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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 between Knowledge and Five Wits on corrupt priests suggest the influence of the Protestant reform movement as well. The testing of Everyman's companions, all of whom fail except for Good-Deeds, reflects the medieval belief that friends must prove themselves before they can be accepted as true. Good-Deeds's loyalty additionally points to the Christian notion of friendship as a gift from God. Thus, this figure represents not only Everyman's own positive and good actions but God's blessing as well.

Critical Reception

Since its revival in the early twentieth century, Everyman has been considered the finest of the medieval morality plays. Critics have investigated numerous aspects of the play, including its source, the religious doctrine it presents, its structure, its style, and its use of allegory. Many critics propose that the primary source of Everyman may be the Dutch play Elckerlijc (c. 1490), because of the close similarity of the text and tone of the two works. Some scholars have gone even further and have asserted that Everyman is a translation of Elckerlijc. Scholars have also commented on the close integration of the play's structure and themes. According to Lawrence V. Ryan, the doctrine and the “theology presented actually determines the structure of the morality and helps to give it the place it admittedly deserves as the most successful thing of its kind in English literature.” Thomas F. Van Laan has argued that the play's “human action and its allegorical significance together form a distinct structural pattern which not only imposes discipline but also contributes its own intrinsic meaning.” The main thrust of the play, according to William Munson, is for the reader to understand that “a saving deed is, in the end, possible.” Ron Tanner has contested the claims that the morality play genre lacks humor by pointing to Everyman's dramatic irony. The poetry of Everyman has also been praised for its clear, direct style. Most critics agree that its vivid characterization, unadorned poetic style, and closely interwoven themes, images, and plot combine to make Everyman a peerless artistic achievement.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 152

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 everyman) [printed by John Skot] c. 1522-29; reprinted c. 1530-35

Everyman. A Morality [included in The Origin of the English Drama, edited by Thomas Hawkins] 1773

Everyman: A Moral Play [included in A Select Collection of Old English Plays, edited by Robert Dodsley and W. Carew Hazlitt] 1874

Everyman [edited by by F. Sidgwick] 1902

Everyman [edited by W. W. Greg] 1904

Everyman [included in Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, edited by A. C. Cawley] 1956

Everyman [edited by A. C. Cawley] 1961

Everyman [included in Medieval Drama, edited by David Bevington] 1975

The Summoning of Everyman [edited by G. Ed Cooper] 1980

Everyman [included in Three Late Medieval Morality Plays: Mankind, Everyman, Mundus et infans, edited by G. A. Lester] 1981

Lawrence V. Ryan (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: Ryan, Lawrence V. “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman.Speculum 32, no. 4 (October 1957): 722-35.

[In the following essay, Ryan examines the dramatic structure of Everyman in relation to the moral and religious stance of the work.]

As the title pages of the two early editions printed by John Skot make clear,1Everyman, like other examples of its kind, is conceived as a didactic work under a dramatic form: “Here begynneth a treatyse how ye 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.” Thus, in any judgment of its effectiveness, one must bear this conception in mind. Yet no extended or adequate analysis of the play, from the point of view of the relationship between form and purpose, has so far appeared in print. Most of the commentary written over the past half century has concentrated on attempting to establish the priority of composition of Everyman or the Flemish morality Elckerlijc and on determining the meanings of such pairs of words in the two versions as kennisse-knowledge, roeken-rood, and duecht-good deeds. As a result, scholars have largely neglected the question of the dramatic structure of Everyman. On the other hand, the impression made by this morality on modern audiences as pure drama has served to obscure its original doctrinal purpose. William Poel, who revived it successfully soon after the beginning of the twentieth century, once expressed an opinion which is characteristic of, and possibly helped to shape, the modern reaction:

I did not myself produce Everyman as a religious play. Its theology is indefensible. One can very easily tear it to pieces in that respect. But the whole story, Eastern and not Catholic, in its origin, is beautiful as a piece of art; it offers a hundred opportunities from the point of view of beauty, and it leaves an impression that is fine and chaste.2

The approaches of both Poel and the controversialists over the priority of the English-Flemish versions have provided valuable insights to the play, but they fail to get at the essential point about Everyman—that is, the relationship between the doctrine that the author wishes to present and the dramatic means he employs to convey that doctrine to his audience.

It is not necessary in studying this relationship to deal with the question whether Everyman is a translation or an original work; although it differs from Elckerlijc in certain important details, the general structure of the two moralities is very similar. Nor would it be wise to try to convince the modern audience that it ought to react with full sympathy and comprehension to the lesson presented in the play. But Poel's objection, that its “theology is indefensible” and “can very easily” be torn to pieces, along with his finding more valuable than the clearly presented ideas of the work only a vague sort of fineness and chasteness, is not a valid one and ignores the fact that the doctrinal content is the reason for being of Everyman. This article will be an attempt to demonstrate that the theology involved is indispensable, not indefensible, and furthermore, that it gives the play its characters, structure, significance, and even its dramatic impressiveness. Without the theology the artistic merit may not be fully appreciated. The story does not by itself carry the burden; in other words, the real meaning and thus the true and legitimate effect of the work depend not on the action alone, but on a proper comprehension of what the action signifies.

The preacher-playwright of Everyman is interested in answering the important question: What must a man do to be saved? His chief problem is to reduce the complex answer to terms of simple dramatic representation without falsifying or obscuring the doctrine. In both respects he achieves success, conveying his teaching through fitting details of “characterization,” through simultaneously occurring emotional and doctrinal climaxes, and, most important of all, through the representation of an action which brings into harmony the natural, dramatic, and theological elements of Everyman's experience.

Inherent in the theme are excellent possibilities for subtle irony and surprising turns of fate. For in dramatizing the scheme of salvation according to the orthodox view, the author was faced with two apparent paradoxes. According to Catholic theology, man, having fallen by Adam's original sin, is incapable of saving himself through his own efforts. Only through the graces earned in the redemption by Christ—in which one must believe—is the free gift of salvation made available. After professing his faith, however, one must also continue to coöperate with grace; that is, he must live well in the life of grace in order to achieve heaven. In addition, the benefits of the redemption are passed on to all men through the ministration of Christ's church, of which one must be a member to gain eternal life.3 Here the paradoxes arise. First, though man is incapable of doing anything by himself to merit salvation and is saved by the Sacrifice on the Cross, yet he is finally judged on the basis of his own good works. The believing Christian must perform good deeds because the precept of charity so commands him and because failure to do so is a grave sin of omission, particularly in a man whose will is supposed to be in harmony with that of God.4 As St James says in his epistle,

Quid proderit, fratres mei, si fidem quis dicat se habere, opera autem non habeat: Numquid poterit fides salvare eum?

(James ii, 14)

Sicut enim corpus sine spiritu mortuum est, ita et fides sine operibus mortua est.

(James ii, 26)

That is one difficulty. The second is that while Christ died for all men, only through membership in his church may anyone be saved. This belief in turn poses two problems. It rules out the strictly Calvinistic doctrine of special election. Everyone does receive sufficient grace to save his soul. Nevertheless, even St Thomas Aquinas admits that why some men are saved and some reprobated is one of the unfathomable mysteries of the divine will.5 Thus, the author of Everyman is careful to show that while some may not share in its benefits, the redemption was intended for all. Early in the play, God says:

          I hoped well that euery man
In my glory shulde make his mansyon
And therto I had them all electe.

(ll. 52-54)

But the author also points out that God's graces in their fulness flow to men only through the church and through the sacraments, which are administered by the clergy. In one speech, Five Wits informs us:

No remedy we fynde vnder god
Bute all onely preesthode.

(ll. 745-746)

The problem of presenting these ideas efficiently and without confusion has determined the structure of the morality. Everyman goes far beyond the overly simple moral lesson that is likely at first glance to be taken as its theme: “Do good deeds and you will be saved.” It offers, in effect, a concise presentation of the orthodox teaching on the matter of man's salvation. For the play to be a success, the audience at the end not only must be exposed to but must comprehend the rather involved message revealed step by step through the experience of Everyman.

Structurally, the play turns on two climaxes, growing out of the abandonment of the hero by two theologically and dramatically distinct groups of “friends” in whom he has placed his confidence. Introduced between these two series of desertions are, first, the appearance of Knowledge and Good Deeds, the former character remaining with him until “all is made sure,” the latter being the only one to accompany him into the grave; and, second, an episode in which Everyman prepares for death by receiving the last sacraments. An examination of the characters introduced and of the structure shows how both the most effective drama and the clearest revelation of doctrine have been achieved. The action begins with God's sending Death to summon Everyman before the judgment seat. Though one may not make too much of the fact, since there is no reason for another character to be on stage at the time, it is perhaps significant that Death finds his victim walking alone. Dramatically, the aloneness of Everyman in this episode makes him a more pathetic figure. And his isolation is certainly meaningful from the theological standpoint: he is really alone and destitute of help or true friends, because at the moment he has no one to plead for him before God's throne. Having been told by Death, “Se thou make the redy shortely” (l. 181), Everyman calls in turn on Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods for help, but each one refuses to accompany him on his final pilgrimage.

The names and characterizations of this set of false friends make it plain that Everyman takes the natural course in first seeking help outside himself when faced with his greatest crisis. The pathos of his being abandoned by the creatures he has loved most arouses sympathy, but the author wishes also to teach and remind the audience, even as he solicits their pity, that foolish and sinful men inordinately love transitory things which can avail them nothing in the end. The first painful step in Everyman's spiritual education and regeneration is his discovery that excessive love of passing things has placed him in danger of hell-fire. The characterizations here are done with touches of individuality and ironic humor, for Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousin make rash promises to stand beside Everyman through all manner of hardship; earthly attachments seem to be man's truest friends when one has them fully at his command. Fellowship is rashest of all in his boastful pledge:

For in fayth and thou go to hell
I wyll not forsake the by the waye.

(ll. 232-233)

Then, upon learning the cause of Everyman's sorrow, he shows his true colors and explains that he will be a constant companion in every kind of sinful doing, but as for making the final pilgrimage with his friend,

I wyll not go that lothe iournaye
Not for the fader that bygate me.

(ll. 268-269)

Kindred and Cousin in their turn raise the hero's hopes with promises to hold with him in “welth and wo” and with him “to liue and dye,” but when he explains what he wants of them, they too depart with lame excuses. Here he learns that it is not true that “ouer his kynne a man may be holde [sic for bolde]” (l. 326). Finally, Goods, whom he has loved best of all, tells him unsympathetically that his inordinate attachment to her has ensnared his soul.

The author, in an improvement over other versions of the story, is careful to make these false friends appear in a climactic order according to the increasing danger of each as a distraction from one's Maker. In Barlaam and Josaphat, when the hero is called to give his reckoning before the king, two of his three friends desert him while the third remains faithful. These three friends represent, successively, abundance of wealth, wife and child and kindred, and the man's virtues and good deeds. In The thrie Tailes of the thrie Priests of Peblis, the appeal is made to riches, kindred and friends, and alms deeds and charity—in that order.6 The expansion of the number of false friends and the rearrangement of their appearances by the author of Everyman constitute a great improvement. First, there is the advantage of dramatic climax gained by substituting a triple for a double refusal. Besides, the writer clearly distinguishes Fellowship from Cousin and Kindred, since he represents a different kind of danger to the soul. Fellowship is willing to help Everyman to “ete & drynke & make good chere Or haunt to women the lusty company” (ll. 272-273). He is likely to lead the hero into sins of the flesh. Cousin and Kindred, however, are dangerous in another way. The hero is likely to misplace his trust in the love and loyalty of his family at a time when he should look to God alone for love and support. Such a mistake would be natural enough because of the close ties that bind members of a family together: “For kynde wyll crepe where it may not go” (l. 316). Yet none of these false friends is so serious a threat as Goods. The love of human creatures, while it may lead one astray, as too much of it has misled Everyman, is not incompatible with love of God. But no man can “Deo servire, et mammonae” (Matthew vi, 24). Excessive love of worldly goods closes the soul to love of any higher object. These unfaithful friends, personifications of external and ephemeral relationships and possessions, promise much, but have finally no solace to offer Everyman. In fact, because of the manner in which the author presents them, it is obvious that they are not only unavailing, but may even be actual hindrances to salvation provided one gives too much attention to them.

The reversal of the pattern of desertion, along with the separation of Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousin into recognizably individualized “characters,” not only provides a more realistic and convincing order of climax than that of other versions of the story, but is also dramatically necessary since the episode with Goods is the natural preparation for and transition to the calling forth of Good Deeds.

Left alone after the departure of all these characters, the hero is close to despair. The soliloquy summarizing his discovery of the vanity of his hopes is the first of the two climaxes of the play. Although no remedy seems to be at hand as the speech begins, the time is appropriate for the reversal of fortune, which coincides with the correct theological moment for Everyman to turn at last to something that can save him. The man who loves any creature more than the Creator himself is still a graceless sinner. But now, having been abandoned by all his false loves, Everyman at last remembers his Good Deeds. His turn in this direction is the right one, and it is not mere chance that he makes it. The author has prepared for it through one of the speeches of Goods:

But yf thou had me loued moderately durynge
As to the poore gyue parte of me
Than sholdest thou not in this dolour be
Nor in this grete sorowe and care.

(ll. 431-434)

The hint that almsgiving, a form of good deeds, would have been to his true advantage, turns the thoughts of Everyman, after he has finished summarizing his disappointments up to this stage, to the one friend who can be of assistance to him.

At this point, however, the author has had to present his doctrine with extreme care. First of all, the church teaches that good works, though they are naturally good and are never to be taken as anything but good, are availing to salvation only to the Christian in the state of grace.7 Secondly, it is also dogma that man is unable even to begin repentance for his misdeeds unless God supply the first motion in him.8 God is a wrathful judge, as the opening of the morality indicates, but at the same time he is the merciful Saviour who provides Everyman with the grace to repent. Consequently, Good Deeds is represented as willing to help the hero, but so “sore bounde” by his sins that she “can not stere.” There is a moment of dramatic suspense here in order that the audience may grasp the full import of the situation: good deeds in themselves are as nothing if a man be in the state of sin. What hope, then, since Everyman, since all men, are sinners? Good Deeds provides the answer shortly. She has a sister,

Called knowledge whiche shall with you abyde
To helpe you to make that dredefull rekenynge.

(ll. 520-521)

A true understanding of the significance of the character Knowledge is crucial to a proper interpretation of the play. Actually, the dialogue shows what she stands for, and the Elckerlijc-Everyman controversy has demonstrated that Knowledge here means “contrition” or, better, “acknowledgment of one's sin.”9 Nevertheless, erroneous interpretations of the word persist. Popularly, Knowledge is usually taken as representing comprehension of intellectual truth or (possibly through the influence of the motto of Everyman's Library) learning or merely understanding. But it is evident that the protagonist is not in need of knowledge in the first two senses, and for knowledge in the third sense the author uses the word cognition or intellection, as when Everyman asks Knowledge to

                                                            gyue me cognycyon
Where dwelleth that holy man confessyon.

(ll. 538-539)10

Another error has been to take the character as standing for “faith” or “the grasp of the divine law and the divine plan of the universe.”11 The events of the play, however, show quite certainly that none of these interpretations is correct.

Doctrinally, the character represents the only kind of knowledge that can profit Everyman in his condition—awareness of and acknowledgement of his sin—for she offers to lead him out of his misery by taking him “To confessyon that clensyng ryuere” (l. 536). At this point, such an offer is proper, for Everyman had already made the first tentative acknowledgment of his fault when he said to Goods: “I gaue the that whiche sholde be the lordes aboue” (l. 458). He is now prepared to repent, but the author takes care to make clear that the motion to repentance has not originated in the sinner himself. Joy begins to fill Everyman's spirit, but with it comes a sense of humility at his own powerlessness. Having just previously recognized, by looking into the book of his own good deeds, that he has nothing to his credit, he says, “Our lorde Iesus helpe me” (l. 506). This is not a mere ejaculation. As his account now stands, only the mercy and merit of the Saviour can help him. And the motion to repent does come from above, as Everyman now tells us twice. First he says that he is in

                              good condycyon … in euery thynge
And am hole content with this good thynge
Thanked by [be] god my creature.

(ll. 524-526)

A short while later, having confessed his sins, he declares that he will begin his penance, “yf god gyue me grace” (l. 607).

As he carries out his penance, Good Deeds rises from the floor. Up to this moment she has been unable to move, but now that Everyman has fulfilled the requirements of the sacrament—contrition, confession, and satisfaction—he is in the state of grace, and his good works have value for his salvation. Furthermore, carrying out the penance is itself a good work because penance is an act of love (caritas) as well as of reparation. Even the flagellation of Everyman helps to strengthen his Good Deeds. Immediately after the penance is completed and the sinner puts on the “garmente of sorowe” (l. 643), Good Deeds and Knowledge introduce to him four “persones of grete myght”—Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits. Again the author's dramatic and pedagogical timing coincide perfectly. Everyman, already made joyous by his confession and the strengthening of his Good Deeds, becomes actually jubilant at the sight of so many friends to assist him on his journey: “lacke I nought,” he says, naming all of them in turn, “I desyre no more to my besynes” (ll. 680, 683).

The addition of this second set of friends to the traditional story is an innovation of the author and contributes to both the dramatic effectiveness and the clarification of the doctrine toward the exposition of which the entire play is unerringly directed. A second and more surprising climax is prepared by the introduction of these personifications. The hero's exultation is ironic, for upon seeing the grave, all of these counsellors will desert him, even as his false friends had done. Here the intent of the author in creating the new set of characters becomes clear. He brings them in at the moment when Everyman is certainly renewed in sanctifying grace. The new friends, as their names indicate, are properties of Everyman himself, not external things like the first group of companions. They are the natural endowments, good in themselves, that make man the flower of creation and help him to fulfill his natural destiny. But according to Christian teaching man has been called by a free gift of God to a supernatural destiny to which these qualities are unavailing in any way unless, as St Paul says, men prepare themselves, “induentes novum eum [hominem]” (Colossians iii, 10; Ephesians iv, 24). Only after the protagonist, by penitence and forgiveness, has been restored to the life of grace, are the natural powers and qualities sanctified and made effectual for his new life. Once again, the technique of the author is to reveal points of doctrine to the audience in their natural order and as Everyman discovers them through his experience. This incident is also a skilful preparation for the final revelation of the play. The fact that man's unassisted natural powers can not help him toward salvation implies that nothing performed by him without divine aid, even his good works, can bring him to the end for which he was created. But elevated by grace and the supernatural virtues that accompany it, the natural powers and virtues can be exercised to help toward, in fact, must necessarily be exercised properly for one to achieve perfection and salvation.12

Still, even in the state of grace the Christian may come to rely too much on these natural powers. The author, having presented the more obvious message in the first climax, proceeds to a more subtle lesson here. There is a danger of Pelagianism in the man who lives well; he may attribute his sanctity to his own efforts rather than to the free gift of God's grace. Dramatically and doctrinally, the author begins now to bring his play to a resolution with the two episodes that finally drive home his point and leave Everyman assured of salvation as he descends into his grave. The first of these is the so-called “digression on priesthood,” which is not really a digression at all but a theologically essential and (if properly understood) dramatically appropriate situation. The second is the final desertion of Everyman by all save his Good Deeds.

As the four counsellors “of grete myght” enter, they too pledge themselves to remain with Everyman in his need, but the promises, while perhaps equivocal, are not rash nor intentionally deceitful as were those of the earlier set of friends. For these characters can not really be false friends, or else Good Deeds and Knowledge would not have presented them to Everyman. Each gives a pledge that is in keeping with his nature (ll. 684-693). Strength appropriately will stand by Everyman “in dystres Though thou wolde ĩ batayle fyght on the groũde.” Five Wits assures him that “though it were thrugh the worlde rounde We wyll not departe for swete ne soure.” Beauty promises to remain “vnto dethes houre,” and Discretion informs him that “We all gyue you vertuous monycyon That all shall be well.” None boasts rashly that he will stay with the hero “and thou go to hell,” for these qualities do not lie to him; being good in themselves, they give him no ill counsel or misinformation. Nevertheless, irony in the situation is provided by the fact that the somewhat obtuse Everyman does not listen to their speeches attentively, for he evidently supposes that they mean to accompany him into the grave. Thus, at the second climax, their departure, in the natural order in which they would leave a dying man, Beauty first, then Strength, Discretion, and finally Five Wits, dismays Everyman. Again he has been abandoned by the things that have meant most to him: “I loued them better than my good dedes alone,” he laments (l. 857). The audience, too, is likely to be surprised and moved; for it comes as a blow that these qualities, which help man to realize the perfection of human nature, are in themselves of no consequence before the judgment seat. Most amazing of all is the fact that Knowledge does not accompany one beyond the grave. “O all thynge fayleth saue God alone,” says Everyman (l. 841), and hears from his one remaining friend that “All fleeth saue good dedes and that am I” (l. 873). At last, through the vicissitudes of experience, the hero has learned his lesson: even the redeemed Christian in the state of grace is capable of forgetting that his natural properties and accidents are in themselves not the instruments of salvation.13 In themselves, they are merely temporal aids, and they help on the supernatural level only if a man has received the gift of grace. That he is in a state of grace, one demonstrates by his good works, which are acts of love showing that his will is in harmony with the will of God.

The reason for adding this second climax involving a set of characters not found in other versions of the story has been made apparent by the action. The original tale of the man and his three friends is simple and moving, but it is so simple that what the author of Everyman understood to be the complete truth about man's salvation could not be represented within its narrow terms. Even in preparing for the first climax of the play with its more obvious lesson, he saw fit to expand the number of episodes and to rearrange them so that the natural order in which Everyman would turn to sources outside himself for help, the theological order in which these externals represent increasing danger to his spiritual welfare, and the order of dramatic logic are made perfectly to coincide. It is disheartening to see the rejection by friends and kindred, but it is the greatest disillusionment of all to learn that wealth, which on earth can buy nearly everything and seems to be man's greatest good, is useless and may be fatal to the soul. This ordering, of course, provides for a smooth and natural transition from the chiding of Everyman by Goods for his neglect of almsgiving to the hero's appeal to his Good Deeds.

But the doctrine is more complex than what the action up to this stage presents to the audience, and the writer was required to find an effective means to dramatize the rest of his message. The action might have been finished off quickly with the confession episode followed by the descent of Everyman and Good Deeds into the grave. Such an ending would have been simple enough to bring about and would have satisfied the formal requirements of dramatic art. It would not, however, have been quite so moving, nor would it have given the audience a fully accurate revelation of what a man must do to be saved. To watch someone receive no help from any external source as he goes to judgment is pathetic enough; to discover the hard truth that one may not even depend on his own powers is a bitter thing. Yet the four counsellors are truly “of grete myght” and are not to be despised or reprehended; they do help Everyman on his earthly journey even if they are unable to enter the grave with him. The author has introduced them to remind the audience of man's utter dependence upon God, for love of whom one must direct all one's powers toward performing the good works that win him mercy on the day of doom.

Nor is Knowledge to be blamed for remaining behind. At the last, Everyman sees why this is so and expresses gratitude for her constant guidance. Acknowledgment of sin is necessary only to the moment of death; after death it is not necessary, since the redeemed sinner, having performed his good works in keeping with the will of God, rejoices in the divine forgiveness and has no need of sorrow for past transgression when judgment is passed upon him.14 As Dante symbolizes it in the Purgatorio, the soul is first washed in Lethe, the river of forgetfulness of sorrow for past sin, and then in Eunoë, the river of remembrance of good deeds (Cantos xxxi and xxxiii). Knowledge is Everyman's chief guide up to the end. Until death Good Deeds remains in the background, since good works are not given their reward until after death, when the soul has arrived in heaven and the will is certainly and eternally conformed to that of God. Acknowledgment of sin, leading to the sacrament of penance, is thus the first and most important step to salvation, and one must go on acknowledging sin until “all is made sure.” Knowledge remains with the hero until she sees “where he is become.” She is the only character left on stage at the end, when the angels announce the reception of Everyman into heaven, thus symbolically driving home her significance in the play.

But what may be said about the dramatic value of the “digression on priesthood?” To a modern audience, this may seem like a flaw in an otherwise perfectly realized work of art. But if it does seem so, that is because a modern audience, absorbed in the action for its own sake and preferring to believe that man should depend exclusively on his own powers to work out his salvation, is likely to overlook the sacramental emphasis of the play. The author is very careful (ll. 717-718) to state the doctrine that the seven sacraments are “the cure For mannes redempcyon,”15 and he deals specifically with the three that are received upon the approach of death—penance, holy eucharist, and extreme unction. Furthermore, the church teaches that the sacrament of penance is necessary for the restoration of grace to the mortal sinner, unless he make an act of perfect contrition for his offenses against God. But Everyman does not have perfect sorrow, since his concern is not that he has offended an all-good and all-loving creator. It is at first motivated only by a desire of avoiding punishment for his sin, and is rather to be called attrition than contrition. Besides, according to church doctrine, even perfect contrition implies an intention of confessing one's sins sacramentally when the opportunity occurs.16 Hence the need for Knowledge to lead Everyman to sacramental confession in order that his Good Deeds may be able to rise. Next the hero, having become truly contrite through the instruction of Knowledge and the grace of the sacrament, is advised to

Go to presthode …
And receyue of hym in ony wyse
The holy sacrament and oyntement togyder;

(ll. 707-709)

that is, holy eucharist and extreme unction. At this point comes the “digression” of Five Wits and Knowledge, during part of which the main character is offstage for the only time in the play. It is the absence of Everyman and the introduction of these speeches immediately before the final climax that trouble persons who criticize the passage as a structural weakness. Yet, if one bears in mind that this is “a treatyse … in maner of a morall playe” intended to dramatize Everyman's discovery of the way to eternal bliss, the suitability and even the stage effectiveness of these speeches become clear. The eulogy of priesthood is important at this moment because of the incalculable value to Everyman of penance and the eucharist. Echoing various passages in Scripture, Five Wits tells Everyman of priests that

God hath to them more power gyuen
Than to ony aungell that is in heuen
With.v. wordes he may consecrate
Goddes body in flesshe and blode to make
And handeleth his maker bytwene his hande
The preest byndeth and vnbyndeth all bandes
Both in erthe and in heuen.

(ll. 735-741)17

Since normally only the sacrament of penance can restore grace to the mortal sinner, the power of the priest to bind and unbind is obviously crucial in the scheme of salvation. Everyman is also urged to receive the eucharist, for although the church does not hold that the reception of Christ's body and blood is absolutely necessary, there are weighty authorities to emphasize its importance. Christ himself had said, “nisi manducaveritis carnem Filii hominis, et biberitis ejus sanguinem, non habebitis vitam in vobis” (John vi, 54). And Aquinas, while he does not say that actual reception of the eucharist is essential, argues that at least the implicit desire to receive it is fundamental to the consummation of the spiritual life.18 Now the author sends Everyman offstage for twenty-two lines to partake of the last sacraments while Knowledge and Five Wits deliver to the audience a sermon designed to stress the validity of the sacraments regardless of the moral condition of the minister. The very fact that it contains an admonition to the clergy to lead upstanding lives is the clue to the significance of the sermon in the action. If priests give scandal by their conduct, the faithful may stay away from the sacraments and, by so denying themselves access to the means of grace, perhaps lose the opportunity to be saved.

The communion of Everyman is not dramatized, possibly out of a sense of decorum, and the supposedly digressive sermon serves here to express a truth that the hero has learned through his experience. The “digression” is skilfully wrought, even to the point of presenting the lesson chiefly through the speeches of Five Wits, rather than one of the other characters, because “A sacrament is a visible [that is, sensibly evident] sign which imparts grace to our soul.”19 Moreover, the episode is dramatically timely, for it occurs just before the natural powers will be weakened and must depart from Everyman, leaving only the grace received through the sacraments to sustain him and to make his Good Deeds effectual. Thus, when for a moment he again feels abandoned, “O Iesu helpe all hath forsaken me” (l. 851), he and the audience become ready for the final lesson. Again Good Deeds is ready to come to his aid, but at this final climax she is really able to assist him, having been made efficacious by the infusion of grace which Everyman has received from the sacraments administered by the priest. This, then, is the message of the play which dramatization of Everyman's escape from his original predicament has made clear. In order to be saved not only must a man perform good deeds; he must perform them as a faithful Christian with the aid of the graces that are channeled to him through the church. Though death is the conclusion, the moment is one of release and exaltation, as in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, for the meaning of the pattern has been fully revealed to the protagonist as he reaches the end of the tragic experience. Like Oedipus, Everyman discovers that it is better for a man to face reality and to learn what he really is and has, no matter what suffering the discovery may cost him, than to spend his life in pursuing illusions.

A successful play reveals what it has to say through the experience of its characters; all other message is dramatically gratuitous and were better put into some sort of Shavian preface. Everyman, conceived primarily to expound doctrine and to inspire to the good life, is powerful in both teaching and moving because in its construction the doctrinal and dramatic orders have been made perfectly to coincide and because what one learns from the play grows naturally out of the action itself. Instead of being “indefensible” and inessential to an appreciation of the work, the theology presented actually determines the structure of the morality and helps to give it the place it admittedly deserves as the most successful thing of its kind in English literature.


  1. Skot published two editions of Everyman at London early in the sixteenth century. A single copy of each edition, known as the Huth (Short-Title Catalogue 10605) and Britwell (STC 10606) copies, has survived. All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the reprint of the Britwell copy made by W. W. Greg for W. Bang's Materialien zur Kunde des älteren englischen Dramas, IV (Louvain, 1904).

  2. Quoted from a newspaper interview with Poel (London Daily Chronicle, 3 September 1913) in Robert Speaight, William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival (London, 1954), p. 166. In evaluating these remarks, one must bear in mind Poel's known opposition to any alliance between church and stage, plus his antagonism toward organized religion and toward the Catholic Church in particular.

  3. This often reaffirmed doctrine is perhaps most emphatically stated in Pope Boniface VIII's bull “Unam sanctam,” 18 November 1302, which begins: “Unam sanctam ecclesiam catholicam et ipsam apostolicam urgente fide credere cogimur et tenere, nosque hanc firmiter credimus et simpliciter confitemur, extra quam nec salus est, nec remissio peccatorum, etc.” (Corpus Juris Canonici, ed. Aemilius Ludovicus Richter [Leipzig, 1839], II, 1159). A possibility of salvation for virtuous persons who have failed to become members of the true church through no fault of their own is admitted, it must be granted; St. Augustine says, for example, that baptism “impletur invisibiliter, cum ministerium Baptismi non contemptus religionis, sed articulus necessitatis excludit” (De Baptismo Contra Donatistas, IV, xxii, 29, in Migne, Patrologia Latina, XLIII, 173); and Pope Pius IX declared in 1854 that, while no man can be saved outside the Catholic Church, “tamen pro certo pariter habendum est, qui verae religionis ignorantia laborent, si ea sit invincibilis, nulla ipsos obstringi huiusce rei culpa ante oculos Domini” (“Singulari quidam,” 9 December 1854, Pii IX Pontificis Maximi Acta [Rome, 1854], I, 624). It is to be remembered, however, that while a possibility of salvation without baptism by water is admitted, no pontiff or council says that anyone may be saved outside the universal church. For all practical purposes, baptism is held to be essential to salvation. This belief is demonstrated by Dante's placing even the most virtuous pagans in limbo, the first circle of hell (Inferno, Canto iv). With regard to Everyman, it is apparent that the author is concerned only with an audience who are already members of the church. The play is about the means by which one is restored to grace after failing to lead a virtuous life, and it is to be assumed that Everyman is already a baptized Christian.

  4. The teaching of the church on this matter is clarified in the condemnation by Pope Clement V and the Council of Vienne, 1311-1312, of the following tenet of the Beghards and Beguines: “Quod se in actibus exercere virtutum est hominis imperfecti, et perfecta anima licentiat a se virtutes” (Corpus Juris Canonici, II, 1100). The doctrine is further supported by Pope Pius V's condemnation, in his bull “Ex omnibus afflictionibus,” 1 October 1567, of certain heretical teachings about good works of the theologian Michel du Bay (Canones et Decreta Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Tridentinii [Leipzig, 1839], p. 136), and by later condemnations of the doctrines of Miguel de Molinos and the Quietists.

  5. “Sed quare hos eligit in gloriam et illos reprobavit, non habet rationem nisi divinam voluntatem. Unde Augustinus dicat (super Joan. tract. 26, non rem. a pr.): Quare hunc trahat et illum non trahat, noli velle dijudicare, si non vis errare” (Summa Theologica, I, q. xxiii, art. 5). In another place Aquinas says, “Cum autem Deus hominum qui in eisdem peccatis detinentur hos quidem praeveniens convertat, illos autem sustineat sive permittat secundum ordinem rerum procedere, non est ratio inquirenda quare hos convertat et non illos; hoc enim ex simplici ejus voluntate processit quod, cum omnia fierent ex nihilo, quaedam facta sunt aliis digniora, et sicut ex simplici voluntate procedit artificis ut ex eadem materia similiter disposita quaedam vasa format ad nobiles usus et quaedam ad ignobiles” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, ch. 161. All quotations from the works of Aquinas are taken from Opera Omnia secundum impressionem Petri Fiaccadori Parmae 1852-1873 [New York, 1948-1950]).

  6. Jacobus de Voragine, “The Life of S. Barlaam,” The Golden Legend, trans. William Caxton (London, 1900), VII, 94-95; The thrie Tailes of the thrie Priests of Peblis (Edinburgh, 1603). Other versions of the story interpret the significance of the three friends in the same way, with the exception of An Alphabet of Tales, in which “þe iij frend is almighti God, whilk þatt putt His life & His sawle for His friends when He suffred His passion” (ed. Mary McLeod Banks, EETS, 126-127 [London, 1904], I, 42-43).

  7. “Sicut palmes non potest ferre fructum a semetipso, nisi manserit in vite: sic nec vos, nisi in me manseritis” (John XV, 4). In 1415 the Council of Constance condemned John Huss' view that all the works of the unjustified were evil; on the other hand, that good works of themselves do not merit salvation is also made clear in the condemnation of the following teaching of du Bay: “Sicut opus malum ex natura sua est mortis aeternae meritorium, sic bonum opus ex natura sua est vitae aeternae meritorium” (Pius V, loc. cit.)

  8. “Si quis dixerit, sine praeveniente Spiritus Sancti inspiratione atque eius adiutorio hominem credere, sperare, et diligere aut poenitere posse, sicut oportet, ut ei iustificationis gratia conferatur: anathema sit” (Council of Trent, 1547, Session VI, De iustificatione, Canon III, Canones … Tridentini, p. 13). Likewise, Aquinas says “quod homo convertatur ad Deum, hoc non potest esse nisi Deo ipsum convertente” (Summa Theologica, II: Part i, q. cix, art. 6).

  9. For example, Henry de Vocht, Everyman A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources, Materials for the Study of the Old English Drama, New Series, XX (Louvain, 1947), pp. 57-60, gives extensive evidence from the OED to demonstrate that knowledge is used in the play in the now obsolete sense of acknowledgment, while he denies that the Flemish kennisse can be taken in the same sense. In an answer to De Vocht, J. van Mierlo, Die Prioriteit van Elckerlijc tegenover Everyman Gehandhaafd (Turnhout, 1948), shows that kennisse also can be taken to mean “acknowledgment or awareness of one's inner state of sin.” Early in the controversy, Francis A. Wood, “Elckerlijc-Everyman: The Question of Priority,” Modern Philology, VIII (1910), 283, asserted that kennisse means contrition and was wrongly translated in Everyman as knowledge! The important fact here is not the argument over which of the terms, the English or the Flemish one, is appropriate, but the agreement of these scholars that the character is intended to represent acknowledgment of sin.

  10. The same passage in Greg's reprint of the Huth copy (Bang's Materialien, XXIV [Louvain, 1909]) reads:

    But I praye yon [sic] to instructe me by intelleccyon
    Where dwellyth that holy vertue confessyon.
  11. L. A. Cormican, “Morality Tradition and the Interludes,” The Age of Chaucer, ed. Boris Ford (London, 1954), p. 191. Cormican explains the function of Knowledge in the following way: “Knowledge sets the process of salvation in motion by coming of her own accord to Everyman (faith was a gratuitous gift of God, not attainable by man's striving); she then leads Everyman to Confession, the sacraments of Eucharist and Last Anointing, by which he is prepared for reception into heaven.” But it is quite evident that Knowledge comes because Good Deeds has pointed out to Everyman that he ought to recognize and acknowledge his sins. This fact indicates his need, not of faith or understanding, but of repentance. Besides, faith would not necessarily lead one to sacramental confession, whereas a sincere acknowledgment of one's sinfulness would. The sacramental emphasis of the morality is integral and inescapable. It is apparent that the writer was not much concerned about the “faith” of his audience, but that he wanted to drive home to them the point that recognition of their human sinfulness and helplessness should lead them to the sacraments as the normal means by which men receive life-giving grace.

  12. Concerning the manner in which one should regard and use his natural powers, Aquinas says: “Est igitur naturaliter rectum quod sic procuretur ab homine corpus et inferiores vires animae ut ex hoc et actus rationis et bonum ipsius minime impediatur, magis autem juvetur. Si autem secus acciderit, erit naturaliter peccatum. …

    “Praeterea, Unicuique naturaliter conveniunt ea quibus tendit in suum finem naturalem; quae autem e contrario se habent sunt ei naturaliter inconvenientia. Ostensum est autem supra quod homo naturaliter ordinatur in Deum sicut in finem. Ea igitur quibus homo inducitur in cognitionem et amorem Dei sunt naturaliter recta; quaecumque vero e contrario se habent sunt naturaliter homini mala” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, ch. 129).

  13. “In ipsa enim divina visione ostendimus esse hominis beatitudinem, quae vita aeterna dicitur; ad quam sola Dei gratia ducimur et dicimur pervenire, quia talis visio omnem creaturae facultatem excedit, nec est possibile ad eam pervenire nisi divino munere; quae autem sic adveniunt creaturae Dei gratiae deputantur” (Aquinas, ibid., III, ch. 52).

  14. Concerning this matter, Aquinas asserts that “quamvis charitas sit nunc causa dolendi de peccato, tamen sancti in patria erunt ita perfusi gaudio, quod dolor in eis locum habere non poterit: et ideo de peccatis non dolebunt, sed potius gaudebunt de divina misericordia, qua eis peccata sunt relaxata” (Summa Theologica, III, q. lxxxvii, art. 1).

  15. In affirmation of the general necessity of the sacraments for salvation, the Council of Trent in 1547 issued the following pronouncement: “Si quis dixerit, sacramenta novae legis non esse ad salutem necessaria, sed superflua, et sine eis aut eorum voto per solam fidem homines a Deo gratiam iustificationis adipisci, licet omnia singulis necessaria non sint, anathema sit” (Session VII, De sacramentis in genere, Canon IV, Canones … Tridentini, p. 17). Aquinas likewise says: “Quia vero, sicut jam dictum est, mors Christi est quasi universalis causa humanae salutis, universalem autem causam oportet applicari ad unumquemque effectum, necessarium fuit exhiberi hominibus quaedam remedia per quae eis beneficium mortis Christi quodammodo conjungeretur. Hujusmodi autem esse dicuntur Ecclesiae sacramenta” (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, ch. 56).

  16. Condemned as an error by the Council of Constance in 1418 was the following teaching of John Wiclif: “Si homo fuerit debite contritus, omnis confessio exterior est sibi superflua et inutilis” (Ioannes Dominicus Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova, et Amplissima Collectio [Paris and Leipzig, 1903], XXVII, 1207E). Aquinas gives the positive statement of the church's position on sacramental confession: “Ideo, sicut sine baptismo, in quo operatur passio Christi, non potest esse salus hominibus, ut realiter suscepto vel secundum propositum desiderato (quando necessitas, non contemptus, sacramentum excludit), ita peccantibus post baptismum salus esse non potest, nisi clavibus Ecclesiae se subjiciant, vel actu confitendo et judicium ministrorum Ecclesiae subeundo, vel saltem hujus rei propositum habendo, ut impleatur tempore opportuno” (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, ch. 72).

  17. Scriptural authority for ll. 737-39 is Luke xxii, 19: “Et accepto pane gratias egit, et fregit, et dedit eis, dicens: Hoc est corpus meum, quod pro vobis datur: hos facite in meam commemorationem.” For ll. 740-41, the authority is Matthew xvi, 19: “Et tibi dabo claves regni coelurum. Et quodcumque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum et in coeli; et quodcumque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in coeli.”

  18. In distinguishing between the necessity of baptism and the necessity of the eucharist, Aquinas says: “Et ideo perceptio baptismi est necessaria ad inchoandam spiritualem vitam, perceptio autem Eucharistiae est necessaria ad consummandam ipsam, non ad hoc quod simpliciter habeatur, sed sufficit eam habere in vota, sicut et finis habetur in desiderio et intentione” (Summa Theologica, III, q. lxxiii, art. 3). The importance of Everyman's reception of the eucharist in his progress toward salvation is thus very great. The same article of the Summa concludes with the words: “Eucharistia dicitur sacramentum charitatis, quae est vinculum perfectionis.

  19. Wilhelm Faerber, Cathechism for the Catholic Parochial Schools of the United States (St Louis, 1942), p. 62. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. lx, art. 4. That the character Five Wits represents the outer, not the inner, senses is evident not only from this passage but also from the earlier promise made to Everyman: “We wyll not departe for swete ne soure” (l. 687). It is appropriate for Five Wits to instruct Everyman in this instance, because “per sacramentorum institutionem homo convenienter suae naturae eruditur per sensibilia” (Summa Theologica, III, q. lxi, art. 1).

Helen S. Thomas (essay date 1960-61)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4165

SOURCE: Thomas, Helen S. “The Meaning of the Character Knowledge in ‘Everyman’.” Mississippi Quarterly 14, no. 1 (winter 1960-61): 3-13.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses representation of the character Knowledge in Everyman as a Wisdom figure.]

The problem that has troubled scholars for many years is whether in the play Everyman,1 which is, as its title states, a “treatyse” in the manner of a “morall playe,” the important character Knowledge really signifies “knowledge.” The intention of the play is to show to the sinner summoned by death the path to salvation through the sacraments of the Church. The character Knowledge is designated the guide and counselor of Everyman in his journey to salvation. As is usual in the medieval journey allegories, the final counselor is recommended by some intermediary virtue, in this case by Good Deeds, who has been rendered too weak by Everyman's sins to accompany him but who recommends her sister Knowledge as one who will take him where he shall heal his “smarte” and release his good deeds so that they may be of assistance in his final reckoning before God. Everyman is relieved and delighted at the prospect of help, and Knowledge advises him to go to “confessyon that clensyng ryuere.” She gives him the requested “cognycyon” as to where Confession dwells—in the “hous of saluacyon”; there, after confession, he receives penance for his sins. Knowledge counsels him to perform the penance faithfully so that he can make his account clear and his reckoning sure. Everyman flogs his body in punishment for its sins, thus fulfilling his penance and releasing Good Deeds from her paralysis. Knowledge then brings him the “garmente of sorowe” which is true contrition and Everyman puts it on. The next function of Knowledge is to counsel Everyman to “call to mynde / Your fyue wyttes as for your counseylours,” and to go to “presthode” and receive the “holy sacrament and oyntement togyder” or the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and of extreme unction. She accompanies Everyman as far as the grave but there leaves him, predicting that his soul will be well received in heaven since Good Deeds will make all sure.

The question that comes to the mind of the modern reader is why this important counselor and guide to Everyman should be called Knowledge. Is knowledge what Everyman needs at this stage of his life when he has already received Death's summons? What kind of knowledge could possibly serve him at this late hour? Not finding any answer to these questions, modern critics have denied that this character really represents knowledge. Francis A. Wood, in an article “Elckerlijc-Everyman: The Question of Priority” (Modern Philology, VIII [Oct. 1910], 279-302), assuming that the English play is a translation of the Dutch, writes that Knowledge in Everyman means “acknowledgment, confession,” which is one of the meanings of the Dutch word Kenisse used for the character in Elckerlijc. He concludes (p. 285) that the English translator should have translated the Dutch kenisse by “rue” or “contrition,” since the character Kenisse leads Elckerlijc to confession. He even uses as evidence of the priority of the Dutch play this supposed mistranslation of kenisse by the English author. He writes that the Dutch author knew the doctrine of the Catholic Church—namely, that contrition leads to confession—and named his character Kenisse or Contrition accordingly, whereas the English author was not familiar with this teaching of the church and so translated kenisse as knowledge.

Since John Matthews Manly refers favorably to Wood's arguments about the priority of the Dutch play in an article published in the same issue with the article of Wood's (pp. 269-277), it may be assumed that he did not find fault with Wood's conclusion, that knowledge should have been translated as “rue,” “contrition,” or “acknowledgment.”

A third critic, Henry de Vocht, arguing for the priority of the English play, in a long study on Everyman published in Materials for the Study of Old English Drama, 1947,2 thinks, in opposition to Wood, that the Dutch word kenisse, which he says means knowledge, and never contrition, is a poor translation for the very appropriate English word knowledge, which in the play means “acknowledgement” or “confession” (pp. 60, 63). He quotes from the NED to show that the word knowledge, from the fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century, meant “acknowledgment, recognition of the position or claims (of any one), confession (of one's mistake), the very confessio which is considered as ‘dimidiata expiato’” (p. 60). He agrees with Wood that the meaning confession, contrition, or acknowledgment is correct for the character Knowledge as is shown by her function in the play since she prepares Everyman, goes with him to confession, and afterwards helps him fulfill his penance (p. 61). He sees this acknowledgment as one of the four parts of confession, which he enumerates as contrition, confession, penance or satisfaction, and absolution” (p. 61). He continues by saying that “Knowledge [i. e., the character Knowledge] comprises the declaration of the sins to the priest, and also the idea of sorrow, of contrition, or at least, the result of contrition (p. 61). But, reversing the argument and the conclusion of Wood, he thinks that the English play is the original since, he says, the Dutch kenisse can never mean contrition, and the sense of the play calls for the character Knowledge to be contrition or at least acknowledgment of one's sins in a contrite manner.

Ten years later, Lawrence V. Ryan in his article, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman (Speculum, XXXII [Oct. 1957], 722-735), briefly reviews the scholarship in the Elckerlijc-Everyman controversy and concludes that regardless of which is the original, the Dutch or the English play, the important fact emerges that every critic agrees that the character Knowledge is intended to represent “acknowledgment of sin” (p. 728). Like the other critics he says that Knowledge, as shown by the dialogue of the play, means “‘contrition’ or, better, ‘acknowledgment of one's sin’” (p. 728).

