Everyman Everyman (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Everyman

English morality play, written circa 1495.

Everyman is considered the greatest example of the medieval morality play. Composed by an unknown author in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the play was long judged to be of historical interest only. It was successfully revived on stage at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, and has since become the most frequently performed of the morality plays. It has earned praise and admiration for its profound moral message, which is conveyed with dignity tinged with gentle humor, and for its simple beauty and vivid characters.

Textual History

The text of Everyman survives in four early sixteenth-century editions: two complete printings by John Skot (or Scott) entitled Here begynneth a treatyse how the hye fader of heuen sendeth dethe to somon euery creature to come and gyue a counte of theyr lyues in this Worlde, and is in maner of a morall playe (The sumonyg of eueryman) (c. 1522-29 and c. 1525-30), and two redactions by Richard Pynson (c. 1510-25 and c. 1525-30), which are extant only in fragments. From these initial publications until the work's revival in the twentieth century, Everyman was considered little more than a literary artifact, and appeared only in collections of pre-Elizabethan drama that sought to catalogue England's literary history. Such anthologies include Thomas Hawkins's The Origin of the English Drama (1773) and W. Carew Hazlitt's edition of Robert Dodsley's A Select Collection of Old English Plays (1874). No separate editions appeared until after the play's twentieth-century revival. Since then, the work has been reprinted numerous times, including A. C. Cawley's highly regarded 1961 edition. In addition, the play has been adapted and translated into various languages; Hugo von Hofmannsthal's German adaptation Jedermann is particularly noteworthy, having achieved great popular success in performance at the 1911 Salzburg Festival.

Plot and Major Characters

Everyman, like other morality plays, seeks to present a religious lesson through allegorical figures representing abstract characteristics. The play centers on the life of Everyman, a wealthy man in his prime who is suddenly called by Death to appear before God for judgment. On his journey to meet God, he seeks assistance from lifelong companions Fellowship (friends), Kindred and Cousin (family), and Goods (material wealth), but all abandon him. Because he has neglected her in life, Good-Deeds is too weak to accompany Everyman on his journey. She advises him to call on Knowledge (awareness of sin). Knowledge escorts Everyman to Confession, who directs him to do penance. In the process of Everyman's penance, Good-Deeds is strengthened and is finally able to accompany Everyman to his final reckoning. Everyman, now wearing the garment of Contrition, continues his journey—until now a quest for spiritual health, but increasingly showing the qualities of a pilgrimage—to salvation. Everyman, Knowledge, and Good-Deeds are joined on the journey by Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits (the senses). After donating his wealth to charity, Everyman follows the advice of Knowledge and Five Wits and receives the sacraments of Communion and Extreme Unction. Meanwhile, Knowledge and Five Wits converse on the subject of corrupt priests in the church. Approaching his grave, Everyman is again deserted by all his companions except Knowledge and Good-Deeds. As the story closes, Knowledge remains behind as Everyman and Good-Deeds together descend into the grave.

Major Themes

The themes in Everyman are strongly reflected in the allegorical characters which populate the work. The work teaches ethical and religious lessons about how to please God and how to treat humanity. The work has been seen by some critics as a dramatic treatment of the medieval Catholic church doctrine of “Holy Dying,” whereby a person forsakes earthly attachments and prepares his or her soul for salvation, but episodes such as the discussion...

(The entire section is 82,695 words.)