey.
Weeping for his plight and wishing he was never born, Everyman thinks of Fellowship, with whom he spent so many agreeable days in sport and play. Fortunately, he sees Fellowship and speaks to him. Seeing Everyman’s sad countenance, Fellowship asks his trouble. Everyman tells him he is in deep sorrow because he has to make a journey. Fellowship reminds him of their past friendship and vows that he will go anywhere with him, even to Hell. Greatly heartened, Everyman tells him of Death’s appearance and his urgent summons. Fellowship thinks of the long trip from which there will be no return and decides against accompanying Everyman. He will go with him in sport and play, he declares, or to seek lusty women, but he definitely refuses to go on that pilgrimage.
Cast down by this setback, Everyman thinks of Kindred. Surely the ties of blood are strong. His Kindred swear that they will help him in any way they can, but when they hear that Everyman has to account for his every deed, good or bad, they know at once the last journey he has in mind. They refuse unanimously to go with him. Everyman appeals directly to his favorite cousin, who says he would go willingly were it not for a cramp in his toe.
Everyman think of turning to Goods. All his life he loved Goods. Goods hears his plea and offers to help him, but when asked to go on the journey to the highest judge of all, Goods promptly refuses. Everyman reminds him that money is supposed to right all wrongs. Goods disagrees with him. Anyway, if Everyman takes Goods with him he will be the worse off for it, for worldly goods are not given, only lent.
Everyman becomes ashamed of having sought unworthy companions. Calling aloud to Good-Deeds, he asks again for help. Good-Deeds answers feebly, for he is lying on the cold ground, bound by sins. Good-Deeds already knows of the projected journey and wants to go along, but he is too weak to stir. Everyman learns that Good-Deeds has a sister, Knowledge, who will stay with him until Good-Deeds can regain strength.
Knowledge promptly offers to go with him and guide him in his great need. Knowledge led him to Confession, who lived in the house of salvation, to ask for strength for Good-Deeds. Confession in pity gives penance to Everyman to shrive his soul. Accepting penance joyfully, Everyman scourges his flesh and afterward Knowledge bequeaths him to his Savior. Thankfully Good-Deeds rises from the ground, delivered from sickness and woe. Declaring himself fit for the journey, Good-Deeds promises to help Everyman count his good works before the judgment throne. With a smile of sympathy, Knowledge tells Everyman to be glad and merry, for Good-Deeds will be his true companion. Knowledge gives a garment to Everyman to wear, a garment of sorrow that will deliver him from pain.
Asking Good-Deeds if his accounts are ready, Everyman prepares to start his pilgrimage. Good-Deeds reminds him that three other companions will go part of the way: Discretion, Strength, and Beauty. Knowledge proposes also the Five Wits, who will be his counselors. After Knowledge calls the new companions together, Everyman, now well fortified, sets out on his last journey.
Knowledge says that their first stop must be to see the priest, who will give Everyman unction and ointment, for priests perform the seven unctions as intermediaries of God. Surely priests are human beings’ best hope on earth, in spite of the many weak and venal people who are often invested with Holy Orders.
After receiving the last rites from the priest, Everyman prepares to meet Death. Again he is troubled, however, for one by one his companions leave him. Even Knowledge refuses to go with him into the presence of his maker. Only Good-Deeds stays with Everyman until the end. Thus it is with everyone who must die. Knowledge, Strength, Beauty—all the other companions are a help in the journey, but only Good-Deeds can face Death.
The Angel greets Everyman as an elected spouse of Jesus. Taking him on high, he announces that Everyman is thus exalted by reason of his singular virtue. When Everyman’s soul is taken from his body, his reckoning is crystal clear. Thus shall it be with everyone who lives well before the end.
Finally a Doctor appears to remind all human beings that on the last journey, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five Wits forsake everyone at the end; only Good-Deeds avail at the final judgment.