In reviewing these scholarly opinions on the meaning of the character Knowledge in Everyman, the thought arises: How simplifying it would be if the word knowledge could mean knowledge—if the character Knowledge could indeed represent knowledge in the play and still be true to the doctrinal system of this Catholic “treatyse … in the maner of a morall playe.” The Dutch word kenisse evidently has as its primary meaning, knowledge; the English knowledge has as its primary meaning, knowledge; and the Latin word for this character, Cognitio, in the translation of the play called Homulus, has as its primary meaning, knowledge. How convenient if these three could be allowed to mean knowledge.

Henry de Vocht's statement that the word knowledge meant acknowledgment or confession “from the fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century” is only a part of the truth. He quotes examples from the NED to prove his point. But the literature of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries shows that the word knowledge was also used extensively to mean knowledge in the sense of “acquaintance with truths.” In fact, the NED quotes several examples of this meaning which are ignored by de Vocht: from the Cursor Mundi, dating the citations around 1300 and 1350; from Barbour's Bruce, 1375; and from Caxton's Fables of Alfonce, 1484. The word knowledge used in the sense of “acquaintance with truths” also may be found in the following works: Chaucer's Parson's Tale; The Court of Sapience, ca. 1465; Caxton's Royal Book, 1484, a translation of Friar Lorens' Somme le Roi; Caxton's Doctrinal of Sapience, 1489; Ratis Raving; Mundus et Infans, printed 1522; John Bale's play The Preaching of John the Baptist, 1538; and in the title of Sir Thomas Elyot's dialogue Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man, 1533. Thus, as far as literary usage is concerned, it would be quite possible, and even probable, for the word knowledge to mean “acquaintance with truths” in Everyman, which probably dates around the end of the fifteenth century.

But what kind of knowledge? The answer to this question may be found in the many medieval allegorical treatises on the search of man for the path to salvation. This search is represented sometimes as a journey to Jerusalem as in Chaucer's Parson's Tale and in Lydgate's The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, and sometimes as advice on how to learn to die as in Hoccleve's dialogue How to Learn to Die and the Orologium Sapientiae. In Everyman the search for salvation is both a journey, though not to Jerusalem, and a lesson in the ars moriendi. Invariably in the search for salvation, there is a Sapience or Wisdom figure, a Dame Sapience, a Sapientiae, a Reason, or a Parson who points out the proper way and gives the necessary counsel. The Sapience figure in Hoccleve's dialogue, in the fifth section of the Orologium Sapientiae, and in the morality play Wisdom represents Christ, who is the wisdom of God. In The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man Grace Dieu is the Wisdom figure who introduces the pilgrim to other subordinate Wisdom figures such as Dame Penance and Dame Reason. In Lydgate's Reason and Sensuallyte the Wisdom figure Dame Nature presents the hero to Reason, who will show him the way to the celestial Jerusalem if he will follow her counsel instead of that of Sensuality. Dame Sapience, in the Court of Sapience, attended by Intellygence and Science, represents the knowledge of things divine and human which is necessary for man's salvation:

Hyt ys my part to know diuinite,
My sustyr here hath knowledge diligent
Of creatures in heuen and erthe content,
And Dame Science of thyngis temporall
Hath knowledge pure; thus mayst thou know vs all.
Of vs all thre I am the most souerayn,
And yf the lyste me discryue and defyne,
I am the trew propyr knowledge certayn
Of erthely thyng, and eke of thyng diuyne.(3)

The character Knowledge in Everyman is the Sapience or Wisdom figure who counsels the hero on the right way to salvation. She teaches him how to make his account sure and his reckoning clear. She is like Dame Sapience, who has the “trew propyr knowledge certayn” which will release his Good Deeds and make his soul acceptable to God at the end of his journey. This “trew propyr knowledge certayn” she gives to Everyman as she leads him through the sacraments of the Church in preparation for the return of Death. As a Sapience or Wisdom figure, Knowledge represents two well-defined aspects of the medieval personification of Wisdom: knowledge and good counsel.4

It will be well to examine the role of Knowledge as good counsel first, though the two aspects of Wisdom overlap—good counsel being based on knowledge. After Death's summons, Everyman has a brief time to prepare for his journey—the rest of that day.

He laments:

The day passeth and is almoost ago
I wote not well what to do.

(ll. 194-195)

Not knowing what to do or where to turn, he needs a good counselor who from “trew propyr knowledge certayn” can show him the path to salvation in his special situation. First he tries Felawship, Kynrede, and Cosyn, who are not wise counselors and who refuse him help. Felawship refuses to accompany him on his journey but will help him murder someone if he wishes. Everyman answers:

O that is a symple aduyse in dede,

(l. 283)

Thus Felawship gives the hero evil advice or counsel in his hour of need. Next Everyman goes to Riches or Goods and requests counsel:

Come hyder good in al the hast thou may
For of counseyll I must desyre the.

(ll. 399-400)

Riches refuses to help him; Everyman dejectedly summarizes the refusals of help which he has received from his worldy friends and asks:

Of whome shall I now counseyll take.

(l. 478)

Remembering his Good Deeds, he seeks her counsel:

O good dedes I stande in fere
I must you pray of counseyll
For helpe now sholde come ryght well.

(ll. 489-491)

He asks her to help him make his account clear even if she cannot accompany him on his journey:

Good dedes your counseyll I pray gyue me.

(l. 516)

In reply, Good Deeds introduces the hero to her sister, the Wisdom figure Knowledge, who will help him make “that dredefull rekenynge.” Knowledge promises to go with him and be his guide. As we have seen, she advises him to accompany her to Confession “that clensyng ryuere” and gives him “cognycyon” of where he dwells in the “hous of saluacyon.” She gives him further helpful knowledge in telling him to ask mercy of Confession for he is in “good conceyte with god almyghty.” Confession gives him penance to perform for his sins. Knowledge advises him:

Euery man loke your penaunce that ye fulfyll
What payne that euer it to you be
And knowledge shall gyue you counseyll at wyll
How your accounte ye shall make clerely.

(ll. 577-580)

She informs him after his penance is done that his Good Deeds are now whole and able to assist him in his reckoning. Knowledge has guided him to the right road to salvation—Confession and Penance. She next presents him with the “garmente of sorowe” and Everyman seeks further knowledge from her:

Gentyll knowledge what do ye it call.

(l. 642)

She answers:

It is a garmente of sorowe
Fro payne it wyll you borowe
Contrycyon it is
That getteth forgyuenes
He pleasyth god passynge well.

(ll. 643-647)

From her Everyman is receiving the necessary knowledge for the salvation of his soul. Knowledge is joined now by other counselors: Good Deeds, who suggests calling in Discretion, Strength, and Beauty to aid him in his journey; Fyue Wyttes, suggested by Knowledge, who says

Also ye must call to mynde
Your fyue wyttes as for your counseylours.

(ll. 662-663)

Knowledge of the proper counselors is essential to a man's salvation. Also, being able to receive good counsel and distinguish it from bad is a gift of the Holy Ghost.5

Everyman, being summoned by Death, needs still further knowledge of the path to salvation. The character Knowledge gives it to him in the form of wise counsel:

Euery man herken what I saye
Go to presthode I you aduyse
And receyue of hym in ony wyse
The holy sacrament and oyntement togyder.

(ll. 706-709)

Fyue Wyttes, acting as auxiliary counselor, seconds Knowledge's suggestion and disgresses into a short sermon on the value of the seven sacraments of the church (though Everyman needs only the last two at this time) and the powers of priesthood. After Everyman returns from these sacraments, he gratefully says:

Blyssyd be all thye that counseyled me to take it.

(l. 775)

Knowledge, as counselor, has led Everyman to a safe death with Good Deeds to accompany him to the grave. She predicts a happy reception for his soul and hears the angels singing. She has helped Everyman make his reckoning “crystall clere” as the angel says. Without her counsel he should have been damned. This aspect of the character Knowledge represents good counsel, which was recognized in medieval literature as one of the attributes of personified Wisdom or Sapience, ideally represented by Christ6 but actually often found in lesser Wisdom figures.

It is true that the best counsel was thought to come from Christ, who is the “fontayne of alle sapyence” or wisdom, but good counsel also comes from wise men who represent in the allegories many different virtues: Reason, Conscience, Humility, Mercy, Sapience. Or, as we have seen in Everyman, Fyue Wyttes and Good Deeds act as good counselors. Although the counselors differ in nature, some being divine or semi-divine and some being merely human, they all have in common the attribute knowledge—“trew propyr certayne / Of erthely thyng, and eke of thyng diuyne.” From this knowledge, the counselors instruct man in the proper path to salvation, in the way to the celestial Jerusalem. Chaucer's Parson instructs his audience to this happy city through the Sacrament of Penance though he admits there are other paths. Knowledge, in Everyman, also leads the hero down this path of Confession, Penance, and Contrition toward the heavenly reckoning. She also includes instruction on the other two necessary sacraments—essential for Everyman since he is at the point of death. She is knowledge of the “trew propyr” way “certayn” to Jerusalem.

As a Wisdom figure, full of knowledge, the character Knowledge is obligated to give advice to the man near death. In Caxton's Royal Book (section cxxxj), giving good counsel is listed as one of the spiritual works of mercy: the fourth branch of mercy is to give good comfort and counsel to the sick man, that he despair not, “For at nede is seen who is a frende / and in aduersyte is the good and trewe frende proude.” Knowledge proves a true friend, giving comfort and counsel to Everyman, who is in the position of a sick man. In Ratis Raving, Bk. II, “The Folys of Fulys and the Thewis of Wysmen,” it is shown that man has the duty or obligation of giving good counsel if he has the knowledge:

Quharfor thir men, that has knawleg,
Suld tech that ware of tender age.
For quha conselys wysdome or wyt
And nocht delitis to tech of It,
He synnys mar excedandly,
And offendis god mar grewosly,
Na for tyll hurd gret quantyte
Of gold, that neuer fundyne suld bee.(7)

In Lydgate's Reson and Sensuallyte, Dame Nature, the Wisdom figure, instructs the author in a vision that God has given man two ways of knowing: “Twoo maners of knowlychynge.”8 The first is called “the vertu sensytif” or the five wits and the second is Reason or Understanding (ll. 741-746, 753-754). She advises him to hold to Reason's road, which leads to Heaven, and he goes out to see the world as “nature yaf him counsaylee.” These same two counselors are found in Everyman in Fyue Wyttes and Knowledge. They both give the hero knowledge about the right way to heaven.

In medieval literature, it was customary for wise counselors to advise those seeking counsel to rely on the Sacrament of Penance. In Ratis Raving, Bk. III, “Consail and Teiching at the Vys Man Gaif His Sone,” the counselor advises his son to confess often to a priest and do penance often in order to have the grace of God.9 The divine counselor, Grace Dieu, in Lydgate's Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, also advises the pilgrim to seek out Dame Penance as Death swings his scythe at him.10 In Lydgate's The Assembly of Gods or The Accord of Reason and Sensuality in the Fear of Death, Celestial Sapience, one of the many virtues who battle the Vices under the guidance of Divine Grace, does not advise the sacrament, but another one of the virtues, Conscience, reminiscent of the situation in Everyman when Good Deeds sends the hero to her sister Knowledge, sends Freewill to Humility who

… bad hym go to Confessyon
And shew hym hys master with a piteous look.
Whyche doon he hym sent to Contrycion,
And fro thensforth to Satysfaccion.
Thus fro poost to pylour was he made to daunce,
And at last he went forth to Penaunce.(11)

The audience at the performance of Everyman would have recognized the character Knowledge as a Wisdom figure whose function it was to counsel Everyman wisely from her store of knowledge and to send him to the Sacrament of Penance. But whether she is a divine counselor or a wise human counselor is not entirely clear from the text of the play. After the death of Everyman she remarks:

Now hath he suffred that we all shall endure.

(l. 887)

This would seen to place her in the ranks of sinful men who are subject to death. However, earlier in the play she has promised Everyman

And though this pylgrymage be neuer so stroge
I wyll neuer parte you fro
Euery man I wyll be as sure by the
As euer I dyde by Iudas Machabee.

(ll. 784-787)

By identifying herself with the Spirit of the Lord who guided Judas Maccabaeus in his struggles with his enemies, she seemingly takes on a divine nature.

But certainly, she is not contrition or confession or acknowledgment of one's sins in a contrite manner. She is a broader character than these meanings would allow. Everyman calls her “knowledge clere” when he praises God for his good counselors (l. 681). She brings the hero to true contrition, but she herself is not contrition. Rather she represents Knowledge expressed in the form of Good Counsel. The character Confession tells Everyman

I knowe your sorowe well euery man
Bycause with knowledge ye come to me
I wyll you comforte as well as I can.

(ll. 554-556)

Far from confirming the meaning contrition for the character Knowledge, this passage shows that the meaning of Knowledge is knowledge. Confession knows Everyman's “sorowe” well; that is, he is aware of Everyman's tribulation in having to make a reckoning of his life before he is ready to do so. He will comfort Everyman because he comes with “knowledge.” The word “knowledge” here evidently represents the character who has brought Everyman to confession as well as the signification of that character in the play. How would the medieval mind explain the signification knowledge in this context? What kind of knowledge would be of value to a sinner come to confession? Of course, the very fact that Everyman had sought out a confessor would show that he had the proper knowledge of the right way to salvation. But in addition he would be expected to have a detailed knowledge of the seven deadly sins and their many branches and twigs on which the medieval moral treatises dwell at length. For example, in Caxton's Royal Book, a late fifteenth century translation of the Somme le Roi, the necessity of knowing one's sins and of confessing them is emphasized:

here fynysshe thene the dedely synnes & all the braunches that descende of them / and knowe ye for throuthe that who shold wel studye in thys book he myght wel prouffyte & lerne to knowe al maner of synnes & to confesse hym self wel for none may confesse his synnes wel / yf he ne knowe hem not / Now thou oughtest to knowe that he that redeth in this book ought to thynke and take hede dylygently yf he be culpable of ony he ought to repent hym and anone to confesse hym dylygently & to kepe hym to hys power fro other synnes in whyche he is not culpable …

(sec. lix)

A knowledge of sins was necessary for proper shrift for it was desirable that the sinner be the one to bring forth his sins and the circumstances thereof as may be read in Caxton's Royal Book:

Thus thenne ought the synnar to dyscouer hys synnes to hys confessour for to haue mercy … also the synnar ought to confesse hym entyrely and hooly. … For he ought to saye alle hys synnes grete and lytel and all the cyrcumstaunces of the synnes. … For yf he faylle of hys acompte god shall not faylle of his.

(sec. cxxviii)

And in the early fifteenth century collection of sermons called Jacob's Well, it is added that there is less virtue in a confession if the priest must draw out of the sinner an account of the sins he has committed:

thi schryfte be examynacyoun of the preest suffyseth to thi saluacyoun, if thou kunne noght schryue the; but yit thi mede is the lesse, for thou wylt noght studyen ne trauaylen to leryn for to schryue the.12

Because Everyman comes to his confessor with the proper knowledge of his sins and of how to be shriven, Confession promises him comfort.

Thus Knowledge, as the Wisdom figure in the morality Everyman, must be allowed to mean knowledge—knowledge of the correct path to Jerusalem and knowledge of one's sins and the proper method of shrift. She also represents the good counsel which proceeds from such knowledge.


  1. Everyman, ed. W. W. Greg (Louvain, 1904), reprinted from the edition by John Skot.

  2. Materials for the study of the Old English Drama, XX, 1-228, “Everyman, A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources” (Louvain, 1947).

  3. Quoted by Sister Mary Francis Smith, Wisdom and Personification of Wisdom before 1500 (Washington, D. C., 1935), p. 20, n. 7, from the Court of Sapience, ed. Robert Spindler (Leipzig, 1927), pp. 129-130, ll. 150-158.

  4. Sister Mary Francis Smith has analyzed these two aspects, among others, of the Wisdom figure in English literature before 1500. See pp. 19-25, 26-33.

  5. Caxton's Royal Book (Sect. cxxix) analyzes the “yefte of counseyl” at length.

  6. Ibid.

  7. LI. 19-26, 319-324, and 329-330, EETS, OS, no. 43 (London, 1870).

  8. Ed, Ernest Sieper Vol. 1, EETS, ES, no. 84 (London, 1901), 1. 689.

  9. L1. 1-8. See fn. 7.

  10. John Lydgate, The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, Part II, ed. F. J. Furnivall, EETS, ES, no. 88 (London, 1901), 11. 24807-24828.

  11. Ed. O. L. Triggs, EETS, ES, no. 49 (London, 1896), 11, 1143-1148.

  12. An English Treatise on the Cleansing of Man's Conscience ed. Arthur Brandeis, EETS, OS, no. 115 (London, 1900), p. 179. Original spelling has been changed because of printing difficulties.

Thomas F. Van Laan (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8706

SOURCE: Van Laan, Thomas F. “Everyman: A Structural Analysis.” Publications of the Modern Language Association LXXVIII, no. 5 (December 1963): 465-75.

[In the following essay, Van Laan analyzes the dramatic structure of Everyman, which he argues contributes to the success of the religious drama.]

The high value of Everyman has been provocatively asserted in T. S. Eliot's description of it as “perhaps” the only English drama “within the limitations of art.”1 Eliot writes this while discussing the lack of form in post-Kydian drama and thus implies that the source of this value is the play's formal unity. David Kaula has taken Eliot to mean “that nothing in the play is extraneous to the central homiletic purpose, that all elements of style, structure, and theme are governed by the conventions of allegory.”2 Yet the emphasis on Everyman's homiletic purpose and allegorical conventions does not sufficiently explain either its critical esteem or its theatrical popularity. Fortunately, Eliot has enlarged upon his original assessment in a later work.3 He argues that religious drama, to be successful, must combine its doctrine with “ordinary dramatic interest.” Everyman fulfills his requirement:

the religious and the dramatic are not merely combined, but wholly fused. Everyman is on the one hand the human soul in extremity, and on the other any man in any dangerous position from which we wonder how he is going to escape—with as keen interest as that with which we wait for the escape of the film hero, bound and helpless in a hut to which his enemies are about to set fire.

The comparison isolates rather succinctly the quality which has given Everyman its eminence: it is not only perfect allegory; it tends also to be high drama. This fusion of religious doctrine and ordinary dramatic interest results directly from the play's fundamental formal principle. The human action and its allegorical significance together form a distinct structural pattern which not only imposes discipline but also contributes its own intrinsic meaning. Through this twofold function, the pattern simultaneously deepens the doctrinal content and evokes the indispensable emotional tension.4

The structural pattern of Everyman is suggestively defined by the somewhat superfluous prologue and epilogue. The Messenger, who introduces the play, reiterates a single point, “How transytory we be all daye.”5 Although he insists that the play's matter and intent are “wonderous precyous,” his speech is essentially negative. He focuses on the inevitability of death and the destructiveness of sin. His outline of the action anticipates but one of its phases, for he mentions only the loss to man of those associates and attributes that “fade … as floure in Maye.” He concludes by announcing God's call for a “generall rekenynge,” an event which must inspire despair in anyone who, like Everyman, has found life and sin “full swete.”6 The Doctor's epilogue provides a remarkable contrast. In addition to pointing the moral for the less discerning, the Doctor absolves the prologue's negative emphasis by stressing the positive elements of the second half of the play and by focusing upon a character-concept not mentioned in the prologue: the Good Deeds which do not desert man. The Messenger leads up to the threat posed by God's call for a reckoning, but the Doctor concludes by affirming Everyman's ultimate end:

                    he that hath his accounte hole and sounde,
Hye in heuen he shall be crounde.


The prologue and epilogue clearly distinguish a two-part structure. One movement, a falling action, occupies approximately the first half of the play; it traces Everyman's decline in fortune from Death's entrance, which shatters the apparent serenity of his life, to the depth of his despair, where he can foresee only eternal damnation. The second movement, a rising action, carries him from this nadir to his final salvation, symbolized by the words of the welcoming Angel.7 Detailed analysis reveals this two-part, descent-ascent structural pattern as the basic principle of the play's organization. More importantly, such an analysis also shows how this structure enriches the experience to which it gives form.

The first movement of the action begins at the highest possible schematic level, out of time and the world, in God's presence. In the medieval world-view, with its series of concentric spheres, the presence of the Prime Mover postulates infinite height. But the action already suggests descent: God observes Earth and its creatures. Moreover, like the speech of the Messenger, God's words are wholly negative in force, implying only the difficulty to come, omitting any indication of hope for mankind. In God's eyes, men are blind to spiritual matters and drowned in sin. Having forsaken their God for worldly prosperity, they grow steadily worse each day. Man has even forgotten the love which God manifested in suffering for him. But man's rejection has been to his own disadvantage because God now plans to “Haue a rekenynge of euery mannes persone” (46). The whole speech thus moves logically to its conclusion where God sees that He “nedes on them … must do iustyce” (61). The “majesty” stressed in the first line connotes only power; its nature is characterized by the harshness of such words as “ryghtwysnes, the sharpe rod” (28). God speaks only in His aspect of righteousness and justice: He is the God of Wrath. God the merciful is evoked only by the reference to His Passion, and in this context the Passion serves as one more justification for the threatening tone. The conception of God thus established dominates the whole first half of the play and becomes explicit in such devices as Everyman's use of “Adonay” (245), “hye kynge” (330), and “hyest Iupyter of all” (407) to identify his antagonist.

The falling action proceeds without interruption as the scene itself shifts from Heaven to Earth, where Death confronts the unsuspecting Everyman. Everyman's initial position in the pattern of descent can be precisely determined. He is, as his failure to expect or recognize Death demonstrates, totally unaware of any values higher than those of world and time. From this limited point of view he stands at the highest possible level: he has all the wealth he can possibly want; he has friends and kindred on whom, he believes, he can rely. The sudden pressure of eternity brought to bear on him forces him downward toward death, the very antithesis of his criteria for success. Thus the ubiquitous medieval metaphor of the Wheel of Fortune assists the cosmological scheme in symbolizing the descending pattern of action. Everyman rests at the top of the Wheel, at the apex of Fortune.8 Death's visit turns the Wheel. But even more shocking for Everyman is Death's demand that he make a reckoning to God. For while Everyman's own point of view is purely temporal, God's opening speech has already specified an entirely different point of view. Everyman's distorted values associate him with the generic “Euery man” of God's condemnation. In the first of the play's numerous self-echoes, Everyman's language emphasizes his vulnerability: his reaction to the demand for a reckoning (“This blynde mater troubleth my wytte,” 102) unconsciously repeats God's image in “Of ghostly syght the people be so blynde” (25). The downward action thus aims even beyond loss of life. Everyman's lack of preparedness directs him toward an even lower depth, eternal damnation.

Of this unavoidable implication, Everyman is not entirely aware. Although Death's visit troubles him, he still retains his earthly supports, and he now turns to these for help. The ensuing episodes define the falling action in a variety of ways, the first and most obvious of which delineates, in the loss of his worldly resources, Everyman's descent on the Wheel of Fortune. The effect which gives this whole section unity is visually symbolized by each of Everyman's earthly supports turning his back on him after denying him assistance. Everyman becomes more and more isolated and defenceless, a process heightened by the irony which has each deserter promise him aid before finally refusing it. Ultimately, he has nothing left; even his last resort, his Goods, proves to be no more than a temporary loan. In a further irony, the trussed, locked, and sacked Goods can also turn his back on the sinking hero. Death has left the stage, but his continued authority asserts itself through Goods's words, as “What! wenest thou that I am thyne … ? / Naye, Eueryman; I saye no. / As for a whyle I was lente the” (437-440) carefully echoes Death's mocking “What! wenest thou thy lyue is gyuen the, / And thy worldely goodes also … ? / Nay, nay; it was but lende the” (161-164).9

The second way in which these episodes have significance is through the conversion of Everyman's complacency into despair. This emotional pattern is formed in part by his changing appeal to his various associates. The length of the Fellowship episode reflects Everyman's confidence; he can withhold announcement of his precise need until he has successfully extracted a promise of assistance. The next episode, with Kindred and Cousin, is much briefer because Fellowship's desertion has shaken him. His anticipation is less sure: he “trusted” that Fellowship would help (203), he only “believes” that Cousin and Kindred will (315). Therefore he is more direct with them, telling them at once what he seeks, as if already expecting their refusal. His anticipation of the meeting with Goods indicates a further decline: “If that my Good now helpe me myght” (389). He quickly explains his situation to Goods, and without awaiting a reply begins to beg him for his help (409); close to hysteria, he varies plea with insistence and then with reproach. When he finally turns to Good Deeds, he has no confidence, no anticipation whatever: “Alas! she is so weke / That she can nother go nor speke” (482-483).

Between the episodes, Everyman remains alone on the stage, in a visual representation of his increasing loneliness. He expresses his reactions in soliloquy, and the separate speeches are linked by recurring motifs which emphasize the growing despair. The first motif consists of his abortive prayers. When Death leaves, Everyman cries out, “Lorde, helpe, that all wrought!” (192). Deserted by Fellowship, he echoes this cry with “A, Lady helpe!” (304). With Kindred and Cousin gone, he makes a third appeal: “A Iesus! is all come hereto?” (378). The prayers are similar in their brevity and their vehemence; they suggest a felt need to pray which is inhibited by excessive worldliness. At the same time, the three prayers create a progression of despair; he turns from a vague appeal to the power which now threatens him, to the Virgin, mankind's intercessor with his Saviour, and finally to the Saviour Himself. The order shows his growing awareness that he needs a Saviour, but the tone indicates little hope of moving Him. A second motif which links these soliloquies is Everyman's preoccupation with time. Death tells him he has but one day to get his account in order, then reminds him that “the tyde abydeth no man” (143). Throughout this section, Everyman fearfully notices the rapid movement of time (192, 194). He applies the motif to the deserters, who “fast awaye do … flee” (383). Abandoned by Cousin, he pauses to mourn, then realizes that “I lose my tyme here longer to abyde” (386). His interview with Goods convinces him that his whole life has been a “mysspendynge of tyme” (436). This preoccupation not only verbalizes the emotional pattern; by suggesting the sun sinking in the west, it evokes a new symbol for the falling action which the emotional pattern helps to define. A third and final motif uniting these soliloquies expresses, through the echoing of related words, the only sensation which Everyman can feel on his descent, that of his abject suffering. His heart is sick (133), he fears “endles sorowe” (172), his ever-worsening situation is a “dystresse” (391) and a “dysease” (403). Even Goods, by no means compassionate, characterizes Everyman's plight as a “dolour” (433) and as “this grete sorowe and care” (434). For Everyman, the suffering occasioned by his increasing despair epitomizes itself in a single forceful word, the “payne” which unites all these related expressions, and echoes throughout the desertion scenes (83, 191, 331).

The third way in which the desertion episodes contribute to the falling action is the most important of all because it pertains to the more encompassing point of view established in God's opening speech. The very fact that Everyman would seek help from such companions as Fellowship and Goods shows that, in his present state, he is damned.10 They represent aspects of life which can only condemn him, as Goods, whose name emphasizes the point through irony, triumphantly insists. But the severity of Everyman's peril is most conclusively established by the play's allegory, which here works on more than one level. These associates indeed represent friends and relatives and wealth, but the characterization given them points to a further, more threatening level of meaning. Their specific attributes combine with those of Everyman himself to make up a complete roster of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Everyman differs from the typical morality play in the narrow focus which has apparently excluded from the dramatis personae the usual comic characters, the Vices and the Seven Deadly Sins. But the Sins are certainly present in spirit. In the opening speech, God describes mankind's serfdom to “the seuen deedly synnes dampnable” (36). He enumerates “pryde, coueytyse, wrathe, and lechery” (37), adding “enuy” a little later (50). The list is incomplete, but as Morton Bloomfield has pointed out, the Middle Ages was so saturated with the concept that even partial enumeration effectively called attention to the whole.11 Medieval spectators knew the complete list, and they knew the typical characteristics of each Sin, for they met with them infrequently in other moralities and quite regularly in the Sunday sermon. They would thus see Everyman not only as a representative of themselves but also as a personification of Avarice. Everyman's addiction to the other pleasures in life is largely suggested by those with whom he associates, but his complete submission to Avarice dominates his own speech and behavior. Death prepares for Everyman's entrance by focusing on excessive love of riches (76). When Everyman finally grasps the sinister import of Death's visit, he offers a considerable bribe, one thousand pounds, in an attempt to defer the matter (121-123). All episodes in the first half of the play move climactically toward the scene with Goods, which delineates Everyman's most vicious involvement. His riches lie heaped up everywhere; he admits that he has loved Goods all his life (388). As the main figure in a morality, it is appropriate that he should personify what by the fifteenth century was rapidly replacing Pride as the chief of the Seven;12 as a man who has reached the age when Death approaches, it is equally appropriate that he should be possessed by the Sin naturally inherent to old age.13

God's speech and the presence of a fully achieved personification of Avarice prepare for details connoting other Sins. Fellowship's varying proposals contain much suggestive detail. He begins bravely enough:

If ony haue you wronged, ye shall reuenged be,
Thoughe I on the grounde be slayne for the,
Though that I knowe before that I sholde dye!


But when he realizes the ironic aptness of his words, he hastily retreats:

And yet, yf thou wylte ete, and drynke, and make good chere,
Or haunt to women the lusty company,
I wolde not forsake you. …


Finally, he settles upon a qualified version of his original offer:

But and thou wylte murder, or ony man kyll,
In that I wyll helpe the with a good wyll.


This vacillation gives Fellowship human reality; the details fill out his personification of “sporte and playe” (201). But there remains an excess not entirely accounted for by this single level of allegory. On the other hand, seen from the already established context of the Seven Deadly Sins, the double focus on murder suggests Wrath; revenge, the first thing that occurs to Fellowship, is a specific attribute of Wrath.14 The remaining details of eating, drinking, and frequenting questionable women denote Gluttony and Lechery, two Sins which, as here, are normally coupled in medieval accounts.15 These two Sins reappear in the refusals of Cousin and Kindred. Cousin “had leuer fast brede and water / All this fyue yere and more” than accompany Everyman (346-347), and the speech loses some of its point if the implication of Gluttony is ignored. Kindred re-introduces Lechery by offering Everyman, in lieu of his own accompaniment, his maid, who, since she loves to go to feasts, “there to be nyse” (361), is evidently no Beatrice. Further details, otherwise obscure, readily suggest Sloth and Envy. Cousin's curious excuse, “I haue the crampe in my toe” (356), does more than enliven him. Sloth is a sin of the feet: Sloth, or the slothful man, suffers from gout; sometimes his feet are gnawed.16 Cousin's cramp is wholly consistent with this tradition. Goods, whom Everyman had loved best, viciously upbraids him, rejoicing in his misfortune, glad that Everyman has brought himself into jeopardy: “I must nedes laugh; I can not be sadde” (456). Chaucer's Parson clarifies the significance of Goods's jubilation: “The seconde spece of Envye is joye of oother mannes harm.”17

Pride is the only one of the Seven Sins not evoked by specific verbal details. But Everyman, the personification of Avarice, is as hero equally likely to embody Pride, because this Sin, the original leader, continues to retain its prominence even while Avarice develops in importance,18 and one of the principal sources of Pride is wealth like that of Everyman's.19 His costume establishes a visual reference to Pride. Death's accusing question, “Whyder arte thou goynge / Thus gayly?” (85-86) indicates, as T. W. Craik has argued, the nature of Everyman's dress,20 and ostentatious clothing always signifies Pride.21 Everyman's adherence to Pride shows most clearly, however, in his early complacent acceptance of worldly life, a state which typifies the attitude Pride tries to instill in his victims.22 Lacking any notion of another, superior life, or of the death which links the two, Everyman imagines, in effect, that he can live forever; he suffers from Pride of Life, a condition perfectly exemplified by the king in the morality of that name:

I schal lyue ever mo
& croun ber as kinge;
I ne may neuer wit of wo;
I lyue at my likinge.(23)

Everyman naturally shows less and less evidence of pride as the falling action increasingly abases him; but this does not absolve his original guilt. He continues to be Pride's victim and thus its representation.24

Recognition that all Seven Deadly Sins participate in the downfall of Everyman demands reexamination of a view that the play fails to take evil seriously because its world “is not invaded by the Devil and his ministers, the personified vices.”25 On the contrary, this indirect representation of the Sins asserts an especially serious concept of evil. In other moralities the amusing farce of the personified Sins usurps all interest due the serious characters. The direct representation of the Sins undoubtedly demonstrates the active presence of evil, but their amusing activity threatens to obscure the homiletic purpose. Everyman eliminates this possible danger through the creation of two levels of allegory. The Sins are subsumed to the serious purpose because they are realized only on the second level and by the same characters who denote the friendship, family, riches, and mankind of the first. Everyman personifies two Sins, and the qualities which suggest the other five are shared by the remaining characters. This unsystematic distribution preserves the first level of allegory even while the second asserts itself. Since the function of the allegory is to infuse the human action of the surface with greater meaning, the order in which the two levels are established has great structural importance. The first level, more apparent, shows Everyman's over-reliance on worldly things; the second, slower to achieve realization, sustains the downward movement by particularizing this over-reliance as submission to the Seven Deadly Sins. God's opening characterization of man is thus made concrete in the action. The threat looms more ominously than ever before: unless man can in some way release himself from sin he must remain entirely devoid of hope. Everyman is not only a willing victim of the Sins but he does not even go beyond them in his search for help.

Deserted by Goods, Everyman summarizes the preceding episodes in soliloquy (463-478), heavily emphasizing the elements which illustrate his descent. Then, without hope, he turns to Good Deeds. She continually declares her willingness to help him; but once again irony occurs, for the visual image presents her as supine and possibly shackled. She regretfully adds to each insistence an admission of her sheer incapacity. Everyman stares helplessly at his book of account, which Good Deeds, in another image echoing God's description of man's spiritual blindness, calls “a blynde rekenynge in tyme of dystres” (508). She verbalizes the pity which Everyman's increasing hopelessness has instilled in the audience (“I am sory of your fall; / And fayne wolde I helpe you, and I were able,” 514-515), and her choice of the word “fall” to describe Everyman's progress epitomizes the whole preceding action. The word marks his complete defeat. He realizes that without Good Deeds's help, he is “for euer dampned indede!” (510). In terms of his descent on the Wheel of Fortune, he stands at the point of death; but within the wider frame of action that encompasses the whole medieval cosmology, death initiates for him an eternity of damnation. The physical relationship of the speakers, which forces Everyman to look downward, expresses some of the significance. He has failed to look up to Heaven; from his present vantage-point on Middle-Earth, he can only look down into the bottomless depths of Hell.

Yet this nadir is also his peripety. The motive which has at last brought him to Good Deeds is the realization of his own guilt, the first necessary stage in the alleviation of spiritual blindness. Goods's taunts have had their effect on him:

Than of my selfe I was ashamed;
And so I am worthy to be blamed.


Good Deeds, whose name suggests a meaningful change in Everyman's conception of “good,” is the first associate he seeks that never gave him pleasure, the first that is in no way connected with the Seven Deadly Sins. Awareness of his desperate situation makes him continue to beseech even after Good Deeds assures him she is helpless. As a result, she introduces him to Knowledge, whose arrival institutes a rising action which continues to the end of the play and which counters the falling action by stressing gain rather than loss, by resolving the various motifs which had enacted the descent, and by replacing the increasing despair of the first half with a steadily mounting joy in both Everyman and the spectators.

On one level of significance, the arrival of Knowledge begins to resolve Everyman's fruitless search for help, a point made explicit when her promise, “I wyll go with the, and be thy gyde, / In thy moost nede to go by thy syde” (522-523), echoes and eliminates Cousin's “I wyll deceyue you in your moost nede” (358).26 On another level, her arrival symbolizes the full growth in Everyman of the condition which she personifies. Knowledge here means acknowledgement of sin, or contrition.27 Everyman's clearer vision is thus embodied in the action. His acknowledgment of sin weakens the hold which the Seven have on him and marks the first stage of his redeeming penitence. Further, that Knowledge comes from outside Everyman, that she is unexpected, that her entrance is not prepared for—all suggest that Everyman has finally received the grace which he also needs to make his penitence effective, the grace which had always been available but which in his blindness he had been unable to perceive. The coming of grace modifies, for the first time, the opening picture of an entirely wrathful God.

Other motifs of the falling action are resolved as Knowledge leads Everyman through the vital stages of his penitence. The House of Confession recalls a prior house, not fully realized, where Goods lay piled up in corners. Knowledge's description of Confession as a “clensyng ryuere” (536) recalls and resolves God's image of man as “drowned in synne” (26). The complete absence of soliloquies in the second half of the play, a significant contrast to the falling action, helps to dramatize Everyman's relief from utter loneliness. More particularly, the three motifs of Everyman's soliloquies—prayer, time, and pain—here also resolve themselves. His prayers were ejaculatory, restrained by his ignorance of spiritual life. Once his redemption begins, however, he can render a fully-developed, clearly-outlined prayer (581-604), reuniting God, Christ, and the Virgin, the separate foci of the former abortive exclamations. He can now perceive and express not only the threatening aspect of God's majesty and righteousness but also the redeeming quality of His love and mercy. The full control in this prayer is revealed by its orderly movement toward the intended climax, “I beseche you helpe my soule to saue” (604). The motif of time is similarly resolved. Time had been a destructive force because so little remained and that little diminished so rapidly. Everyman's once futile desire for more time is fulfilled at last while he performs his penitence, when Knowledge approves his effort with “Eueryman, God gyue you tyme and space!” (608). Time thus changes to a redemptive force, for within it Everyman purges both his despair and his guilt. As he rises higher in his ascent, he even rejects the misguided overemphasis he had accorded time; in the new attitude toward his required pilgrimage, time, once too rapid, moves too slowly: “And lette vs go now without taryenge” (651). Fleeting time had been one of the causes of his pain. Pain also changes in meaning; it assumes a purpose that makes it both necessary and glorious. Good Deeds promises Everyman that Knowledge will take him “where thou shalte hele the of thy smarte” (528). When Confession presents him with the scourge of penance that he must himself administer, Everyman eagerly accepts it: “My body sore punysshyd shall be” (612). He rejoices in his self-imposed suffering because pain has also become a redeeming force; it is now the medium through which he can ultimately eliminate all pain and suffering. The motif is entirely resolved when Everyman, seeing Good Deeds released from her shackles, vows to intensify his bodily mortification (628).

These episodes have more than one function in the rising action because of the play's double level of allegory. On the first level, Everyman's performance of the sacrament of penitence is an image of his ascent toward salvation. Each stage—contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction—not only represents an act he must go through to attain purification but also, since the parts of the sacrament are successive and cumulative, each stage carries him that much closer to Heaven. Simultaneously, on the second level of allegory, these episodes complete the play's subdued version of the Psychomachia, the battle between Sins and Virtues for the soul of man.28 From the second allegorical level emerge the remedia which counteract and purge the Seven Deadly Sins. Visual and verbal effects connote the elimination from Everyman of the two Sins he has himself personified, Pride and Avarice. Pride disappears when he accepts the guidance of Knowledge and willingly undergoes the program she imposes. Pride's defeat is visually symbolized when, after his scourging, Everyman changes his former gay costume for the garment of sorrow. The new garment represents contrition (645) and thus symbolizes Humility, the opposite of Pride. Avarice is defeated verbally when Everyman completes his penitence by making a will:

In almes halfe my good I wyll gyue with my handes twayne
In the way of charyte with good entent. …


The kind of Charity characterized by alms-giving belongs, along with Humility, to one category of remedia prevalent in the moralities and nondramatic moral treatises, the personified Moral Virtues, each of which opposes and defeats its corresponding Sin.29

Everyman also dramatizes a less familiar but more significant type of remedium. The Moral Virtues, a poetic device allegorizing a fait accompli, show by their presence that the Sins have been driven out, but they prohibit a dramatization of the change in the sinner himself and are thus discontinuous with the human action. The second type of remedium involves acts rather than personifications; it includes identification with events in the Christian narrative, such as the Passion, and with elements of devotion, such as the Pater Noster, which symbolically embody the forces necessary to defeat the Sins.30 Such remedia have greater value for drama because, as acts, they call for a performer; someone must subscribe to the redeeming value of the Passion, someone must recite the prayer. In Everyman, the defeat of the Sins emerges through the human action rather than in conjunction with it because the hero himself performs the remedial acts of confession31 and penitence.32 This second type of remedium also accounts for the “digression” on priesthood, which is in reality a dramatically pertinent focusing upon all seven sacraments, each of which was traditionally interpreted as the opposite of a specific Sin.33 The importance of the episode derives from its naming of the sacraments (722-727), which effects an incantatory defeat of the Sins. The priest is praised because it is he who administers these remedia, thus earning the title of “surgyon that cureth synne deedly” (744). That the priest is seen as higher than the angels (749) firmly indicates the supreme value of the seven sacraments as remedia. They are the ordinary man's closest earthly association with Heaven, and the last of them, which Everyman exits to receive, provides the link between physical and spiritual life. Knowledge's fear that some priests may be corrupt (751-763) re-introduces two Sins, Avarice and Lechery, thus establishing a more precise link between Sins and remedia. When Everyman returns, having “made true satysfaccyon” (770), the final step of an important stage in the rising action is achieved: the expulsion from his soul of the Sins which had helped carry him downward toward damnation.

Everyman's penitence liberates and strengthens Good Deeds and wins him the additional companions, Beauty, Discretion, Strength, and Five-Wits. Their arrival visualizes the accomplished purgation of sin and the resulting restoration of natural gifts. By completing the acquisition of useful companions, their arrival also resolves Everyman's earlier useless search. The subsequent desertion seems to parallel the desertions in the first half of the play, and Everyman momentarily reacts with the same show of despair. But his despair here suggests only that he has not yet achieved the peak to which he must rise. Moreover, the despair of the falling action had steadily increased in force, while here it is transformed into acceptance and understanding. This despair is as ironic as was the joy with which Everyman greeted the easy affirmations of Fellowship, and works in the same way to emphasize the growth of its opposite emotion. The desertion by his natural attributes teaches him the folly of relying upon any earthly supports, worthwhile or not; these companions, far better than those he sought in vain, can ultimately contribute little of value. Strength talks a little too much like Fellowship (684-685), while the contrast of the frivolity of Beauty (801) and Strength (809, 824-825) to the new understanding of Everyman affirms the extent to which the gift of grace has raised him above his natural gifts. Thus his statement that “all thynge fayleth, saue God alone” (841), touched as it is with despair, manifests rather the wisdom and joy of his new awareness. The exit of his bodily attributes visually isolates his strengthened Good Deeds, the evidence of his purified soul. This desertion, which eliminates the earthly and temporal, shows that Everyman is to leave world and time, to continue his rise above and beyond them to the eternal Heaven, the point from which the falling action began.

The new understanding which Everyman reveals during the second desertion is symptomatic of the character change accompanying and partially realizing the rising action. One of the evidences of satisfaction, the final stage of penitence, is the penitent's “yevynge of good conseil and comfort, goostly and bodily, where men han nede.”34 Everyman's ultimate ability to exhibit this proof of satisfaction constitutes the most significant indication of growth in his dramatic character. The man who has persistently sought advice and information becomes himself an instructor. It is Everyman who, once unfamiliar with death, explains its nature to Beauty (794-799). And it is Everyman who, at the point of his own death, can clarify his entire experience for the spectators, giving them spiritual counsel as he does so:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,
How they that I loued best do forsake me,
Excepte my Good Dedes that bydeth truely.


With his opened eyes now turned ever upwards, Everyman commends his soul into God's hands, then enters his grave and eternal life. The final speech of Knowledge (888-893) brings to a close the temporal phase of the action; but it already looks upward to the spiritual phase, for Knowledge hears angels singing, making “grete ioy and melody / Where Euerymannes soule receyued shall be.” The play ends with the speech of the Angel who welcomes Everyman as “excellente electe spouse to Iesu!” (894). The Angel's “Here aboue” (895) denotes the goal of the rising action, “the heuenly spere” (899), where further rise is impossible, and continuous movement freezes in eternal stasis. The Angel's speech does more than specify the ultimate destination of Everyman: it also rounds off the entire pattern of action by echoing and resolving God's opening words. There the emphasis had been on justice and potential damnation. In the speech of the Angel, which focuses upon Everyman's “crystall clere” reckoning and consequent salvation, the emphasis is all on the other aspect of God, the mercy which assumes angelic form to welcome not only Everyman the individual but also every man who imitates his purification.

The structure of Everyman thus constitutes a complete and continuous pattern, both movements of which receive simultaneous visual summation at the end of the play when Everyman enters his grave to attain Heaven.35 The pattern gives value to the play through its function of organizing the numerous elements of the action into a form which provides order by keeping each element in its proper sequence and provides coherence by according each element its proper amount of emphasis. The pattern further succeeds in enriching the play's materials by balancing the rising action against the falling action: instead of standing alone, the various elements, in reflecting upon one another, work together to produce a rather complex experience. Finally, the structure is intimately involved in the play's success as Eliot has defined it, for the descent-ascent pattern intensifies both its doctrinal significance and its dramatic effectiveness.

The structure forms the message on holy dying into an illustrative pattern which not only further clarifies the doctrinal import but also demonstrates its validity. As Bernard Spivack has shown in a valuable discussion of the moralities, Christian allegory portrayed human action in terms of a moral sequence. In describing human life, the allegorist “was concerned with charting the progressive stages of ascent or decline,” for ascent metaphorically represented the development of virtue within the human soul, while descent represented the aggravation of vice. In those moralities which dramatize the Psychomachia, the moral sequence ordinarily manifests itself as a pattern in which the hero begins in relative innocence, falls into a state of degeneracy when corrupted by evil, and finally rises to his salvation when converted by the forces of good, a pattern which is sometimes repeated for emphasis, as in The Castle of Perseverance and Nature.36Everyman treats only the coming of death, but the dramatist has adopted as his disciplining form the same pattern which had proved so fruitful for the ordered dramatization of the whole pilgrimage. In Everyman this pattern has even further significance; it makes the message more complex by going beyond the surface doctrinal level to the core of Christian theology. The moralities teach man's redemption, but more particularly they teach his redemption through Christ. Everyman emphasizes this important distinction through its numerous thematic references to the Passion.37 The extensive references make relevant to the meaning of the play another version of the same descent-ascent pattern, the Christic action, in which Christ comes from Heaven to assume human form, suffers death in His Crucifixion, descends into Hell, returns to worldly life through His Resurrection, and ultimately re-ascends to Heaven.38 The Christic action is pertinent to the meaning of Everyman, for it alone has made possible the salvation there enacted, and in Christian thought the successful pilgrimage of the individual analogously recreates that action. The play's references to the Passion show that the parallel between the Christic action and Everyman's progress is explicit. During the first half of the play, when Everyman is seen as a victim of Adam's fall (145), the significance of the Passion is that Everyman has separated himself from its redeeming value. But in the second half, when the references increase, Everyman's progress becomes what that of every Christian must be, an imitation of Christ.39 The structural pattern thus illustrates how the fallen hero rises through the aid of and in imitation of Christ's Passion, defeating his own sins as Christ had defeated all sin.

The fundamental dramatic pleasure evoked by the play derives from the tensions of the human action, but because these tensions are formed into and intensified by the descent-ascent pattern, a performance of Everyman arouses in its spectators an experience of universal application. Maud Bodkin has discerned in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner a pattern similar to that in Everyman.40 The importance of this pattern in Coleridge's poem, according to Miss Bodkin's analysis, is that it coincides with a frequently-recurring emotional rhythm within the human consciousness, the experience which Jung has called the psychological process of mental and spiritual rebirth. This is the process in which the individual sinks to a state of hopelessness, frustration, and spiritual death, but finds there the possibilities which, when acted upon, permit his ascent to a new stage of mental and spiritual growth.41 A performance of Everyman effects a result for its spectators similar to that which Miss Bodkin receives from a reading of the Ancient Mariner. The performance recreates in the consciousness of its audience an emotional rhythm which is familiar, universal, meaningful, and, since it carefully alters fully-aroused pity and fear to sheer joy, extremely pleasurable.

The structural pattern of Everyman thus intensifies both the religious and the ordinary dramatic interests by expanding the focus of the action to universal dimensions. But as Eliot has argued, in Everyman the two interests are fused. The fusion exists because the structural pattern and the experience of the hero are one. The dramatic tension enamates from the evolving situation of the human hero, whose progress in terms of sin and redemption—the religious message of the play—establishes the pattern of descent and ascent. In turn, the more universal pleasure which the spectators derive from the vivifying of a potential emotional rhythm forces their sympathetic participation in all phases of the progress which stimulates it. The pleasure thus enforces the homiletic message because the doctrine's most persuasive advocate is the individual spectator's desire to give reality and permanence to the exaltation temporarily instilled by the performance of the play. In creating successful allegory, then, the dramatist has simultaneously and of necessity created successful drama.

As its presence in other moralities suggests, the pattern which gives form to the material of Everyman recurs frequently in literature.42 But pattern is, of course, an abstract concept; like all abstractions, it can have no real existence apart from its concrete realization in some specific work. For this reason, it is not the mere presence of the pattern which gives value but the way in which the dramatist has employed it. The superiority of Everyman to other moralities lies in the art of the dramatist, his ability to realize the many complexities in an apparently simple material. The style of the play is an image of that artistry. While obviously less mature than the dramatic styles developed a century later, it merits the high praise in Harley Granville-Barker's description of it as “workmanlike.”43 In “its plain, clear diction,” it effects, as Cawley notes, a “triumph of compromise” between the aureate and the overly-colloquial styles of the late fifteenth century. Cawley further establishes the value of the play's style when he sees it fulfilling one of Eliot's foremost requirements for dramatic verse: “the freely rhythmical verses of Everyman harmonize with its neutral style, so that we find ourselves ‘consciously attending, not to the poetry, but to the meaning of the poetry’.”44 But the primary virtue of the style of Everyman is the quality through which it fulfills Eliot's plea for “a form of verse in which everything can be said that has to be said.”45 The versification ranges from the brief colloquial lines which embody the tensions in Everyman's exchanges with such characters as Death and Goods, to the formal line-groups which expand with the more elaborate shape of summary (463 ff.), doctrine (573 ff.), prayer (581 ff.), and conclusion (894 ff.). The neutral language expresses the situation clearly and succinctly; at the same time it accommodates without strain the introduction of the many proverbs that, spoken principally by the hero, lend him universality and charm, or the images of blindness and the references to time, pain, and Christ's Passion which deepen both emotion and meaning, or the occasional unobtrusive words like “fall” and “here aboue” which crystallize the meaningful structure.

As with style, so with structure. The artistry which finds a style expressive of its content finds and develops as well a structural equivalent. Everyman surpasses numerous other works which achieve form through some variation of a descent-ascent pattern because the dramatist has seen much of the pattern's potential and has given it dramatic solidity. In Everyman, the pattern can intensify the religious significance because the dramatist has perceived and utilized the parallel with the Christic action. The pattern can arouse profound psychological response because through it the dramatist has made his allegory the product of a human action that, in its tensions and ironies, demands the commitment of all human beings. It is, in the final analysis, the fusion of artistic creativity with potentiality of pattern which makes the parable of Everyman a prime example of great religious drama.


  1. “Four Elizabethan Dramatists,” Selected Essays (London, 1951), p. 111. A. C. Cawley's “Introduction” to his edition of Everyman (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1961) contains the best general discussion of the play's texts, meaning, style, versification, and staging. Cawley also conveniently summarizes (pp, x-xiii) and provides a bibliography of (pp. xxxii-xxxiii) the rather conclusive arguments for the priority of Elckerlijc. Since my focus in this study is a formal analysis of the English text, I have generally ignored the vexed question of its relationship to the Dutch play.

  2. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus,College English, XXII (Oct. 1960), 9.

  3. Religious Drama: Medieval and Modern (New York, 1954).

  4. The structure of Everyman has been examined by Cleanth Brooks and Robert B. Heilman (Understanding Drama, New York, 1948, pp. 104-108) and by Lawrence V. Ryan (“Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,Speculum, XXXII, 1957, 722-735). Brooks and Heilman discern a four-part structural scheme: (I) the fruitless conflict with Death, (II) the failure to find a companion, (III) the change from despair to joy through the arrival of worthy companions, and (IV) the new complication arising from the desertion by the worthy companions. In their view, the new complication is resolved when Everyman dies, “completely sobered and matured by his experience” (p. 105). Ryan distinguishes, roughly, a three-part scheme: “Structurally, the play turns on two climaxes, growing out of the abandonment of the hero by two theologically and dramatically distinct groups of ‘friends’ in whom he has placed his confidence” (p. 725). Both analyses present certain fundamental difficulties. Because of their emphasis on drama rather than doctrine, Brooks and Heilman isolate episodes where “the sermon takes precedence of the drama” (p. 106). Ryan, in seeing the theology of the play as the sole source of its “characters, structure, significance, and even its dramatic impressiveness” (p. 723), tends to obscure the dramatic artistry. In calling the later desertion a dramatic climax, both analyses distort its significance as a specific stage in a continuous pattern of action.

  5. All citations to Everyman are to the text established by J. Q. Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (Cambridge, Mass., 1924), pp. 288-303.

  6. As Cawley points out (p. 29), this prologue has no parallel in Elckerlijc, and it erroneously anticipates the appearance of “Iolyte” and “Pleasure.” Such facts prompt him to suggest that “it may have been written by someone other than the translator.” Yet some introduction seems necessary to focus the attention of the spectators and to identify the first speaker. Furthermore, the speech has considerable dramatic value. It effectively anticipates the play's message without fully expounding it, and it requests without negating the emotion basic to the play's opening scenes.

  7. The two-part movement in Everyman may also be distinguished by comparing the play with a Scottish narrative poem of ca. 1480-85, “The Thrie Tailes of the Thrie Priests of Peblis.” The third tale tells the same story, but the action in the poem focuses almost exclusively on the ever-increasing decline in the hero's fortunes, with only a perfunctory conclusion to restore him to his original position. H. deVocht, an advocate for the priority of Everyman over Elckerlijc suggests that this poem may be the source from which the dramatist worked (Everyman: A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources, Materials for the Study of the Old English Drama, n. s. XX, Louvain, 1947, pp. 192-201). The poem is available in Early Popular Poetry of Scotland and the Northern Border, ed. David Laing, Re-arranged and Revised by W. Carew Hazlitt (London, 1895), I.127-168.

  8. See Cawley, p. xxi, on Everyman's riches and friends being gifts of fortune.

  9. Parallel noted by Cawley, p. xxvi.

  10. Cf. Ryan, p. 725: Everyman's “excessive love of passing things has placed him in danger of hell-fire.”

  11. The Seven Deadly Sins (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952), p. 147.

  12. On Avarice's replacing Pride as Chief Sin, see The Castle of Perseverance, where Sir Covetous has a scaffold of his own, as do God, Flesh, World, and Devil, and has command over the other Sins (cf. J. Wilson McCutchan, “Covetousness in ‘The Castle of Perseverence’,” Univ. of Virginia Studies, IV, 1951, 175-191). For this development in non-dramatic literature, see Bloomfield, pp. 74, 95, 183, 189, 222-223, 237. For this development in the sermons, see G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1933), pp. 307-308.

  13. This is a frequent motif of the moralities. In The Castle, Sir Covetous wins back the hero after he has grown so old as to be immune to the other Sins. In Henry Medwall's Nature, Man at first ignores Covetousness, but his fellow Sins have no fear because they know Man will turn to him “whan hys hed waxeth hore” (I.1243 f.). For this motif in non-dramatic literature and in the sermons, see Bloomfield, pp. 76, 165, 432; Owst, p. 535.

  14. See Owst, p. 460. In Chaucer's “Parson's Tale” (The Poetical Works of Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, Boston, 1933, X [I], 570), advising murder is treated as a major characteristic of Wrath.

  15. Bloomfield, passim.

  16. See Bloomfield, pp. 177, 181, 221, 433.

  17. Chaucer, X (I), 492. On this, the reverse aspect of Envy, see also Owst, p. 457.

  18. Even though Sir Covetous is the obvious Chief in The Castle, it is nevertheless Pride who, in keeping with tradition, launches the first attack upon a Virtue. See the references in n. 12.

  19. Chaucer, X (I), 450-456; Owst, pp. 308-312.

  20. The Tudor Interlude (Leicester: Leicester Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 78-79. Since no concrete evidence concerning Everyman's costume exists, Death's line may in fact characterize only his attitude. For confirmation of Craik's interpretation, see Fellowship's hint that Everyman is in the habit of bribing his friends with new clothes (292) and Everyman's later reference to his body's delight in going “gay and fresshe” (614). Moreover, gay and colorful array is perfectly in keeping with Everyman's personality; it would enhance the developing emotional effect, for the costume must remain while the hero's inner gaiety diminishes; such a costume is especially necessary for the full significance of the contrast achieved when Everyman changes into the garment of sorrow (643).

  21. Chaucer, X (I), 412; Owst, pp. 82, 404-407. Cf., in Medwall's Nature, Pride's characterization as the typical dandy.

  22. Cf. Nature (I.955 ff.) where Pride flatters Man's superior intelligence.

  23. The Pride of Life, ll. 175-178, ed. Alois Brandl, in Quellen des weltlichen Dramas in England vor Shakespeare (Strassburg, 1898). Bloomfield (p. 188) refers to a treatment of this condition in religious prose.

  24. The tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins accommodates their representation by characters with other and more attractive names. Familiar in the sixteenth-century morality, this device occurs much earlier in religious prose (see Owst, p. 96). Desertion of their victims by characters personifying the Sins is also a known motif, occurring in the morality tradition as early as The Castle, where Mundus and Sir Covetous desert Man once his complete submission fulfills their purpose. See also Bloomfield, pp. 204-205.

  25. Kaula, p. 11.

  26. Parallel noted by Cawley, p. xxv.

  27. DeVocht, pp. 59 ff.; Ryan, p. 728.

  28. E. N. S. Thompson (“The English Moral Plays,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, XIV, 1910, 353) mentions without developing the idea the presence of a Psychomachia in Everyman. Cf. deVocht, p. 187.

  29. The Moral Virtues should be distinguished from the well-known Seven Cardinal Virtues, which do not satisfactorily correspond to the Sins. The list of Moral Virtues was never as rigidly formulated as that of the Sins. For a typical list, see The Castle, which presents Meekness, Patience, Charity, Abstinence, Chastity, Industry, and Largitas. In Nature, “almes dede” replaces Largitas and “good besynes” Industry. Chaucer's Parson lists “humylitie, or mekenesse” (opp. Pride), love (Charity; opp. Envy), “Debonairetee and Pacience” (opp. Wrath), “fortitudo or strengthe” (opp. Sloth), “misericorde, pitee, and largesse” (opp. Avarice), abstinence (opp. Gluttony), “chastitee and continence” (opp. Lechery).

  30. For the various aspects of Christ's Passion interpreted as remedia, see The Castle, ll. 2083 ff. (cf. Chaucer, X [I], 255 ff.). Each of the seven parts of the Pater Noster was conceived as a remedium for a specific Sin. See Thompson, p. 334; Hardin Craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 338.

  31. Bloomfield, pp. 97-99, 149; Chaucer, X (I), 958 ff.

  32. The whole point of the sermon by Chaucer's Parson is the remedial function of penitence.

  33. Bloomfield, pp. 214, 217.

  34. Chaucer, X (I), 1030.

  35. Cf. Cawley's suggestions concerning the original staging, pp. xxix-xxx. The “house” of Confession was probably a castle with heaven located at its top. The grave, then, would be at the bottom, “so that Everyman could enact his own salvation by entering his grave and ascending from it to the heights of the ‘heuenly spere’ (899)” (p. xxx).

  36. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 101-103. Cf. David M. Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 117, passim. The pattern is occasionally made explicit. In Nature, Reason points out that through accepting the Virtues, Man is “lykely to aryse / From the vale of syn whyche ys full of derknes / toward the contemplacyon of lyght that ys endles” (Nature, II.1384-86).

  37. See ll. 29-31, 512, 563-565, 582-585, 603, 751-754, 812, 882.

  38. On the Christic pattern, see William F. Lynch, S. J., Christ and Apollo (New York, 1960), pp. 13, 15, 40-41.

  39. See especially ll. 561-565: “Here shall you receyue that scourge of me, / Whiche is penaunce stronge that ye must endure / To remembre thy Sauyour was scourged for the / With sharpe scourges, and suffred it pacyently; / So must thou, or thou scape that paynful pylgrymage.” On the Christian's imitation of the Christic pattern, see Lynch, p. 50.

  40. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (New York, 1958), pp. 52-53: “Within the image-sequences examined the pattern appears of a movement, downward, or inward toward the earth's centre, or a cessation of movement—a physical change which … appears also as a transition toward severed relation with the outer world, and, it may be, toward disintegration and death. The element in the pattern is balanced by a movement upward and outward—an expansion or outburst of activity, a transition toward redintegration and life-renewal.”

  41. Bodkin, pp. 50-51, 69-70.

  42. Cf. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957). Frye's accounts of the quest-romance (p. 187) and comedy (p. 171) give some suggestion of the universality of this pattern.

  43. On Dramatic Method (New York, 1956), pp. 42-44.

  44. Cawley, pp. xxiv, xxviii.

  45. “Poetry and Drama,” On Poetry and Poets (New York, 1957), p. 78.

John Conley (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4918

SOURCE: Conley, John. “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman.Speculum XLIV, no. 3 (July 1969): 374-82.

[In the following essay, Conley examines the portrayal of friendship in Everyman, comparing it to medieval doctrine of friendship.]

The plot of Everyman obviously consists of a test of friendship made by a worldly young man when he suddenly learns that God has summoned him to his reckoning. The doctrine of friendship in this morality is accordingly worth examining even though our conclusion can be anticipated, namely, that this doctrine consists of the essential commonplaces of the mediaeval doctrine of friendship.1 As in certain of the Faithful Friend analogues,2 these commonplaces have been adapted to the plot in keeping with two articles of faith in particular: (1) the necessity, for salvation, of good works, and (2) divine judgement after death.

One of these commonplaces is that no one should be accounted a friend whose friendship has not been tested. This ancient precept, which has been called “the first law of friendship,”3 occurs, for instance, in Ecclesiasticus vi 7: “If thou wouldst get a friend, try him before thou takest him, and do not credit him easily.”4 Petrus Alfonsus, in the introduction to his version of the Faithful Friend, provides an example. A dying Arab asks his youthful son how many friends he has acquired, and on being told, “An hundred, in my opinion,” admonishes him not to praise a friend until he has been tested.5 In fact, we find that “probatio” appears among the four steps of friendship in Aelred of Rievalux' De spirituali amicitia, a treatise that was frequently adapted in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.6 In Everyman “the first law of friendship” in effect is introduced almost at the onset, when God's messenger, Death, admonishes Everyman to “preue thy frendes yf thou can.”7 Interestingly, this admonition is lacking in the corresponding passage in Elckerlijc;8 indeed, Everyman might be said to have the more emphatic treatment of friendship, as is further indicated by the following instances of friend, especially “good friend,” none of which is paralleled in Elckerlijc: “Except that almes be his good frende—” (Death in reference to every man that “loueth rychesse,” 78); “Than be you a good frende at nede” (Everyman to Fellowship, 229); “Alas, than may I wayle and wepe, / For I toke you for my best frende” (Everyman to Five Wits, 847-848); “Thou shalte fynde me a good frende at nede” (Good Deeds to Everyman, 854); “Folysshe frendes and kynnesmen that fayre spake / All fleeth saue Good Dedes, and that am I” (872-873).

The ancient test par excellence of friendship is adversity, a commonplace expressed, for example, by the formula In necessitate probatur amicus, which Aelred cites in his discussion of “probatio.”9 Evidently the source of this formula is Proverbs xvii 17: “Omni tempore diligit qui amicus est, et frater in angustiis comprobatur.”10 The equivalent formula in the Classical tradition is “Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur,”11 which is credited to Ennius and which is cited in a Classical work that provided the Middle Ages with an important definition of friendship—Cicero's De amicitia.12

In his hour of adversity Everyman turns first to Fellowship, who like a true friend readily promises to help before he knows what will be asked of him. “I wyll not forsake thee to my lyues ende” even “and thou go to hell” (213-232). But as soon as Fellowship learns what Everyman wants of him, he reneges on his promise: “That is mater in dede!” (248). As Fellowship departs, Everyman ruefully comments, “Lo, Felawshyp forsaketh me in my moost nede” (305). Everyman thus learns a proverbial lesson concerning friendship: “‘In prosperyte,’ he remarks, ‘men frendes may fynde, / Whiche in aduersyte be full vnkynde’” (309-310).13

Everyman then turns hopefully to his kinsmen, “For kynde wyll crepe where it may not go” (316). Like Fellowship's, the greeting of Kindred and Cousin is reassuring: “Here be we now at your commaundement,” Kindred responds (319), and Cousin adds (322-324):

Ye, Eueryman, and to vs declare
If ye be dysposed to go ony-whyder;
For, wete you well, we wyll lyue and dye to-gyder.

Yet, although Everyman pleads, even Cousin refuses to go with him (356-358):

No, by our Lady! I haue the crampe in my to.
Trust not to me; for, so God me spede,
I wyll deceyue you in your moost nede.

Accordingly Everyman turns to his “Goodes that I loued best” (472), hoping to bribe God Himself.

For it is sayd euer amonge
That ‘money maketh all ryght that is wronge.’


Again, after a reassuring greeting, Everyman is refused, this time with a rebuke for his folly of trusting in a false good.

Then, though he knows that she is “so weke / That she can nother go no speke” (482-483), he turns to Good Deeds, pleading,

I praye you helpe me in this nede,
Or elles I am for euer dampned in dede …


And Good Deeds at once helps Everyman by giving him as a guide her sister, Knowledge, who leads him to Confession, in the House of Salvation. Then, in response to Everyman's plea to Good Deeds and Knowledge—“Now, frendes, let vs not parte in twayne”—Knowledge promises, “Nay, Eueryman, that wyll we not, certayne” (655-656). Thereafter, other friends appear, whom Everyman has called together on the advice of the two sisters: Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits. When asked by Good Deeds whether “ye wolde with Eueryman go, / And helpe hym in his pylgrymage” (672-673), all four readily assent. In the words of Strength, who is the first to reply, “We wyll brynge hym all thyder, / / To his helpe and comforte / ye may byleue me” (675-676). Later on, after Everyman has received the sacraments of the Eucharist and extreme unction at the urging of Knowledge and Five Wits, several of the new friends repeat their promises in heightened fashion. Strength speaks twice, at the beginning of the passage and, in an interesting equivocation, at the end, with Discretion and Knowledge speaking in between:

Eueryman, we wyll not fro you go
Tyll ye haue done this vyage longe.
I, Dyscrecyon, wyll byde by you also.
And though this pylgrymage be neuer so stronge,
I wyll neuer parte you fro.
Eueryman, I wyll be as sure by the
As euer I dyde by Iudas Machabee.(14)


In the end, however, all five fail Everyman, though Knowledge lingers “Tyll I se where ye shall be-come” (863). With typical obtuseness, Everyman has already concluded that all his friends “hath forsaken me” (851). But Good Deeds, the only friend whose reassurance is to be trusted, replies (852-854):

Nay, Eueryman, I wyll byde with the,
I wyll not forsake the in dede;
Thou shalte fynde me a good frende at nede.

So in adversity Everyman discovers who his true friends are, namely, Good Deeds: “Gramercy, Good Dedes! Now may I true frendes se” (855).

True friendship, then, is lasting. In De amicitia (ix 32) we are told: “For on the assumption that advantage is the cement of friendship, if advantage were removed friendships would fall apart; but since nature is unchangeable, therefore true friendships are eternal.”15 The Biblical locus classicus, as Aelred indicates, is again Proverbs xvii 17: “Omni tempore diligit qui amicus est. …”16 Or as Rabanus Maurus observes, true friendship is a compact that “adversity cannot change,” a relationship that “death itself cannot sever.”17 Indeed, this is precisely the relationship that obtains between Everyman and Good Deeds as Everyman is about to creep into what he has called “this caue” (792), to begin his journey from earth to heaven or from time to eternity. He addresses the audience (867-869):

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,
How they that I loued best do forsake me,
Excepte my Good Dedes that bydeth truely.

False friendship, correspondingly, is transitory, as Good Deeds points out in a speech that immediately follows Everyman's address to the audience (870-873):

All erthly thynges is but vanyte:
Beaute, Strength / and Dyscrecyon do man forsake,
Folysshe frendes and kynnesmen that fayre spake—
All fleeth saue Good Dedes. …

And as the Doctour in turn points out in the final speech of the play (905-907):

And remembre Beaute, V. Wytees, Strength, & Dyscrecyon,(18)
They all at the last do Eueryman forsake,
Saue his Good Dedes there dothe be take.

True friendship is also virtuous, as the ancients tell us; in fact, to paraphrase Aristotle, it is lasting precisely because it is virtuous: the friendship of true friends “lasts as long as they are good—and goodness is an enduring thing.”19 Cicero remarks through Laelius, “nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse.”20 In Christian thought, however, true friendship is not simply virtuous—or natural—but is supernatural,21 for man's relation to God is involved. Thus, St Ambrose declares, “Non potest enim homini amicus esse, qui Deo fuerit infidus. Pietatis custos amicitia est. …”22 Accordingly, as Peter of Blois remarks, true friendship is “a gift of God.”23

The locus classicus for the doctrine of Christian friendship is John xv 15, which we find cited in a late Middle English sermon on friendship in the following passage. The author has just stated that, according to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship, two of which are respectively useful and pleasurable. “The þrid maner of frenshippe is frenshippe of wertewe, þe wiche þat on hathe to an oþure for is good lyvynge and vertuous. …” Then we come to the interesting point: virtuous friendship is said to be “a verry frenshippe þat holy writte spekeþ of, ‘Iam non dico vos seruos, sed amicos,”24 which is an abridgment of the passage from John: “I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.”25

Similarly, the friendship of Good Deeds is supernaturally virtuous; dependent on grace and performed in a state of grace, good deeds, as the play reminds us, enable every man to save his soul provided that he be free from mortal sin at the moment of death. Among the good deeds that Everyman performs during the play itself is the prayer that comprises his last speech (880-887), beginning “In to thy handes, Lorde, my soule I commende. …”; the worthy reception of three sacraments: penance (545-650), the Eucharist and extreme unction (cf. 773-774); almsgiving, when Everyman bequeathes half of his goods to charity (699-700).26 Plainly, in Everyman with its emphasis on good deeds—as well as in the moralizations of the various analogues27—the supernatural character of true friendship is premised.

If lasting and virtuous true friendship is obviously precious, or in the words of Ecclesiasticus vi 14-15, “he that hath found” a true friend “hath found a treasure”;28 indeed, “nothing can be compared to a faithful friend, and no weight of gold and silver is able to countervail the goodness of his fidelity.” In the Nicomachean Ethics IX, c. 9,1169b, we find, in a section treating the question whether a happy man needs friends, that friends “are thought the greatest of external goods.”29 And Cicero observes, “I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing [than friendship] has been given to man by the immortal gods,”30 though the misguided prefer riches, health, power, honors, and even pleasures.

In Everyman true friendship is something precious indeed. In general, the presentation follows the traditional, tripartite, and hierarchic classification of goods, one form of which, the classification into external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul antedates Aristotle.31 A Christianized version that accords with the classification in Everyman, that is followed in the Parson's Tale,32 and that may antedate the influential Summa de Vitiis of Guilielmus Peraldus (ca 1260)33 is goods of fortune (cf. Fellowship, Cousin, Kinsmen, and Goods), goods of nature, subdivided into goods of the body and of the soul (cf. Beauty and Strength, on the one hand, and Discretion on the other), and, finally, goods of grace (cf. Knowledge and Good Deeds). Though the goods of the soul, or the various internal powers, are especially valuable, they cease with death; thus only the goods of grace are “durable and salutary,” or, in other words, true and precious.

As applied to Everyman, however, this classification does not allow for the hierarchic distinction made in the play between Knowledge34 and Good Deeds. For though they are sisters, Good Deeds is implicitly presented as belonging to a higher order of goods than Knowledge; thus, unlike her sister, she remains with Everyman and accordingly is Everyman's one true, or only lasting, friend. A version of goods that does accord strictly with the one implicit in Everyman is to be found in a popular religious treatise of the Middle Ages, Speculum S. Edmundi, by Edmund Rich, Archbishop of Canterbury. I quote from a Middle English translation:

ȝit, dere Frende, on a oþer syde, wit þou þat all maner of gude þat es, Ouþer it es erthely gude, or gastely gude, or gude lastande endles. For erthely gude we praye, when we saye Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie; For gastely gude we praye, when we say Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in celo et in terra; For endles gude we praye, when we say Adveniat regnum tuum; and confermyng of all this we praye, when we say Sanctificetur nomen tuum.35

In Everyman, Knowledge thus may be classified as a spiritual good by contrast with the even more precious good, the lasting good, which, in the special terms of the play, is exemplified by only one of Everyman's friends, Good Deeds.

Finally, true friendship provides counsel and comfort pertaining not only to this life but also to the next life. In the Christian tradition the locus classicus is Ecclesiasticus vi 16: “A faithful friend is the medicine of life and immortality.”36

Following his rejection by Fellowship, Cousin, and Kindred, Everyman for the first time in the play specifically asks for counsel when he turns to Goods: “Come hyder … in al the hast thou may / For of conseyll I must desyre the” (399-400). But all that Everyman receives is a rebuke, as he notes afterwards: “For my Goodes sharpely dyd me tell / That he bryngeth many in to hell” (474-475). Thereupon Everyman asks himself (479), “Of whome shall I now counseyll take?” With the enlightenment of his newly acquired humility, he concludes, “I thynke that I shall neuer spede / Tyll that I go to my Good Dede” (480-481). On finding her, he exclaims, “O Good Dedes, I stand in fere! / I must you pray of counseyll …” (489-490). When Good Deeds expresses sorrow over his “fall,” remarking, “fayne wolde I helpe you, and I were able” (514-515), Everyman repeats his request (516): “Good Dedes, your counseyll I pray you gyue me.” And Good Deeds replies (517-521):

That shall I do veryly.
Thoughe that on my fete I may not go,
I haue a syster that shall with you also,
Called Knowlege, whiche shall with you abyde,
To helpe you to make that dredefull rekenynge.

Knowledge then acts as her sister's deputy, and Everyman goes to “that holy man, Confessyon” (539). Accordingly it is Knowledge, echoing in part her sister's promise, who informs Everyman when he is about to begin his penance (577-580):

Eueryman, loke your penaunce that ye fulfyll,
What payne that euer it to you be;
And Knowlege shall gyue you counseyll at wyll
How your accounte ye shall make clerely.

Then, on the advice of Good Deeds and Knowledge, Everyman calls together Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits to help him in his journey, and they respond according to their natures. Thus Discretion says (690-691): “Eueryman, aduyse you fyrst of all; / Go with a good aduysement and delyberacyon”; Five Wits' counselling consists of two long speeches (712-727; 730-749), both of which second Knowledge's injunction that Everyman receive of Priesthood the “holy sacrament and oyntement togyder” (709). For as Five Wits explains (717-720):

He bereth the keyes, and therof hath the cure
For mannes redemcyon—it is euer sure—
Whiche God for our soules medycyne
Gaue vs out of his herte with grete pyne.

Appropriately, it is Good Deeds, rather than Knowledge, who of Everyman's friends speaks the last words of counsel, beginning, “All erthly thynges is but vanyte …” (870).

Concerning the higher species of earthly goods, Strength and Beauty, they provide a brief and delusive comfort, ironically underscored by Strength's declaration to Good Deeds (675-676): “We wyll brynge hym all thyder, / To his helpe and comforte / / ye may byleue me.” But there is nothing comforting to Everyman about their farewell speeches.

Discretion and Five Wits provide, as spiritual goods,37 some measure of spiritual comfort. Just before Everyman makes his will, Discretion says, “We all gyue you vertuous monycyon / That all shall be well” (692-693). And Five Wits assures Everyman as he is about to receive the Eucharist and extreme unction (731): “God wyll you to saluacyon brynge. …” But the two fail to comfort Everyman in extremis, though, unlike Beauty and Strength, they refrain from chiding him as in turn he implores each of the four to enter the grave.

Knowledge obviously provides comfort both by deed, as she leads Everyman to Confession, and by words. It is she who assures Everyman that they will find in the House of Salvation him “That shall vs comforte, by Goddes grace” (542); when Good Deeds, now able to walk as a result of Everyman's good confession, approaches Knowledge and Everyman, Knowledge declares, “Now, Eueryman, be mery and glad! / Your Good Deeds cometh now; ye may not be sad” (623-624). A few lines later, following Good Deeds' greeting to Everyman, Knowledge comforts him in similar fashion (636-637): “Be no more sad, but euer reioyce; / God seeth thy lyuynge in his trone aboue.” Yet the only abiding comfort, as dictated by the theme and plot of the play, is provided by Good Deeds, a lasting good. Fittingly she is the first one of Everyman's friends to give him comfort, telling him as he is about to be conducted to Confession by Knowledge (527-531):

And whan she hath brought you there
Where thou shalte hele the of thy smarte,
Than go you with your rekenynge & your Good Dedes togyder,
For to make you ioyfull at herte
Before the Blessyd Trynyte.

And it is Good Deeds who says to Everyman, lying in the grave and forsaken by all except her, “Fere not; I wyll speke for the” (876).

In conclusion, then, the doctrine of friendship in Everyman may be said to consist of the essential commonplaces of the mediaeval doctrine of friendship: that no man should be accounted a friend whose friendship had not been tested; that true friendship is lasting; that it is virtuous, indeed supernatural—a gift of God; that, correspondingly, it is precious; finally, that it provides counsel and comfort pertaining not only to this life but also to the next life. These commonplaces have been adapted to the plot in keeping with two articles of faith in particular: (1) the necessity, for salvation, of good works, and (2) divine judgment after death. Further, implicit in this adaptation is a special version of the traditional classification of goods, one for which precedent may be found in the popular Speculum S. Edmundi: earthly, spiritual, and lasting goods.38


  1. On the doctrine of friendship in the Classical and early Christian periods, cf. the following: Leo M. Bond, “A Comparison between Human and Divine Friendship,” The Thomist, III (1941), 54-94; Philippe Delhaye, “Deux adaptations du De amicitia de Cicéron au XIIe siècle,” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale, XV (1948), 304-331; L. Dugas, L'amitié antique (Paris, 1894); R. Egenter, Gottesfreundschaft: Die Lehre von der Gottesfreundschaft in der Scholastik und Mystik de 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts (Augsburg, 1928); Pierre Fabre, Saint Paulin de Nole et l'amitié chrétienne (Paris, 1949), Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, CLXVII; Adele M. Fiske, R. S. C. J., The Survival and Development of the Ancient Concept of Friendship in the Early Middle Ages, (diss., Fordham University, 1955, 2 vols.); “Aelred's [sic] of Rievaulx Idea of Friendship and Love,” Citeaux, Commentarii Cistercienis, XIII (1962), 5-17, 97-132; “Alcuin and Mystical Friendship,” Studi Medievali, 3rd. ser. (1961), 551-575; “Cassian and Monastic Friendship,” American Benedictine Review, XII (1961), 190-205; “Hieronymous Circeronianus,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, XCVI (1965), 119-138; “Paradisus Homo Amicus,” Speculum, XL (1965), 436-459; “St. Augustine and Friendship,” Monastic Studies, II, (1964) 127-135; “St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Friendship,” Cit., Comment. Cister., XI (1960), 5-26, 85-103; “William of St. Thierry and Friendship,” ibid., XII (1961), 5-27; Étienne Gilson, La théologie mystique de saint Bernard (Paris, 1947), pp. 21-24, 82; Jean Leclerq, “L'amitié dan les lettres du moyen âge autour d'un manuscrit de la bibliothèque de Pétrarque,” Revue du moyen âge latin, I (1945), 391-410; Paul Philippe, Le rôle de l'amitié dans la vie chrétienne selon saint Thomas d'Aquin (Rome, 1939); Rob Roy Purdy, “The Friendship Motif in Middle English Literature,” Vanderbilt Studies in the Humanities, I (1951), 113-141; G. G. Meersseman, “Pourquoi le Lombard n'a-t-il pas conçu la charité comme amitié,” Miscellanea Lombardiana (Novara, 1956), pp. 165-174; G. Vansteenberghe, “Amitié,” Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire (Paris, 1937). On the reasons for the neglect and even disparagement of friendship in recent times, see C. S. Lewis, “Friendship,” in The Four Loves (London, 1960), pp. 69 ff.

  2. Conveniently sketched by A. C. Cawley, ed., Everyman (Manchester, 1961), pp. xviii-xix (cited below as Cawley; all citations from Everyman are to this edition). See also Karl Goedeke, Every-Man, Homulus and Hekastus: Ein Beitrag zur internationalen Literaturgeschichte (Hanover, 1865), pp. 1-132, 204-226; Woodburn O. Ross, ed., Middle English Sermons, EETS., o. s. 209 (1940), 345, and Helen S. Thomas, “Some Analogues of Everyman,Mississippi Quarterly, XVI (1963), 97-103. Though I consider Elckerlijc to be prior, the relation of Everyman to Elckerlijc is not at issue in this paper.

  3. Cornelius a Lapide, Commentarii in Scripturam Sacram, V (Lyons and Paris, 1860), 167.

  4. Cf. Geoffrey of Vendôme, Epist. XXV (Migne, P.L., CLVII, col. 92) and also Publilius Syrus, line 120 (Publilii Syri Sententiae, ed., Edward Woelfflin, Leipzig, 1869).

  5. Disciplina clericalis, ibid., col. 673: “Respondens filius dixit: ‘Centum, ut arbitror, acquisivi amicos.’ Dixit pater ‘quia philosophus dixit: Ne laudes amicum donec probaveris eum.’” Cf. Cicero, De amicitia, xvii 62.

  6. P.L., CXCV, col. 680. On the popularity of this treatise, one compendium of which long passed as St Augustine's, see Dom A. Hoste, ed., “The First Draft of Aelred of Rievaulx' De spiritali amicitia,Sacris Erudiri, X (1958), 186-187 (cited below as Hoste). On this treatise as one of Jean de Meun's sources for the Roman de la Rose, see Lionel J. Friedman, “Jean de Meun and Ethelred of Rievaulx,” L'Esprit Createur, II (1962), 135-141.

  7. Cawley, line 142. Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, 1937), p. 83, devotes one paragraph to a summary of Everyman in terms of this admonition.

  8. See Elckerlijk, a Fifteenth Century Dutch Morality (Presumably by Petrus Dorlandus) and Everyman, a Nearly Contemporary Translation, ed., H. Logeman (Ghent, 1892), p. 13. R. W. Zandvoort observes that this addition is illogical (Collected Papers [Groningen, 1954], p. 47).

  9. De spirituali amicitia, P.L., CXCV, col. 687. Cf. also Geoffrey of Vendôme as cited above. Dom Hoste (p. 209) cites for comparison St Ambrose, De officiis, iii, 22, 129 (P.L., XVI, 191 B) and St Bernard of Clairvaux, Epist. CXXV, 1 (P.L., CLXXXII, 270 A). Cf. also The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, ed., Curt F. Buhler, EETS., o.s. 211 (1941), 70-72. For equivalent formulas in the Middle Ages, see Samuel Singer, Sprichwörter des Mittelalters, III (Bern, 1947), 54; Hans Walther, Proverbia sententiaeque Latinitatis medii aevi, lateinische Sprichwörter und Sentenzen des Mittelalters in alphabetischer Anordnung, Pt. 1, Carmina medii aevi posterioris Latina (Gottingen, 1963), 109, and Proverbia Communia, A Fifteenth Century Collection of Dutch Proverbs with the Low German Version, ed. with a commentary by Richard Jente (Bloomington, 1947), Indiana University Publications, Folklore Series No. 4, under item 430, pp. 216-217.

  10. Which Aelred quotes in conjunction with the formula just cited.

  11. See Archer Taylor, The Proverb and an Index to the Proverb (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), p. 60.

  12. The definition reads: “Est enim amicitia nihil aliud nisi omnium divinarum humanarumque rerum cum benevolentia et caritate consensio” (vi 20). This is the definition of friendship that Aelred Christianizes in De spir. amic. In the Middle Ages another Ciceronian definition of friendship was preferred, however, because of its simplicity and also because of its freedom from Stoic implications: “Amicitia [est] voluntas erga aliquem rerum bonarum, illius ipsius causa quem diligit cum eius pari voluntate” (De inventione rhetorica, ii 55). See Gilson, La théologie mystique, p. 23.

  13. Mills, One Soul, observes (p. 85): “The fact that Everyman goes first to Fellowship instead of Goods suggests the influence of the ‘table friends’ ideas, which were both classical and conventional in medieval thought.” The Biblical locus classicus is Ecclesiasticus vi 10: “And there is a friend, a companion at the table, and he will not abide in the day of distress.”

  14. Three of the four earliest editions of Everyman assign this speech to Knowledge, but it plainly belongs to Strength, as is confirmed by Elckerlijc; cf. Cawley, p. 37, apparatus criticus, and Elckerlijk, ed., Logeman, pp. 73-74. On the ironical import of the reference to Judas Maccabeus, which is lacking in Elckerlijc, see my note “The Reference to Judas Maccabeus in Everyman,Notes and Queries, N.S. XIV (1967), 50-51.

  15. Cicero: De senectute, De amicitia, De divinatione, trans. William A. Falconer, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1923), p. 145, except for the substitution of “true” for “real” where the original reads “verae amicitiae.”

  16. De spir. amic., i (P.L., CXCV, col. 663). Cf. Middle English Sermons, ed., Ross, p. 93 (where verus is interpolated before amicus).

  17. “Nam … haec est quot nullis umquam casibus scinditur … sed ne mors quidem ipsa divellit,” Libri decem commentariorum in Ecclesiasticum, iii (P.L., CIX, col. 852), though the passage is in fact a quotation from John Cassian's Sixteenth Conference, on friendship (Collationes xxiv, P.L., XLIX, col. 1015).

  18. In “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,Speculum, XXXII (1957), 730, Lawrence V. Ryan argues that these four characters “can not really be false friends, or else Good Deeds and Knowledge would not have presented them to Everyman.” Such an argument conflicts with the equation, noted above and stressed in the plot, of true, with lasting, friendship.

  19. Nicomachean Ethics, viii, c. 3, 1156b, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, trans., W. D. Ross, ed., Richard McKeon (New York, 1941), p. 1061. As G. G. Meersseman notes—citing M. De Wulf, Histoire de la philosophie médiévale, II (Louvain, 1946), 39-40—among the various partial translations of this treatise that appeared around the end of the twelfth century is one consisting of the first third of Book VIII, entitled Liber de amicitia (“Pourquoi le Lombard n'a-t-il pas conçu la charité comme amitié,” Misc. Lombardiana, p. 171).

  20. De amic. V 18. Cf. De spir. amic. iii (P.L., CXCV, col. 687), John of Salisbury, Policraticus, iii, 12 (ed., C. C. I. Webb, Oxford, 1909, 501a), as well as Purdy, “The Friendship Motif in Middle English Literature,” p. 119. This study does not treat Everyman.

  21. Cf. G. Vansteenberghe, “Amitié,” Dictionnaire de spiritualité, especially col. 516. St Thomas Aquinas, in a well-known instance, has defined charity itself as “quaedam amicitia hominis ad Deum” (S.T. IIa IIae, q. 23, a. 1); on the novelty of this influential definition, see Meersseman, Misc. Lombardiana, p. 165. In Classical thought, because equality would be lacking, friendship between deity and man was inconceivable; cf. W. M. Rankin, “Friendship,” Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed., James Hastings (New York, 1925), VI, 132.

  22. De officiis ministrorum, III, xxii (P.L., XVI, col. 192).

  23. De amicitia christiana et de dilectione Dei et proximi, ii, 1 (Un traité de l'amour du XIIesiècle, ed., M. M. Davy, [Paris, 1932], p. 234).

  24. Middle English Sermons, p. 16. Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, S.T., IIa, IIae, q. 23, a.1.

  25. Cf. Peter of Blois, Un traité, p. 196.

  26. Cf. the Parson's Tale, X (1), 381-385 (The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed., F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed., Boston, 1957).

  27. Cf. Goedeke, Every-man, Homulus and Hekastus, pp. 12 ff. and 204 ff.

  28. Cf. Lydgate, “A Freond at Neode,” The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed., H. N. MacCracken, Pt. II, EETS, o. s. 192, p. 758, pl. 121-123.

  29. Basic Works of Aristotle, p. 1088.

  30. De amic. vi 20 (Cicero, trans., Falconer, p. 131). Cf. Boethius, Consolatio Philosophiae, ii, pr. 8.

  31. See Nic. Ethics, i, 8, 1098b (Basic Works of Aristotle, p. 944).

  32. Cant. Tales, X (1), 450 ff. (Works of … Chaucer, ed., Robinson), as Cawley has pointed out (Everyman, p. xxi, footnote), though he implies that the term used in the tale is gifts.

  33. See John B. Dwyer, S. J., The Tradition of Medieval Manuals of Religious Instruction in the Poems of John Gower, (diss., U. of N. Carolina, 1950), p. 302. I am also indebted to Father Dwyer's account of the traditional classification of goods (pp. 300-305).

  34. That is, knowledge of God or knowledge of what is necessary for salvation; as Cawley notes (p. xxi), such knowledge involves self-knowledge (see St. Edmuund's Mirror, in Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse, ed., George G. Perry, EETS, o. s. 26 [London, 1867], p. 17). It is odd that Cawley refers the reader (p. xxii), for “a discussion of the meaning of knowledge,” to Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure,” p. 728, where the much too narrow interpretation of Henry de Vocht and others is followed, i.e., “‘contrition’ or, better, ‘acknowledgement of one's sin.’” See Helen S. Thomas, “The Meaning of the Character Knowledge in Everyman,Mississippi Quarterly, XIV (1961), 3-13.

  35. Religious Pieces, ed., Perry, p. 37.

  36. Cf. De amic. christ., i, 3 (Davy, p. 118) and Lapide, Comment. in Script. Sac., V (1860), 173-174. Important scriptural texts for the offices of friendship include Proverbs xxvii 5, 6, 9-10; see Lapide, III (1865), 786-787; 792-794.

  37. In its role of counsellor and comforter, Five Wits primarily signifies the inner senses.

  38. I am indebted to Prof Morton W. Bloomfield for suggestions concerning the presentation of this paper.

V. A. Kolve (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11651

SOURCE: Kolve, V. A. “Everyman and the Parable of the Talents.” In Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual, edited by Jerome Taylor and Alan H. Nelson, pp. 316-40. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Kolve considers the Parable of the Talents as a possible source for some of the topics discussed in Everyman.]

Many scholars at work over several decades have done much to discover the sources of Everyman. We have learned that it owes something to the traditions of the Dance of Death, to confessional manuals, to treatises on the art of holy dying, to a medieval schema that divides all human endowments into gifts of Nature, Fortune, and Grace; and most important of all, we have been shown its likeness to a testing-of-friends story (Buddhist in origin) that appears first shaped to a Christian moral in the Greek Barlaam and Ioasaph of the eleventh century. A. C. Cawley, in his edition of the play, summarized and significantly extended those enquiries.1 Though I shall propose in this paper a new and more inclusive way of describing the play's central concerns, I have no wish to forsake any of this genealogy of relationship already established. The literary kindred of the play called Everyman are as numerous as the centrality of its subject would suggest. That subject is nothing less than man's dying and doom.

But there remain a number of things unexplained and unaccounted for. Scholarship has passed over in silence some facts that bulk very large. Consider, for example, the way the title page names the central action:

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.

Notice that the play is not entitled “A treatyse how a man shulde lerne dye,” or “… how a man his trewe frendes may knowe,” or “… what be yiftes of Kynde, Fortune, and Grace,” though such formulas are what a careful reading of the scholarship surrounding the play might lead one to expect. The audience will of course learn something about all three subjects—as titles, none would be wholly misleading—but they were not what the printer or the dramatist thought the play was about: that they defined instead as a summons to ready and render accounts.

The playing-text indeed makes necessary that description. The words “reckoning” and “account” occur (in varying grammatical forms) more than twenty-five times in the play, often together, and always at moments of high urgency, where most meaning is being gathered in fewest words.2 I propose to give them some close attention, and wish to begin with two summary foreclosures. First of all, we must not ascribe this language to the dramatist's unique invention, to the particular poetry of his play; as will be seen, it is language very common in relation to the Doom.3 And more important, we must not confuse this summons to an accounting with the sublime image of Revelations 20:12, 15:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne. And the books were opened; and another book was opened, which was the book of life. And the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works. … And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the pool of fire.

(Douay translation)

We must not confuse these images, though I suspect many have. These books are kept in heaven, they are part of a mystery. Everyman, in strong contrast, must bring with him his own account book—it is a literal stage property—and his urgent task is to ready and “clere” it. His greatest concern is, in terms of sources, in no way indebted to the high mystery of Apocalypse, but is instead a thing smaller, humbler, more precise.4 God orders Everyman to “bring with hym a sure rekenynge” (l. 70).

The search for a possible source for this action will be made easier if we note how closely it is related to another recurring theme of the play: the notion that life and goods are “lent,” not given. Everyman is forced to confront that sad truth at several crucial moments of loss,5 in exchanges like the following:

What, wenest thou thy lyue is gyuen the,
And thy worldely gooddes also?
I had wende so, veryle.
Nay, nay, it was but lende the. …

(ll. 161-64)

Later, as his understanding grows, Everyman will recount his duty in that same way:

Of all my workes I must shewe
How I haue lyued and my dayes spent;
Also of yll dedes that I haue vsed
In my tyme, syth lyfe was me lent. …

(ll. 338-44)

Words like “reckoning,” “account-making,” “lending,” and “spending,” compose the essential verbal matrix of the play; and the account book Everyman brings with him is the emblem of their interrelationship. It is what the play most urgently concerns.

A fifteenth-century English poet in the act of contemplating the nearness of his own death offers evidence that such an association of ideas is not novel and can furnish a clue to its ultimate source. John Lydgate, in his Testament, writes:

Age is crope In, calleth me to my grave,
To make rekenyng how I my tyme haue spent,
Baryne of vertu, allas, who shall me saue,
Fro fendes daunger tacounte for my talent,
But Iesu be my staf and my potent,
Ouerstreite audite is like tencombre me,
Or dome be youen, but mercy be present
To all that knele to Iesu on ther kne.(6)

The only important word in this verse not found in Everyman, other than those suggesting an advanced old age, is the word “talent.” But where that word occurs, these others occur also. And where these others occur but the word “talent” is missing, it is, I shall argue, the necessary explanation of them. The parable which gives meaning to Lydgate's verse furnishes for Everyman also an intellectual structure just below the surface of the play, and from it many of the play's characters, the most distinctive part of its language, and the logic of its total action derive. It is less a new “source” for Everyman, than the source behind the sources: the covered logic of an action that made that action coherent and inevitable. Interrelationships between medieval texts are sometimes so complex that it is possible to name those nearest and most like without having looked at the most important of all.

Because it will be our steady concern in what follows, I wish to set out here the parable of the talents, entire, as it is found in Matthew 25:14-30:

For even as a man going into a far country called his servants and delivered to them his goods;

And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one, to everyone according to his proper ability; and immediately he took his journey.

And he that had received five talents went his way and traded with the same and gained other five.

And in like manner he that had received the two gained other two.

But he that had received the one, going his way, digged into the earth and hid his lord's money.

But after a long time the lord of those servants came and reckoned with them.

And he that had received the five talents, coming, brought other five talents, saying: Lord, thou didst deliver to me five talents. Behold, I have gained other five over and above.

His lord said to him: Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

And he also that had received the two talents came and said: Lord, thou deliveredst two talents to me. Behold, I have gained other two.

His lord said to him: Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

But he that had received the one talent came and said: Lord, I know that thou art a hard man; thou reapest where thou hast not sown and gatherest where thou has not strewed.

And, being afraid, I went and hid thy talent in the earth. Behold, here thou hast that which is thine.

And his lord answering said to him: Wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sow not and gather where I have not strewed.

Thou oughtest therefore to have committed my money to the bankers; and at my coming I should have received my own with usury.

Take ye away therefore the talent from him and give it him that hath ten talents.

For to everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: but, from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away.

And the unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(Douay translation)

Any modern commentator will tell you that a talent was originally a unit of weight which became also a unit of monetary value, its precise worth depending on the metal it measured. But that clarifies only the literal sense of the parable. The talents are obviously used here as a figure of speech, as a way of talking about something else. Indeed, it is only because Christ used them to talk about something else that the word “talent” is current still. Its present signification descends from the glosses of the Fathers concerning Christ's real subject, and therefore stands now for natural endowment, ability, capacity. It does so in French, Italian, Spanish, and English.

Though this text from Matthew will be our chief concern, it is not possible to separate it entirely from two other parables which also concern talents loaned or placed in trust—not possible, because medieval writers and preachers did not always distinguish between them. One is the version offered by Luke 19:12-27, differing in some details but clearly an alternate account of the same teaching. The other is found in Matthew 18, beginning at the twenty-third verse:

Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king who would take an account of his servants.

And, when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him that owed him ten thousand talents.

And, as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.

But that servant falling down besought him, saying: Have patience with me and I will pay thee all.

The king has pity and releases him from his debt. The servant later chances to meet a man who owes him a hundred pence in turn. He demands an immediate settlement, and when the other pleads his inability to pay, the king's servant has him thrown into prison. The king, hearing of this, summons his servant again, charges him with his failure to forgive as he himself had been forgiven, and delivers him to torturers until the debt be paid.

This parable is entirely separate from the other two, but I mention it now because it also bears an important relationship to Everyman, and because the word “talent” links all three parables in ways medieval authors were not always concerned to keep separate. The parable from Matthew 25, however, is much the most important—for its narrative power, its richer detail, the greater significance of its surrounding matter (the wise and foolish virgins precede it, the corporal deeds of mercy follow), and perhaps as a result of all the above, the greater patristic attention paid it over the course of several centuries. It would be worth our present attention if only to explain the play's central figure, a man summoned to render account of goods lent him for a time and now recalled. But in fact its importance for Everyman is far more extensive in ways patristic commentary on the parable alone can make clear. I wish to suggest some of those ways, one instance at a time.

Let me begin with the desertions—that movement-into-aloneness generic to tragedy which is here represented by the betrayals of Felawship, Kynrede, and Goodes, and later by the departure of Beaute, Strength, Dyscrecion, and V. Wyttes. The tale of the man who has three friends, two of whom betray him in his greatest need (a tale existing in numerous versions and many languages, deriving ultimately from Barlaam and Ioasaph), has long been recognized as a source of this action. Everyman does test his friends and some of them bear names deriving from prose moralizations of that story. The first friend is most frequently explained as standing for Riches, or the World; the second as figuring Wife and Kindred (sometimes including Friends); and the third friend, too little loved but alone faithful, is named Good Deeds, or Charity, or Christ. The relationship is close and vital. But on its own it is not enough. These analogues offer no help in accounting for the second set of desertions, the second tragic movement of the play. For those, we are accustomed to refer to the ars moriendi, which does indeed concern the experience of death, but in ways a good deal less physical and interior than the play's second part.7 The ars, it is true, does speak of wife and children and riches as temptations to a dying man, for he is likely to turn to them for help, uselessly, and in ways ultimately dangerous to his soul. But, in terms of literary genetics, that is merely to account again for some features already provided by the three-friends story. The subject of the ars moriendi is emphatically not the physical process of dying: it insists that in the moment of extremity only spiritual matters are worth attention. In short, these two sources between them can account for Felawship, Kynrede, Cosyn, Goodes, Good Dedes. A great deal, but not all. The parable of the talents and patristic commentary upon it, in strong contrast, can furnish us not only with the central figure of a man summoned to a reckoning, and with the characters just named, but also with those characters excluded so far: Beaute, Strength, Dyscrecion, V. Wyttes, Knowledge, and even Confessyon. It does so in two different ways.

The first way, and the more generally inclusive, is developed by those commentaries that work from the idea of talents per se, ignoring (as does the Gospel of Luke) the 5-2-1 numerology of Matthew. This tradition goes back at least as far as Saint John Chrysostom in the fourth century,8 but I shall quote from the vastly more influential statement of it made by Gregory the Great at the end of his brilliant homily on the parable—a version incorporated by Rabanus Maurus into his own eight-book commentary on Matthew written some two centuries later.9 Gregory writes:

There is no-one who can truly say: I have received no talent at all, there is nothing about which I can be required to give a reckoning. For even the very smallest of gifts will be charged as a talent to the account of every poor man. For one man has received understanding [intelligentia] and owes the ministry of preaching by reason of that talent. Another has received earthly goods, and owes alms-giving from his talent, out of his property. Another has received neither understanding of inner things [internorum intelligentia] nor wealth of worldly goods [rerum affluentia], but he has learned an art or skill by which he lives, and this very skill is charged to his account as the receiving of a talent. Another has acquired none of these things, but nevertheless has perhaps come to be on terms of friendship [familiaritas] with a rich man; he has therefore received the talent of friendship. So if he does not speak to him on behalf of the poor, he is condemned for not using his talent … [etc.].10

Already this could suggest to a dramatist the characters Knowledge, Goodes, Felawship. And in his insistence that the very smallest of gifts—those common even to the poor—must be recognized as talents and put out to use, Gregory may be taken to imply that humbler inventory that Chrysostom had named earlier:

For the talents here are each person's ability, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching, or in what thing soever of the kind. … For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body, and mind, and understanding. …11

Here Strength makes a separate appearance, and Dyscrecion [mind] as well, to single out only those not already named in the passage from Gregory. A commentary long attributed to the Venerable Bede, but actually based on Rabanus, concludes its exposition of the parable by emphasizing this same kind of open-ended applicability, as I suppose any of us would if we were asked (without preparation) to suggest its general meaning: “These things may be interpreted in many ways as concerning charity, ability and knowledge.” The Glossa ordinaria instructs in a similar mode: “Note that what is given to each one in worldly or spiritual things is charged to his account, as the talent for which he will have to give a reckoning when the Lord returns.”12

But patristic tradition can offer further and more particular help, for the numbers in Matthew also invited theological speculation. A 5-2-1 progression, with its multiples, necessarily exercised the imagination of a culture that thought numbers one of the hidden languages of God. Because no number in Scripture could be without spiritual meaning, however enigmatic, several explanations were made over the course of centuries. The earliest known to me, that of Saint Hilary of Poitiers from the mid-fourth century, is especially concerned with how the Gentiles won the inheritance promised the Jews. The servant who received five talents is read as a figure for those people of the Law who received the five books of Moses and who doubled that trust by the faith of the Gospel, recognizing the sacraments as having been foreshadowed in the Law. Because those persons thereby fulfill the commandments in a new way, they are justified by both Law and faith. These are, I take it, the Jews who accept Christ, of whom the apostles themselves stand as first exemplars.

Hilary interprets the servant who received two talents as standing for those people of the Gentiles who have faith in their heart and confess by their mouth that Christ is Lord—a capacity for inner faith and public witness are the two talents, which they double by good works, authenticating their faith through action. It is with reference to them that the unprofitable servant charges his master with reaping where he has not sown, for the final harvest is here foreseen to be mostly of the Gentiles, instead of the seed of Abraham, to whom the Messiah was promised. The first servant offers works doubled by faith; the second servant, faith doubled by deeds.

And the third servant, it follows, must typify the Jews still living in darkness, rejecting Christ and his Gospel, carnal in their understanding, thinking to be justified by the Law alone. The teaching of Christ they hid in the earth, neither using it themselves nor wishing others to use it. And their fate will be terrible: “For to them that have the use of the Gospels, even the honor of the Law is given; but from him that has not the faith of Christ, even the honor which he seems to have of the Law will be taken away.”13

This early version of the parable's meaning is without consequence for Everyman, as is part of another tradition, rather closely allied, summarized by Rabanus Maurus so: “The first servant, in being given five talents, received the five books of the Law, which, by the doctrine and fulfillment of the ten commandments, he increased. The second, in being given the two talents, received the two Testaments, and these, in a moral and mystical sense, he doubled by piously spreading their teaching abroad. The third, in the likeness of one talent, received the gift of grace, but he hid it in earthly pleasures, and was therefore cast into hell, for he produced no profit from it.”14 Such a reading of the two talents is not uncommon, and the interpretation of the single talent as grace buried in earthly pleasures has some obvious bearing on Everyman. But a tradition descending from Saint Jerome is another matter altogether, more useful to preachers concerned with the moral lives of their parishioners, more widely disseminated and influential, and more steadily illuminating for our play. In his longer commentary on Matthew, Jerome explains that the five talents are to be understood as the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch—which are exactly equivalent to the character V. Wyttes in Everyman; that the two talents are to be understood as intelligentia et opera, which almost as certainly furnish us the characters Knowledge and Good Dedes (his context suggests an affirmative, not neutral, meaning for both terms); and that the one talent is to be understood as ratio alone, which I take to be synonymous with the character Dyscrecion. This version of the numbers was transmitted by Isidore of Seville in his Allegoriae quaedam sacrae scripturae and thence by Rabanus Maurus in his De universo.15

One of the identifications I have just made demands fuller and more careful statement, for it addresses one of the most difficult questions in Everyman scholarship. Namely, is the character Knowledge to be understood in something like our modern sense of that term [scientia, intelligentia]? Or does it stand instead for the even then rarer, and now archaic, medieval sense of “acknowledge,” naming that part of the sacrament of penance which concerns a full confession of sins? The latter sense was first proposed in 1947 by H. de Vocht, and has since been skillfully supported by several others. It is an attractive idea, and I was once persuaded by it; but close attention to the morphology of the word in our text, where it occurs only as a noun, never as a verb, and—more to the present point—evidence from patristic commentary on the parable of the talents, both suggest the older and simpler answer is probably correct.16 Good Dedes and Knowledge are linked in the play as intimately as are opera and intelligentia in explanations of the two talents given the second servant. Indeed, the tradition just named, that of Jerome, Isidore, and Rabanus, can help a good deal in clarifying the relationship of certain allegorical characters in the play to others closely allied. The gift of the five senses (V. Wyttes) is defined by them as a knowledge of external things, that is, the receiving of sense data. Reason (Dyscrecion) separates us from the beasts, and comprises the ability to interpret such data. And Knowledge in its turn is the product of reason working perfectly upon sense data: reason not blinded by earthly concerns, not stupidly tenacious of the literal, but seeking instead the spiritual truth that lies hidden within all phenomena.17 In Everyman it is clear, I think, that Knowledge exemplifies this deepest kind of understanding. As a character, she has knowledge of Confession and its efficacy, and is a useful guide to it; but she speaks many other truths as well.

The parable of the talents, then, can explain the figure of Everyman as a man summoned to render accounts; and, better than the more immediately proximate sources, it offers a comprehensive rationale for the other dramatis personae, both interior and exterior, whom he confronts in the course of this action. It also offers help in what must be always one of the crucial tasks of criticism: the attempt to define with maximum precision what happens within a work of art.

For instance, there is another group of words closely associated in the play, and nearly as insistently central as those concerned with “accounts” and “reckoning.” More than twenty-five times, the words “pylgrymage,” “vyage,” or “iourney” occur, and these, too, despite their linguistic weight, have never had any close attention.18 Perhaps this is because the idea of pilgrimage as a figure for all human life was so common in the Middle Ages; even now it seems to require no glossing. Besides, Everyman goes on a journey before our eyes, from one friend to another and finally into the grave. But again, as with Everyman's account book, if that is the explanation of the scholarly silence, then I think that we have mistaken the matter, conflating two metaphors allied but separate, only one of which is really at the center of the play. The pilgrimage in question is not that “of human life”—in the manner of The Canterbury Tales or The Castle of Perseverance or Deguilleville's Le Pèlerinage de la vie humaine. That pilgrimage has been underway since Everyman's birth and is hardly spoken of here. It does not add up to news, or require a message of command. The errand assigned to Dethe,

Go thou to Eueryman
And shewe hym, in my name,
A pylgrymage he must on hym take,

(ll. 66-68)

employs a different metaphor, and concerns a new contingency in a life already at the full. In the pilgrimage of life, Everyman's friends have been his constant companions, but in this new and “longe” journey, their constancy is at an end. The latter is, quite simply, the death-journey of the soul to Judgment—Deguilleville's Le Pèlerinage de l'âme—and most of the play is devoted to showing the soul freeing itself from earth so that it can depart. That brief and final action—a swift and simple journey upwards—alone is the pilgrimage suddenly ordained and so inadequately prepared for. The angel describes it so:

Come, excellente electe spouse, to Iesu!
Here aboue thou shalte go
Now shalte thou in to the heuenly spere,
Vnto the whiche all ye shall come
That lyueth well before the daye of dome.

(ll. 894-901)

That journey was first made by Christ in his ascension, and to it the parable of the talents was always understood to refer in its opening words: Sicut enim homo peregre proficiscens … (Matthew) or Homo quidam nobilis abiit in regionem longinquam … (Luke)—(Englished by the Wyclif Bible, “Sothely as a man goynge fer in pilgrimage,” and “Sum noble man wente in to a fer cuntree …”).19 According to the Fathers, Christ used the terms peregre and in regionem longinquam because he was foretelling his ascension in the flesh. The mystery of the Incarnation, in which God united himself with man's kind forever, made his long journey also a pilgrimage, for that word, in the Bible as well as in countless medieval texts, has about it always the suggestion of exile, of finding oneself in a country foreign and potentially hostile. The soul's true home is heaven, but the flesh will go there a stranger and afraid.

I would not wish to claim, in the absence of these other relationships, that Everyman's use of pilgrimage as a metaphor for the soul-journey need be explained by reference to the parable of the talents. It was available in many other places. But the fact is that the parable, which is necessary on other grounds, does make those words available, uses them as a part of its vital meaning, and may therefore help account for their great frequency and importance in the play: the pilgrimage of Everyman's soul recapitulates the first of Christ's journeys in the parable. What can easily seem to us the “longe journey”—all those desperate wanderings in the platea, the search for companionship into the grave—is really born of the allegorical mode itself, that same formal and artistic necessity that also fragments a man's personality and experience of life into two sets of “friends.” Its purpose is merely to disentangle, to make consecutive, spatial, and linear, the extremely complex process of how a man dies. Each stage of human dying—that mysterious transition from being to apparent nonbeing—is rendered as a separate event, but its real-life referent may of course be much shorter or much longer. The duration of the play need represent barely more than the moment of death itself, when light and life fade together, though it must be long enough for a motion of contrition within the soul and for the receiving of sacraments on one's deathbed. The desertions—friends, kin, goods, beauty, strength, the five senses—are in some sense simultaneous, for none of these is utterly and irretrievably lost until they are lost altogether, at the moment of extinction. To separate them is simply to make the totality of that loss more readily apprehensible by the mind and the imagination. But the Everyman specific to this play is possibly youthful and certainly no more than in his prime (“O Dethe, thou comest whan I had thee leest in mynde”), and this division into parts, native to allegory, is also meant to image another kind of dying: that which comes to the old, who do lose these things slowly, remorselessly. The frenzied movement here and there that we see in the platea is ultimately that of the soul of any man, whatever his age, as it struggles to free itself from man's body and world's time in order to mount to eternity. That ascent alone is the pilgrimage named so often in this play.

Patristic commentary on the master's journey can help explain another aspect of the play that exhibits a parallel richness of meaning. The action's place in historical time is allegorically as ambiguous as is the duration of the dying, and the play's movement from a double to a single time is one of its finest artistic strategies. Because the play concerns a single figure called Everyman—printed by Cawley, quite properly, as one word with a capital E—it speaks of death as it may come to any one of us, individually, at any time. The play's historical moment is in that sense a perpetual present, not tied down to history. But simultaneously a specific historical time is also addressed which is nothing less than Doomsday, the general death that will befall all those still living at the end of the world. We are implicated collectively as well as individually, for there is a steady, sustained ambivalence of pronoun in God's opening speech: Everyman is spoken of as both singular and plural in number.20 I shall italicize the alternation:

Euery man lyueth so after his owne pleasure,
And yet of theyr lyfe they be nothynge sure.
I se the more that I them forbere
The worse they be fro yere to yere.
All that lyueth appayreth faste;
Therefore I wyll, in all the haste,
Haue a rekenynge of euery mannes persone;
For, and I leue the people thus alone
In theyr lyfe and wycked tempestes,
Veryly they will become moche worse than beestes,
For now one wolde by enuy another vp ete;
Charyte they do all clene forgete.
I hoped well that euery man
In my glory sholde make his mansyon,
And therto I had them all electe …

(ll. 40-54)

When God gives his order to Dethe:

Go thou to Eueryman
And shewe hym, in my name,
A pylgrymage he must on hym take,

(ll. 66-68)

we seem to be safely back in the singular; but Dethe's answer again allows no one to escape:

Lorde, I wyll in the worlde go renne ouer-all
And cruelly out-serche bothe grete and small.

(ll. 72-73)

The ambiguity is present even earlier in the opening speech of the Messenger, which denies the audience any certainty about the kind of death-and-judgment play they will see:

For ye shall here how our Heuen Kynge
Calleth Eueryman to a generall rekenynge.

(ll. 19-20)

A listening audience cannot tell whether “Everyman” is written as one word or two, just as the word “general” can mean both “comprehensive” (a man giving a full account of his life) and “collective” (all men, the general) brought to judgment. The ambiguity is no accident: I do not know when I will die: we do not know when, as a race, we will have exceeded the patience of God.

The text provides for—indeed, subtly ensures—a kind of staging that will carry this meaning. The Messenger calls out from the platea: give audience to the play, hear what God has to say. God appears above to talk about what he sees—“euery man” in his sin; and for the first part of his speech at least, it seems clear that a character called Everyman should not be evident or distinguishable from the rest of the audience. The audience itself is the first “euery man” that God names: it is what is in his view, and what therefore he must be understood to order Dethe to summon. When Dethe cries “Loo, yonder I se Eueryman walkynge,” “Eueryman, stande styll” (ll. 80, 85) the leading actor is designated, but until then he belongs in the audience, anonymous, unexceptional. The actor might well be directed to begin making his way easily and gracefully toward an exit just before the summons comes, for we live as though such matters hold no interest, cannot concern our own life. Only when Death names us directly do we take any notice, and then, like Everyman, bewildered and unready, it is in the broken rhythms of “What, sente to me?” Reluctantly Everyman will acknowledge that summons—up to this point ambiguous—in the name of us all, for he is at once our likeness and our brother.

Neither the ars moriendi nor the faithful-friend analogues can offer any explanation for this doubled pronoun of address, this dual sense of time. They concern a man's death, that is all. But the parable of the talents does exhibit this same allegorical doubling of significance. The man gone on a pilgrimage to a far country is Christ, and the parable speaks of what will be required when he returns, at the Second Coming, which is Doomsday. Gregory explains it so:

For when the judge will come, he will ask from each of us as much as he gave. Therefore, so that each one may be sure of giving a reckoning when the Lord returns, he should think fearfully every day of what he has received. For, lo, the day is near when he who went on a journey to a far land will return. For he who left this earth on which he was born did indeed as it were go away to a far country; but he will surely return, and demand a reckoning for the talents.21

This understanding of the parable's “moment” must be the source of the darker, more apocalyptic overtones of God's opening speech in the play. Until the very last of its forty-two lines there is no mention of death, or of pilgrimage or journey, nor is any clear priority given the singular pronoun. We hear instead about sin and justice and a general reckoning. It is the language of the master returned. Only in the command given Dethe, at line 68, is it clear this play will concern a rehearsal of the Final Day, that its subject is that individual judgment at any individual death which will be formally recapitulated at the Day of Doom.22

These, then, are some ways in which attention to the parable can enable a closer and more accurate description of certain aspects of the play than has perhaps been readily available before. Let me choose just one more instance, last in my sequence, but far from least: the character and function of Good Dedes.

The problem is not one of any substantial misunderstanding. We see Good Dedes go into the grave with Everyman; we honor the fact that she alone does not desert him; and, in a general sense, we understand why. But the parable of the talents can allow us to name that reason with greater precision. It seems likely Jerome's use of opera furnished her name, Good Dedes, but her specific function in the play derives from another part of the parable. She is the crucial part of the reckoning Everyman must make, the spiritual profit, the increase, which God demands of his servants when he calls back the talents and hears the accounts. The reckoning concerns lucrum spirituale, and the servant cast into exterior darkness is he who hides his talent in the earth, becoming thereby unprofitable in the economy of God's love and man's salvation. Good Dedes in the play, we may say simply and surely, is the profit on Everyman's total endowment: on his beauty, strength, reason, senses, friends, kindred, goods.

And in a manner again intrinsic to the parable, which speaks as though literal riches were its subject, the play creates a special relationship between Goodes and Good Dedes. There is on the one hand, however peculiar to the English language, the close verbal link between their names. And there is also a close emblematic relationship. Both are initially discovered prostrate and unable to move: Goodes because it is stacked, trussed, locked in chests, sacked in bags (ll. 393-97), as a talent hoarded and hidden rather than put out for use; and Good Dedes because she is buried in earth (“Here I lye, colde in the grounde”) and fettered by sin (ll. 486-88). These parallels suggest what the Fathers declare explicitly and what the play itself will later make clear: that the one must become the other; that goods (here standing in for all of the talents) must become good deeds.23 Dethe, in his opening summary of what we will see, offers one of those synonyms so oddly characteristic of this play, giving a character a name other than that he ordinarily bears. Everyman will dwell in hell forever, he tells us, “Excepte that almes be his good frende” (l. 78). Later, the play will explore in action the logic of that oblique naming. After Everyman has returned from Confession, he makes of his last will and testament his best Good Deed, adding to (and defining the nature of) those few earlier good deeds his penance has set free to walk again:

Now herken, all that be here,
For I wyll make my testament
Here before you all present:
In almes / halfe my good I wyll gyue with my handes twayne
In the way of charyte with good entent,
And the other halfe styll shall remayne
In queth, to be retourned there it ought to be.

(ll. 696-702)

What is rightfully his—one half of his goods—he leaves to the poor in alms. What he has gained wrongfully—the other half—he will have restored to those he took from. He makes restitution, and he performs through his “almesse” the seven works of charity—those actions which alone can insure man's salvation at the Day of Doom and which are named by Christ in the verses that immediately follow the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. They are those good deeds to the poor and wretched which cannot be done generously without doing them to Christ: “To fede the hungry; to gyf the thirsty drynke; to clethe the nakyd; herber the howsles; to viset the seke; to viset prisonners; bery the ded.”24 Those deeds are the medieval meaning of “almesse,” whether accomplished by one's own hand or by a legacy to the church. “As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46). Everyman has come a long spiritual way from that earlier attempt to put his Goodes to use, when he sought to buy off Dethe for “a thousande pounde” (l. 122).

This same passage affords a second instance of the way the parable of the talents, within medieval tradition, seems to have gathered to itself many like or nearby things. Everyman's last will and testament derives almost word for word from Saint Luke's story of Zacheus, a rich man of Jericho and a sinner, in whose house Jesus announces he will stay. The respectable people murmur against it:

But Zacheus, standing, said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold.

Jesus said to him: This day is salvation come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.

For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

(Luke 19:8-10)

The speech of Zacheus above must be the ultimate source of Everyman's almsgiving and restitution, whatever medieval handbooks for priests may stand between. This ultimate indebtedness, so far as I know, has never been noted; but more interesting from our present point of view is the fact that Luke's version of the talents follows immediately.

Although in this play Confession is initially spoken of as a “clensynge ryuere,” a “gloryous fountayne” that can wash away sin (ll. 536, 545), the dialogue soon moves from that imagery into a long prayer spoken by Everyman, rehearsing his sins and asking mercy (ll. 581-618). At the end of it, Good Dedes is at last enabled to move. The Book of Vices and Virtues, a fourteenth-century English translation of the immensely influential Somme le Roi, discusses the sacrament of penance in ways helpful here and very closely related to the parable of the talents. It says that man should think of his Holy Confessor as God's Bailiff, conducting (and, through the sacrament, clearing) a preliminary rendering of accounts, of all of our “receites” and “dispences.”25 Good Dedes, free to move, will carry the account book, for she is what it records:

Good Dedes, haue we clere our rekenynge?
GOOD Dedes:
Ye, in dede, I haue it here.

(ll. 652-53)

It is now clarified by penance of all except good deeds—the spiritual profit he will present as evidence of an (ultimately) faithful stewardship of talents entrusted for a time and now recalled. And in his own hand, with equal symbolic force, Everyman bears the cross—the sign of that one good deed man could not accomplish on his own, sufficient to remedy Adam's sin. In two of the Gesta Romanorum versions of the faithful friend story, the third friend (more commonly identified as Good Deeds or Charity) is Christ himself, the friend willing to die to prevent his friend's dying.26 Without the sacrifice, no account books kept on earth could ever win grace. V. Wyttes notes this crucial fact after Everyman's visit to Priesthode for the sacraments:

Peas! For yonder I se Eueryman come,
Whiche hath made true satysfaccyon.

(ll. 769-70)

It names the change as though Everyman were its agent; but of course the facts are otherwise. Christ alone could make true satisfaction for sin—He is the great restitution—but it is available to any man through the sacrament of the altar. Everyman makes satisfaction in the only way possible for man fallen and forlorn: he satisfies justice by accepting Christ's body into his own. That assent and mystical incorporation win him heaven at the end. The third chapter of The Boke of the Craft of Dying advises as a medicine against despair that the dying man be helped to say:

The deth of oure lord Ihesu Crist I put betwene me and all myn euell meritis, and the merite of this worthi passione I offre for the merite that I shuld haue had and alas I haue it not; Sey also: Lord put the deth of oure lord Ihesu Criste be-twene me and thi ryghtwysnes.27

From this medieval Christian truth derives the power of the penultimate stage action: Good Dedes and the account book, Everyman and the cross of Christ. The union is emblematic. They go into the grave together, for the lack of either would destroy the hope of heaven. Having learned to wish to die, Everyman has learned the highest lesson of the art of dying well: “I go before there I wolde be. God be our gyde” (l. 780). The play now moves swiftly to its end as all except Good Dedes fall away at the grave's edge. Everyman commends his soul to God, asks to be saved at the Day of Doom, and is received above to the sound of heavenly singing. An angel speaks to him, “Come, excellente electe spous, to Iesu!” It is equivalent to the parable's “Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

All this would seem to indicate that some knowledge of the parable of the talents, and the commentary that grew up around it, can offer important help to our understanding of the play. For certain central facts, it has claim to be the necessary cause; and if that is granted, it becomes (in the technical sense) an adequate cause for other characters, events, and actions of the play. But the question of external probability remains. Evidence is needed that this Death-and-Doomsday subject was elsewhere and in important places conceived in terms of the parable of the talents: that the conjunction of the two would have seemed natural to a late fifteenth-century dramatist and readily comprehensible to some reasonable portion of his audience.

If space were available to sketch the history of the parable and its influence on medieval vernacular literature, one might begin by looking at the bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc, written in Anglo-Norman in 1210 or thereabouts, which uses the parable significantly; or at that same author's Le Besant de Dieu, where the talents provide the governing idea for the entire poem.28 But later evidence will serve our present purposes better. The most important link between Doomsday and the parable of the talents in popular medieval tradition is the Speculum humanae salvationis—one of the most important books of the later Middle Ages, and, along with the Biblia pauperum, one of the two most popular versions of sacred history read as a series of typologically related events. The Speculum was written in 1324, and was so widely disseminated that no census has ever been attempted of all of its surviving examples. (Lutz and Perdrizet, whose two-volume study29 remains the most important work on the subject, knew of 205 Latin and Latin-German manuscripts, nearly 80 of them fully illustrated.) The text was translated into German, French, English, Dutch, and Czech. It became one of the most popular block books, again with extant examples beyond numbering. Granted the close relationship that existed between Everyman and Elckerlijc, we might note the fact of translation into both English and Dutch; and we might recall as well that the Netherlands was a great center of block-book printing.

The Speculum concerns us because in it, the Last Judgment is prefigured by (1) the parable of the talents, (2) the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and (3) the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast. In the block books and the illuminated manuscripts, the four are most often depicted in a series spread across two pages, with their texts below, and the Last Judgment at the extreme left.30 Christ is seated on an arc in the heavens, displaying his wounds, the lily and a two-edged sword emerging from his mouth; Mary and John kneel on either side of him, and the dead arise from their graves below. Directly alongside this picture is shown the parable of the talents, with the reckoning completed and the unprofitable servant bound or being led out to torture.31 The influence of this work upon the visual arts was very considerable; it would have made the relationship I postulate between parable and play one that would have been more easily accessible to contemporary audiences (even the illiterate) than it is to us now. My evidence from the Fathers indicated that the parable was understood in terms of Doomsday. The present evidence makes it clear that the converse was also true, and via the block books well into the sixteenth century, Doomsday was thought of in terms of the parable of the talents.

There are intermediate works that should be looked at in detail but here can only be mentioned. A late fifteenth-century Scots poem, “The Thrie Tailes of the Thrie Priests of Peblis,” offers evidence closely contemporary with Everyman that the talents version of the crisis survived, even though many of the analogues in between name it only in a generalized way as “being in peril of death.” The Scots poem, like these others, never uses the word “talents,” but it does specify the precise reckoning required by the King of Kings (identified so in the tale's second line):

Thus but [i.e., without] delay befoir him to compeir.
And with him count and give reckning of all
He had of him al tyme baith grit and small.(32)

And from the fourteenth century in England, there is a remarkable example of all these traditions flourishing together, clustered around the idea of the talents. In one of the Middle English sermons edited by Ross, there is narrated a version of the faithful-friend story that has never been formally noticed in Everyman criticism.33 It is used as an exemplum on the theme Redde quod debes—“Yelde that thou owest”—but between the first statement of the text and the narration of the story there intervenes a most elaborate development of theme, subsidiary theme, and illustration. It demonstrates most vividly how the idea of the talents as such subsumed material from all three parables I spoke of earlier. One hears first of the unmerciful servant of Matthew 18, who owed a debt of ten thousand talents, after which the other parable of the talents is narrated. Luke is the version cited—quite properly, for the synonym “besauntes” is used for talents, and the unprofitable servant hides his talent in a napkin rather than in the ground—but it details an unequal distribution of talents, using the 5-2-1 sequence Matthew's gospel alone provides. The preacher then goes on to quote the speech of Zacheus (again from Luke) that furnishes Everyman his last will and testament. He generalizes from it: “than it semeth well here-by that euery man is bondon to peye is dette of the goodes that God hath sende hym,” and after speaking of alms-deeds and their necessity, he names Christ as man's ultimate and only way of settling his debt with God. The preacher then—and only then—goes on to narrate the story of the three friends, one of whom alone is faithful. There is no other text I know that shares so many of the materials the dramatist of Everyman used in his turn.

These intermediate links testify to the continuity of the tradition; and some later proof, of an oddly circumstantial kind, can take us further into the sixteenth century. Our text of Everyman depends chiefly upon two early editions printed by John Skot which survive complete. Two other editions, printed by Richard Pynson, are extant only in fragmentary form, one of them dated about 1510-25 and the other about 1525-30. The year 1525 links both guesses,34 though guesses, of course, they remain. But it is interesting to find Pynson, in the following year, 1526, publishing a treatise called The Pylgrimage of Perfection, whose seventh chapter of the first book concerns God's gifts to man:

god wyll / that such gyftes and graces that he hath frely and without deseruyng gyuen to men / should nat be taken in vayn: but whan he cometh to the yeres of discrecion / & hath the vse of reason / he shuld labour and exercise hymselfe in them: for they be the talentes that god hath lent to man in this lyfe: of the whiche he wyll aske moste streyt accounte in the daye of iudgement.35

We have here what I called earlier the essential verbal matrix of the play of Everyman; and, as with the Lydgate verses quoted then, one further word, “talents,” which is the explanation of the rest. If Everyman was indeed written in the 1480s, this treatise is later by some forty years: but the printed editions (which are all that remain) testify at the very least to its popularity in the early decades of the sixteenth century. This evidence suggests that Richard Pynson, or anyone reading both of these works from his press, would surely have understood the parable of the talents to be the scriptural text underlying Everyman. On the basis of evidence already put forward, they would almost equally surely not have been the first to do so.

I have one final reason, perhaps stronger than all the others, for thinking that. As noted before, Barlaam and Ioasaph, a Greek work of the eleventh century, has long been recognized as the earliest source of the (Christianized) faithful-friend story, but since there are many intermediate versions of the same, Everyman scholarship has tended to concern itself with those that are later in time and nearer in place. This is quite proper: no one would wish to claim for the dramatist direct knowledge of an early Greek original. It was, indeed, the lat version I turned to in my research. But it offers a most striking confirmation of the reading I had reached, and have so far been putting forward, on other grounds. For the Fifth Apologue of that work, the ultimate source of our story, names the crisis confronting the man who had three friends in this way:

Now one day he was apprehended by certain dread and strange soldiers, that made speed to hale him to the king, there to render account for a debt of ten thousand talents [ταλάντων].

In the end it is only the neglected third friend,

the company of good deeds,—faith, hope, charity, alms, kindliness, and the whole band of virtues, that can go before us, when we quit the body, and may plead with the Lord on our behalf, and deliver us from our enemies and dread creditors, who urge that strict rendering of account in the air.36

In short, the story which gives to Everyman its most distinctive action and shape—the testing of friends—in its earliest Christian version explicitly works from the idea of the talents. The Greek author takes the figure ten thousand from Matthew 18: it makes a striking beginning, and all preliminaries can be avoided by simply announcing a call to repay a huge debt. But Matthew 18 contributes nothing except that specific number. For the rest, we are dealing with the meaning of the talents as defined by those several centuries of patristic commentary on Matthew 25 that preceded this eleventh-century narrative. Without that implicit understanding of what the debt involves, “the company of good deeds” and “the whole band of virtues” would make no sense as a way of explaining the third and faithful friend.

Should there be any doubt that the scriptural sense of “talent” is alive in his pages, the author's introduction to the whole work can put it to rest:

So I too … heedful of the danger hanging over that servant who, having received of his lord the talent, buried it in the earth, and hid out of use that which was given him to trade withal, will in no wise pass over in silence the edifying story that hath come to me. … It readeth thus.37

The Jesuit scholar, Jean Sonet, in a two-volume study of Barlaam and Ioasaph and its transmission, names a normative medieval Latin version, of which sixty-two manuscripts are known to him: its features include both the debt of ten thousand talents and praise of the third friend as returning with usury (that is, with spiritual profit) such small kindness as had been shown him.38 Again, the second of these details makes sense only in relation to the later parable. It cannot derive from Matthew 18.

Whether the talents survive as an explicit detail in any given version, or whether they have gone underground, as in the Golden Legend, here translated by Caxton, “And it happed so that this man was in grete perylle of his lyf and was somoned tofore the kynge,”39 in either case it seems clear that this parable continued to be the explanation of that action and its deepest controlling logic, from the eleventh century well into the sixteenth.

What happens on stage in no way looks like visual representations of the parable as they are found, say, in the Speculum humanae salvationis, where it is usual for two servants to be shown presenting coins or purses, while the third is bound and punished.40 Instead the stage is occupied by allegorical personages who are explicitly, denotatively, what those coins signify, with Everyman and his account books at their center. He is engaged in a different literal action—the testing of friends—with the result that the symbols and referents of the parable have perforce been recombined, shaped into something new, and no single patristic commentary has been used with perfect consistency or as a whole. But Everyman offers in reckoning still his Good Dedes and the cross of Christ. We know that the first Christian redactor of that testing-of-friends story had the talents in mind; they were his reason for telling it, and determined its moral. When a version of that story, probably not much longer than its original, came into the hands of a fifteenth-century dramatist, the parable and its commentaries seem once again to have provided clues and indications as to how that brief exemplum might be expanded into a rich and complex work of art. His procedures were eclectic, certainly. His concern was to make a play potent to move a popular audience, not to transmit lecture notes on the Fathers, and so he used what seemed useful, governed only by the need to make of those old materials something strong and stageable and new, at once dramatically coherent and doctrinally correct.

We do not see the parable staged, but unless we would ignore the fact that ideas have histories and that drama involves words spoken—uses words because it is interested in ideas more complex than dumb shows can manage—then we may find that the text that lies behind this play is like the soil beneath a rich carpet of green grass: it has a great deal to do with everything we do see that is substantial, pleasing, and alive. And it can help us see it better, for it invites a closer attention to the actual language of the play, permits a more precise definition of what is underway at any given moment, and—not least—allows us to apprehend more clearly the play's essential unity of action.

For modern audiences, Everyman is perhaps most moving, most successful, in its “tragic” action—its imitation of how a man dies. We are more than ever in search of an ars moriendi, having abandoned the medieval kind. But the other part of the play, its rising action—that which moves toward joy and reconciliation and salvation—has its own power and special conviction still, if only because once that was where the deepest truth was known to reside. For a medieval audience this “play of holy dying” was most urgently a play about holy living, an ars vivendi atque moriendi. The parable of the talents in no small part was responsible for that.


  1. Everyman, ed. A. C. Cawley (Manchester, 1961); hereafter cited as “Cawley.” All references to the play are to this edition. The possible priority of the Dutch Elckerlijc over the English Everyman is of no real consequence to this paper, and I have not thought it necessary to rehearse that problem here. If Everyman is indeed a translation from the Dutch, it is a fully achieved translation; its audiences would not have been aware they were watching a foreign play. I am concerned with the meaning of the action and the words which describe it for an English audience.

  2. For “rekenynge” see lines 20, 70, 99, 106, 113, 137, 147, 160, 333, 375, 419, 511, 529, 652, 865, 914; for “accounte,” lines 244, 336, 376, 406, 420, 493, 551, 580, 916. And cf. “my wrytynge” in line 187.

  3. Cawley's note to line 104 (p. 31) relates such language to the verses on the bailiff in Lydgate's translation of the French Dance of Death poem. But there, terms such as “assise,” “sommended,” “to yefe a-comptes” are used simply as a witty play on the bailiff's own profession. It is too particular, and too late in date, to offer a source for this kind of language. See The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren, with an introduction by Beatrice White, EETS e.s. 181 (London, 1931), p. 36 (Ellesmere MS version).

  4. Minor devils were sometimes thought of as recording man's sins, sometimes in a slightly comic context, as in the Doomsday pageant of The Towneley Plays, ed. George England and Alfred W. Pollard, EETS e.s. 71 (London, 1897), esp. pp. 371-79, or in exempla concerning Saint Brice (for several references, see V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi [Stanford, 1966], pp. 140 and 299, n. 43). More often, this is treated gravely, as in the ars moriendi block-book illustration of how dying men may be tempted to despair. It shows a devil at the deathbed, holding up a large bill-of-writing and a scroll which says Ecce peccata tua. See the facsimile Ars moriendi, ed. W. Harry Rylands, Holbein Society (London, 1881). The drama's Everyman must present his own account book; it is a different tradition altogether.

  5. See also ll. 57, 437-41. Words signifying something “lent” occasionally occur in connection with the fifth temptation named by the ars moriendi, that of family and temporal things. See, for instance, Ratis Raving and Other Moral and Religious Pieces, ed. J. Rawson Lumby, EETS 43 (London, 1870), pp. 5-6. But this most probably derives from the parable of the talents, and should not be regarded as an ultimately independent source.

  6. The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, pt. 1, EETS e.s. 107 (London, 1911), p. 337 (ll. 217-24).

  7. For an introduction and bibliographical guide to the literature of the ars moriendi, see Sister Mary Catharine O'Connor, The Art of Dying Well (New York, 1942).

  8. See The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom … on the Gospel of St. Matthew, trans. Sir George Prevost (London, 1885), pt. III, pp. 1041-42; see also pp. 1027-28. Chrysostom died in 407.

  9. In Patrologiae cursus completus: Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 221 vols. (Paris, 1844-64); hereafter cited as P.L. For Rabanus Maurus, Commentariorum in Matthaeum (written c. 822-26), see vol. 107, col. 1095.

  10. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), XL Homiliarum in Evangelia, P.L. 76, col. 1109.

  11. Chrysostom, pp. 1041-42.

  12. For the pseudo-Bede, see In Matthaei Evangelium Expositio, P.L. 92, col. 109. Paul the Deacon (c. 720-800) in his Homiliarius, P.L. 95, cols. 1554-55, lays distinctive emphasis on skills in the various arts and crafts. For the Glossa ordinaria, see P.L. 114, col. 166.

  13. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-67), Commentarius in Matthaeum, P.L. 9, cols. 1061-63.

  14. Rabanus Maurus, De Universo (c. 844), P.L. 111, col. 79.

  15. Saint Jerome (c. 342-420), Commentaria in Evangelium S. Matthaei, P.L. 26, col. 186. In the pseudo-Jerome Expositio Quatuor Evangeliorum: Matthaeus, P.L. 30, col. 559, the endowments are distinguished less clearly: quinque sensus, intellectus et operatio, intellectus alone. For Isidore (c. 560-636), see P.L. 83, col. 124, and for Rabanus, see P.L. 111, col. 79. They both offer the Five Books-Two Testaments-Grace interpretation as well.

  16. Lawrence V. Ryan, in a distinguished essay, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,” Speculum, XXXII (1957), 722-35, discusses this question among others, and makes a strong case for the “acknowledge” interpretation. But I take the fact that the word appears only as a noun or proper name to be crucial; in that form, and in the absence of contextual limitation, it is unlikely to have been understood as “acknowledgment.” Note too that Knowledge is introduced to Everyman in response to his request for “counseyll” (l. 516); later he asks to be given “cognycyon” (l. 538) about where to go to Confession. Knowledge is the answer to both, and would seem to be synonymous with them. See Helen S. Thomas, “The Meaning of the Character Knowledge in ‘Everyman,’” Mississippi Quarterly, XIV (1961), 3-13, for a summary (with full references) of scholarship devoted to this problem, and a useful contribution to it. She also concludes, for reasons other than those outlined above, that Knowledge is a “Wisdom-figure.”

  17. See ll. 732, 737-39, on the need to go beyond sense evidence.

  18. For “pylgrymage” see ll. 68, 146, 331, 550, 565, 629, 673, 784, 818; for “iourney,” ll. 103, 141, 242, 247, 259, 268, 279, 295, 363, 464, 495, 641; for “vyage,” ll. 415, 674, 782. At l. 566, Penance is described briefly as “this vyage,” and an awkward parallel construction at ll. 141-42 can be easily misread; but the subject everywhere else is unequivocally the soul-journey.

  19. The Holy Bible … made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers, 4 vols., ed. Rev. Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden (Oxford, 1850), IV, 70-71, 210-11.

  20. R. W. Zandvoort, “Everyman—Elckerlijc,” in Études Ánglaises, VI (1953), 1-15, has briefly remarked on this fact (see p. 3).

  21. Gregory the Great, P.L. 76, col. 1109.

  22. See Cawley's note to l. 885. Lines 259-61 confirm that Doomsday is not yet, but to come.

  23. See especially ll. 431-34. Cf. “A Poem of Goods,” ed. A. G. Rigg, A Glastonbury Miscellany of the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1968), pp. 65-66.

  24. British Museum MS Add. 37049, fol. 55 (an English miscellany from the first half of the fifteenth century), names them so on a tree of the works of mercy. The Doomsday plays of the Corpus Christi cycles stage an inquiry into these deeds as their major action.

  25. The Book of Vices and Virtues, ed. W. Nelson Francis, EETS 217 (London, 1942), p. 174. Also of interest are pp. 68-92, 212-15.

  26. The Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, ed. S. J. H. Herrtage, EETS e.s. 33 (London, 1879), pp. 131, 132. Lines 778-80 make it clear that Everyman now bears in his hands a cross.

  27. “The Boke of the Craft of Dying,” in Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle … and His Followers, 2 vols., ed. Carl Horstmann (London, 1895, 1896), II, 413.

  28. For the Bestiaire, see the edition by Robert Reinsch (Leipzig, 1890), p. 374 (ll. 3469 ff.), or the translation by George Claridge Druce (Ashford, Kent, 1936), pp. 94 ff. For the Besant de Dieu, see the edition by Ernest E. Martin (Halle, 1869). “Besant” derives from the Latin bysantium, meaning a Byzantine coin; the Wycliffe Bible uses it as an English synonym for “talent” as well. On these works by Guillaume, see M. Dominica Legge, Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background (Oxford, 1963), pp. 207-8, 228-29.

  29. Speculum humanae salvationis, 2 vols., ed. J. Lutz and P. Perdrizet (Mulhouse, 1907-9). They name Matthew 25 as the text most important to the passage, while noting that “dans Luc les talents deviennent des mines. C'est de mines que parle le Speculum” (I, 233). For the Latin text, see I, 82; for the French translation made by Jean Mielot in 1448, see I, 156-57. On the Dutch translations, see I, 104. A fifteenth-century English translation was edited by Alfred H. Huth for the Roxburghe Club, vol. 118 (London, 1888), as The Miroure of Mans Salvacionne; see pp. 137-38. M. R. James and Bernhard Berenson edited a facsimile volume of a fourteenth-century Italian manuscript, Speculum humanae salvationis (Oxford, 1926), with valuable introductions. Other facsimile editions have been made by J. P. Berjeau (London, 1861) and by Ernst Kloss, 2 vols. (Munich, 1925).

  30. See the Kloss facsimile, p. 62.

  31. Its text is based on the Luke version of the parable, but it has on either side of it pictures and texts that name Matthew 25 as their source; and sometimes, as in Pierpont Morgan MS 385, a fifteenth-century Dutch manuscript, Matthew 25 and Luke 19 are both named as sources to the talents picture. Elsewhere, as in the Dutch block book edited in facsimile by Kloss, Matthew 18, Matthew 25, and Apocalypse 20 are named as sources to the first two pictures, without Luke 19 being named at all. Luke is correctly cited more often than not, but this is evidence again of all three parables being treated almost as though they were one.

  32. In David Laing, Early Popular Poetry of Scotland and the Northern Border, ed. W. C. Hazlitt (London, 1895), I, 159 (ll. 1032-34); see also ll. 1104-5 and 1179-80. For later uses of the talents in poetry, see, e.g., Milton's sonnet on his blindness, and Dr. Johnson's verses “On the Death of Mr. Robert Levet.”

  33. Cawley, p. xix, discusses one analogue in Middle English Sermons, ed. W. O. Ross, EETS 209 (London, 1940), pp. 86 ff., but not the one on pp. 36 ff., which I describe here. Ross's list of analogues is in a note to this first version, and since Cawley directs the reader to that list, it seems unlikely he overlooked it entirely.

  34. See Cawley, p. ix.

  35. The Pylgrimage of Perfection, printed by Richard Pynson (1526), S.T.C. 3277, p. 20v; italics mine. Wynkyn de Worde also published the work, in 1531, S.T.C. 3278, pp. 12-12v.

  36. [St. John Damascene], Barlaam and Ioasaph, ed. and trans. G. R. Woodward and H. Mattingly (Loeb Classical Library, 1914) reprinted with an introduction by David Marshall Lang (1967), pp. 192-99. The attribution of authorship to Saint John Damascene has been discredited. For a detailed study of the history of this facinating work, see Lang's introduction to his translation of a Georgian version of the same name, The Wisdom of Balahvar (London, 1957), pp. 11-65.

  37. Barlaam and Ioasaph, p. 5.

  38. Le Roman de Barlaam et Josaphat, 2 vols. (Namur and Paris, 1949, 1950), I, 37-40, 74-88.

  39. Quoted by Cawley, p. xviii.

  40. The works cited in note 29 name or reproduce a good many illustrations to the parable. Some others seen in manuscript are perhaps worth listing: Bodley MS Laud Misc. 165, fol. 399v and fol. 460v (William of Nottingham's Commentary on the Gospels); Bodley MS Douce 204, fol. 40 (a Speculum); British Museum MS Royal 15 D. v., fol. 173 (Gregory's Homilies); and four MSS of the Speculum at the Pierpont Morgan Library: MS M.140, fol. 42v; MS M.385, fol. 42v; MS M.766, fol. 61v; MS M.782, fol. 74.

[Reprinted from Sandro Sticca, ed., The Medieval Drama (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1971), by permission of author and publisher. Copyright 1971 by the State University of New York Press.]

Allen D. Goldhamer (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6748

SOURCE: Goldhamer, Allen D. “Everyman: A Dramatization of Death.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 59, no. 1 (February 1973): 87-98.

[In the following essay, Goldhamer examines the psychological view of Everyman as a work regarding death as a learning experience.]

Everyman is commonly regarded as the finest of morality plays and one of the greatest medieval dramas. Modern scholarship on the play has two general concerns. A long-standing question has been raised as to its relationship to the Dutch play Elckerlijc: there has been disagreement as to whether one was the direct source of the other or if both plays derived from a lost source.1 A second question has been Everyman's position in medieval theology, particularly the play's presentation of the doctrine of salvation and its relation to or derivation from various medieval works on the subject of death, especially within the ars moriendi tradition. Many analogues have been found not merely for the doctrine of the play but also for its dramatic structure.2

Studies have successfully placed Everyman within the medieval theological outlook on death and have indicated the doctrinal meaning of such personages in the play as Knowledge and Good Deeds. It is not the intention of this article to review or to take direct issue with such findings for they present an important understanding of the play. However, Everyman has much additional significance and power. Even for a modern audience which does not necessarily subscribe to the play's solution of its protagonist's problems, the experience of witnessing the play is a strong one. In order to understand the play's greatness, one should bear in mind that Everyman's presentation of death is highly unusual. The dramatization of death usually occupies the latter portion of the final act of a play and is often handled sensationally or sentimentally. In Everyman the hero begins to die near the opening of the play, and the focus of the drama is on a man involved in the stages of death. However, Everyman's end is not the result of a lingering illness. The author avoids all reference to physical degeneration until the very end; he does this in order to focus on the hero's attitudes towards the process he is undergoing.

In presenting this drama of a dying man, the author drew upon medieval death literature, as previous studies have indicated. But of equal significance to the identity of his source material is his alteration of it. In order to demonstrate that a man can come to terms with his own death, the playwright severely alters the tone of medieval death literature and at the same time pays very close attention to the psychology of his hero. A modern clinical study to which I shall have recourse, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying, argues that dying persons proceed through a series of attitudes towards death.3 The similarity between the stages of death pointed out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and those through which Everyman passes reinforces the notion that the author of Everyman possessed profound insight into the mind of a dying person. We tend to view with scepticism and even alarm the application of modern psychology to early literary works. It is therefore necessary to emphasize at the outset what should be rather obvious: There is no reason for us to assume that earlier ages possessed any less profound insight than our own into the matter of death.

The author of Everyman presents the hero's changing attitudes towards death and towards himself as the result of a series of encounters with other characters. In order to trace these changing attitudes, this article will examine the encounters of Everyman in the order in which they occur in the play. After it identifies each encounter, the article will indicate the author's departure from relevant medieval death literature and will discuss the hero's attitudes. By offering a profound psychological underpinning for traditional medieval views on death, the author of Everyman produced a work which is a product of its time yet transcends it.

At the play's opening, God, angry that man lives in sin and ignores him, sends Death to Everyman. The allegorical figure of Death is not unique to Everyman; he appears in other medieval plays. In Ludus Coventriae he comes to take Herod,4 and in The Castle of Perseverance, Death, about to reveal himself to mankind, says, “In all his works man is foolish. Much of his life he hath misspent.”5 In both of these dramas, however, the death figure does not appear until the play itself is nearing its end. Furthermore, the role of Death in these plays differs from his role in Everyman. In Ludus Coventriae Death addresses himself directly to the spectator (“See that you dread me night and day” [p. 177, l. 274]), and in The Castle of Perseverance Death does the same, then pierces the heart of Mankind. In neither instance is there an interchange between killer and victim. But in Everyman, Death's viewpoint is revealed not through a lecture to the audience but largely in response to Everyman's questions. Thus in Everyman Death appears both as an agent of vengeance and as the first teacher of the hero. This is entirely appropriate to a drama which emphasizes death as a learning experience.

Death informs Everyman that he is God's messenger and that Everyman must make a journey to give God a reckoning. This warning that man must make a reckoning to God was a staple of cautionary literature on death. The admonition was often accompanied by a vision of the discomfort of the man being judged: “We must stand, frightened, before the judgment of the Lord and recite all we did and thought, seeing as though before our criminal gaze all our crimes—the books of consciousness thrown open in our faces. In bitter tears and bursting sobs we will find gone all means for ministering to us.”6 In Everyman, although Death warns the hero that “before God thou shalt answer” (107),7 there is no obvious, didactic play upon the terrible scene of judgment. Rather, Everyman is so very frightened by his immediate future—the journey he must make—that he does not consider his judgment after death. Thus the sense of his present, overwhelming problems is kept before the viewer.

Everyman does not recognize Death: “I know thee not. What messenger art thou?” (114). This failure of recognition stems in part from Death's sudden appearance to the hero. The notion of death's sudden appearance was also a commonplace of medieval literature. George Gascoigne translates a passage from Innocent III's De Contemptu Mundi: “Mishapes fall sodeynly when they are least suspected or loked for. Sodeynly calamytie rusheth in at dores, sicknesse invadeth a man, and death steppes in, whome no man can eskape.”8 Hélinant writes in Les Vers de la Mort, “You take that one in his youth, at 28 or 30 years, who considers himself to be in his prime.”9 The ideas which are emphasized here—death appears when least expected; the man visited by death is often in his prime—are taken over by the author of Everyman but are presented with an understatement that lends them far more force than they usually have: “O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind!” (119).

Death has to inform Everyman of his identity. The nature of Death's message should have suggested it to the hero. Everyman's failure to recognize him betrays his refusal to face death, and this failure of man to consider his own death is another commonplace of medieval literature. The speaker in Lydgate's “Dance of Death” cautions the reader: “O ye folks, hard-hearted as a stone, which to the world have turned entirely, as though it should last forever, where is your intelligence and providence to see beforehand the sudden violence of cruel death?”10 Here, as in Everyman, the failure to consider death is attributed to concern for worldly matters. But whereas the poem's preacher accuses his listeners of being “hard-hearted as a stone,” the author of Everyman chose a more effective metaphor, which he plays on throughout the drama: Everyman is “blind,” as is his destiny. Death says, “He that loveth wealth I will strike with my dart, / His sight to blind” (76-77). A few lines later Everyman says, “To give a reckoning longer leisure I crave; / This blind matter troubleth my wit” (101-102). Unlike the “stone” simile in the passage quoted above, the “blind” metaphor indicates not only the uncertainty of Everyman's future but the reason for that uncertainty—Everyman's lack of self-knowledge.

When Everyman learns who Death is, he tries to buy time:

Yet of my goods will I give thee, if thou will be kind—
Yea, a thousand pounds shalt thou have—
If you defer this matter till another day.


Death's insistence that there can be no postponement is a reflection of the most common medieval statement on death: it may not be escaped. “Praised be you my lord for our sister, death of the body, from which no living man can escape,” says St. Francis.11 Eustache Deschamps declares in a ballade, “Thus surely it is with man and woman. In one moment we lose body, soul, and life.”12 In The Castle of Perseverance Death says, “Dreadful is my death-drawing; against me may no man stand;”13 in The Dance of Death Death announces, “I kill everyone; it is my way. All sons of Adam must die.”14 The author of Everyman gives very conspicuous play to the notion of death's inescapability. Death says to Everyman, “A reckoning [God] will needs have / Without any longer respite” (99-100). The idea is frequently repeated by Death that there is no escape and that the time is now (111-12, 115-18, 130, 144-45, 161, 183-84). However, the idea is presented skillfully: Death gives no lengthy speeches on this topic but returns to it as he counters Everyman's dismayed responses. Some of the sense of urgency in the play is conveyed by the replies of Death to the hero (“I give thee no respite. Come hence, and don't tarry!” [130]). Thus the cautionary material itself is shaped to build the sense of urgency.

Everyman's attempt to bribe Death is a fine means of dramatizing the hero's belief in the power of his possessions, a matter of great concern later in this drama. This belief was commonly presented in death literature and can be found, in potentially dramatic form, in a fourteenth century manuscript containing an English version of the Orologium Sapientiae, a very popular work on preparation for death: “I hear that horrible voice of death saying to me in this manner: ‘Thou art the son of death; neither riches, nor reason, nor kinsmen, nor friends, may deliver thee from my hand; for thy end is come, and it is deemed, and therefore it must be done.’”15 Everyman's effort to pay off Death is a skillful dramatic presentation; it not only foreshadows an important event, the hero's conversation with Goods, but is a valuable insight: a wealthy man in a very tight situation applies a method which we suppose had worked for him in the past. Death's response to Everyman dismays the hero, not merely because it is a flat refusal to be bribed, but because it shows Death as incorruptible:

For, if I would receive gifts great,
All the world I might get;
But my custom is completely contrary.


Everyman's first encounter is with a figure completely out of his own milieu.

Let us pause to consider the psychological states of Everyman in this first encounter. He has learned that he is to die. His failure to recognize Death when he first appears to him was caused in part by Everyman's desire to deny what was happening to him:

To give a reckoning longer leisure I crave.


Full unready I am such reckoning to give.


Denial appears to be a common, if not universal, initial response to terminal illness. In her modern clinical study of terminally ill persons, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identifies the first three stages of the dying process as denial, anger, and bargaining.16 Although the correspondence is by no means exact (Everyman's anger does not appear until later encounters), it is remarkable that two of these stages are clearly to be noted in Everyman's opening interview.

Kübler-Ross explains bargaining as an attempt to “buy” time, for example, by promising God that one will behave especially well. “In our individual interviews [with terminally ill persons] … we have been impressed by the number of patients who promise ‘a life dedicated to God’ or ‘a life in the service of the church’ in exchange for some additional time.”17 As the discussion of Everyman's attempt to bribe Death indicated, the author of Everyman chose to present the bargaining in a manner that would suit the personality of the hero.

In his interview with Death, Everyman was told that he might bring someone with him if he could find anyone willing to keep him company. We may therefore observe of Everyman's opening encounter that it not only has initiated his death, but at the same time has begun a learning process; Everyman learned that he might take a companion with him. His conversation with Death has also taught him the impossibility of postponement and of keeping his earthly goods forever. However, his response thus far has been to the most overwhelming piece of information: that he must die. Everyman, reacting to this knowledge, asserted the feelings common to those who learn they must die—denial and desire for delay.

Everyman's next encounter is partially a response to the information that he may bring someone with him. The hero seeks to find a friend to accompany him on the journey. The problem of the reckoning, posed in the first encounter, is at this point in the play less important to Everyman than is sharing his news and, hopefully, the voyage he must undertake. Fellowship enters and swears his friendship with words heavily ironic: “I will not forsake thee to my life's end” (213). But Everyman has some fear that the news he is about to impart will not be well received, for he says, cautiously,

If I my heart should to you reveal,
And then you turn your mind from me
And would not me comfort when ye hear me speak,
Then should I ten times sorrier be.


With further irony Fellowship replies, “For, in faith, and thou go to hell, / I will not forsake thee by the way” (232-33). But when Everyman finally tells him of the particular journey he must undertake, Fellowship wants no part of it:

But, if I should take such a voyage on me,
I know it well, it should be to my pain;
Also it maketh me afraid, certainly.


Medieval death literature repeatedly makes two remarks about friends. The true friend will encourage the dying person to consider his need for salvation: “Like as the health of every man consisteth in the end, [let] every man then much busily take heed to purvey him for to come to a good end, whiles that he hath time and leisure. To this might much well serve a fellow and true friend, devout and commendable, which in his last end [may] assist him truly; and that he comfort and courage him in steadfastness of the faith, with good patience and devotion, with good confidence and perseverance.”18 However, one is likely to discover, at the time of death, that one's friends have deserted him: “Where are all your friends who promised you fair and greeted you kindly on the paths and streets? Now … all forsake you.”19 The reason for this desertion is often not given. Occasionally, however, the dying man makes a request, which is then refused: “My friends I implored that they give me some ‘almesse’ from the abundance of their spiritual wealth and good works in my great need for my soul's well-being and also for relief and reformation of my sins; but their answer was No.”20 The firmness of the friends' refusal here is repeated in Everyman, but the request which was made of them in the excerpt above differs from the request which Everyman makes. The speaker in the poem translated above asks for “almesse,” while Everyman seeks company on the journey. Both requests cannot literally be granted. The transfer of “almesse” (meaning here “spiritual ‘credit’”) from one person to another is as impossible as Everyman's plea for companionship. But the request made by Everyman is more richly significant. The hero takes the notion of his journey quite literally at this point and hence fails to realize that what he needs from his friend is not a travelling companion but a person who can minister to him while he dies. Thus his impossible request reflects his failure, at this time in the play, to appraise his condition correctly. In other words, he seeks not what he could get but what cannot be given. The metaphor is richer than the “almesse” request above, because it not merely reveals ignorance but also points to the hero's failure to understand the precise crucial experience he is undergoing; its significance extends beyond the theological error mentioned in the poem.

Fellowship's rejection of Everyman leaves the hero in a bitter frame of mind:

          … ye would be ready!
To go to gaiety, pleasure, and play
Your mind will sooner apply,
Than to bear me company in my long journey.


Everyman asks Fellowship to accompany him part of the way, “till I come outside the town” (291), but Fellowship “will not a foot … go” (293). There is the suggestion here and elsewhere in this portion of the play that Fellowship not only will not make the journey with Everyman but that he resents the news which Everyman has brought. His hostile reception implies the inability of friends to accept one's terminal state. Fellowship seems most eager to depart after he hears of Everyman's condition. Thus Everyman learns something about the uniqueness of his present plight: it is treated in a hostile way by one's friends.21 However, Everyman is perhaps too stunned to remain bitter. He seems to accept their rejection of him: “Farewell, good Fellowship! For thee my heart is sore. / Adieu forever! I shall see thee no more” (299-300). Here he is learning to appraise his present state accurately and to judge its alienating effect upon others. But he is not quite ready to die alone.

Everyman's next encounter, with his relatives, dramatizes a common lament of medieval death literature: “my kin, my neighbours, my friends, my servants, be not favourable to me.”22 But unlike the dying person in this quotation, Everyman is shown to be learning at the very time he is rejected. We can observe this in the care with which Everyman broaches the subject of his impending death to Kindred and Cousin—a caution he learned from his previous encounter with Fellowship:

Now shall I show you the grief of my mind:
I was commanded by a messenger,
That is a high king's chief officer,
He bade me go on a pilgrimage to my pain.


Nevertheless, Everyman's relatives reject him as did Fellowship, and he dismisses them from his mind, almost peremptorily, as though it were too painful a matter to consider at length:

Ah, Jesus, is all come hereto?
Lo, fair words maketh fools fain:
They promise, and nothing will do, certainly.


Therefore, it is certain that, talking to his friends and relatives, Everyman has been impelled to consider and to define the experience he is undergoing:

… if we took such a journey.
When should we again come?
Nay, never again till the day of doom.


Everyman has clearly, and of necessity, begun to come to terms with his own situation, in part because he has needed to explain it to others.

After having been rejected by his friends and relatives, Everyman turns to his first love, the possessions he had accumulated during his life. Repeatedly he tells himself how much these things mean to him:

All my life I have loved riches.


… all my life I have had joy and pleasure in thee.


… I have thee loved; and had great pleasure All my life-days on goods and treasure.


A, Good, thou hast had long my heartfelt love.


The effect of these statements is both sadly humorous and moving. Everyman is a fool, but he is desperate and very human.

Everyman's love of goods finds many analogues in medieval death literature. Itself a form of covetousness, love of goods was frequently conceived as the sin most common to a dying man. Innocent III had written (Gascoigne's translation) that of the “three causes especiall that make men desirous to live and lothe to dye,” “the greatest cause is the third, which is a love and sweetenesse conceaved of this lyfe, the goods and commodyties of the same, wherewith who so is possessed, it can not be avoided, but unto him the very reme[m]bra[n]ce of death which taketh fro[m] him that he loveth, must be sower & bitter, as the scripture saith.”23

As Everyman's statements to Goods indicate, the author well presents the notion expressed by Innocent III that the dying man deeply regrets having to leave his goods. The play combines this idea with another common notion, that love of goods is harmful to the soul.

[Your love of me] is to thy damnation, without lying.
For my love is contrary to the love everlasting.


In the penitential poems of the period, the dying man often complains that his trust in goods was misplaced: “All my trust was in my goods, more than in God who sent them to me. Wealth made me very proud. Desire and pleasure overcame me. I never ceased trying to get goods. I didn't care how. I neither gave nor lent to the poor. Therefore I blame myself for my woe.”24 Not only is the love of goods a sin and hence cannot aid one's salvation, but the very possession of them will come to naught. Their ownership will pass on to someone else, a cause of great discomfort to the dying.

The psychological significance of Everyman's interview with Goods is evident. Death had warned Everyman that he himself was not subject to bribes. Now Everyman learns, from Goods himself, that they are not his to control: “Merely for a while I was lent thee” (440). The very objects of which he was before so certain and which made life pleasant—“Goods: Sir, and ye in the world have sorrow or adversity, / That can I help you to remedy shortly” (401-402)—are now of no assistance. Everyman's current situation requires an aid for death, not life.

The hero has reached a state analogous to the depression described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as the fourth stage of the dying process.25

Thus may I well my self hate.
Of whom shall I now counsel take?


The self-hatred which signals for us Everyman's depression is caused not merely by his utter failure to find a solution to his problems but also by the complete inability of those to whom he has turned to give him help. The hero's attachment to goods was more affectionate than to his friends and relatives. Goods's rejection of him is a profound blow because his own predilection, his first love, cannot aid him in his current crisis. Thus none of the objects of prior affection can ease his state. He has reconsidered the objects of his love and found them wanting. In a statement which could easily apply to Everyman himself, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross notes, “It appears that people who have gone through a life of suffering, hard work, and labor, who have raised their children and been gratified in their work, have shown greater ease in accepting death with peace and dignity compared to those who have been ambitiously controlling their environment, accumulating material goods, and a great number of social relationships but few meaningful interpersonal relationships which would have been available at the end of life.”26

Everyman's next encounter is signalled when the hero decides, rather abruptly, to turn for help to his good deeds:

Of whom shall I now counsel take?
I think that I shall never speed
Till that I go to my Good Deed.


The playwright's attention to Everyman's psychological state is of great importance here, because Everyman is taking the first step towards a solution of his problems. Everyman's mind moves from goods to good deeds. He sees his need, in depression, to recall his worthy contribution to life. Association of ideas—recalling his morally harmful acts, accumulating goods—leads him to think of his morally valid deeds. His death state has progressed by stages to a weighing of his moral worth. Neither his friend nor relatives could provide him with the comfort of a satisfactory assessment. Only he can perform that. Everyman attempts to come to terms with himself and does so in a moral context; that is to say, Everyman can accept his present state if he can see himself as a morally good person. It is therefore no accident that his thoughts of good deeds lead him to knowledge—a consideration and acceptance of his moral worth as an individual. One may note that the statements made by Everyman in this latter portion of the play bear a striking resemblance to those of the patients of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross whose interviews with the doctor are reported in her chapter entitled “Fifth Stage: Acceptance.”27

It is Good Deeds herself, or Everyman's contemplation of them, which leads him to knowledge of himself in a moral context:

GOOD Deeds:
I have a sister that shall go with you also,
Called Knowledge, which shall with you abide.


Everyman greets Knowledge with great pleasure and, it would seem, with an attitude a bit premature:

In good condition I am now in every thing.
And am wholly content with this good thing.


As we have said, knowledge here represents both self-analysis and its product. The former meaning stems from what is happening to Everyman within the death process. Thus far, the only profitable mental step he has taken has been to consult Good Deeds—to begin to regard himself as a worthy individual. Knowledge, self-analysis, teaches Everyman that his dying state can be dealt with mentally—by coming to know, not about friends and relatives, but about self. This state of Everyman's person is comparable to that described by Kübler-Ross as acceptance. Both authors make quite clear that “acceptance” refers both to situation and to self. Without acceptance of the latter, there can be no acceptance of the former. Although Everyman is not yet able to accept himself fully, he realizes, as seen in the lines quoted above, that he can work out a set of attitudes that will make his present state tolerable.

The peculiarly Christian procedure of Everyman's coming to terms with himself should not conceal from us the universality of his emotional problem and of his efforts to deal with it. Knowledge leads Everyman to Confession, acknowledgement of faults. Everyman can look at his weaknesses now in a new context rather than merely being depressed by them, for he sees the value of the act of self-appraisal—his own peace of mind. Everyman's act of penance, which he begins after talking to Confession, consists of beating himself; but this painful act, of reconsideration of faults, brings release. He is able to see himself as a whole person and to accept his good deeds even while admitting his weaknesses. Not only is it not difficult to envision a dying man doing this; it seems a necessary act if one is to die at peace with oneself.

The analogues for this latter portion of the play are frequently cautionary in nature. The images they present are either of the dying man bewailing his sins or of the preacher warning him that he will soon do so: “Ah, we think to live and sin for a long time and afterwards at the end to cease all our sins, to weep and repent and so to go to heaven.”28 Thus part of the power of Everyman derives from its showing precisely what the cautionary literature implies should be, but probably will not be, done. Everyman presents the dying man coming to terms with his good and bad acts and, by doing so, with death itself. The hero has come a considerable distance from the frightened figure whom Death ordered and Relatives rejected. The walking of Good Deeds indicates Everyman's ability to acknowledge his good acts, because he has acknowledged his bad ones. He is a step nearer to facing his own death successfully.

After Everyman puts on the cloak of contrition, Good Deeds and Knowledge tell him to summon—along with Discretion, Strength, and Beauty—Five Wits, which faculty is commonly mentioned in medieval death literature and is handled by the playwright for his own purposes. For example, the usual statement about the five wits is that they were given to man by God for his benefit but that man badly misuses them. In a penitential lyric, the dying man confesses, “My five wits I have often misused; I cast my sight at many vanities and often offend with my hearing; my smelling and tasting I misuse; my hands have easily sinned. Thus have I governed my five wits and in sin misspent my entire life.”29 In Everyman, however, the Five Wits are not a further cause for the dying man's despair but a means for his self-understanding and salvation.

The summoning and appearance of Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits indicate Everyman's wholeness—his healthy state, excellent condition—within the dying process. The fact that they will journey to death with him, whereas his friend and relatives would not, once again emphasizes the point that the dying process demands a coming to terms with oneself. Thereafter Everyman visits a priest, who ministers the final rites and who is a true friend to him in his dying state.

Having come to terms with himself and with his present condition, Everyman now eagerly seeks to die:

And now, friends, let us go without longer respite.


The death is conceived of as a journey, an activity, not a passive state:

Now set each of you on this rod your hand.
And quickly follow me.


This description of the dying man is at odds with the usual images of physical decay and agony. In Petrarch's Secretum Meum, Augustine describes the last minutes of life in a tone and with images typical of much death literature: “We must envision the effect of death covering every part of our body, the extremities grown cold, the chest sweating fever, the side pulsing in pain, the vital spirit sinking and weeping, each glance filled with tears, the forehead contracted and pale, the cheeks sagging and discolored,” and so forth.30 One should bear in mind, in this connection, that Everyman is not portrayed as an old man, and his death is caused by Death's “dart” (76), not by lingering disease. Therefore the author is able to concentrate on Everyman's state of mind, rather than the decay of the body, and to portray that state as a journey. Helen S. Thomas indicates the play's relation to medieval journey allegories, remarking that “in Everyman the search for salvation is both a journey, though not to Jerusalem, and a lesson in the ars moriendi.31 The journey in death literature is usually conceived of as taking place after dying, when the soul travels to its destination. In Everyman, however, the psychological voyage of the hero begins long before his death and is presented as a far more active endeavor than that undertaken by most characters in journey allegories, where the dreamer-narrator is often a passive witness to the events he observes.

Everyman's new attitude towards death, a result of his own voyage, is underlined by such a remark as,

Friends, let us not turn again to this land,
Not for all the world's gold.


The contrast here with his earlier attitude towards Goods is obvious and striking. His perceptions have altered. He has learned.

But his learning has not ended. As he is about to enter his grave, one by one Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits leave him. Everyman is greatly saddened at their refusal to remain with him, and we observe that, even at the very end of life and having come to terms with himself, man can still feel sorrow at ceasing to be what he once was. (Everyman's sorrow here bears a similarity to what Kübler-Ross refers to as a second type of depression.)32 At the very last moment of life, Knowledge also deserts him: his awareness of self and of the process through which he has been is no longer existent or necessary. Only Good Deeds descends with him into the grave, suggesting Everyman's final, ultimate memory of himself—what he chooses to recall in his very last moment.

Thus the play contains a long series of leave-takings, beginning with Fellowship and ending with Knowledge. It dramatizes portions of the Dying Creature's lament. He says, “My worldly friends have forsaken me. I have cried and called after them to answer for me; and they have answered me full straitly and unfriendly that they neither dare nor can, nor will answer for me, nor excuse me; and shortly they be departed from me. My Good Angel first, Reason, Dread, and Conscience and my Five Wits, hasteth them from me-ward, and leaveth me destitute and alone: and where to have succour I wot not, nor help.”33 It is unnecessary to comment on Everyman's many departures from this lament. Perhaps we may summarize the differences between Everyman and the ars moriendi material from which it in part derives by suggesting that the differences are those of tone and purpose. Whereas the ars moriendi literature tends to be strident or even hysterical in tone, Everyman is serious; whereas the death literature of the Middle Ages saw its function as warning the individual that, given his sinful nature, a dignified death was a very remote possibility, Everyman presents such a death as a reality, and offers hope to the viewer.

The psychological view of Everyman is that the dying experience is a learning process. This experience is also an individualizing process. Everyman becomes a man, fully conscious of his situation, its effects on others and on himself. The focus on the interior nature of the process is seen in the fact that the latter part of the play views allegorical figures who almost exclusively represent aspects of Everyman himself. We note that the play is primarily concerned with Everyman in the last stage of death: acceptance. This is inevitable, given the didactic Christian nature of the work. The interpretation contained herein is not intended to supplant that meaning but to suggest that the play's power stems in no small way from its author's psychological understanding of the death experience. This understanding was possibly easier to come by at a time when the dying were not shut off behind hospital walls.

Finally, Everyman informs its audience of many things. We observe that the death process can be examined face to face, in a manner which neither sensationalizes nor melodramatizes it. The play shows us that death itself is a subject worthy of presentation in dramatic form. We learn that it need not be extremely painful to see someone in the process of dying. Everyman is involved in intense mental activity, and for him the experience is a learning process. The play also suggests that this experience is a very heightened one—to be wrong once is all that is necessary to teach you. There is a sense of dignified urgency throughout the play. Lastly, death is viewed as a journey. That its end need not be painful is evident. Everyman's descent to meet his final destiny may perhaps call to mind the exit of Marlowe's Faustus, unwillingly dragged by devils as a visual reminder that he has failed, where Everyman succeeded, in coming to terms with death.


  1. See Henry de Vocht, Everyman: A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources (Louvain: Librairie Universitaire, 1947); R. W. Zandvoort, “Everyman—Elckerlijc,Etudes Anglaises, 6 (Feb. 1953), 1-15; A. C. Cawley, ed., Everyman (Manchester: The University Press, 1961), pp. ix-xiii.

  2. See Cawley (pp. xiii-xxiv); John Conley, “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman,Speculum, 44 (July 1969), 374-382; Wallace H. Johnson, “The Double Desertion of Everyman,” American Notes and Queries, 6 (Feb. 1968), 85-87; H. Kossmann, “Felawship His Fer: A Note on Eueryman's False Friend,” English Studies, Supplement, 45 (1964), 157-160; Lawrence V. Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,Speculum, 32 (Oct. 1957), 722-735; Genji Takahashi, A Study of Everyman with Special Reference to the Source of Its Plot (Japan: Ai-iku-sha, n.d.); Helen S. Thomas, “The Meaning of the Character Knowledge in Everyman,Mississippi Quarterly, 14 (Win. 1960-61), 3-13, and “Some Analogues of ‘Everyman,’” Mississippi Quarterly, 16 (Spr. 1963), 97-103; Thomas F. Van Laan, “Everyman: A Structural Analysis,” PMLA, 78 (Dec. 1963), 465-475; Henry de Vocht. (See note 1.)

  3. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969; rpt. New York: Macmillan Paperbacks Edition, 1970).

  4. See K. S. Block, ed., Ludus Coventriae or The Plaie called Corpus Christi, Early English Text Society, Extra Series No. 120 (1922; rpt. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 174-177; Cawley (p. 30, n. 63. See note 1).

  5. Mark Eccles, ed., The Macro Plays, Early English Text Society, No. 262 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), p. 85, ll. 2780-2781. In order to facilitate the reading of this article, I have translated the names of characters and all passages from Middle English and foreign languages. Citations are to editions of the works which I have translated.

  6. (?) St. Columba, “Altus Prosator,” The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse, ed. Stephen Gaselee (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928), p. 32, ll. 205-216.

  7. All citations, including line numbers in parentheses, refer to Cawley's edition of Everyman. I have translated and altered spelling of the Everyman passages. (See notes 1 and 4.)

  8. “The Droomme of Doomes Day,” The Complete Works of George Gascoigne, ed. John W. Cunliffe (Cambridge: The Univ. Press, 1910), 2, p. 233.

  9. Hélinant, Les Vers de la Mort, ed. Fr[edrik] Wulff and Em[manuel] Walberg, Société des Anciens Textes Français (Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot, 1905), pp. 23-24, st. xxxv, ll. 4-6.

  10. John Lydgate, trans., The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren, Early English Text Society, Original Series No, 181 (London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford Univ. Press, 1931), p. 2, ll. 1-6.

  11. “Il Cantico delle Creature,” Il Cantico di S. Francesco, ed. Gerolamo Fuzio (Molfetta: Tipografia Mezzina, 1965), p. 20, ll. 27-28.

  12. “Balade DCCCCLXIX,” Oeuvres Complètes de Eustache Deschamps, ed. Auguste Quex de Saint-Hilaire, Société des Anciens Textes Français, 5 (Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot, 1887), p. 204, ll. 8-9.

  13. The Castle of Perseverance, ed. Mark Eccles, p. 85, ll. 2791-2792. (See note 5.)

  14. The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren, p. 80, ll. 39-40. (The lines here quoted are from a French version. British Museum Additional MS. 38858. See note 10.)

  15. “A Chapter Taken from the Orologium Sapientiae,The Book of the Craft of Dying and Other Early English Tracts Concerning Death, ed. Frances M. M. Comper (London; Longmans, Green, 1917), pp. 107-108.

  16. Kübler-Ross, chs. 3, 4, 5. (See note 3.)

  17. Kübler-Ross, p. 84. (See note 3.)

  18. “The Art and Craft to Know Well to Die,” Comper, p. 87. (See note 15.)

  19. “Death,” An Old English Miscellany, ed. Rev. Richard Morris, Early English Text Society, Original Series No. 49 (London: N. Trübner, 1872), p. 175, ll. 97-102.

  20. Hoccleve's Works Vol. 1, The Minor Poems, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society, Extra Series No. 61 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1892), p. 194, ll. 424-429.

  21. Kübler-Ross argues along similar lines when she points out the anger and guilt with which families often meet the news that a close relative is terminally ill (ch. 9, See note 3).

  22. “The Lamentation of the Dying Creature,” Comper, p. 138. (See note 15.)

  23. Gascoigne, p. 442. (See note 8.)

  24. “I Wite My Self Myne Owne Woo.” The Middle English Penitential Lyric, ed. Frank Allen Patterson (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1911), p. 58, ll. 41-48.

  25. Kübler-Ross, p. 85. (See note 3.)

  26. Kübler-Ross, p. 265. (See note 3.)

  27. Kübler-Ross, ch. 7. (See note 3.)

  28. “Sinners Beware!.” Morris, p. 78, ll. 181-186. (See note 19.)

  29. “General Confession of Sins,” Patterson, p. 49, ll. 36-42. (See note 24.)

  30. Francesco Petrarca, “Secretum Meum,” ed. Enrico Carrara, in Prose, ed. G. Martellotti et al., La Letteratura italiana; storia e testi, 7 (Milano: R. Ricciardi, 1955), 54.

  31. Thomas, “The Meaning of the Character Knowledge in Everyman,” p. 6. (See note 2.)

  32. Kübler-Ross, pp. 86-88. (See note 3.)

  33. “The Lamentation of the Dying Creature.” Comper, p. 160. (See note 15.)

Thomas J. Jambeck (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9093

SOURCE: Jambeck, Thomas J. “Everyman and the Implications of Bernardine Humanism in the Character ‘Knowledge.’” Medievalia et Humanistica 8, (1977): 103-23.

[In the following essay, Jambeck argues that Bernadine Humanism sheds much light on the principles of Everyman.]

In his recent essay on the play Everyman V. A. Kolve addresses himself to what persists as “one of the most difficult questions in Everyman scholarship. Namely, is the character Knowledge to be understood in something like our modern sense of that term [scientia, intelligentia]? Or does it stand instead for the even then rarer, and now archaic, medieval sense of ‘acknowledge,’ naming that part of the sacrament of penance which concerns a full confession of sins?”1 With few exceptions, most readers subscribe to one of the two general definitions which Kolve succinctly outlines: Those who regard her as scientia note the humanistic implications in the “crucial placement of Knowledge … as the pivot that turns Everyman toward salvation”;2 those who interpret her as contrition or acknowledgment of one's sins remark the play's emphasis upon the efficacy of the sacraments, particularly the “hous of saluacyon” episode in which Knowledge introduces the hero to “Shryft.” However, while either definition satisfies the doctrinal, as well as dramatic interests of the morality when applied to isolated instances of Knowledge's “counseyll,” neither is sufficiently inclusive to account for the complex of meanings which the character embodies. For example, Knowledge's ministrations are not confined to the “hous of saluacyon,” as well they might be if she is to be narrowly defined as contrition. Thereafter, Knowledge continues to advise Everyman, calling his attention to particulars that are quite outside the province of contrition but which nonetheless bear significantly upon the hero's progress, as, for instance, when she admonishes Everyman to receive the holy sacraments of the Eucharist and extreme unction (lines 706-709) or when she delivers her disquisition on evil priests (751-763). Similarly, to define Knowledge simply in “the modern sense of that term” is to neglect her obvious role in the penitential sequence of the play. Knowledge not only guides Everyman through the rigors imposed by Shryft, but also represents a requisite preliminary in the sacramental ordinance. Clearly, as the playwright is careful to point out, the acknowledgment of one's sins and contrition are dispensations which occur in a precisely delineated chronology, one anticipating the other, indeed imposing the necessary condition for its salutary effect (638-647).

An attractive alternative interpretation of Knowledge is offered by A. C. Cawley in the introduction to his edition of Everyman. Defining the ultimate end of human knowledge as the knowledge of God, Cawley cites a fifteenth-century paraphrase of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux's dictum: “ther is non saued / wythoute to haue knowleche of hym self. for of this knowleche groweth humylyte. which is moder of helthe.”3 Although Cawley does not pursue the argument beyond this brief notice, his observation is suggestive on several counts. First, Bernard's theory of knowledge describes a penitential ascesis much like that depicted in the morality, an ascesis which serves to clarify the apparently disparate functions that “knowledge” performs as a counselor to the hero. Too, Bernard's concept of knowledge—especially as it reveals his profound interest in the psychological process by which the soul comes to grapple with the motive principles of human salvation—also serves to unravel several doctrinal puzzles which have occasioned a good deal of theological uneasiness among the readers of the play: that is, the dramatist's insistence upon “Good Dedes” as the regenerative principle of Everyman's salvation; his intimation that the hero, sustained by Knowledge, is the agent of their restitution; and his notion of the role of the four auxiliary advisers—“V. Wyttes,” “Beaute,” “Strengthe,” and “Dyscrecyon”—in the moral play's penitential sequence. That is not to suggest, of course, that the playwright had his Bernard open before him. As has been frequently noted, the influence of Bernardine mystical theology on English morality plays, while considerable, is seldom direct.4 And this is particularly true in the case of Everyman. The lines of influence between the saint and the playwright, crossing as they do some three centuries of popular interpretation and commentary, can hardly be restored with any confidence. Nevertheless, Bernard's theology remains an especially valuable aid to the modern reader of Everyman in that it serves as a kind of index to the sensibility, so popular in the later Middle Ages, which informs the doctrinal matrix of the play.

A convenient starting place for a preliminary appraisal of that sensibility is the “hous of saluacyon” episode. Having despaired at the infirmity of his Good Deeds, those acts of charity by which one merits salvation, Everyman is conducted by Knowledge to Shryft, under whose ministrations the hero will receive the “scourge of penaunce” (605). Where, according to the ordinance of the sacrament, we would expect Shryft as the priestly mediator to apply the salutary strokes of the penitential rod, thereby indicating that the hero has received the absolving grace which penance confers, we witness instead a rather curious shift in the sacramental process. Turning to Knowledge for the scourge, Everyman proceeds to flagellate himself, and as he does so, he is gladdened by the appearance of his Good Deeds, once unable to stir, now “hole and sounde, / Goynge vpryght vpon the grounde” (625-626). The implication is, of course, that Everyman himself is able to perform the expiatory satisfaction required for his sins, an implication which is corroborated by the subsequent scene. As Everyman rejoins the company of his counselors, having emerged from the “hous of saluacyon,” V. Wyttes remarks the hero's transformation: “Peas! For yonder I se Eueryman come, / Whiche hath made true satysfaccyon” (769-770). V. A. Kolve notes in this instance that V. Wyttes “names the change as though Everyman were its agent; but of course the facts are otherwise. Christ alone could make true satisfaction for sin—He is the great restitution—but it is available to any man through the sacrament of the altar.”5 Similarly, Arnold Williams questions the dramatist's orthodoxy, arguing that according to Catholic theology, man is not saved by good deeds, but by grace: “I have the feeling that all the great historical forms of Christianity agree that, after Adam's fall, man is unable to achieve salvation by his own merits. As a race, man is saved by the sacrifice on the cross—the cycle plays make this point—and as an individual, man is saved by grace earned by this sacrifice—the moral plays make this point.”6 Consequently, Williams concludes that while medieval Christianity does not yield a theology which answers wholly to the Everyman penitential sequence, “there is a theology in which man achieves his salvation through his own efforts, aided by knowledge. This is a fundamental Buddhist tenet, and it ought to come as no surprise that the original source of Everyman is a Buddhist parable.”7

One need not go quite so far afield. As Kolve and Williams attest, at the very center of Everyman's doctrinal concern is the generic morality emphasis upon the expiatory action of Calvary as the primary means by which “euery man” might share in the fruits of the Atonement. Thomas F. Van Laan has pointed out in this regard that through his extensive references to the Passion, the dramatist sets Christ's sacrifice and Everyman's progress in a significant thematic parallel: The Christic action—Christ's assumption of human form, his suffering and death, and his subsequent resurrection—“is pertinent to the meaning of Everyman, for it alone has made possible the salvation there enacted, and in Christian thought the successful pilgrimage of the individual analogously recreates that action.”8 What has been generally ignored, however, is that the playwright reorders the traditional moral play categories of human salvation in a wholly fresh direction. Implicit in the Christocentric interest of the play is a functional definition of the efficacy of human knowledge as the principal disposition by which man may indeed become an active agent in the work of his own redemption. Aberrant though it may appear, the dramatist's theology hews closely to the theory of satisfaction which arose in the later Middle Ages as an adjunct to the soteriological doctrine of Christus patiens, a theory that is largely Bernardine in the intellectual, as well as affective design by which it was known to the Everyman audience.

To understand the impact of the Bernardine penitential piety upon the doctrinal structure of Everyman is to appreciate the late-medieval emphasis upon the potentialities of human nature—not only that of Christ, but also that of man himself—as the operative principle in the redemptive process.9 Unlike the earlier Church Fathers who saw the victory of Calvary in terms of a contest between the divinity of Christ and the diabolical powers, a cosmic drama in which mankind was a “helpless spectator,” later commentators on the Atonement locate the Savior's triumph in his suffering humanity and man's hope for salvation in his active participation in that exemplary human nature.10 Bernard's theory of knowledge reflects this shift in attitude. For Bernard, the Savior's sacrifice not only redeemed man, but also established the pattern of human response by which man could repay the debt incurred by the price of Christ's “infinite love wherewith He gave Himself for our salvation.”11 The very paradigm of human charity, Christ's passion provides for those men “who knew how to love only in a carnal manner,” a palpable realization of human perfection which may draw them to a more spiritual love of God himself.12 That the contemplation of Christ's suffering humanity must appeal, of necessity, to the more physical impulses of human affection is of little concern to Bernard, for the very existence of Christ as man has as a crucial function to portray the potential value of human experience in the plan of salvation.13 What other reason, Bernard asks, for the ignominious death but that “he wished to partake of the same suffering and temptation and all human miseries except sin … in order to learn by his own experience how to commiserate and sympathize with those who are similarly suffering and tempted”?14 Although Christ as the Word of God knew man's anguish from all eternity, he did not know it by experience and, what is more, could not, without taking on the guise of the servant himself.15 And this was one of the reasons for the Savior's having abased himself, that he might learn compassion,

not with that pity which he, ever blessed, had from eternity, but with that which he learned through sorrow when in our form. And the labor of love which he began through the former, he consummated in the latter, not because he could not consummate it in the one, but because he could not fulfill our needs without the other.16

The implication for mankind is clear: If Christ “made himself wretched … in order to learn what he already knew; how much more should you … observe what you are, that you are wretched indeed, and so learn to be merciful, a thing you cannot know in any other way.”17 Thus, for Bernard, the ascent to that love which man owes God begins and ends with knowledge: To know yourself is the inception of that wisdom from which charity issues; “to know God is its consummation.”18

Crucial to Bernard's theory of knowledge, particularly as it bears upon his penitential system, is his perception that between the knowledge of self and that of God there exists an implicit identity.19 Citing the Scriptural injunction that man is made ad imaginem dei, Bernard explains that since Christ alone is the image of God, it is from him that the soul, made in his image, has its likeness.20 Accordingly, the mysterious filiation between Christ and the human soul exacts of mankind a terrible personal burden. When the individual conforms his will to that of the Savior, he is capable of participating in the divine eminence which constitutes the soul's “greatness”; to know one's self, that is, to recognize the imprint of Christ in one's soul, is literally to know God, indeed to become like him. But to sin, thereby miring the soul in its fleshly existence, is to obviate man's natural resemblance to God. In his sermon, “De imagine sive Verbo Dei,” Bernard recounts the Bible's censure of those who have willfully divested themselves of the image in which they were made:

Every man walketh in a vain shew; surely they are disquieted in vain. Altogether in vain, for it goes on to say: He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And why is he ignorant, except that he bends down towards things low and earthly, and treasures up for himself nothing but earth? He does not know in the least for whom he is gathering those things which he confides to the earth. …21

Bernard's description of the spiritual myopia which attends man's defection from the will of God calls to mind the opening scene of Everyman, where God, decrying mankind's thoughtless abandonment to “wordly ryches,” complains that they have lost sight of the very “beynge that I them haue lent” (22-57). For Bernard, like the playwright, the implications of “euery mannes” ignorance are tragically apparent: Deformed by the vicious appetites of a corrupt body, the soul is blinded to its own nature as a “divine analogue,” a blindness which severely impairs its ability to recover the resemblance that constitutes its essence.22

Blinded as he is by his inordinate love for the “goods” of this world, man is gravely deflected from that charity which constitutes his only hope for salvation. Therefore, the first order of knowledge for one who would recover the path of charity is to know himself and his predilection for cupidity, to recognize, as Everyman himself perceives, “A, Good, thou hast had longe my hertely loue; / I gaue the that whiche sholde be the Lordes aboue” (457-458). However, as Everyman's progress testifies and Bernard confirms, self-knowledge, while a necessary prerequisite, is inadequate as the efficient cause of satisfaction, for, having judged himself contemptible, the penitent requires of himself the “strictest expiation.”23 Accordingly, between the inception of wisdom and its logical conclusion—the knowledge of God—is an intermediate step without which spiritual advancement is impossible. Hoping for the justice that promises emendation but despairing at their own depravity, “those whom truth has caused to know, and so condemn, themselves,” must flee to Christ and embrace the precept which his sacrifice enjoins: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. And this is the second step of truth, when they seek it in their neighbors, when they learn others' wants from their own, when they know from their own miseries how to commiserate with others who are miserable.”24 Each individual, recognizing that he is the spiritual heir of Adam, must come to the understanding that his sinful wretchedness is the common legacy of all mankind. To apprehend one's own moral deformity is to know and, consequently, for the contrite Christian, to have compassion for the similar plight of one's neighbors. Moreover, Bernard insists, this knowledge must be eminently compassionate, revealing itself in the works of active charity, or it remains a fatal impediment to salvation:

knowledge stored up in the memory—which is, as it were, the stomach of the soul—unless it has been cooked over the fire of charity and so distributed and disposed amongst our spiritual members—which are our habits and our acts—so that the soul herself derives a goodness of the things she knows—unless this be the case, our knowledge shall be imputed to us as sin. …25

The second order of knowledge, then, is to understand the intimate rapport which exists between the penitent and his Savior, to apprehend that Christ's resolve to suffer the frailties of human nature obliges man to a certain reciprocity. As the Savior learned mercy through the agonies of His passion, so, too, the penitent, through the knowledge of his own soul's misery, must recreate his Redeemer's act of charity by performing those good works which the sacrifice of Calvary prescribes. Illumined by the wisdom of the Word, the penitent ascends to the final stage of knowledge wherein the soul “shall know, even as also it is known; then shall it love even as it is loved, and the Bridegroom shall rejoice over the Bride, because knowledge and love are reciprocal between them.”26

What is interesting in Bernard's analysis of human knowledge, particularly as it recalls Everyman's progress, is his insistence that self-knowledge is not merely rational cognition.27 It consists, as well, of an exercise of the will. Animated by the first stirrings of knowledge, the soul turns from the distractions of sense data to examine itself “in the light of truth.”28 For Bernard, the soul's introspection is the prelude to true wisdom, for, having contemplated itself, the soul discovers “how far removed she is from the ideal of perfection.”29 At this juncture, the penitent, chastened by truth, willingly acknowledges his loss of innocence and acquiesces to the purifying emotions of the will—sorrow and penitence. Both dispositions, Bernard maintains, are crucial to spiritual regeneration: sorrow, because it purges the reason of its pride; penitence, because it stimulates the rational faculty to distinguish properly the most expedient course to salvation. Thus, in Bernard's penitential program, self-knowledge represents a tripartite progression: The penitent must have cognition “of what he has done,” humility for “what he has deserved,” and the intention, born of compunction, to recover “what he has lost.”30 With the cooperation of the will and reason, the penitent ascends to the condition of “free counsel” (liberum consilium), that is, “enlightened understanding,”31 by which the judgment, clearly perceiving and consenting to the good, fervently desires justice and resolves to perform the good works of active charity.

Interestingly enough, it is to Everyman's plea for “counseyll” (516) that Knowledge appears for the first time, her arrival signifying the hero's newfound understanding (524-526). Commenting on Knowledge's entrance, Van Laan notes what has become a commonplace in Everyman criticism: “that Knowledge comes from outside Everyman, that she is unexpected, that her entrance is not prepared for—all suggest that Everyman has finally received the grace which he also needs to make his penitence effective, the grace which had always been available but which in his blindness he had been unable to perceive.”32 While Professor Van Laan's observation accurately assesses the transformation of Everyman's “condycyon,” a conversion which Knowledge's arrival declares, his reading fails to take into account the theological implications that underpin the dramatic situation. Indeed, that Knowledge is an external force, “unexpected” and “not prepared for,” is denied by the action of the play. What is particularly striking in this regard is that the playwright, like Bernard, does not characterize his penitent's acquisition of knowledge as a passive acquiescence of a force imposed from without, but as the logical fruition of an internal probing, a psychologically intelligible ascent through three successive stages of augmented understanding. What is more, each stage adheres exactly to the Bernardine tripartite sequence; and, apparently to underscore the climactic progression of Everyman's growth, each step is dramatically signalled by an impassioned appeal for “counseyll.”

Despairing at the flight of Fellowship, Cousin, and Kindred, Everyman turns to Goods, of whom he makes his first explicit request for Counsel: “Come hyder, Good, in al the hast thou may, / For of counseyll I must desyre the” (339-400). Ironically, it is Goods, the allegorical metaphor of inordinate worldliness, who, in response to the hero's entreaty, echoes God's opening rebuke of Everyman for having “combred” himself with “worldly ryches” (60). Goods confirms Everyman's abased reason (“For bycause on me thou dyd set thy mynde”)33 and his spiritual myopia:

For my loue is contrary to the loue euerlastynge. / But yf thou had me loued moderately durynge, / As to the poore gyue parte of me, / Than sholdest thou not in this dolour be.34

Thus, he confronts the hero with his prideful ignorance, manifested by Everyman's self-indulgent submission to the transitory “goods” of fleshly gratification. The playwright's selection of Goods's testimony as the antecedent to true knowledge is by no means fortuitous, for in Bernardine terms, the soul's path to enlightenment begins with the promptings of the immediate objects of temporal satisfaction perceived “in the light of truth.”35 Consequently, Goods's revelation, however malicious his intent, forces Everyman to recognize the onerous nature of his transgression: “I gaue the that whiche sholde be the Lordes aboue” (458). Incipient though it may be, the penitent's awareness signals, according to Bernard, not only the first stage of self-knowledge—the freeing of oneself from the inertia of sin—but also the first stirrings of grace, a spontaneous revivification which does not presuppose any prior merit in the penitent.36

So, too, Everyman, discerning the implications of “what he has done,” ascends to the second stage of penitence—the dissipation of pride, “the daughter of ignorance of self,”37 by a humble examination of his own wretchedness:

For my Goodes sharpely dyd me tell
That he bryngeth many in to hell.
Than of my selfe I was ashamed,
And so I am worthy to be blamed;
Thus may I well my selfe hate.
Of whome shall I now counseyll take?


The consequence of his self-examination and subsequent recognition of his need for additional “counseyll” is immediately apparent: Everyman's introspection, his candid assessment of “what he has deserved,” enables him for the first time to perceive his soul's corruption, dramatically symbolized by his Good Deeds “so weke / That she can nother go nor speke” (482-483). The playwright's description of Good Deeds as shackled by the weight of sin (486-488) and, later, his depiction of Everyman's enfeebled “boke of counte” (503-505) follow the Bernardine scheme closely, in that the dramatist couches his representation of the soul's supine condition in the very imagery which Bernard uses to demonstrate the efficacy of this stage of self-knowledge: “for how can she (the soul) help being truly humbled in this true knowledge of herself, when she beholds herself laden with sins, oppressed with the weight of this corruptible body, entangled in worldly cares, polluted with the filth of carnal desires, blind, earthward stooping, feeble … ?”38 But the humility induced by self-contemplation, Bernard continues, is hardly debilitating, for while it reveals the soul's impotence, it also serves to liberate the reason from the corrupting blindness of the flesh. Having recognized the “helplessness of his condition” through the ministrations of humility, the penitent comes to the realization that his only recourse is Christ's mercy: “Turn to me, O lord and deliver my soul: Oh, save me for thy mercy's sake.”39 The appeal for mercy, Bernard observes, anticipates the final stage of self-knowledge in that it is motivated by the fearful understanding that the loss of one's soul is imminent without the intercession of Christ's redemptive power.

Thus, Everyman, disheartened by the “blynde rekenynge” of his soul and agitated by the urgency of his plight, implores the supernal aid which only Christ's mercy can provide: “Our Lorde Iesus helpe me! / For one letter here I can not se” (506-507). That Everyman's prayer represents the reversal of his “dystres” is signalled on two contextual levels: dramatically, by his accord, however unwitting, with the salvific remedium invoked by God in the opening lines of the play: “I profered the people grete multytude of mercy, / And fewe there be that asketh it hertly” (58-59). And, doctrinally, by his subsequent ascent to the final stage of self-knowledge—the fear of God's justice which, according to Bernard, “is the beginning of salvation quite as much as it is the beginning of wisdom”:40

Good Dedes, I praye you helpe me in this nede,
Or elles I am for euer dampned in dede;
Therefore helpe me to make rekenynge
Before the Redemer of all thynge,
That Kynge is, and was, and euer shall.


Having completed the three preparatory steps to enlightenment, Everyman makes his final appeal for counsel (516), and in response to the hero's heartfelt request, Good Deeds introduces her sister “Called Knowledge, whiche shall with you abyde / To helpe you to make that dredefull rekenynge” (520-521). Here, the shape of Everyman's dramatic development and the doctrinal structure coalesce—unlike most other moralities, where the appearance of allegorical personifications never quite coincides with the hero's spiritual progress and where vices and virtues in turn bedevil and redeem a hapless soul who awaits the outcome of a struggle it barely shares in. Knowledge's arrival at this decisive moment is no deus ex machina resolution of the hero's “dystres.” Hardly “unexpected” or “not prepared for,” her entrance symbolizes, indeed dramatically realizes, the fruition of Everyman's frenetic attempt to understand and thereby avoid his impending doom. By embodying the private motions of the hero's conscience, the playwright emphasizes the psychological experience which Everyman and the audience share alike, the mounting recognition of the terrible but salutary knowledge that in the economy of salvation one's wilful capitulation to the “Goods” of this world renders his personal account a “blynde rekenynge,” and therefore a personal act of satisfaction—the restitution of his Good Deeds—is required to make that “counte full redy.”

For Bernard, this juncture in the progress of the soul is crucial, in that having attained to “the knowledge of yourself, that you may fear God,” the penitent must discover the subsequent and curative step, to “attain to the knowledge of Him, that you may love Him also. In the one is the beginning of wisdom, in the other is the consummation of it. …”41 In his compassionate regard for mankind, Bernard points out, Christ provides every man the means by which he may personally revive those good works that, on the one hand, promote the penitent's knowledge of God and, on the other, witness his love for the Creator: penance, through which one crucifies himself with the Savior; the Eucharist, by which one incorporates himself with Christ; and alms, “since by the labour of your hands you feed and clothe Jesus Christ in His poor, so that nothing may be wanting to you.”42

In his “De septem gradibus confessionis,” Bernard notes that although self-knowledge conduces one to recognize his own shameful condition, unless he discover in that wisdom the most expedient path to redemption, it remains unprofitable. Having realized the nature of his soul's “dystres,” the penitent must take the necessary steps to recover his original innocence by submitting himself to the sacramental renewal of confession: “The first path and the first step in this way is undoubtedly self-knowledge” (cognitio sui); the remaining are penitence (poenitentiae), sorrow of the heart (dolor cordis), confession of the mouth (confessio oris), mortification of the body (maceratio carnis), purification of one's works (correctio operis), and perseverance (perseverantia).43 Thus, Knowledge, her appearance witnessing the fruition of Everyman's self-scrutiny, introduces him to “Confessyon.” That the hero is ready to participate in the rigors which attend the expiation of his sins is affirmed by his recapitulation of the threefold ascent to knowledge (cognitio sui, dolor cordis, and poenitentiae) that he has just completed:

O gloryous fountayne, that all vnclennes doth claryfy,
Wasshe fro me the spottes of vyce vnclene,
That on me no synne may be sene.
I come with Knowlege for my redempcyon,
Redempte with herte and full contrycyon.


Shryft, who perceives that Everyman is rightly disposed “bycause with Knowlege ye come to me,” outlines the remaining steps of the penitential sequence:

I wyll you comforte as well as I can.
And a precyous iewell I wyll gyue the,
Called penaunce, voyder of aduersyte;
Therwith shall your body chastysed be,
With abstynence & pesueraunce in Goddes seruyture.


Like Everyman's recitation of the preliminary stages of Bernard's way to confession, those steps which stimulate the inward turning of the will to God, Shryft's program accords point by point with the remaining conditions of the Bernardine taxis, the outward signs of sacramental renewal: Everyman must first mortify his flesh with the rod of “abstynence” (maceratio carnis); he must then persevere in “Goddess seruyture” (perseverantia); finally, turning to Knowledge for the “scourge of penaunce,” the hero embarks upon the last stage of the penitential program—correctio operis—and therein resides the peculiarly Bernardine conception of the penitent's role in the salvific transaction.

Admonishing Knowledge to “kepe hym in this vyage,” Shryft reminds Everyman of the enduring reciprocity which penance commemorates:

Here shall you receyue that scourge of me,
Whiche is penaunce stronge that ye must endure,
To remembre thy Sauyour was scourged for the
With sharpe scourges, and suffred it pacyently;
So must thou or thou scape that paynful pylgrymage.


In terms of the narrative structure, Shryft's exhortation answers, and thereby resolves, God's opening complaint that “My lowe that I shewed whan I for them dyed / They forgete clene, and shedynge of my blode rede” (29-30).44 Doctrinally, Shryft describes the popular medieval conviction that the sacrifice of Calvary, while an historical event, is not circumscribed by space or time. Transcending the perimeters of history, Christ's loving immolation reaches across the ages to engage man spontaneously and personally in the work of the Redemption. In his sermon, “On the Two Visions of God,” Bernard notes, for example, that to know and therefore to love God is to share affectively with Him His every torment:

Be like to Him now also whilst you see Him as He has made Himself for your sakes. For if you refuse not to resemble Him even in His humiliation, you have acquired the right to resemble Him in His glory as well. He certainly will never suffer the partners of His sorrow to be excluded from a participation in His triumph.45

Consequently, essential to Bernard's program of spiritual progress is the fervent meditation upon Christ's suffering and death as representing not only the “once-for-all” determinant of human salvation, but also an ongoing disposition, a contemporary reality, which serves as an invitation for man to realize that he may participate actively in the process of the Atonement by becoming, in the most literal sense of the word, a “partner” with his Savior in the Redemption: “Is it that we want to share in His joys and to have no part in His sorrows? If that be the case, we prove ourselves unworthy to be His members. For all that He suffers, He suffers for our sake. But if we are unwilling to cooperate with Him in the work of our own salvation, how, I ask, shall we show ourselves his coadjutors?”46 That the playwright subscribes to the notion of the penitent as “coadjutor” is affirmed in Everyman's subsequent prayer. Echoing the Bernardine sentiment that he will become a “partynere” with Christ in his glory through the “meanes of his passyon,” the hero turns to Knowledge for the “scourge of penuance” (602-605), and it is Knowledge who, as she relinquishes the scourge, identifies the co-agency of Everyman's regeneration: “Thus I bequeth you in the handes of our Sauyour; / Now may you make your rekenynge sure” (609-610).

That Knowledge should precipitate Everyman's self-mortification coincides precisely with Bernard's conception of the profound relationship which exists between human wisdom and the works of charity in the scheme of salvation. In his The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard Etienne Gilson observes in this connection that, for Bernard, the act of mortification is the process by which we prove “that we are aware of our misery, and pass judgment on ourselves.”47 It gives proof, moreover, that “even in its secret depths the will is now accordant with the divine will; it is thus the concrete expression of an inner communion between our willing and God's willing. …”48 By flagellating himself, then, Everyman affirms that he not only recognizes the gravity of his sinfulness but judges it worthy of punishment, indeed judges himself, according to Bernard, “as God judges him … inasmuch as he begins to know himself by process of reason as God Himself knows him.”49 However, merely to appraise one's wickedness as deserving of God's justice is not sufficient compensation. The penitent must invite that judgment, initiate it, thereby witnessing his resolve, as Gilson puts it, to go “half way to meet the punishment that he knows he deserves.”50 Thus, Shryft's injunction that Everyman share in Christ's every anguish is no empty bromide of an extravagant piety but a consummately practical expression of the penitent's capacity to collaborate with the Savior in the ransom of his own soul. By identifying his sufferings with those of the Redeemer, by compassionating through his personal trials with the Passion of Christ, Everyman testifies that his will is in accord with God's, that he wills what God wills, and this affinity, according to Bernard, is “spiritual charity itself.”51 It is under the aegis of penance, then, that Everyman gives witness to the second degree of knowledge which directs the penitent to participate in the act of charity and the reparation derived therein by affectively sharing in the loving immolation that the sacrament celebrates. Characteristically, it is Knowledge who announces that Everyman has successfully reestablished in his soul the condition by which it may recover the vigor impaired by the “synne of the flesshe”:

Now, Eueryman, be mery and glad!
Your Good Dedes cometh now; ye may not be sad.
Now is your Good Dedes hole and sounde,
Goynge vpright vpon the grounde.


For Bernard, the soul, enlightened by knowledge and animated by charity, “stands upright … because it has been lifted up by the hand of the Word, and set, as it were, upon two feet. …’52 But, newly vivified, the soul requires the additional support of certain props without which it “can neither stand firm in the good to which we have attained, nor rise up towards any fresh good.”53 And the chief among these supports are: scientia (the wisdom which is the result of man's wits), discretionem (discretion), virtus (strength), and decor (beauty).54 The same powers—V. Wyttes, Dyscrecyon, Strengthe, and Beaute—appear in Everyman as auxiliary counselors to the hero, an appearance, it should be noted, that has prompted a rather curious ambivalence among the readers of the play. For example, Van Laan has pointed out that while the arrival of the new advisers “visualizes the accomplished purgation of sin and the resulting restoration of natural gifts,” they can “ultimately contribute little of value” to Everyman's progress.55 Similarly, for John Conley, although Dyscrecyon and V. Wyttes provide “some measure of spiritual comfort,” that of Strengthe and Beaute is “brief and delusive,” all four failing to “comfort Everyman in extremis.56 However, when viewed within Bernard's penitential catechesis, the appearance of these “persones of grete myght” (658) not only constitutes the logical fulfillment of Everyman's potential as the co-agent in the work of his salvation, but also serves to clarify the doctrinal structure which the play to this point has dramatized. As has been frequently noted, the new companions, unlike the first group of friends (Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods), are not accidental properties but the “natural powers” of the hero himself, discovered to him only after he has undergone the mortification of penance.57 That is, having satisfied the requirements of the sacrament, Everyman is proffered the help of those additional counselors who, according to Bernard, confirm the incursion of grace into the penitent's soul and therefore elevate the human condition by augmenting its capacity for those natural endowments which link man's nature with that of Christ—knowledge and charity.

Accordingly, like his counterpart in Everyman who promises “aduysement and delyberacyon” (691), Bernard's discretion is also a “moderator and conductor,” a “director of the affections,” who tempers the novice's fervor for charity by the moderating influence of knowledge:

Where zeal is eager, there discretion, which is the rule of charity by order, is most of all indispensable. Without knowledge zeal is found to be almost less useful and less effectual; and most often it even very dangerous. The more fervent is zeal, the more eager the temper, the more profuse the charity; the more need is there of a watchful knowledge, which moderates zeal, tempers the warmth of the disposition, and regulates the gushings of charity.58

Dyscrecyon regulates Everyman's latent impetuosity (My herte is lyght, and shal be euermore; / Now wyll I smyte faster than I dyde before”).59 Strengthe offers the resiliency calculated to fortify the hero in his struggle for perfection: “and I, Strengthe, wyll by you stande in dystres, / Though thou wolde in batayle fyght on the grounde” (684-685). Again, it is Bernard's definition of the adviser's special office that places Everyman's role as “coadjutor” in clearer relief, for the Bernardine notion of virtus as that power which renders “the soul victorious over itself, and consequently, invincible by all other adversaries”60 underscores the significant relationship between Strengthe, Knowledge, and Good Dedes in the morality's thematic structure. Encumbered by the bulk of his own corruption, the penitent, according to Bernard, is especially vulnerable to the assaults of three adversaries—the World, the Flesh, and the Devil-which impel the soul to evil by their wicked suggestions.61 However, while the three foes impel the penitent to sin, Bernard argues, they cannot overthrow him unless, captivated by their wiles, he personally surrenders. Consequently, since man is the principal occasion of his own fall, it is necessary that he arm himself with that “strength, which, as far as in it lies, directs and rules all things according to reason.”62 Marshalling the forces of reason against its enemies, the soul acquires the strength of the Word, who makes “all those whose hope is in Him to be, as it were, all powerful,” and therefore cannot “possibly be either overthrown or brought into subjection by any open violence, secret guile, or enticing allurement.”63 Thus, raised up by its ability to assess the nature of its “dystres,” the soul is prevented from falling again by strength. And, in so far as it witnesses the penitent's firm resolve to bring his will into accord with that of the Word, strength is nearly analogous to the love of virtue which is the pinnacle of human wisdom, so that “whatsoever strength laboriously prepares, wisdom makes of and enjoys; and that which wisdom ordains, contemplates, regulates, strength carries into effect.”64

Once the soul has recovered “stability by the gift of strength,” Bernard observes, and “maturity by that of wisdom, it remains that it should obtain the gift of beauty.”65 At first glance, Bernard's definition of beauty as that “resemblance to Him” without which the soul “is not able to please Him who is the fairest among the sons of men” hardly seems consonant with the frivolity of Beaute in Everyman, particularly her rather fickle desertion of the hero as he approaches the grave (794-801). For Bernard, Beaute's defection is by no means inconsistent with her nature, for of the endowments which God bestows upon man, beauty is a gift of the body whose term is circumscribed by the very transiency of its agent. Having recognized that his soul has been salved by the unction which Christ's merciful love provides, the penitent acknowledges his soul's health through his external behavior, “providing for things honest not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.”66 Thus, while beauty attests to the eternal values of Christ's love, its tenure is necessarily brief, in that beauty's testimony inheres in the outward reflection of the penitent's inward capacity for virtue: “when, then, all the movements of the body, all its gestures and habits, are grave, pure, and modest, far removed from all boldness and licence, from all lightness and luxury, but adapted to righteousness, and to every duty of piety, then the fairness of the soul shall be visible …”67 It is not surprising, then, that with the appearance of Beaute and her companions, Everyman resolves to perform the two remaining “Goode Dedes” which, unlike the private expression of charity enjoined by the mortification of “penaunce,” give public confirmation of the penitent's desire to love as he himself is loved: almsgiving, through which he may re-act the Savior's compassionate regard for his misery by performing like acts of mercy for his neighbors; and the eucharist, in which he communicates with Christ's Passion, celebrating the “words, ‘eat My Flesh’ and ‘drink My Blood,’ as an injunction to participate in His sufferings and imitate the example which He has given us in the flesh.”68 Therefore, heeding the “vertuous monycyon” of his new advisers, Everyman is moved to make his personal testament: “In almes / halfe my good I wyll gyue with my handes twayne / In the way of charyte with good entent” (699-700). Thereupon, at the behest of Knowledge and V. Wyttes, the hero determines to visit Preesthode from whom “Fayne wolde I receyue that holy body” (728).

V. Wyttes' advice to the hero in this instance, particularly since he seems to digress from the doctrinal center of the play by his lengthy eulogy of priesthood, has received considerable critical attention and any prolonged discussion here would be redundant. However, one aspect of V. Wyttes' sermon on Preesthode is clarified by Bernard's notion of scientia and should be noted briefly. While Good Deeds summons the other advisers, it is Knowledge who introduces V. Wyttes to the hero, and logically so, for as his name indicates and Bernard confirms, V. Wyttes represents the bodily senses, those avenues of knowledge without whose help the soul “could never acquire that science” which should bring the penitent to the knowledge of the Word that he might learn the truth of “His ways.”69 For Bernard, scientia, as the product of the five senses, imparts to the penitent that special vision which enables him not only to recognize, but also to practice the good “when it appears.” A novice in the ways of God, the penitent, wishing to “do good, but not knowing how,” runs the terrible risk of wandering from the path of righteousness, lured by his incapacity to discriminate between that good which liberates the soul and those “goods” of the flesh which imprison it.70 Thus, as an antidote to Everyman's manifest inability to sort out the ephemeral from the spiritual, V. Wyttes endorses Preesthode, who, according to Bernard, possesses the “senses trained to discern good from evil” and therefore can instruct the soul “in the truths she needs to know.”71 By commending the “lest preest” whose power as the surrogate of Christ on earth is greater than “ony aungell that is in heuen” (736), V. Wyttes offers to Everyman the most expedient access to those remedia which constitute the temporal source of man's spiritual solace:

For of the blessyd sacramentes pure and benygne
He bereth the keyes, and therof hath the cure
For mannes redempcyon—it is euer sure—
Whiche God for our soules medycyne
Gaue vs out of his herte with grete pyne.
Here in this transytory lyfe, for the and me. …


As the symbols of Christ's suffering humanity and the visible links between man and his Savior's propitiation, the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, give palpable form to the most profound truths of the redemptive mystery. And it is priesthood who is the human steward of those mysterious but salutary truths. By reenacting sacramentally what took place historically on Calvary, the priest “bereth the keys” of redemption which open the way for the penitent not only to fathom the good communicated by the Redeemer's sacrifice, but also to share in it by personally participating in the sacramental renewal of that action. Thus, true to his nature, V. Wyttes extols the “blessyd sacraments” as the sensible signs which bring man into direct and intimate contact with the cross of Christ. Hardly a digression, his sermon gives dramatic voice to the truth which Everyman has come to know through his own penitential experience, a truth that is theatrically realized when the hero rejoins the company of his counselors, having “receyued the sacrament for my redempcyon” (773):

And now, frendes, let vs go with-out longer respyte.
I thanke God that ye haue taryed so longe.
Now set eche of you on this rodde your honde,
And shortely folowe me.
I go before there I wolde be. God be our gyde!


Now assured that the hero has received the grace which the sacraments perpetuate and, what is more, that he is willing to cooperate with that grace by persevering in the good which they commemorate, V. Wyttes can exclaim with full confidence: “Peas! For yonder I se Eueryman come, / Whiche hath made true satysfaccyon” (769-770).

Despite their “vertuous monycyon” and the obvious succor it provides, the new counselors must desert Everyman when he enters the grave. As the bodily endowments of the hero, theirs is the temporal solace which, while it promises a spiritual good, pales in the face of eternity. However, structurally paralleling as it does the first desertion in which the hero's friends leave him bereft of worthwhile counsel, forsaken in his “moost nede” (371), this second defection offers a touchstone by which Everyman's spiritual progress can be measured. Unlike the earlier desertion, which is marked by Everyman's frantic despair, the exit of his trusted companions serves to emphasize the hero's newfound wisdom which each auxiliary adviser has helped to realize (841-844).

Once ill-equipped to answer Death's summons because of his appalling ignorance, Everyman now testifies to the depth of his understanding by becoming himself the spiritual adviser to an audience who has yet to complete its “iornaye” to salvation:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,
How they that I loued best do forsake me,
Excepte my Good Dedes that bydeth truely.


For Bernard, the penitent's role as counselor is not only a logical, but an indispensable stage in the ascent to the knowledge of God. In his final sermon on the Canticles, “De septem necessitatibus, propter quas anima quaerit Verbum,” Bernard summarizes the steps by which the soul seeks the presence of its Savior, a summary that serves as a convenient plot outline of Everyman itself:

The soul seeks the Word, and accept His correction with willingness and joy, so that she may obtain enlightenment and the knowledge of Him, that by His support she may attain to virtue, and be reformed according to wisdom, that she may be conformed unto His likeness and rendered by Him fruitful in good works, and finally, may be happy in the enjoyment of His Presence.72

Of the seven stages, the penultimate is of particular interest in that Bernard here defines “good works” specifically in terms of the penitent's responsibility to assume his Savior's pastoral function as teacher. Illumined by the merciful knowledge which Christ taught through his own example, the penitent in turn must also generate “new spiritual lives,”73 to “bring forth souls by preaching.”74 Everyman's personation of Christ's priestly role, according to Bernard, consummates the penitential ascent; for it indicates that the hero has finally arrived at the point in his spiritual progress wherein, purged of the ignorance which obviates the soul's likeness to God, he fervently desires to restore his natural resemblance as the imago dei by identifying his every action with that of the Redeemer. With the kind of expert timing and economy which characterizes the entire play, the dramatist drives home the significance of Everyman's new-found identity in the hero's final speech. As he enters the grave, Everyman declares his affinity with Christ, his desire for complete and intimate conformity to the will of his Creator, by intoning those very words which Christ himself uttered at the moment of his death: “In manus tuas, of myghtes moost / For euer, Commendo spiritum meum (886-887).

Lest the import of Everyman's dying words escape the audience, the playwright invokes the metaphor so often used by Bernard to define this state of beatific similitude: “that of a soul which God can henceforth seek to make His spouse because He recognizes Himself in it, and because nothing now remains in it to which His love cannot be given.”75 Thus, at the close of the play, an Angel, exalting in the hero's betrothal to Christ, welcomes Everyman's soul: “Come excellence electe spouse to Iesu!” (894).76

While the Angel's greeting signals Everyman's salvation, the Doctor's epilogue reasserts the doctrinal premise of the hero's progress to redemption. Addressing the audience who, as the nominal heroes of the play, will themselves be summoned to a “generall rekenynge,” the Doctor warns that before the seat of judgment all supports forsake mankind “saue his Good Dedes”:

For after dethe amendes may no man make,
For than mercy and pyte doth hym forsake.
If his rekenynge be not clere whan he doth come,
God wyll saye, “Ite, maledicti, in ignem eternum.”


The playwright's emphasis upon the efficacy of the individual's personal “accounte” in the salvific transaction diverges radically from the penitential theology shared by the earlier English moral plays: in Mankind and The Castle of Perseverance, for example, man is indeed saved by “mercy and pyte” at the last moment and despite his soul's “rekenynge.” For the Everyman playwright, however, no such facile resolution suffices to explain the fearful eschatological reality of human existence. Confronting the paradoxical nature of the human predicament vis à vis the divine economy, an economy in which man, as the agent of his own fall, is rendered helpless, but nonetheless is to be judged finally on the basis of his own actions, the dramatist depicts a penitential ascesis which accommodates the limitations of human nature with man's awesome responsibility as the co-principal of his own conversion. Unlike the other moral plays where the mankind figure is depicted as mired in a kind of spiritual stasis, vexed and redeemed by powers that are ultimately beyond his ken, Everyman describes a hero of impressive energy and wit, one who, much like the dramatic heroes of later times, personally explores the recesses of his private conscience to seek out an informing experience which gives shape to his human destiny. While clearly the product of an age which was fond of analyzing the corporate nature of a hapless Humanum Genus, Everyman is a decidedly atypical product, one which looks forward to a humanism that is implicitly modern. And it is that humanism, particularly its emphasis upon the potential of the individual to reconcile the frailties of his bodily existence with his native aspiration for the eternal, which is Bernard's legacy to the age of Everyman; for in his penitential theory of knowledge, affirming as it does the capacity of the penitent not only to apprehend, but also to enact a course of action that will determine his salvation, Bernard rescues human nature from its limbo of passivity and places it squarely at the center of the redemptive mystery.


  1. Everyman and the Parable of the Talents,” The Medieval Drama, ed. Sandro Sticca (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1971), rpt. in Jerome Taylor and Alan H. Nelson, eds., Medieval English Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 325.

  2. Edgar T. Schell and J. D. Shuchter, eds., English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 112.

  3. Everyman (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), p. xxii. All references to Everyman are to this edition. Hereafter cited as Everyman.

  4. Edgar T. Schell, “On the Imitation of Life's Pilgrimage in The Castle of Perserverance,JEGP, 67 (1968), 235-248. E. N. S. Thompson, The English Moral Plays (1910; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1970), pp. 295-310, 330-339. E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages (1945; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 50. Arnold Williams, The Drama of Medieval England (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1961), pp. 142-162. The Marco Plays, ed. Mark Eccles, EETS No. e.s. 262 (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. xx-xi, 202-16. Robert Potter, The English Moral Play (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 19-22.

  5. Kolve, 333.

  6. “The English Moral Play Before 1500,” Annuale Mediaevale, 4 (1963), 20.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Thomas F. Van Laan, “Everyman: A Structural Analysis,” PMLA, 78 (1963), 473.

  9. Cf., for example, Richard W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), pp. 219-241. Robert D. Marshall, “Dogmatic Formalism to Practical Humanism: Changing Attitudes Towards the Passion of Christ in Medieval English Literature,” Diss., University of Wisconsin, 1965, Chs. 1-3.

  10. Southern, p. 235.

  11. Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940), p. 36.

  12. St. Bernard's Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, trans. by a priest of Mount Melleray (Dublin: Browne and Nolan Ltd., 1920), I, p. 202. Hereafter cited as Canticles.

  13. Cf., for example, Marshall, Ch. 1.

  14. The Steps of Humility, trans. by George Bosworth Burch (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), p. 137. Hereafter cited as Steps.

  15. Gilson, ch. 3, especially p. 77. Gilson cites by way of example, De Gradibus Humilitatis: “non ergo debet absurdum videri si dicitur Christum non quidem aliquid scire coepisse quod aliquando nescierit, scire tamen alio modo misericordiam ab aeterno per divinitatem et aliter id tempore didicisse per carnem.” Gilson notes that “it is necessary to emphasize in didicisse the force that expresses the value attributed by St. Bernard to experiential knowledge.” p. 234, note 100.

  16. Steps, p. 143.

  17. Ibid., p. 147.

  18. Ibid., p. 39. Canticles, I, p. 441.

  19. Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), p. 290. And, Canticles, II, p. 445.

  20. Canticles, II, pp. 446-447.

  21. The translation is that of Samuel J. Eales, Cantica Canticorum: Eighty-six Sermons on the Song of Solomon (London: Elliot Stock, 1895), p. 490. Hereafter cited as Cantica.

  22. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, p. 296.

  23. Steps, p. 155.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Canticles, I, p. 431.

  26. Cantica, p. 507.

  27. Steps, p. 55.

  28. Canticles, I, p. 432.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Saint Bernard's Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, trans. by a Priest of Mount Melleray (Westminster, Maryland: 1950), III, p. 447.

  31. Bernard of Clairvaux, Concerning Grace and Free Will, trans. Watkin W. Williams (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920), p. 20.

  32. Van Laan, 470.

  33. Everyman, p. 13.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Canticles, I, pp. 432-433.

  36. Steps, p. 163: Cf. also, p.52.

  37. Canticles, I, p. 441.

  38. Canticles, I, p. 433.

  39. Ibid., p. 434; Cf. also p. 451.

  40. Ibid., p. 436.

  41. Cantica, p. 239.

  42. Sermons, I, p. 153.

  43. Patrologia Cursus Completus: Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1859), Vol. 183, Col. 647ff.

  44. I have silently amended Cawley's reading of “Lawe” to “lowe.” Cf., for example, his note at p. 29.

  45. Sermons, II, p. 345.

  46. Ibid., p. 68.

  47. Gilson, p. 72.

  48. Ibid., p. 76.

  49. Ibid., p. 73.

  50. Ibid.

  51. Ibid., p. 72.

  52. Cantica, p. 517.

  53. Ibid., p. 520.

  54. Cf. Sermons LXXXV and XLIX in Cantica, pp. 516-525, and pp. 297-307.

  55. Van Laan, p. 472.

  56. John Conley, “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman,Speculum, 44 (1969), 381-382.

  57. Lawrence V. Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,Speculum, 32 (1957), 730.

  58. Cantica, pp. 299-300.

  59. Everyman, p. 19.

  60. Cantica, p. 519.

  61. Ibid., p. 518.

  62. Ibid., p. 519.

  63. Ibid.

  64. Ibid., p. 521.

  65. Ibid., p. 522.

  66. Ibid., p. 523.

  67. Ibid., pp. 522-523.

  68. Sermons, I, p. 150.

  69. Canticles, I, pp. 32-33.

  70. Cantica, p. 517.

  71. Ibid., pp. 471-473.

  72. Ibid., p. 516.

  73. Steps, p. 110.

  74. Cantica, p. 524.

  75. Gilson, p. 99.

  76. Cawley punctuates lines 894: “Come, excellente electe spouse, to Iesu.” Cawley's punctuation, however, is largely editorial and ignores an imporant variant meaning of the line; that is, Everyman is the “spouse to Iesu.”

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4280

SOURCE: Spinrad, Phoebe S. “The Last Temptation of “Everyman.Philological Quarterly 64, no. 2 (spring 1985): 185-94.

[In the following essay, Spinrad examines in-turn the temptations faced by Everyman, discussing the significance of each for both the original audience and the contemporary reader.]

Because Everyman is virtually the last of the Catholic morality plays, we are often tempted to analyze it in terms of others of its kind: a soul struggles with temptations, falls into sin, is arrested by Death, and at the last moment calls on the mercy of God and is saved. Within this linear analysis, many subanalyses are possible. Lawrence V. Ryan, for example, stresses Everyman's doctrinal education, pointing out that Everyman is taught to find his way back to the Church and its sacraments before finding his way to heaven; and Allen D. Goldhammer uses Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of the dying process to show Everyman's anagnorisis as a psychological as well as a theological state.1 Such analyses are certainly valid; Everyman would not retain its power over us if it did not work on many levels. But the approaches are often misleading, forcing as they do a nonlinear play into a linear progression. Everyman's meeting with Knowledge, and his reception of the sacraments, are not the end of the play, but rather a signal that the play is about to begin again; at the moment when Everyman should march triumphantly off to heaven, he instead succumbs to the most insidious temptation of all.

To understand what happens to Everyman at this second starting-point of the play, we must disregard for the moment other morality plays, most of which end with death, and turn to another form of literature, which, like Everyman, begins with death: the medieval Ars Moriendi, the art of dying. These treatises were extremely popular in the century preceding Everyman, appearing all over Europe in manuscript and printed form, with and without illustrations, and sometimes in illustrations without text for the illiterate. They were no “remote preparation for death,” as Sr. Mary Catherine O'Connor points out, but rather “a complete and intelligible guide to the business of dying … no more intended to frighten and depress than is any medieval book on hunting or hawking or on table manners for children.”2 Although the author of Everyman may have found a judicious amount of fright dramatically appropriate, he appears to have drawn much of his method from the step-by-step approach taken by the treatises.

The typical Ars Moriendi is divided into six parts:3 (1) reasons why one “oughte to dye gladly”; (2) the temptations at the moment of death; (3) questions to be put to the dying; (4) instructions to be given to the dying; (5) meditations on the sufferings of Christ; and (6) prayers to be said by the dying and by those assisting at their deathbeds (A1r). The first section opens with the apparently granted assumption that the death of the body is the most fearful thing imaginable. The treatise makes no effort to deny this, but hastens to assure the reader that once the pain is over, the soul will have escaped an unsatisfactory world to live in a perfect one with God—that is, if the soul has made adequate preparation by living a good life or at least being contrite for a bad one. Death, then, is only “the goynge oute of pryson” and a laying down of the heavy weight of a body (A1v). Even the pagans have said that one “ought sonner to chose the bodily deth” than to do anything contrary to virtue, so surely a death that is so universally praised cannot be totally bad (A2r).

There is something a little spurious about this reasoning, and indeed it is contradicted by the carefully outlined procedures in the other sections for escaping all the dangers surrounding death. But the first sections of all these treatises are meant to comfort before the battle against temptation begins, and the net effect is to direct the mind toward death as a threshold to be crossed rather than as a pain to be undergone.

And at this threshold the temptations are mighty, as the devils gather for their last assault on the soul. According to all the Artes, those “in thartycle of death haue many greuous & strong temptacions vereli suche that in their lyf they neuer had lyke” (A2r), and these are five in number:

1. The temptation “of the fayth,” when the devil will try to deceive Moriens (the dying man) into falling away from Christ, through “errours superstycions or heresie.” Moriens must remember that a Christian is required to stand firm in his faith, and he may take comfort in knowing that “the deuyll maye not ouercome the persone as longe as he shall haue the usage of his free wyll well dysposed, if by his owne agrement he wyll not consent to the deuil.” As an aid to resistance against this temptation, Moriens or those attending him should repeat the Creed “wyth an hye voys,” and call to mind the constancy of all the saints, martyrs, apostles, and even good pagans as encouragement to steadfastness (A2r-v).

2. The temptation “ayente hope by dyspayre,” when the devil takes advantage of Moriens's weakened condition to make him grieve so much over his sins that he will despair of being forgiven. But Moriens must remember that God's capacity for mercy is infinitely greater than man's capacity for sin, and that “though that he had commited as many murthers and theftes as there ben dropes of water and small grauell in the see,” though he may never have confessed his sins before, even though he may be too ill to confess them aloud now—still, if he repents in his mind at this last moment, God will accept his contrition: “for god dyspyseth neuer a contryte herte and humble.” As an exercise, Moriens should contemplate Christ on the cross:

For he hath the hede inclyned and bowed to kysse us, the armes stratched abrode for tembrace us, the handes perced & opened for to gyue to us, the syde open for to loue us, and all his body stratched for to gyue hym selfe all to us.

And for encouragement, Moriens should call to mind other sinners who were forgiven: Peter, Paul, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, the woman taken in adultery, the Good Thief, and “many moo other whyche were grete synners & horryble” (A2v-A3v).

3. The temptation “by impacyence: that is ayenste charite.” In the great sorrow and pain of dying, Moriens may be tempted to “murmure or grutche” against God, and to act as though he were mad, tormenting not only himself but the people around him. He must remember, in this sore temptation, that charity and patience will bring him closer to God, and that, furthermore, the pain against which he is railing was sent him on purpose to help him atone for his sins.

4. The temptation to “spirituell pryde, by the whiche the deuylle assayleth most theym that be deuoute.” Since the devil cannot make the devout lose faith, hope, or charity, he rather inflates them with vainglory about their ability to withstand the other temptations. “O how thou art ferme & stedfaste in the faythe,” says the devil in Moriens's heart; “o how thou art sure in hope, o how thou art stronge & pacyent, o how thou haste doon many good dedes.” It is an easy step from such thoughts to the sin of presumption, and when Moriens finds himself thinking such thoughts, he must try to humble himself, particularly by remembering his sins, but not so much that he will despair; rather, he must keep in mind that “none is certayn, yf he be dygne or worthy to haue deserued the loue of god, or the hate of god” (A4r-v).

5. The temptation “that most troubleth the seculers and wordly [sic] men … the ouer grete ocupacyon of outwerde thinges and temporall … which he hath moost loued in his lyf.” Moriens must put all such temporal thoughts from his mind and renounce the things of the world that he is about to leave, strengthening his resolve with the thought that the renunciation itself is a form of penance that may atone for at least the venial sins, and so spare him some of the pains of purgatory. Above all Moriens must loose his hold on life itself:

But it happeth not ofte that only be founde be he seculer or reguler that hopeth not but to escape fro deth, and alwaye this folyshe hope is a thinge ryght peryllous & moche dysordred in euery crysten man and that ofte cometh by intyncyon of the deuyl.


In the illustrated versions of the treatise, there are two woodcuts for each temptation: one showing the devils swarming about Moriens's bed, and one showing Moriens resisting their temptations, often with so many saints and angels on hand to help that the room seems crowded to the very doors and windows.

In the third section of the treatise, attendants at Moriens's bedside are required to ask him questions about his faith, his willingness to repent, and his readiness to die. If there are no friends present, Moriens may ask the questions silently of himself, but it is expected that the deathbed will be a communal affair, and that the friends present are morally obligated to help Moriens turn his mind to heaven. By no means is anyone to delude the dying person into hoping for a longer life, because such a vain hope will turn his mind earthward and endanger his soul.

The remaining sections are given to meditations on the life and death of Christ (in which Moriens is reminded that Christ, too, moaned and wept at his death); prayers for different stages in the dying process; and admonitions to attendants at the deathbed that they not only help Moriens to a good death, but also learn from the procedure how to make a good death themselves when the time comes. Throughout the whole treatise, the emphasis is on comfort, a comfort reached, one may say, by staying busy.

Parallels between the Ars and Everyman are immediately evident. The very comfort of the Ars introduction is echoed by God in the play, who tempers the usual wrathful indictment of the Morality pronouncements (and the Mystery Judgment plays) by adding that death is really meant for the sinner's good as well as for his punishment. If people are not called to account periodically, says God, they will fall away not only from grace but also from their own human nature:

For, and I leave the people thus alone
In their life and wicked tempests,
Verily they will become much worse than beasts;
For now one would by envy another up eat;
Charity they do all clean forget.


Good Deeds and Knowledge, too, take part in the ritual. As in parts three, four, and six of the Ars, they catechize and instruct Everyman as he prepares for death, and, like the crowds of comforters in part two, they support him during his abandonment by the second set of false friends. Even the false friends have a cautionary role, showing the audience how not to behave at the deathbed. Not only do they fail to give spiritual advice, but they sometimes tempt Everyman to commit a few last sins before he goes (Fellowship, Kindred), or encourage him to cling to life (Fellowship). Strength alone counsels Everyman against a sin—impatience—but does it with so much impatience himself that the moral is lost:

Thou art but a fool to complain
You spend your speech and waste your brain;
Go, thrust thee into the ground.


But it is in the temptations themselves that we most see the influence of the medieval treatise. The first temptation, infidelity, may be likened to the modern phase of denial. Although Everyman has been taught all his life about his duty to God and the fact of his inevitable death, when Death approaches him, he fails to recognize the skeletonic messenger or understand what Death is telling him. Everyman's original audience would undoubtedly have been struck even more forcefully than we are by the incongruity of the scene—as though the heroine in one of our own horror films were to tell the crazed and blood-spattered monster not to interrupt her in the middle of her favorite television program. Does Everyman not notice that a skeleton is standing in front of him? Obviously his agnosticism has blinded his perception.

The remedy for this temptation comes from Death himself, who announces his identity, at last, in no uncertain terms, and from Good Deeds, Knowledge, Confession, and Five Wits, who instruct Everyman in the process of repentance and the efficacy of the sacraments.5 We see Everyman gradually becoming undeceived about his previous assumptions, and by the time he begins scourging himself, he is ready to repeat his lessons “wyth an hye voys” (Ars, A2v).

The second temptation, despair, is not so immediately evident, and tends to merge with the third temptation, impatience. Everyman “murmures and grutches” against everyone, God's messenger, his old friends, his new friends, his solitude, and finally his failing body. He vacillates between giving up all hope and blaming his plight on others, until Good Deeds and Knowledge, as usual, show him the remedy: in the first part of the play, penance and reliance on himself rather than the external things of the world; and in the second, prayers and meditation on the sufferings of Christ.

The fifth temptation, attachment to worldly things, is so blatant as to require little comment on top of the reams of commentary that have gone before. One observation, however, must be added. The first set of false friends, as Ryan has shown, “appear in a climactic order according to the increasing danger of each as a distraction from one's maker”;6 and, indeed, the Empress in John Lydgate's Dance of Death (c. 1430) gives the lures of the world in exactly the same sequence, although in descending rather than ascending order of importance:

All worldly power / now may me nat availe
Raunson kyndrede / frenshype nor worthynesse
Syn deth is com / myn hih estat tassaile.(7)

But, in addition, such a hierarchic ranking of theological dangers is grounded in the psychology of relationships between the self and things outside the self. Each false friend in the play is closer to Everyman's self: Fellowship is a peripheral thing often changed with time, locality, or mood; Kindred is something closer to the self, something that is always there and can be drawn on at will; Cousin is the specific manifestation of Kindred that seems to mirror the self; and Goods is a mistaken image of the self—personal objects that one has gathered outside oneself as an identity for the self. It is this increasing degree of identification with the self that makes each attachment increasingly dangerous to the soul, and increasingly shattering to the psyche when the objects are removed. One must now face oneself without props, naked and unadorned.

At this moment of spiritual and emotional nakedness, Good Deeds and Knowledge step into the breach. They help Everyman cure his infidelity, despair, impatience, and attachment; lead him through the rituals of the Church; and clothe him in the symbolic garments of repentance. Everyman, now secure in his new holiness, cheerfully announces his eagerness to begin the journey:

Now blessed be Jesu, Mary's Son,
For now have I on true contrition.
And let us go now without tarrying;
Good Deeds, have we clear our reckoning?
GOOD Deeds:
Yea, indeed I have it here.
Then I trust we need not fear.
Now friends, let us not part in twain.


Members of the audience now begin gathering up their cloaks, preparing to duck away before the inevitable moralizing epilogue and the passing of the hat. But they will have to resettle themselves, because now the play begins again. Everyman does not march away to heaven, nor does he (as many critics have claimed) take the desertion of Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits with more equanimity than he showed when his first set of five friends left him. Indeed, he falls once more into “murmuring and grutching” as each friend leaves him, and the departure of the last one draws from him his most agonized outcry of the play: “O Jesu, help! All hath forsaken me!” (851). We are back where we started. What has happened?

The astute reader will note that my list of Everyman's temptations has hitherto omitted the most insidious one of all: spiritual pride, or vainglory. Everyman, having given up his attachment to things outside himself, has come to rely too much on himself; having cast off despair and watched his Good Deeds grow, he has wandered too close to the sin of presumption. Like Moriens in the Ars, he has heard the devil's whisper: “O how thou arte ferme & steadfaste in the faythe, o how thou art sure in hope, o how thou art strong & pacyent, o how thou haste doon many good dedes” (Ars, A4r).

It is not surprising that modern readers miss the full impact of this last temptation; we are more familiar with post-Reformation Arts of Dying (especially Jeremy Taylor's seventeenth-century one) than with those of the Catholic middle ages. And with only a few exceptions, warnings against vainglory are absent from Protestant deathbed preaching.

According to most of the new doctrines, especially those of the Calvinists, in order to be saved one must be assured that one is saved. As the Calvinist preacher, William Perkins, explained:

Certentie of faith, is whereby any thing is certenly beleeved: and it is either generall or speciall. Generall certentie, is to beleeue assuredly that the word of God is truth it selfe, and this both we and Papists allow. Speciall certentie, is by faith to apply the promise of salvation to our selves, and to beleeve without doubt, that remission of sinnes by Christ and life ever lasting belong to us. This kind of certentie we hold and maintaine, and Papists with one consent deny it; acknowledging no assurance but by hope.8

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, treatise after treatise came off English presses to show people the way to this certainty, or assurance, of salvation. The new Arts of Dying, too, emphasized the need for assurance at the moment of death, and in the most popular sixteenth-century treatise of the kind, Thomas Becon's Sicke Mannes Salve, the dying man is specifically praised by his friends for his assumption that he will go straight to heaven when he dies:

I greatly [thank] the Lord my God, good neighbor Epaphrodite, to se you in so good a mind, and to hear so goodly wordes procede out of your mouthe. These thinges are euident testimonies of your good conscience toward God. Feare you not, the Lord hath sealed you with his holy spirit, & made you through his mercy, a vessell unto honor.9

Vainglory, then, becomes obsolete, or is seen as the positive goal of assurance, in the new Arts of Dying. Myles Coverdale, for example, lists the temptations as infidelity, despair, impatience, and attachment; Christopher Sutton gives them as attachment, impatience, and despair; Lewis Bayly as infidelity and despair; and John More as despair and attachment.10 Although Bayly reluctantly admits that doubts about one's destination may occur at death, he urges the reader to disregard them rather than welcome them as a cure to vainglory, as the medieval Artes would have done (p. 697), and More sums up the post-Reformation outlook by claiming total confidence at death as the sign of salvation, putting it second only to faith itself: “A greater token (next faith in Christ) there is not for our election, then not to stand in feare of Death” (E6v).

Presumption, of course, is not absent from the new list of sins, but it takes an entirely different form: as a false assurance that one is saved, identifiable by its vanishing at the moment of death.11 According to this view, Everyman cannot possibly go to heaven after his bout with vainglory—not because he has felt it, but rather because it has abandoned him, revealing him as a reprobate.

But Everyman does go to heaven, finally. And here the playwright has been remarkably clever in preaching the Ars Moriendi to his audience. In earlier plays like The Castle of Perseverance, the soul obtains its last-minute salvation through the mercy of God, but then God or a chorus-figure must come out on stage to lecture the audience about not presuming on such mercy themselves. In Everyman, the audience has its presumption broken down along with the hero's, experiencing dramatically the danger of relying too much on one's own virtues, or on one's own Self.12 As Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits depart, Everyman and the audience face together the unexpected and the unthinkable: the happy ending that is almost not a happy ending, and the shock of parting with selfhood.

The last shock is the worst of all. It is the letting go of our only universe, our consciousness and the five senses that feed it. It is the recognition that there is nothing more to be done, that we have lost control, that our solipsistic assumptions about our own importance are being dissolved before our eyes. At this moment of apparent annihilation, who would not be tempted to cry with Everyman, “All hath forsaken me”? The answer, of course, as Conrad Aiken has pointed out, is that Christ himself “cried his ‘forsaken’ … on the darkening hilltop.”13 And Everyman, in his final letting go, is joining himself with Christ in that final agony.

The Ars Moriendi, as I have noted, devotes a whole chapter to such meditations on Christ's sufferings. Although Everyman has perhaps echoed Christ's words unconsciously in his last shock of realization, his doing so rescues him from vainglory, forces him to turn back to Good Deeds instead of his earthly personhood, elicits an act of faith from him, and replaces him on the correct road to heaven: that state of healthy uncertainty prescribed by the Ars, in which the soul will not presume to say “yf he be dygne or worthy to haue deserued the loue of god, or the hate of god.” He commends his soul into the hands of God: “In manus tuas—of might's most / Forever—commendo spiritum meum” (886-87); and with this second echo of Christ's last words on his lips finally descends into the grave with the proper mixture of hope and fear.

It is ended. Knowledge announces that Everyman has indeed made a good reckoning, and an Angel appears to call Everyman's soul to bliss. Everything has happened with lightning speed: 150 lines from the first appearance of vainglory to Everyman's death and salvation, as opposed to 700 lines from Death's announcement to Everyman's penance. Here again the playwright shows his astuteness; with such a shock to deliver, he must deliver it quickly—a whirlwind ending that leaves the audience as stunned as is Everyman himself.

The Doctor's epilogue, then, like the last words of Fortinbras or Albany, are meant more to ease the tension than to instruct. The spectators have already experienced the moral, and as they gather up their cloaks a second time and trail out into the street, they will not be able to forget the lesson in laughter over comic Vices. Stunned and drained, they will more likely be looking cautiously over their shoulders, wondering, like Everyman, whether they “be dygne or worthy to haue deserued the loue of god, or the hate of god.”


  1. Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,Speculum 32 (1957): 722-35; Goldhammer, “Everyman: A Dramatization of Death,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 59 (1973): 87-98.

  2. O'Connor, The Art of Dying Well: The Development of the Ars Moriendi (1942; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1966), pp. 4-5.

  3. Throughout this essay, I quote from William Caxton's 1490 printing, The Arte & Crafte to Knowe Well to Dye, STC 789, since it is a late abridgement, and may therefore be taken as a compendium of what readers at the time thought most cogent and most representative of the genre.

  4. I have used the modern-spelling edition given by Edgar T. Schell and J. D Shuchter in English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes (New York: Holt, 1969).

  5. Interestingly, Five Wits shows his ambiguous nature even in the midst of his sermon on the priesthood. Knowledge has to remind him sharply that, although the priesthood. itself is good, there are some bad priests who betray their calling. This additional sermon to the priests in the audience is lost on Five Wits, who blithely announces, “I trust to God no such may we find” (764), thus showing his insufficiency as a complete guide for Everyman.

  6. Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure,” p. 726.

  7. Lydgate, The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren (London: EETS, 1931), 78-80.

  8. Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience, ed. Thomas F. Merrill (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1966), p. 49.

  9. Becon, The Sicke Mannes Salve (London, 1561), STC 1757, pp. 198-99.

  10. Coverdale, Remains of Myles Coverdale, ed. George Person (Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1846); Sutton, Disce Mori. Learne to Die (London, 1600), STC 23474; Bayly, The Practise of Pietie (London, 1612), STC 1603; More, A Liuely Anatomie of Death (London, 1596), STC 18073.

  11. See especially Perkins, Discourse, pp. 21, 63.

  12. Critics who claim that Everyman preaches salvation by works alone have obviously overlooked this turn at the end of the play. Everyman discovers most emphatically that his Good Deeds are not sufficient unto themselves if he does not have the right inclination of will toward God—that is, if he does not have faith.

  13. Aiken, “Tetelestai,” in Collected Poems (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1953), p. 299.

William Munson (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7896

SOURCE: Munson, William. “Knowing and Doing in “Everyman.Chaucer Review 19, no. 3 (1985): 252-71.

[In the following essay, Munson examines Everyman in terms of the play's dramatic rhythm in which the main character alternates between learning something and then acting on that knowledge.]

Until recently criticism has stressed the dramatic distinction of Everyman more than thematic reasons for its atypicality as a morality play.1 A recent reading, however, argues for a special connection of the play with Bernardine humanism, in which man is “an active agent in the work of his own redemption”:

The playwright, like Bernard, does not characterize his penitent's acquisition of knowledge as a passive acquiescence to a force imposed from without, but as the logical fruition of an internal probing, a psychologically intelligible ascent through three successive stages of augmented understanding.2

In the Castle of Perseverance, by contrast, man is saved at the last moment by God's mercy despite his soul's reckoning; one might add that the very prominence of supernatural and abstract machinery, the Good and Bad Angels, the Virtues and Vices, throws emphasis on “forces from without” and on moral universals, away from human agency and individual psychological process. Certainly the provocative connection of Everyman to a Bernardine humanism gives new force to its long-recognized subtlety of motive. If knowledge, however, is the “principal disposition” by which man makes the Bernardine ascent, “good deeds” is the comprehensive, controlling term in Everyman. It is central to Everyman's summary before his stepping into the grave (869), to Knowledge's own commentary (889), and to the Doctor's final address (907).3 It is Good Deeds who introduces Knowledge to Everyman, and it is Good Deeds who accompanies Everyman into the grave. The account developed here of Everyman's interaction with God reads Good Deeds, finally, as an epitome of Everyman himself.

Knowing is not only a human function in the play but a provisional one, often inadequate and at best incomplete. Everyman frequently errs, and his expectations fail him in not just one, but two, desertions by friends. There is a process of act, learning, and corrected act which, repeated, forms a dramatic rhythm. This process depends on an interplay between intellectual and volitional components, between knowing and doing. Everyman's first appearance when stopped by Death announces the issues of going and knowing:

… Whyder arte thou goynge
Thus gayly? …
Why askest thou?
Woldest thou wete?


His progress begins when his unreflective and misdirected will is challenged and he must admit, “I wote not well what for to do” (195). At first he acts defensively, but by the end he has learned his relation to God and can act rather than react, going to death with an optimal strength and inwardness. The result is an integration of what is variously called, on the one hand, knowing, seeing, “counseyl,” “cognycyon,” “advysement,” deliberation, or understanding; and, on the other, doing, going, or willing.4 Throughout the play there is a fundamental tension of knowledge and act; partially this remains even at the end, at the moment of imminent victory.

The pattern of act, new understanding, and new act shapes the parts as well as the whole. There are rhythmic pulses as Everyman sets out, learns something, and sets out again. A pulse begins with a purposive statement initiating an act and ends with a summary of its meaning; this understanding, in turn, precipitates the next act. This sequence gives the play a characteristic rhetorical rhythm: discursive passages containing doctrinal definition mark moments of knowing and punctuate plot segments. The first large sequence begins when Everyman turns to friends who betray him, prompting self-judgment and subsequent repentance. Speaking with Goods, Everyman begins to look back on himself with an awareness newly critical: “Lo, now was I deceyued or I was ware; / And all I may wyte my spendying of tyme” (435-36). Everyman's knowing is at first strictly introspective self-awareness—such awareness of what he has done, thought, and felt as he begins to show when acknowledging, “O Deth, thou comest whan I had the leest in mynde” (119). New understanding comes to accept the responsibility placed by Goods' indictment, “Thou brought thy selfe in care” (454). But now it is expressed as a theological statement, Everyman's first: “A Good, thou hast had longe my hertely loue; / I gaue the that whiche sholde be the Lordes aboue” (457-58). Everyman, that is, now understands the limitations of what he has previously relied upon, the significance of his past purposes. Recapitulating his encounters, he summarizes this past and enlarges upon its theological meaning by admitting the peril of hell and assuming self-blame (465-78). His knowledge is now acquired self-knowledge in the theological framework of divine judgment.

But understanding of responsibility for misplaced love and of the danger of hell is also prospective; understanding always occurs in the context of the necessity for acting. The summary in which Everyman acknowledges blame is prompted by his query,

O, to whome shall I make my mone
For to go with me in that heuy iournaye?


And this leads to his being able to turn to Good Deeds:

Of whome shall I now counseyll take?
I thynke that I shall neuer spede
Tyll that I go to my Good Dede.


Everyman's going to Good Deeds begins the second large subdivision of the play, which takes him through the acts of confession, penance, restitution, almsgiving, eucharist, and extreme unction. In penance he achieves a feeling and active love based on recognition of Christ's own compassionate suffering for man; he turns this outward to mankind in restitution and almsgiving, and then receives God's grace in the eucharist and last unction. The conspicuously discursive discussion of the sacraments concludes this phase.

It now seems that Everyman both knows what to do and is able to do it. But it is always a matter of action leading to more purposive, more founded action. So human purpose is disciplined and honed yet again in preparation for the climactic integration of knowing and doing in the act of dying. The setting off in a third section with seven helpful friends issues, to Everyman's final surprise, in another stripping away. Once this is accomplished, Everyman is the completed person, having consolidated inward purpose effective to accomplish the saving act of giving his soul to God. The last retrospective summary, by Everyman and Good Deeds, follows the crisis at which his natural powers desert him. It corresponds to his first major summary and, intensifying the expository impression by containing direct address to the audience, leaves to be accomplished only Everyman's stepping into the grave:

Me thynke, alas, that I must be gone
To make my rekenynge and my dettes paye,
For I se my tyme is nye spent awaye.
Take example, all ye that this do here or se,
How they that I loued best do forsake me,
Excepte my Good Dedes that bydeth truely.
GOOD Dedes:
All erthly thynges is but vanyte:
Beaute, Strength / and Dyscrecyon do man forsake,
Folysshe frendes and kynnesmen that fayre spake.


The following outline quotes the purposive beginnings of each phase, where an act of willing or going leads to awareness and definition (it is enlarged to include the three separate approaches to the false friends, and the middle section is also divided into two: a part consisting of penance, culminating in the revival of Good Deeds and the wearing of the coat of contrition; and a part leading to almsgiving, restitution, the eucharist, and last unction):

  • I.
    • A. Everyman approaches Fellowship: “To hym wyll I speke to ese my sorowe” (204).
    • B. Everyman approaches Kindred: “To my kynnesmen I wyll, truely” (313).
    • C. Everyman approaches Goods: “I wyll speke to hym in this dystrese” (391).
  • Summary regarding failure of friends, self-hatred, and fear of hell (465-78).

  • II.
    • A. Everyman approaches Good Deeds: “Yet wyll I venter on her now” (484).
    • Summary regarding forgiveness and contrition (643-47).

    • B. Everyman speaks to Good Deeds and Knowledge: “Lette vs go now without taryenge” (651).
    • Discussion of the priesthood and sacraments (713-68).

  • III. Everyman speaks to Good Deeds, Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits: “Let vs go with-out longer respyte” (776).
  • Summary regarding uniqueness of Good Deeds (867-73).5

The rhythm of act and learning leading into new act shapes a local texture of continuous trial and correction. After his first set of disappointments, Everyman begins a new phase by turning weakly and hesitantly to Good Deeds: “I thynke that I shall neuer spede / Tyll that I go to my Good Dede” (480-81). His confidence sinks as he recognizes her weakness, but then he summons resolve, “Yet wyll I venter on her now” (484). Venturing—acting in the face of uncertainty—is the essential consequence for willing in the forward-looking rhythm of acting and learning. It is here both a weak and a “blind” undertaking: Everyman does not seem to be able to find her. Good Deeds as a dramatic character then voices the moment awareness arises out of volition. She crystallizes perception by locating herself: “Here I lye, colde in the grounde” (486). But this is more than a simple fulfillment of effort because Good Deeds corrects Everyman: she is able to speak (although he is right that she cannot move).

Good Deeds also extends Everyman's perception by suggesting a theological cause for her weakness: “Thy synnes hath me sore bounde.” Such interpretation is controlled by the immediate context of Everyman's progress in self-understanding: in the preceding speech he had merely acknowledged that he was “worthy to be blamed” and that he hated himself (477-88). Enhanced theological awareness precipitates a stronger reaction—fear—than the previous sinking of heart (“alas”), but also new (though facile) hope:

O Good Dedes, I stande in fere!
I must you pray of counseyll,
For helpe now sholde come ryght well.


Finally, Good Deeds makes Everyman's emerging perception both fuller theologically and more explicit as “understanding”:

Eueryman, I haue vnderstandynge
That ye be somoned a-counte to make
Before Myssyas, of Iherusalem kynge.


This prompts the next action, “Therefore I come to you my moone to make. / I praye you that ye wyll go with me” (496-97). In a unit as brief as a dozen lines the method of the play is reflected: the initial act has issued in perception, emotion, and a new act.

Everyman's request begins a new small unit of action and further correction. To Good Deeds' polite statement that she would go with him but cannot stand, Everyman returns to the flippancy which marked his first meeting with Death: “Why, is there ony thynge on you fall?” (499) Good Deeds nurtures Everyman's self-awareness by replying with continuing politeness but also with irony which puts the responsibility back on him, “Ye, syr, I may thanke you of all” (500). Shown the books of “workes and dedes” unhappily underfoot, Everyman is quickly sobered, “Our Lorde Iesus helpe me! / For one letter here I can not se” (506-07). Everyman begins to be aware of his own blindness, an awareness which he then pushes to a new stage of theological definition and clarity:

Good Dedes, I praye you helpe me in this nede,
Or elles I am for euer dampned in dede;
Therfore helpe me to make rekenynge
Before the Redemer of all thynge,
That Kynge is, and was, and euer shall.


His understanding of judgment has here progressed to expand the reference to “Myssyas, of Iherusalem kynge” to stress the King's redeeming as well as judging nature. This makes possible a softening of Good Deeds' rebuke into sympathy: “Eueryman, I am sory of your fall, / And fayne wolde I helpe you, and I were able” (514-15). Now it is, after correction and clarification, that Everyman can change his request that Good Deeds go with him and, instead, ask, “Good Dedes, your counseyll I pray you gyue me” (516).

When Everyman changes his request from help to counsel, Good Deeds introduces her sister Knowledge. Introducing Knowledge by name is to raise to explicitness the process of learning which has preceded through trial and correction. Indeed, the first of the three major sections of the drama has centered on correction of Everyman's shallow understanding, his belief in the facile assurances of false friends. He now knows that he is subject both to divine judgment and the promise of salvation, but he needs also to know what to do about it (he must “make rekenynge”). Knowledge gives him this practical counsel: she directs him to Confession just as later she will direct him to sacraments other than penance. Underlying these associations which Knowledge has both with self-knowledge and with knowing the means of God's grace in the sacraments, there is a dramatic point: action, or going, based on knowledge is required of man. The character Knowledge provides the “counseyll” and “cognycyon” where Confession dwells, and hence is especially associated with the cognitive phase of this crucial human action. Good Deeds whole and sound, on the other hand, is someone who “can walke and go” (619) and hence is identified with the action phase. Her joining Knowledge and Everyman means that decisive acting, in addition to new knowing, is accomplished. This is seen in the increasing purposiveness and strength of Everyman's settings out. The key change in his initial statements occurs just at the juncture where Good Deeds can walk: the “I will” forms change to the newly decisive and urgent, “Lette vs go now without taryenge” (651). This latter is also Everyman's first plural address to Knowledge and Good Deeds together, and it tells us that both knowing and doing are at issue in the faithful life.

So the corrective rhythm of trial act, awareness, and new act has consequences for the central personifications—Knowledge and Good Deeds—whose names themselves suggest (among other possibilities) a psychological distinction between cognition and volition.6 In the plot seen in overview, the two usefully visualize the general relationship between awareness and act. Everyman's goal, as he says when he first sets out, is to know what to do. His initial act leads to better knowledge, which is the basis for more purposeful acts, better integrating understanding and doing. It thus takes Good Deeds to introduce Knowledge to Everyman, who alone tends him until Good Deeds in full strength can join Knowledge. After repentance the two together do both accompany Everyman. Both share in the instruction that Everyman call together his personal resources—Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits. Good Deeds appropriately emphasizes force, “thre persones of grete myght” (658), and Knowledge cognition, “Your Fyue Wyttes as for your counseylours” (663). Until Everyman actually steps into the grave, Knowledge and Good Deeds remain together.

In the pivotal penitential sub-section, two corresponding pulses of the action set side by side show the transformation of Good Deeds into his active wholeness. The play's rhythmic repetition is shaped by speech-for-speech correspondence between sections in which Everyman, in response to his overtures, learns, respectively, the dwelling place of Confession (516-44) and the meaning of Contrition (617-47).7 In the first, he asks for counsel and is introduced to Knowledge, who will help him make reckoning (521); in the second, he sets out to wade the water of penance and is met by Good Deeds now able to help declare his good works (622). Everyman responds with strong emotion to each of these assurances of assistance. It is characteristic that he takes premature comfort in his first perceptions and accomplishments and has to learn that his prospect is never simple and sure, but replete with a continuing effort which precludes his ever being “holy content” (525), as he first says at Knowledge's appearance. Everyman is certainly not yet in good condition “in euery thyng” (524), however he may feel. When he repeats his content at Good Deeds' “wordes swete” (534), Knowledge has to prod him toward Confession. Every initial act, that is, needs correction and further action—further going and willing. (Confession's subsequent instruction, too, prompts rejoicing which Knowledge immediately chastens by demanding the second stage of penitential scourging, beyond the confessional call for mercy: “Loke your penaunce that yet fulfyll” (577].) In the parallel section Everyman's first response to Good Deeds' coming must be interpreted in this context: he says that his heart will be light “euermore” (627).8 But even this will be qualified as Everyman faces more disappointment.

Everyman's emotion, however, gives foundation for the initiative he must undertake. His joy at Good Deeds' approach does, by interiorizing his act of penance, energize it: “Now wyll I smyte faster than I dyde before” (628). The venture into penance (“Now of penaunce I wyll wade the water clere”) has resulted in a new strength, a new vigor: Good Deeds' speech emphasizes capability, determination, effort—“now I can walke and go” (619), “I wyll go and not spare” (621), “I wyll helpe hym” (622)—not understanding. But the better action goes with a corresponding gain in reflection too. At Good Deeds' approach Everyman begins to interpret and control his emotion by naming it “swetenes of loue” (635). Knowledge takes over the explanation from Good Deeds, objectifying the experience, which becomes partially detached from the relatively more spontaneous emotion and act, by offering a garment “wette with teres.” At the same time she is explicit about theological significance by mentioning Everyman's journey to God. So, after act, emotion, and correction, Everyman's awareness comes to a climax as he actually asks for the name of the garment: “What do ye it call?” Contrition summarizes the theological meaning of the experience, as Confession had done for the earlier pulse:

It is a garment of sorowe;
Fro payne it wyll you borowe.
Contrycyon it is
That getteth forgyuenes;
He pleaseth God passynge well.


Everyman's state is now designated “true contrycyon” (650) because it connects Everyman's awareness of God's judgment and mercy with a new understanding of “Iesu, Maryes sone” (649). “Swetenes of loue” alludes to Everyman's new inward, emotional response to God's saving action in Christ. This is the action of the human God: Everyman had at first come to acknowledge God as “Iherusalem kynge” and only later, in confession and penance, to hear of the suffering Christ:

Here shall you receyue that scourge of me,
Whiche is penaunce stronge that ye must endure,
To remembre thy Sauyour was scourged for the
With sharpe scourges, and suffred it pacyently;
So must thou or thou scape that paynful pylgrymage.(9)


Confession speaks of God's mercy as well as judgment (569-70), but the emphasis is at first negative, on escaping a painful pilgrimage. So, having asked for mercy, Everyman still shows fear as he steps into the water of penance in order to save himself from “that sharpe fyre” (618). Penitential fear and imitation of Christ's suffering, however, prompt something more positive: as he experiences new strength and begins to absorb its theological import—“for the is preparate the eternal glory” (631)—he is conscious of being loved. He hears Good Deeds' voice and says, “I wepe for very swetenes of loue” (635). He is now both active and emotionally responsive to Christ's suffering. The scourge is thus the link between man and Christ. By imitating Christ, man comes to know love: he comes to act gratefully and feel fully in sympathetic response to the human God.

Knowing and acting are raised to a new level of adequacy. As Everyman moves to a more reflective command of his new strength and its theological meaning, he is capable of a more founded act—more inward and more active—than he was when “holy content” without the emotional knowledge of the human Christ. By the time he reaches understanding of contrition there is special stress on the act of assuming meaning—whereas he had at first simply been given “cognycyon” about confession, he now puts on the garment of contrition as a successful act of will:

GOOD Dedes:
Eueryman, wyll you were it for your hele?
Now blessyd be Iesu, Maryes sone,
For now haue I on true contrycyon;
And lette vs go now without taryenge.


Like putting on the coat, adding friends articulates Everyman's progress. The departure of Fellowship, Kindred (and Cousin), and Goods was a stripping down culminating in the first stage of self-understanding; the second large section (through the eucharist) consists of successive additions in two stages: first Knowledge and Good Deeds, then Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits.

Like the learning of contrition, adding friends is a progress of inwardness as well as of will. The false friends to whom Everyman first turns form a sequence from that resource most accidental and external, Fellowship, to that apparently most one's own (though still “external”), Goods, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits are not external helps but personal resources, the natural physical and mental qualities of the individual himself.10 Everyman's new strength of will involves a command over his own natural self. The word “will” as verb and noun rings throughout a passage in which Everyman is instructed in the activity of leading, calling, having his resources ready, summarized by Everyman's statement at the end of the passage:

Almyghty God, loued may thou be!
I gyue the laude that I haue hyder brought
Strength, Dyscrecyon, Beaute, & V. Wyttes. Lacke I nought.
All be in company at my wyll here.(11)


Everyman's gain in purpose had first an inward-looking emphasis as he learned contrition of soul; now there is a turning outward as love becomes active in the world. Having command over his natural self gives Everyman a new relation to the world. Of his own volition he makes restitution and gives alms.

This inwardly based initiative turned outward meets a new challenge as Everyman encounters the sacramental words and acts of the priest. Knowledge as verbalization, as explicit formulation, is always being tested, qualified, deepened, and fulfilled by feeling and act. Words for Everyman always present the danger of superficiality. Five Wits is subject to the potential irony surrounding all speakers of fair words since so many words in the play prove untrustworthy. Everyman had learned early to distinguish mere words from deeds: “Lo, fayre wordes maketh fooles fayne; / They promyse, and nothynge wyll do, certayne” (379-80).12 And his own words, we have seen, are corrected and tempered by action. The issue is brought to bear, therefore, even on the sacramental action of the priest, where words are boldly equated with an effective act: “With v. wordes he may consecrate, / Goddes body in flesshe and blode to make” (737-38).

Five Wits is theologically correct about the efficacy of the words of consecration, but the discussion between Five Wits and Knowledge does, in the context of this play, hinge on an implicit tension between an inadequate formalism and a deeper, inwardly founded action. The rhythm of act, learning, and corrected act can be understood as an increasingly inward and personal appropriation of acts initially more externally and formally performed. The distinction between outward act and inner feeling had been set out as Everyman gratefully prepared for his scourging:

For now I wyll my penaunce begyn.
This hath reioysed and lyghted my herte,
Though the knottes be paynful and harde, within.


Everyman obediently waded into the water of penance in response to Confession's direction to remember Christ, but this relatively formal act, directed by authority, led to the enhanced inward apprehension of Christ's love and a more fully willed action. So deeds as well as words may be superficial. The true deed is informed by personal knowledge and by feeling, just as true knowledge entails action. Five Wits, representing the five external senses, is the first spokesman concerning the sacraments since a sacrament is a spiritual sign evident to the senses.13 He reflects the bias of his nature, speaking for ritual formalism in which man's redemption is a matter for the priest who “bereth the keyes, and therof hath the cure / For mannes redempcyon—it is euer sure” (717-18). But the one-sidedness of this position is reflected in the assertion “euer sure”—so characteristic of Everyman's imperfect reactions, his premature claims. By the end of two lengthy speeches, Five Wits risks being superficially doctrinaire:

Thou arte surgyon that cureth synne deedly;
No remedy we fynde vnder God
But all onely preesthode.
Eueryman, God gaue preest that dygnyte,
And setteth them in his stede amonge vs to be;
Thus be they aboue aungelles in degree.


With priests displacing angels and with emphasis on “gracyous sacramentes of hye deuynyte” (727), Five Wits largely neglects man's (and even the suffering Christ's) part in man's redemption, where motivation, as Everyman's inward progress shows, is important for sinner and priest alike. It takes Knowledge to qualify Five Wits's statement about priests and, consequently, about what is “euer sure”: “If preestes be good, it is so, suerly. / … Synfull preestes gyueth the synners example bad” (750, 759).14

Everyman indicates that he has absorbed his lesson in the inner meaning of the outward sacrament by returning to echo his earlier setting out with Knowledge and Good Deeds (“Lette vs go now without taryenge” [651]):

And now, frendes, let vs go with-out longer respyte.
I thanke God that ye haue taryed so longe.
Now set eche of you on this rodde your honde,
And shortely folowe me.
I go before there I wolde be. God be our gyde!


This time, however, Everyman's active initiative has been qualified by the pause for his receiving these sacraments, and by his friends' tarrying.15 In a similar counterpoise of the active and passive, Everyman leads, but God, represented by the cross, is acknowledged the guide. A central paradox is now fully set out: personal strength and initiative—not weakness and passivity—matures out of an imitation which acknowledges “external” dependence; in addition, to be able to give is to be able to receive. The paradox of will is visually realized in stage action: Everyman demonstrates strength and mastery by leading his friends, but by bearing the cross (which each touches) he shows his disciplined subjection of personal powers to God's judgment and to the hope based upon Christ's sacrifice.

Knowing and acting are therefore now joined in an inwardness which is also outward in the largest, cosmic context. The paradox of will is the paradox of grace in which man's work and God's work come together. Everyman's act is joined to the mercy promised by Confession, for which Everyman had earlier expressed gratefulness:

Aske God mercy, and he wyll graunte truely.
Whan with the scourge of penaunce man doth hym bynde,
The oyle of forgyuenes than shall he fynde.
Thanked be God for his gracyous werke!
For now I wyll my penaunce begyn.


Everyman's penance, then, became his own “work” in imitative and grateful response to God's “gracyous werke” in Christ. Although Everyman did do the asking for mercy (588), he understood the ability even to initiate penance as itself an indication of grace:

Knowlege, gyue me the scourge of penaunce;
My flesshe therwith shall gyue acqueyntaunce.
I wyll now begyn yf God gyue me grace.


It was a revived Good Deeds who then came to mark a confluence of human and divine action. On the one hand, she was the extension of Everyman's initiative in wading the water of penance, testifying to Everyman's “good workes”; on the other, she voiced the gratefulness which acknowledged God's work, the help beyond human work:

GOODE Dedes:
I thanke God, now I can walke and go,
And am delyuered of my sykenesse and wo.
Therfore with Eueryman I wyll go, and not spare;
His good workes I wyll help hym to declare.


Confession had called God's mercy “the oyle of forgyuenes” (572). Last unction is therefore the fit conclusion to Everyman's penance. Mercy as a spiritual deed of God seals the human deed of Everyman. And God's deed is itself one which acknowledges the inner human motive demanded both of Everyman and of the priest who administers God's sacraments. Knowledge persists in linking sacramental action and inner motive by basing the sacraments on Christ's own experience of suffering. She distinguishes a formalistic exchange from the willing inner experience of the heart:

There he gaue out of his blessyd herte
The seuen sacramentes in grete tourment;
He solde them not to vs, that Lorde omnypotent.


So Christ himself embodies the inwardness which is Everyman's link with God's grace.16

Good Deeds clearly assumes primacy by the time Everyman sets out for the final phase of his progress. Knowledge has corrected the external formalism of Five Wits in conceptual debate, but it is Good Deeds who confirms Everyman's reentrance with a pun on “deed” which signals her dominance for the remainder of the play:

V. Wyttes:
Peas! For younder I se Eueryman come,
Whiche hath made true satysfaccyon.
GOOD Dedes:
Me thynke it is he in dede.


Such firmness combined with measured qualification contrasts with Five Wits's hyperbole with its tendency toward the too-easy certainty which Everyman, even after penance, did not entirely shed. Despite his real achievement in calling together his natural powers, he was as lax as he had been when “holy content” (525) at Knowledge's first promise of assistance: “I desyre no more to my besynes” (683). He was still too susceptible to their exaggerated claims that they would not depart and their insistence, “We all gyue you vertuous monycyon / That all shall be well” (692-93). To be stripped of such susceptibility is not to be weakened and limited but rather strengthened in action. The pun on “deed” is made repeatedly in order to suggest how it comes to include all that is in man's right relation to God: the understanding and affirmation of a truth which must be made real by the whole, inward man “in deed.” In an early example Fellowship learns that Everyman is going to death and judgment, and he calls attention to a truth (“mater”) which is to provoke all of Everyman's actions: “That is mater in dede” (248). The issue of deed is the issue of will, and even Everyman can see the irony of Fellowship's promise:

But and thou wyll murder, or ony man kyll,
In that I wyll helpe the with a good wyll.
O, that is a symple aduyse in dede.(17)


The epitomizing deed is to be the opposite of killing: it is courageous dying, the visible act which is also fully inward and knowledgeable, and the personal initiative which yet depends on grace.

In this third and last section, as in the first section, the deed is accompanied by ironic reversal: all the friends fall away except for Knowledge and Good Deeds. The departure of Everyman's natural gifts is partly a dramatization of aging: Everyman recognizes his faintness (788). But the falling away of friends is also an image of the integration of human purpose, through the process of correction, in the individual soul. Despite the fact that Good Deeds is still standing and that Everyman does have faith in a life “in heuen before the hyest Lorde of all” (799), he still exhibits some questionable legalism as he learns of Strength's defection: “Wyll ye breke promyse that is dette?” (821). He also overreacts, characteristically—“All hath forsaken me” (851)—only to be corrected by Good Deeds: “Nay, Eueryman, I wyll byde with the” (852). The final deed must be confirmed as the act of the individual man in whom knowing and doing are one.

The play finds this culmination in another sequence of stripping away. That Good Deeds alone enters the grave with Everyman does not mean that “knowledge”—awareness of all that has been learned about God as judge, redeemer, and suffering man—is not needed for the final act of dying. Instead, the reduction to a single figure suggests that the perfect act depends on a fine alliance of awareness and willing. The last three-speech dialogue of Good Deeds and Everyman begins with Everyman's summary of the meaning of all the preceding experience.

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,
How they that I loued best do forsake me,
Excepte my Good Dedes that bydeth truely.
GOOD Dedes:
All erthly thynges is but vanyte:


All fleeth saue Good Dedes, and that am I.

(867-70, 873)

In this interchange Good Deeds expresses maximum summary definition not only by surveying the action backwards to the beginning but by finally naming himself. The next speeches make the transition from awareness to act. Good Deeds voices the courage which is based on Everyman's faith both in the mercy of God “most mighty” and the complementary human resource of mother and maid, Mary:

Haue mercy on me, God moost myghty,
And stande by me, thou moder & mayde, Holy Mary!
GOOD Dedes:
Fere not; I wyll speke for the.


Finally comes the climactic resolve:

Here I crye God mercy.
GOOD Dedes:
Shorte our ende and mynysshe our payne;
Let vs go and neuer come agayne.


Good Deeds has taken knowledge, courage, and will into herself, but there is one more consolidation. Everyman himself takes on this final integration of awareness and resolve in the concluding prayer:

In to thy handes, Lorde, my soule I commende;
Receyue it, Lorde, that it be not lost.
As thou me boughtest, so me defende,
And saue me from the fendes boost,
That I may appere with that blessyd hoost
That shal be saued at the day of dome.


The perfect act—courageously giving oneself to God in the confidence of being received—is based on awareness both of God's merciful action for man (the soul bought by the suffering Christ) and the fearful acknowledgment of creaturely need. The angel promises the heavenly sphere because of Everyman's “synguler vertue” (896). Everyman has not only achieved something singular in the sense of extraordinary and praiseworthy. His virtue does become visibly one in the figure of Good Deeds, then fully assimilated to Everyman himself in the last speech. When the personifications resolve into a single figure, Everyman becomes the completed individual, with an inwardness now perfectly focussed in an act in the world—down into the grave and upward to God at the same time. There had earlier been only imperfect conjunctions of knowledge and act, and of outer and inner. But now there is minimal distinction between outward and inward, and act is based on all that knowledge can offer.

Although the play brings knowledge and act together, it is Good Deeds who is the singular virtue. She, not Knowledge, is the comprehensive figure. Knowledge takes her place to the side finally because at that moment she is the cognitive, observing function anticipated when assuring Everyman, “I wyll not from hens departe / Tyll I se where ye shall be-come” (862-63).18 What is demanded is not knowledge alone but knowledge enacted. Everyman's final speech is an act of asking and self-giving. Although perfectly founded in self-knowledge and faith, it admits fear and pain and does not lose the human tension which has been characteristic of the settings forth throughout the play. Knowledge's last speech belongs to the observer detached from the tensions of the concrete, individual action, showing general awareness of death and faith in the efficacy of Good Deeds: “Now hath he suffred that we all shall endure; / The Good Dedes shall make all sure” (888-89). But since the final act is, after all, death, an individual's venture takes place with knowledge but not with certainty—and not with Everyman's premature certainties which have been constantly qualified. The final going is based on spiritual realities, yet it is at the irreducibly earthly and threatening “here” of the grave. Knowledge gives indirect testimony to the persisting nature of human risk and of man's limited point of view by her modest statement—which echoes Good Deeds' modest correction of Five Wits—about what lies beyond any setting out:

Me thynketh that I here aungelles synge
And make grete ioy and melody
Where Euerymannes soule receyued shall be.


Everyman thus stops short of the perfection of beatific vision. Even the angel's address to Everyman's soul (only now separated from body) as “excellente elect spouse” of Jesus (894) is an invitation to a future and to one last going: “Here aboue thou shalte go / Bycause of thy synguler vertue” (895-96). Acting as venturing is informed by a retrospective wisdom and a prospective hope, but it is finally a volition which faces the fearful possibility of being lost.

Everyman's experiential, man-inclusive theology was both philosophically old—at least as old as Abelard and the twelfth-century renaissance—and more current, at least in respect to the heightened subjectivism encouraged by the philosophical nominalism of the late Middle Ages.19 However much the play is unlike other English moralities, in the context of fourteenth-century non-dramatic English literature—the ironies of Chaucer, the learning of Sir Gawain and the Pearl dreamer, or the restless process of definition and redefinition of truth in Piers Plowman—we find a generally supportive background a century earlier for a work which is at once both Christian and centered in man's temporal processes and initiatives. The play encourages its audience to see that to affirm Christian truth is to affirm the process of venturing—with its inevitable uncertainty—and of learning. In Everyman's success it shapes the understanding that a saving deed is, in the end, possible.


  1. Robert Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 53, 57. In his wide-ranging survey, Potter distinguishes Everyman as the “most imaginative and philosophical in dramatizing repentance in human terms,” yet he calls morality plays “one in their praise and demonstration of repentance,” “a single act, variously celebrated.”

  2. Thomas J. Jambeck, “Everyman and the Implications of Bernardine Humanism in the Character ‘Knowledge,’” Medievalia et Humanistica, NS 8 (1977), 109. The stages alluded to are preparatory steps in a self-knowledge phase of the total progress. See n. 5.

  3. Everyman, ed. A. C. Cawley (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1961). Hereafter, references are to this edition.

  4. My effort is to argue inductively from the play's vocabulary. Pairing, with a consequent sense of interplay, is often explicit: understanding versus making, doing, and going (492-97); “counseyll” (516-17) or “aduysement,” “delyberacyon,” and “monycyon” (691-93) versus going. This is not to prejudge the bearing of any of the subtly rationalized philosophical distinctions available to the fifteenth century, such as intellect versus will as faculties of the soul.

  5. Although it coincides only partially and yields different emphases, the division based on internal evidence of going and reflecting does not conflict with Jambeck's exposition of the articulation based on Bernardine stages of knowledge. The Bernardine ascent in broadest outline goes from self-knowledge of one's own wretchedness to that knowledge of God which is also active love (Jambeck, p. 106). Three “preparatory stages” are apparently part of the first, self-knowledge, phase: (1) the penitent's cognition of what he has done; (2) the dissipation of pride, humility for what is deserved, and recognition of Christ's mercy as the only recourse; (3) the fear of damnation and intention to recover what has been lost. Everyman, perceiving and consenting to the good, after these steps “fervently desires justice and resolves to perform the good works of active charity” (p. 109). The first corresponds to Everyman's first reflective self-blame (478); the second and third are compressed between lines 479 and 517, where Knowledge is introduced, and form the small sub-section discussed above, following. For Jambeck the crucial juncture is Knowledge's first appearance signalling Everyman's knowledge that Good Deeds as “a personal act of satisfaction” is required (p. 111). Here knowledge of self and fear of God change to knowledge of God and love to be expressed through penance, the Eucharist, and alms (p. 112). The sacraments completed make the terminus of division II; the last setting out and desertion get less emphasis in Jambeck than they do as division III (see n. 18).

  6. Michael J. Warren, “Everyman: Knowledge Once More,” Dalhousie Review, 54 (1974), 146, mentions the available usage of “consciousness' for the Knowledge figure. However, in local situations Knowledge is not limited to expressing cognition alone since she also prompts, for example, actions like setting off to Confession and kneeling; likewise the figure Good Deeds constantly embodies moments of perception. Jambeck, p. 108, applying Bernardine terminology, points out that self-knowledge involves both cognition and the exercise of will in penance. The association of Knowledge with cognition and Good Deeds with volition I do not take to exclude other meanings so long as these are not taken as definitive. Lawrence V. Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in ‘Everyman,’” Speculum, 32 (1957), rpt. in Edward Vasta, ed., Middle English Survey: Critical Essays (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1965), p. 296, understands Good Deeds to serve a doctrine concerning the operation of grace through the sacraments: penance restores a man to a state of grace so that good deeds can have value toward salvation. Such a formulation does not explain how Good Deeds can be helpful, as she is, before Everyman goes to Confession; and it throws emphasis on the sacramental acts of Everyman at the expense of others. John Conley, in “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman,Speculum, 44 (1969), 379, identifies Good Deeds with a doctrine of supernaturally virtuous friendship; specific good deeds are Everyman's reception of three sacraments, his almsgiving, and his final prayer. As for Knowledge, the more recent tendency has been to identify her very broadly: as knowledge of God which includes self-knowledge of sin (Cawley, pp. xxi-xxii), or “knowledge of God or knowledge of what is necessary for salvation” (Conley, 380n.). See also V. A. Kolve, “Everyman and the Parable of the Talents,” in Medieval English Drama, ed. Jerome Taylor and Alan Nelson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 325, 331.

  7. Compare the two scenes: Everyman (516; 617-18); Good Deeds (517-21; 619-22); Knowledge (522-23; 623-26); Everyman (524-26; 627-28); Good Deeds (527-31; 629-33); Everyman (532-34; 634-35); Knowledge (535-36; 636-41); Everyman (537-39; 642); Knowledge (540-44; 643-47).

  8. As a general characteristic of Everyman, this includes, but is somewhat broader than, the “latent impetuosity” which Jambeck, p. 115, here identifies with the overzealous charity needing to be tempered by Bernardine “discretion.”

  9. Everyman's earlier exclamation and first reference to Jesus, “Our Lorde Iesus help me!” (506) was a significant anticipation; but the change from “Lorde” to “Maryes sone” tells also the difference.

  10. Ryan, p. 2. Jim Corder, “‘Everyman’: The Way to Life,” in Studies in Medieval, Renaissance, American Literature: A Festschrift, ed. Betsy F. Colquit (Fort Worth: Texas Christian Univ. Press, 1971), p. 54, sees in the departure of the friends a psychological maturing process in which Everyman learns the insignificance of externals and reliance on his own character. Such psychological interpretation is an adaptation of a metaphysical and theological classification of goods, going back beyond Aristotle, summarized by Conley, p. 380. The ancient classification into external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul had a Christianized version, which Conley takes to accord with Everyman's: goods of fortune, nature (subdivided into goods of the body and goods of the soul), and grace.

  11. The importance of will had first been suggested when Everyman was promised, “Knowledge shall gyue you counseyll at wyll / How your accounte ye shall make clerely” (579-80).

  12. A distinction made at lines 228, 237-38, re-emphasized at 469-71, 871-72, and made in reference to Good Deeds at 483.

  13. Ryan, p. 306.

  14. Five Wits's statement parallels the eucharistic doctrine in Wynkyn de Worde's Festyvale, in Lay Folks Mass Book, ed. Thomas F. Simmons, EETS, OS 71 (London, 1879; repr. 1968), p. 121: “this is made thrugh the vertue of goddes wordes of the priest that hath power, which power neyther aungel ne archaungel hath, but only man in mynde of hymself.” However, another treatise covering reception of the sacrament adds stress on the special moral responsibility of priests, that they may be “myche more stiffeloker groundyd in goddis seruise … þenne eny oþur seculer man” (Lay Folks Mass Book, p. 123). Readings well-informed in doctrine tend to ignore the qualifications of dramatic irony. Ryan, p. 306, taking Five Wits at face value, calls the dialogue “a sermon designed to stress the validity of the sacraments regardless of the moral condition of the minister.” Jambeck, p. 117, reads Five Wits as Bernardine scientia, the wisdom which is the product of the five senses and which enables the penitent to recognize and practice the good when it appears. Everyman does need an “antidote” to his difficulty in sorting the “ephemeral from the spiritual,” but Knowledge, and then Good Deeds, provide that antidote dramatically, not Five Wits.

  15. Everyman's absence during the sacraments reinforces the sense of his being object of the action, twice described by the verb “receyue” (708, 773). Grace as the present but more-than-visible promise of this divine action upon man reaches its climax when Knowledge hears the singing “where Euerymannes soule receyued shall be” (893).

  16. The implicit view of atonement and salvation is here decidedly more subjective and man-centered—more Abelardian—than legalistic: Christ's sacrificial act is for the purpose of awakening the act of love in man. Gustaf Aulen, in Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A. G. Herbert (New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 95-96, discusses Abelard's subjective reaction, with its emphasis on what man does, to what he treats as the dominant high medieval jurisprudential model, associated with Anselm, of Christ's work of satisfaction. Everyman, however, seems very inclusive in its theology of redemption. Abelard himself insisted on Christ's human work of satisfaction as a legal recompense for man's fall, fulfilling, that is, a requirement of justice alluded to at lines 563 and 882. Everyman does follow a formal obligation to imitate Christ's example (565), which comes to include receiving sacraments; but this duty is prompted by gratefulness and leads to the more fully felt imitation, the sweetness of love.

  17. At 228 “in dede” is already linked to the saying versus doing issue. Compare 263-64, 303, 459-60, 653.

  18. The final separation of the two figures has not been much interpreted. Ryan, pp. 301-02, taking a narrow interpretation of Knowledge as “acknowledgment of sin,” explains that she is necessary only up to the moment of death; afterwards there is nothing but rejoicing. He considers Knowledge the chief guide and her importance to be emphasized by her remaining on stage. Conley, p. 380, on the contrary, gives Good Deeds primacy for remaining with Everyman, which he explains by a hierarchical distinction among goods: Knowledge is a spiritual good “by contrast with the even more precious good, the lasting good” exemplified by Good Deeds. The Bernardine model, perhaps the one most adequate to the play yet suggested, is based on cognitive knowledge and active charity (Jambeck, p. 108; see n. 5). Bernard's identification of a penultimate stage of “good works” (in a seven-stage scheme) preceding final happiness in God's presence is particularly suggestive. Jambeck, p. 119, sees Everyman's address to the audience (867ff.) as the attainment of this stage through his taking the role of spiritual adviser; the penitent thus assumes Christ's pastoral function and is purged of the ignorance which has damaged his soul's true nature as imago dei.

  19. Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951; rpt. N.Y.: Meridian Books, 1957), pp. 1-20, writes of the break-up of the high Gothic synthesis after Ockham (d. 1349), when knowledge of particulars was split from faith regarding universals and focus was on the multiplicity of particular things and on psychological processes. Everyman's subjectivity does not seem to arise, however, out of the sense of God's inscrutable will, an aspect of nominalism as background for late medieval English drama discussed by Kathleen M. Ashley, “Divine Power in the Chester Cycle and Late Medieval Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 39 (1978), 387-404. Everyman's accommodations of sacramentalism and human action, and of jurisprudential and subjective Christologies, suggest a remarkable inclusiveness of the subjective and individual, on the one hand, and the objective and the universal, on the other.

Murdo William McRae (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: McRae, Murdo William. “Everyman's Last Rites and the Digression on Priesthood.” College Literature XIII, no. 3 (fall 1986): 305-09.

[In the following essay, McRae examines Everyman's portrayal of the priesthood.]

Interpreters of Everyman often remark that when V. Wyttes and Knowlege digress on the priesthood, and offstage Everyman receives his last rites, the play exhibits the sacramentalism of the devotio moderna, the movement to reform the church from within that began in the low countries in the late fourteenth century. Since the digression preaches the enduring value of the sacraments as it admonishes priests to lead exemplary lives, it is for Lawrence V. Ryan both “theologically essential” and “dramatically appropriate” (731).1 In a similar vein, Thomas F. VanLaan reads the digression as a remedium to sin, V. Wyttes' naming of the sacraments effecting an “incantatory defeat” (472) of vice.2 Finally, in their authoritative recent edition of the play, Geoffrey Cooper and Christopher Wortham conclude that “Everyman asserts a view of man's spiritual needs which is unmistakably related to the reforming movement” (xxiii), and that the digression anticipates Erasmus, notably in his simultaneous veneration of priestly authority and condemnation of priestly cupidity.3

Although these perspectives are useful, especially for determining the priority of Elckerlijc, none ask the obvious question: why does Everyman visit Presthode offstage for the last rites? At first glance, the answer appears to involve simple dramatic economy. If, as A. C. Cawley argues, Confessyon and Presthode are identical, then Everyman's receiving his last rites onstage would in some measure be an unnecessary repetition of his earlier confession.4 But something far more basic than dramatic economy is involved here. Everyman's visit to Presthode cannot be dramatized because there are implications to what Knowlege and V. Wyttes say about the priesthood that prevent such a visit from being staged. The conversation between V. Wyttes and Knowlege indirectly records the tension in the play between its worldly outlook and its reformist message, with the result that perhaps the most important act of faith Everyman could show, his receiving of the last rites, and especially of holy communion, can never be dramatized.

The digression begins when Knowlege counsels Everyman, who now understands the importance of Good Dedes for his salvation, to receive the “holy sacrament and oyntment togyder” (line 709). This sacramentalist advice is heard again in V. Wyttes' proclaiming that the “preesthode excedeth all other thynge” (line 732) in that the priest “handeleth his Maker bytwene his [handes]” (line 739). V. Wyttes and Knowlege valorize the eucharist in a way that calls to mind Thomas à Kempis in the Imitatio Christi, the spiritual guidebook for the devotio moderna, first published some 50 years before Everyman: “For there is no oblation more worthy, nor satisfaction greater to put away sin, than for a man to offer himself purely and wholly to God, with the offering of the Body of Christ in Mass and in Holy Communion” (240).5 V. Wyttes' concomitant expression that through the eucharist God has given the priest “more power … / Than to ony aungell” (lines 735-36), thus setting the priest “aboue aungelles in degree” (line 749), echoes the Imitatio as well: “[Holy communion] is a great mystery; and great the dignity of priests, to whom it is granted that is not granted to Angels” (236).

As these passages from the Imitatio make clear, there is for the devotio moderna no higher witness to the union between Christ and His church than when the priest, in imitation of Christ, administers holy communion to a faithful and penitent Christian. It is a significant matter, then, for this allegory of every penitent Christian's preparation for death to fail to show an encounter between the character who figures for all those believers and a priest who administers the eucharist to him. Instead, when V. Wyttes ends his comments about the elevated office of the priest, Everyman leaves the stage, his absence to receive communion and extreme unction marked by Knowledge's worldly observations about the priesthood.

In extension of his earlier remarks, Knowlege initially stresses the power of the eucharist, recognizing that on the cross Christ “gaue out … / The same sacrament in grete tourment” (lines 752-53). In this emphasis on the connection between the eucharist and the crucifixion can once again be heard the voice of Thomas à Kempis. “Lo, I offered Myself wholly to My Father for thee,” Christ says in the Imitatio, recalling His crucifixion, “and I gave My Body and Blood to thy meat, that I might be wholly thine and thou Mine” (241). Yet even though he shares with V. Wyttes much the same view of the eucharist, Knowlege articulates a less fervent assessment of priests: “Synfull preestes gyueth the synners example bad” (line 759), especially when they commit the sins of simony and lechery. In fact, in his worldly insight, Knowlege expresses a contempt for simony and lechery no less profound than in Erasmus' colloquy “The Funeral,” a work roughly contemporary with Everyman.6 Erasmus' dialogue tells the story of a priest who attends a sickbed only to accuse the Dominicans and Franciscans who have also assembled there of being simoniacs whose promiscuous behavior with nuns is a public scandal. The bickering among these religious men can be settled only when the dying man assures the priest, no model of the impoverished Christian life, “you shall have money paid out to you for the tolling of the bells, funeral dirges, monument, and burial before you leave this house” (362) and directs also that “a sum of money … be divided equally” (364) among all the orders.

Although his decrying of sinful priests might seem to support Edmund Chambers' mistaken notion that Everyman is a Protestant play,7 the thrust of Knowlege's remarks merely underscores how unworldly is V. Wyttes' exaltation of that office. What Knowlege says is no foundation for a reformation of the church; indeed, none of his remarks about the eucharist anticipates, for example, Luther's arguments against transubstantiation. Knowlege does, however, indirectly voice what by the end of the fifteenth century had become one of Christianity's persistent themes, the need to reform the church from within. Yet within that reformist position itself is a tension between the lofty goal to purify the Church and the worldly recognition that the Church is inhabited by the sinful, and it is precisely this tension which opens the way for two possible onstage encounters between Everyman and Presthode.

In the first possible encounter, Everyman could be ministered to by a Presthode such as V. Wyttes describes him; in the second, by a Presthode such as Knowlege does. However, so long as the play remains true to what both V. Wyttes and Knowlege say about priests, neither possibility could be staged. On the one hand, were Everyman to receive the last rites from a Presthode such as V. Wyttes describes him, then Knowlege's condemnation of sinful priests would at least seem incongruous. That is, it might be in keeping with the goals of the devotio moderna to show Everyman, every Christian man, to receive the last rites from a character who represents V. Wyttes' lofty valuation of priests. But in this possible encounter, the play's universalizing allegory would then teach that every penitent Christian is always attended by an exemplary priest, a lesson which all that Knowlege says about sinful priests would deny. Were Everyman, on the other hand, to receive the last rites from a Presthode such as Knowlege describes him, then V. Wyttes' veneration of that office would seem incongruous. This second possibility would make the allegory defeatist, even cynical, for the play would then teach that all Christians seeking their final rites are always attended by priests who serve only their own mercenary desires, never the needs of the faithful.

A digression only in the formal sense that it marks the absence of the central character, the conversation between V. Wyttes and Knowlege paradoxically occupies the center of the play's vision. As moral treatise, the play urges upon every Christian the humility upon which Thomas à Kempis and Erasmus base their messages. Since it is aware, however, of the need to reform the church from within, the play does not ignore, indeed cannot ignore, that many priests do not lead humble and exemplary lives. In fact, this awareness explains why the playwright could not simply delete what Knowlege says, thereby seeming to eliminate the problem of sending Everyman offstage. Without Knowlege's remarks about priests, the play loses much of the force of its reformist teaching. Yet there is in that teaching an opposition between worldly insight and exalted goal which makes the positions taken by Knowlege and V. Wyttes effectively cancel each other in the sense that if either position were to direct an onstage encounter between Everyman and Presthode, the other would become contradictory in the allegory. Since both positions say much about the world Everyman moralizes, both must be expressed if the play is to remain true to the spirit of the devotio moderna. Their opposition, however, opens a gap in the play through which, in a manner of speaking, Everyman must leave the action, his departure a testament to the pressures which religious reform may exert upon the structure of an allegorical drama.


  1. “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman.” Speculum 32 (1957).

  2. Everyman: A Structural Analysis.” PMLA 78 (1963).

  3. The Summoning of Everyman. Nedlands, W. A.: University of Western Australia Press, 1980. In my text I cite this edition. See also Wortham's “Everyman and the Reformation.” Parergon 29 (April 1981): 23-31.

  4. Cawley, ed. Everyman. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1961: 35-36.

  5. Of the Imitation of Christ. Trans. Richard Whytford (1556). Wilfrid Raynal, ed. New York: Duffield and Company, 1909. The Imitatio was first published in Augsburg, ca. 1471, roughly 25 years before the first edition of Elckerlijc, ca. 1495, and 50 years before the first perfect edition of Everyman, printed by John Skot, ca. 1522-29. On the dating of these texts, see Cooper and Wortham: xxii, xlvi; J. E. G. Montmorency. Thomas à Kempis: His Age and His Book. 1901, rpt. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970: 118-26.

  6. First printed in 1526. I subsequently cite The Colloquies of Erasmus. Trans. Craig R. Thompson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

  7. English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947: 64. Albeit unintentionally, Chambers correctly described himself when he wrote, “I am no theologian, but the strong emphasis on Good Deeds seems to me to suggest a Protestant temper rather than a Catholic one.”

Ron Tanner (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Tanner, Ron. “Humor in “Everyman and the Middle English Morality Play.” Philological Quarterly 70, no. 2 (spring 1991): 149-61.

[In the following essay, Tanner refutes critics who claim that Everyman lacks humor, pointing to the dramatic irony of the work.]

Nothing in the canon of English drama sounds more dreary or uninviting than the “morality play.” As W. R. Mackenzie observes, “While we may find ourselves approving highly of the conditions in life which are the results or natural accompaniments of morality, we feel something peculiarly unlovely in the connotations of the term itself.”1 If the morality play is ignored or avoided by most students and general readers nowadays, as it seems to be, its neglect is due to this: short of sermons, no other form of literature is so unequivocally preachy. Yet this view of moralities as serious, dull, and didactic is a misconception sustained, especially among students, by a single play, Everyman—the most anthologized, and consequently the most popular, morality in the English language.2 If anyone has read a morality, it has most likely been this one, which, writes Mackenzie, “has not a glint of humor.”3 On the whole, other critics concur. E. Hamilton Moore, for instance, asserts that Everyman never deviates into humor.4 But, adds J. B. Trapp, reassuringly, in a widely used anthology, “Not all the moralities are as somber and unrelieved” as this one.5 What are readers to make of such statements? Other moralities are somber but offer some relief?

The fact is that the other extant Middle English moralities, like most forms of English drama, have their fair share of wit, farce, satire, and even profanity; and, indeed, most critics admit as much.6 Yet, surprisingly, most see Everyman as the exception.7 I say surprisingly because Everyman is clearly not “unrelieved.” In the first 380 lines, it offers three humorous scenes—Everyman's attempted negotiations with Death; and his conversations first with Fellowship, then with Kindred and Cousin: scenes which show humor used much as it is in other Middle English moralities. My aim in this essay, then, is to rehabilitate Everyman somewhat by showing its relationship specifically to two contemporary moralities, Mankind and Youth, and by implication to others. I choose these two plays because, when considered together with Everyman, they display the range of humor to be found in Middle English moralities, from the bawdiest and most profane humor of Mankind to the most modest variety of Everyman, with Youth somewhere in between.8 Moreover, these three plays may be seen as loosely related in theme, presenting the sequence of humankind's progress from youth to the grave.

The playwrights' main instrument of humor in these plays is irony, particularly dramatic irony. The psychological advantage of dramatic irony is that it allows the audience to see or understand things the play's characters do not see or cannot understand. It creates a sense of collusion between the audience and the playwright or narrator.9 And, as a consequence, the audience may feel superior to the ignorant characters. The effect of this superiority is twofold: it decreases viewers' resistance to the fictive world, thus drawing them in; and it engenders sympathy in the audience for the ignorant character, who blunders blindly into trouble. This is precisely the kind of irony at work in Everyman, for the play begins by offering a private audience with God. Certainly no other scene would do as much to engender a sense of privilege in the viewer. The audience sees first hand that God is determined to call “Everyman to a general reckoning.” From the start, then, the audience knows the rules of the game—they are witness to the assertion that, no matter what, God will have His way. Consequently, when Everyman glibly disregards God's injunction, carried by Death, His emissary, the audience may well be surprised, anxious, and slightly amused. For, clearly Everyman is not abiding by the rules: he is not taking Death seriously. Very ironic. The viewer can only shake his or her head in disgust, worrying over Everyman's willfulness.

What makes the exchange between Death and Everyman humorous is Everyman's attempts at negotiation. First he asks for an extension of time, then he tries to bribe Death: “Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, / And defer this matter till another day” (12-13). As Death makes clear, it is ridiculous to attempt such bargains. This is the end, after all. Upon hearing Death say, “Come hence, and not tarry,” the medieval viewers were very likely shaking their heads over Everyman's plight. Yet—stubborn man!—he does not give up, now asking for a twelve-year respite that “my counting-book I could make so clear” (136). He is like an obstinate child and the audience cannot help but think him foolish, for he still does not see things as they are. Half-amused, half-disgusted, viewers may now recall God's words earlier in the play: “the people be so blind, / Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God” (5-6). Certainly Everyman is proving Him right. “Now, gentle Death,” says Everyman, still hoping to slip away, “spare me till tomorrow.” The humor here is that Death is anything but gentle or noble: one has only to imagine the ghastly figure of death looming over the now flattering Everyman to appreciate the irony. Everyman's words are doubly ironic since his request for respite has dwindled from twelve years to only one day.

This first scene raises two questions: How might medieval productions have portrayed Death on stage? and how might an actor have played Everyman? As Phoebe Spinrad observes, in a recent article, “Everyman's original audience would undoubtedly have been struck even more forcefully than we are by the incongruity of the scene—as though the heroine in one of our own horror films were to tell the crazed and blood-splattered monster not to interrupt her in the middle of her favorite television program.”10 It is very likely that the medieval audience was as tickled by all of this as horrified. Indeed, it is the very aspect of horror in Death that makes the scene potentially humorous, for how can Everyman have the nerve to cavil as he does so persistently? His gall is almost admirable, and it may set a standard for similar comic exchanges later in English drama (cf. Falstaff's exchange with Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I, lines 151-96). Yet Spinrad sees nothing humorous in the incongruity she points to. It is interesting to note, on the other hand, that another critic, when discussing the play not as literature but as performance, stresses the humor of the scene.11 This suggests that, in production, the humor of Everyman is more evident since the actors are compelled to make something of the characters who, if played as mere abstractions, would be theatrically uninteresting, if not downright boring.12 Perhaps, then, critical considerations of Everyman would allow more humor if viewed in terms of acting or at least in terms of production values, for surely this is how most playwrights view their work.

Once left alone, with the threat of Death's imminent return, Everyman is now faced with the challenge of convincing others to accompany him on his final journey. This search for help is the impetus for the remaining action and it keeps viewers on-edge: How will Everyman prepare to meet his maker? The search for help also creates a great ironic mechanism since Everyman's request for company in death is the last thing anyone would expect from him. Hence, when Fellowship comes to cut the cards with Everyman, the viewers know the deck is loaded, and they cannot help but smile as jovial Fellowship enters hale and hearty, saying, “If any thing be amiss, I pray thee me say, / That I may help to remedy” (208-9). The subsequent accumulation of Fellowship's avowals of friendship is so great that it is clear the playwright is wringing the scene for every ounce of irony. Fellowship, for instance makes no less than seven promises of help before he learns of Everyman's problem. In short, the scene is plainly orchestrated for humorous effect. Lines 213-32 are the choicest:

My true friend, show to me your mind;
I will not forsake thee to thy life's end
In the way of good company.
That was well spoken, and lovingly.
Sir, I must needs know your heaviness …
If any have you wronged, ye shall revenged be,
Though I on the ground slain for thee,
Though that I know before that I should die.
Verily, Fellowship, gramercy.
Tush! by thy thanks I set not a stree
Show me your grief, and say no more.

Fellowship's boasts of friendship are too good to be true. Indeed, most viewers would suspect such hyperbole, and upon hearing such claims as “ye shall revenged be / Though I on the ground slain for thee,” most would no doubt smirk or smile, in the knowledge that this speaker would soon be given the harrowing opportunity to make good his promises. The humor of the scene is underscored by Everyman's uncharacteristic reticence: “That was well spoken, and lovingly,” he says, as if a little sheepish. He is sheepish, one imagines, because he is hopeful and desperate and as selfish as Fellowship will prove to be, baiting Fellow ship, allowing him to speak at length so as to commit himself.

If the scene were not played out to such length, one could argue that it has “not a glint of humor,” but when Fellowship says, “For, in faith, and thou go to hell, / I will not forsake thee by the way!” (233-34), who cannot smile? Most viewers know that Fellowship is simply mouthing conventional, empty assertions of friendship—he would never accompany anyone to hell. Yet, unbeknownst to him, this seems to be where his friend Everyman is headed. One can imagine medieval viewers clucking their tongues and nodding knowingly from neighbor to neighbor after witnessing such a scene. Their anticipation of the braggart's just desserts is rewarded when Fellowship, horrified by Everyman's revelation, quickly retracts his offer: “I will not go that loath journay— / Not for the father that begat me!” (268-69). To augment the play's lesson, as well as Everyman's disappointment, Fellowship recasts his offer, telling Everyman that he will gladly accompany him in revelry and wenching (273-74) or even in murder (281-82) but in nothing else.

This scene cues the audience to watch for humorous irony in Everyman's subsequent encounters with worldly figures. Hence, later, when Cousin tells Everyman, “[W]eet you well, we will live and die together” (324), the audience may very well snicker, fully privileged with the truth of the matter: nobody like this will go to death with Everyman.

Similar dramatic irony is at work in Youth, where it is clear that Youth is too rash and too naive to see—as the audience does—the way of God and the goodness of Charity. Immediately after Charity has opened the play with his own introduction, for example, Youth bursts onstage: “Aback, fellows, and give me room, / Or I shall make you to avoid soon!” (39-40). A boisterous hothead, Youth is clearly on the path to self-destruction. The inferiority of his understanding allows the viewers, again, a sense of privilege. In great part, it is this feeling of superiority that keeps them watching the play, because they may derive both a gratifying share of self-satisfaction and entertainment from witnessing the central character's foolish behavior.

The most illustrative example of dramatic irony in Youth occurs near the play's end, when Charity says,

          [A]mend that thou hast miswrought,
That thou mayest save that God hath bought.
What say ye, Master Charity?
What hath God bought?
By my troth, I know not
Whether he goeth in black or white.
He came never in at the stews,
Nor in any place where I do use.
Iwis, He bought not my cap
Nor yet my jolly hat.
I wot not what He hath bought for me;
And He bought anything of mine,
I will give Him a quart of wine
The next time I Him meet.


The literal-minded Youth sounds silly without meaning to. He is so caught up in the temporal world, he cannot imagine anything beyond. Medieval audiences no doubt found such an exchange quite enjoyable since it flattered their understanding and their own sense of charity, allowing them both to laugh at Youth and to pity him for his stupidity. The play is full of such examples of Youth's blindness. At one point, for instance, he says to his new-found friend, Riot, “Thou art stable and steadfast of mind, / And not changeable as the wind” (246-47). When Youth's new servant, Pride, promises, “If ye will be ruled by me, / I shall bring you to high degree” (334-35), the irony is great indeed, for suddenly Youth becomes his servant's servant. Pride will bring youth to a high degree, the audience knows, but it is a height observed only in Youth's own fancy. And so Youth sinks lower and lower as the play progresses, while the audience delights in the humor of his naiveté and finds instruction implicit in his bad example.

Although Youth has more wit and verve than Everyman, his thick-headed exchanges with Charity are akin to Everyman's exchange with Death. In both cases human understanding is stubbornly deficient. When, for example, Charity tells Youth, “When thou was bond, He made thee free, / And bought thee with His blood” (702-03), Youth protests that he “was never bond unto none in England.” He simply does not get the point, just as Everyman does not get Death's point that “it is God's commandment / That all to me should be obedient” (117-18).

Such naiveté or stubbornness is a mainstay of dramatic irony in medieval moralities. In the morality Mankind, for example, Mankind is so gullible and weak-willed that he believes, with little provocation, that his friar-like mentor, Mercy, has been leading a life of sin and is now dead. This came to him in a dream, he thinks, though the audience knows that it came to him from the devil Tityvillus, who whispered lies into Mankind's ear while he was sleeping. Upon waking, then, Mankind decides to do precisely what Mercy has warned him—and the audience—not to do, to fasten his felicities to things transitory. Knowing that Mercy is quite alive and quite as pious as ever, the medieval audience might have been inclined to shout at Mankind, warning him to safeguard his faith. But Mankind falls, of course, as mankind must.

In fact, Mankind falls in easily with Mischief's minions, Nought, New-Gyse, and Now-A-Day. Ironically, he asks for their forgiveness for the injuries he did them earlier when they were attempting to divert him from his labors. Then he succumbs to a mock trial in which his coat is taken from him and cut ridiculously short, according to the “new gyse.” Through all of this, Mankind is made a great fool, much to the audience's dismay and amusement. Medieval viewers might very well have thought Mankind utterly stupid, since Mankind so willingly plays the dupe to the mischief-making ne'er-do-wells. This juxtaposition of the naive character with the flippant, worldly jokester is a common feature of humor in medieval English moralities. “The Vice,” E. H. Moore reminds us, “is almost peculiar to English Moralities, and became in time the Fool of Shakespeare's plays.”13 Although the mischief-makers in Mankind are not properly vices, they fulfill the same humorously instructive role, creating a teasing contrast between the way things are and the way things should be. Thus, “as members of the audience,” Robert Potter explains, “we are meant to acknowledge with laughter our recognition of the common weaknesses of humanity, which being general can scarcely be blamed. In this way the morality play is first of all a liberation from individual guilt; its initial attack is on the hypocritical pretensions that any human being can be strong enough to resist being human.”14 Humor, in other words, helps disarm the audience. The humorously stupid character, as I have tried to suggest, allows viewers to feel superiority and superiority enables them to feel charitably sympathetic, which, in turn, diminishes their psychological resistance to the lesson of the play; and so, finally, viewers may admit that while they are not so stupid as the play's characters, they themselves do make similar mistakes.

The undercutting contrast created by the juxtaposition of a serious character with a flippant jokester certainly augments, through humor, the entertainment value of the comedy. But, as I will argue shortly, humor in medieval English moralities is almost always instructive and not simply a means of sugar-coating the lesson. After Mercy's long, dull, forty-four line sermon at the beginning of Mankind, for example, viewers may welcome Mischief's appearance as Mischief mocks the somber, pedantic Mercy. To some degree it is satisfying to see Mercy's pontification deflated. And certainly such acts of deflation lend the play more life, a tug-of-war of sorts between the good and the bad. Consider a similar scene, at the beginning of Youth, when Youth—acting like a vice—uses Charity as a foil after Charity tells Youth he should change his ways so that one day he may see God. “What, sirs, above the sky?” replies Youth. “I had need of a ladder to climb so high. / But what and the ladder slip? / … I may fortune to break my neck, / And that joint is ill to set. / Nay, nay, not so” (96-103). Youth's wit may be dull, but it is more welcome than Charity's dour seriousness. In other words, in small doses, the vices may seem to be good-hearted company and so viewers may be willing, at least for a while, to identify with them. And thus, perhaps unwittingly, the viewers have joined the vices in an unholy alliance called “entertainment.” It is no accident that at some point the playwright encourages such an alliance, because “though amusing at first, the vices [and the characters who act like vices] quickly become insufferable. Their banter, their unwillingness to allow anything to be taken seriously … rapidly palls as it does in real life.”15 Consequently, as the vices are undermined, so are the viewer's irreverent inclinations: thus viewers are implicitly reprimanded and made ready to accept the temperance of the play's lesson.16

Just as Mankind plays the foil to Nought, New-Gyse, Now-A-Day, and Mischief when they try him in their comedic court, so does Everyman play the foil to his worldly would-be friends, Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousin. In his exchange with Fellowship, for example, Everyman makes only brief responses, most of which underscore the notion of friendship: “spoken … lovingly”; “Verily, Fellowship, gramercy!”; “Then be you a good friend”; “Ye speak like a good friend.” Fellowship feeds from these encouragements, distending with braggadocio and, in effect, playing a clown. Even though the irony is ostensibly at Fellowship's expense, his jester role actually serves to augment Everyman's growing despair and isolation. The irony, then, is double-edged, revealing both Fellowship's vapidity as well as Everyman's plight. Though stronger, the humor in Everyman's next interview, with Kindred and Cousin, also yields mixed emotions. “In wealth and woe we will with you hold,” Kindred tells Everyman. Once again the irony is dramatic, for the audience knows full well what to expect. Upon hearing the nature of Everyman's journey, Kindred turns abruptly jovial, as if Everyman were joking, though he clearly is not: “Ah, sir, what ye be a merry man!” (352) and Cousin turns ridiculous: I cannot go, he says, “I have a cramp in my toe” (356). It is the trivial juxtaposed with the gravely serious that makes this scene humorous, for here is a man talking about his own death, after all, and these two fools are shrugging him off, as if he were only going to a picnic. “Ye shall have my maid with all my heart,” Kindred promises. “She loveth to go to feasts, there to be nice, / And to dance, and abroad to start” (360-62). Feasts? Dancing? Kindred's attitude is farcical. Ironically, however, while we may find reprehensible Kindred's and Cousin's refusal to act as they said they would—as true kin should—who can blame them, really, for bowing out? It is enough to make the viewer think, if only for a moment: humorous irony here is not an empty exercise. Finally, as if to tweak the scene, and the viewer, with one last ironic gesture, the playwright has Cousin bid poor Everyman, “God keep thee,” as if to say, “Have a nice day,” a painfully pleasant dismissal.

What is most striking about this scene is not that it is humorous but that most critics fail to acknowledge the humor, for here are Cousin and Kindred almost as jocular and evasive as the more typical vices. Indeed, just like the vices, they do not take things seriously when they most need to. Perhaps critics have not been willing to see the humorous relationship between Everyman and other medieval moralities for two reasons: their belief that humor in the moralities is extraneous, merely a means of sugar-coating the pill of each play's sermon; and their belief that Everyman is too well-wrought and too artistically sincere to admit such humor, which, according to W. R. Mackenzie, would have been disruptive and “grotesquely out of place.” Though voiced nearly at the turn of the century, Mackenzie's view—that “humor [in the morality play] could be introduced only in isolated scenes of the kind that are inserted in Shakespearean tragedy to relieve the intolerable strain of the main action”—has stood virtually unchallenged.17 A. P. Rossiter, for example, nearly fifty years later, asserted that in Mankind “there is no meaning behind New-Gyse's attempt to show Mankind the art of hanging oneself, in which the demonstrator nearly goes through with the experiment.”18 This scene is a very funny example of black humor and Rossiter misses its point entirely.

After learning that his spiritual mentor, Mercy, is still alive and as pious as ever, Mankind wants to commit suicide, so shamed is he by his own behavior, for he has sinned wantonly and lived without faith. As in all of his dealings with mischief-makers (Mischief, Nought, New-Gyse, and Now-A-Day), Mankind is an initiate and must be instructed even in this, his final sinful act. The irony, of course, is that what he truly needs is instruction not in the descent to depravity but in the ascent to salvation. New-Gyse's near-accidental suicide is a metaphor for Mankind's waywardness, which is exceedingly self-destructive. Moreover, New-Gyse's incompetence demonstrates that the sinful actually have no control over their lives—they will die abruptly at their own hands when they least expect and least want it. Humor in this instance, then, is much more than entertainment, it is actually a means of amplification, employed to mock the sinful and point up the righteous way of life.

My point is that even good critics may underestimate the use of humor in medieval morality plays. In fact, it has not been until recently that such ostensibly vulgar plays as Mankind have found serious reception among literary critics. In the anthology Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, for example, the editor, Joseph Adams, expurgated certain “unprintable” parts of Mankind, which he believed a writer “merely reworked [from] an earlier more serious morality, eliminating the moral element, and accentuating in his own way the comic features.”19 Entertainment was the reviser's only aim, in other words. But recently such critics as Robert Potter have acknowledged that Mankind is an unified and ingenious work.20 Michael Kelly, for example, in his study, Flamboyant Drama, does an impressive job of showing that the humorous incidents in Mankind make religious doctrine concrete and immediate.21 I would suggest, then, that as many critics have underestimated the humor of Mankind, so have they overestimated the seriousness of Everyman. Perhaps some critics have been reluctant to see anything humorous in Everyman—with the exception of the blatant I've-cramped-my-toe example—because to do so would be to undermine the artistic integrity of the play, which has long been thought serious, streamlined, and, in the word of one critic: “pure.”22 While it is true that Everyman shows more polish that other medieval English moralities, it is true too, as I have tried to show, that the play shares with the others certain conventions that augment, with humor, the moral aim. All three plays, Everyman, Mankind, and Youth, for instance, open with an instructive introduction that cues the audience to the standards by which the characters in the play are to be measured. This information privileges the audience with the godly answers, which the central character either ignores or cannot see without guidance. The discrepancy between what the audience knows and the character does not, what the audience sees and the character cannot, constitutes the irony and humor. The characters themselves are entertaining, if not enjoyable, and ultimately acceptable, because viewers can watch their very human pain and foolishness at a safe distance. It is this distance that enables viewers to laugh not only at the characters but at themselves; for the hyperbole of each character's example makes the viewer's identification with, say, Youth, Mankind, and Everyman less burdensome: we know that we are not quite as desperate and importunate as Everyman, but in the realm of human possibilities we could be and the thought, from this vantage, is an occasion for laughter. The contrasts, then, of the horrible and the trivial, the serious and the silly, the sympathetic and the hateful, the true and the false, and finally, between the characters and the audience allow the humorous method of the medieval English morality play: a method we can find even in the most revered and most serious of all English moralities, Everyman.


  1. W. R. Mackenzie, The English Moralities From the Point of View of Allegory (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1914), p. 257.

  2. See Peter Houle, The English Morality and Related Drama (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1972), p. 37; and Robert Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition (Boston: Routeledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 5.

  3. Mackenzie, p. 206.

  4. E. Hamilton Moore, English Miracle Plays and Moralities (New York: AMS Press, 1969), p. 148.

  5. J. B. Trapp, ed., The Oxford Anthology of Medieval English Literature (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1973), p. 367.

  6. See Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (U. of California Press, 1936), p. 193; Michael Kelly, Flamboyant Drama (Southern Illinois U. Press, 1979), pp. 70-71; Mackenzie, The English Moralities, pp. 261-262; Potter, The English Morality Play, pp. 343-35; Edgar Schell and J. D. Shuchter, eds., English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. ix; J. A. Somerset, Four Tudor Interludes (London: The Athlone Press, 1974), p. 4; and Glynne Wickham, The Medieval Theatre (Cambridge U. Press, 1987), p. 119.

  7. As Robert Potter points out in A Companion to Medieval Theatre, ed. Ronald Vince (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), p. 249: Everyman is considered by most scholars to have been a “direct translation of the Dutch play Elckerlijc,” and this “helps account for its unique qualities, among English moralities, of classical restraint and formality.” If we believe that the comedic conventions of Dutch drama were different from those of the English or that the English translation did not incorporate comedic conventions favored by the English, we may easily accept Everyman as exceptional. However, Merle Fifield reminds us, since the moralities written and performed in England, France, and the Lowlands at this time “meet a single definition of the genre and develop their morals by identifiable and parallel techniques,” we may assume that some dramatic conventions were common to this “community of morality plays.” I would suggest, then, that even if Everyman is more Dutch than English, its comedic use of irony is as common to English drama as to Dutch drama. See Fifield's “The Community of Morality Plays” in The Drama in the Middle Ages, ed. Clifford Davidson, et al. (New York: AMS Press, 1982), p. 287.

  8. All excerpts are taken from the modernized editions of the following texts: Everyman from J. B. Trapp, ed., The Oxford Anthology of Medieval English Literature, pp. 399-411; Mankind from John Manly, ed., Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1897), pp. 315-52; and Youth from Edgar Schell and J. D. Shuchter, eds., English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), pp. 141-65.

  9. See Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (U. of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 304.

  10. Spinrad, “The Last Temptation of Everyman,PQ 64 (1985), p. 189.

  11. Carolyn Van Dyke, “The Intangible and its Image: Allegorical Discourse and the Cast of Everyman,” in Acts of Interpretation: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Mary Carruthers and Elizabeth Kirk (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1982), p. 315.

  12. “In other words,” writes Natalie Crohn Schmitt, “in production the figures are experienced as far more real than a reading suggests.” See Schmitt's “The Idea of a Person in Medieval Morality Plays” in Drama in the Middle Ages, ed. Clifford Davidson, et al., pp. 304-15.

  13. Moore, p. 162

  14. Potter, The English Morality Play, pp. 35-36.

  15. Stanley Kahrl, Traditions of Medieval English Drama (London: Hutchinson & Company, 1974), p. 117.

  16. Schell and Shuchter, p. ix.

  17. Mackenzie, p. 256.

  18. A. P. Rossiter, English Drama From Early Times to the Elizabethans (New York: Hutchinson House, 1950), p. 100.

  19. Adams, ed., Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (Cambridge, Massachusettes: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924), p. 304.

  20. Potter, The English Morality Play, p. 55.

  21. Kelly, pp. 64-93.

  22. Cf. Hardin Craig, “Morality Plays” in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton U. Press, 1974), pp. 531-32.

David Mills (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9280

SOURCE: Mills, David. “The Theaters of “Everyman.” In From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama, edited by John A. Alford, pp. 127-49. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Mills argues that the success and effectiveness of Everyman lies in the “skillful allusions to a range of different kinds of drama and allegory.”]

Everyman occupies a special place in the revival of medieval drama in England in the twentieth century. The success it has enjoyed since the time of Edward Poel's revival of the play at London's Charterhouse in 1901 has not only made it, in the words of Arnold Williams, “the morality play best known and most widely performed in modern times”;1 its repeated revivals have also shaped the popular idea of the morality play and set a standard by which other plays in that nebulous genre are judged. Students of medieval drama, however, accept that Everyman is, as Williams said, “decidedly atypical.” Williams emphasized two of the unusual features of the text—“its high serious tone” which set it apart from most contemporary English works, and its use of the pilgrimage motif (1961, 160-61). But behind the text lay problems of immediate and ultimate sources that concerned Williams as well as other critics.

Williams felt a tension between the play's moral philosophy and its ultimate source. As A. C. Cawley puts it, “Its teaching is a product of Western Christendom, its fable a product of the Buddhist East.”2 Williams thought that the Buddhist fable contained elements not readily assimilated into Christian belief. However, as Alan J. Fletcher has noted in discussing a particularly dramatic sermon analogue, “imported though Everyman may be, to an English audience its narrative would probably not have come entirely as a surprize,” while Thomas J. Jambeck has stressed the importance of Bernardine theology to an understanding of the play.3 Supplementing the list of sources and analogues in Cawley (1961, xvi-xix), these and other studies suggest that the tensions felt by Williams were not those of the contemporary audience or readership of Everyman.

As for the immediate source of the play, Williams accepted Henry de Vocht's arguments that the Dutch play Elckerlijc was a translation of Everyman, whereas scholars are now inclined to accept the view of E. R. Tigg that Everyman is a translation from the Dutch, with some modifications.4 We know considerably more about Elckerlijc than about Everyman.5 It was written by a certain Peter van Diest about 1470 and was the prize-winning play in a Rederijker play-competition held in Antwerp about 1485. The play thus originates in a cultural and theatrical context different from that found in England, and the act of translating, “carrying across,” this text into the society and theater of England had potentially significant implications for its interpretation.

In relocating the play in the English dramatic tradition, the scholar must admit the possibility that the impulse behind the translation was literary and devotional and that the text was intended for private reading, not for theatrical performance. Some support may be given to this view by the description of it as a “treatyse … in maner of a morall playe” (Cawley, Everyman, 1) in the heading to Skot's edition. Since four editions of the text are extant from the early sixteenth century, it seems to have been in wide demand.6 Coming from a part of Europe where religious controversy was strong, the text can readily be regarded as a contribution to the pamphleteering debates of the English Reformation. Though Cawley felt that, despite its date, Everyman seemed “untouched by either Renaissance or Reformation,” Bevington is surely correct in describing it as “designed for a crisis.”7 Its confident affirmation of the centrality of the Catholic church, its priesthood and sacraments to the salvation of humankind seems to predicate an active but unstated opposition to such claims. The play addressed a central area of contemporary controversy and derived a topicality that is lost in a modern revival. As C. J. Wortham says in placing the plays in their contexts of religious controversy, while “Elckerlijc is ante-Reformation, Everyman is anti-Reformation.”8

It is, of course, possible that the play was brought to England in the repertory of one of the groups of English players who are known to have toured in the Low Countries, or that it was commissioned as a translation for a company by an English patron who had witnessed the play abroad. Even if this were not the case, the casting of the “treatyse” in the form of a play invites the reader imaginatively to recreate the text and respond to it in terms of contemporary English staging conditions. It is my purpose in this essay to argue that Everyman's appeal and power result in large measure from the accommodation of familiar elements of performance to its metaphoric strategy, redesignating its acting spaces and drawing upon a variety of dramatic and allegorical modes.


In the form in which it appears in the Dutch original, Everyman is a framed play. The action of Everyman's journey begins and ends at the heavenly locus

He thynketh on the in the heuenly spere


O gracyous God in the hye sete celestyall


God seeth thy lyuynge in his trone aboue


Now shalte thou in to the heuenly spere


—which not only provides a visual and symbolic point of reference but also lends concrete expression to metaphorical usages such as “the hye Iuge” (245), “the hyest Iupyter of all” (407). The most economical situation for this locus is above the House of Salvation, giving point to Everyman's prayer from the House (581-96). The line “O eternall God / O heuenly fygure” (581, italics mine) may suggest a distinction between God and the actor representing him. That God is an observer of the action that he has instituted in human affairs and is thus author and spectator of a play of his own creation is a a recurrent device of medieval theater, though exploited in an unusual way in Everyman.

Everyman takes from Elckerlijc the moralistic commentary upon the action that is offered by Knowledge toward the end of the play. But Everyman's journey is completed only after that commentary, and the play ends with a spectacular conclusion in which angels welcome the redeemed soul into heaven with music (“Me thynketh that I here aungelles synge” [891]). The historical action ends, as it began, in the heavenly sphere, with Everyman's journey visibly complete. The English translator has, however, accommodated this structure within a second, contemporary frame, which establishes the play as artifact and moves the audience to a contemplative distance from it. This frame, consisting of prologue (1-21) and epilogue (902-21), has parallels elsewhere in early drama.9 The headings used for the speakers—headed “Messenger” for the prologue and “Doctour” for the epilogue—probably define their different functions in the play rather than indicating different actors. It would be appropriate for those functions to be signaled by different costumes, with the Messenger in the livery of a nobleman and the Doctor as priest or friar.

This outer frame not only denies the drama its theatrical autonomy. The prologue identifies the work by title and locates it generically as “by fygure a morall playe” (3). The speeches suggest a defensive stance toward the play, as if fearing misinterpretation or attack. But they distance members of the audience from the action, inviting them to reflect empathetically upon what they experience, much as Everyman reflects within the play upon his own experiences and learns. Lines 7-9

This mater is wonders precyous,
But the entent of it is more gracyous
And swete to bere awaye,

suggest a contrast between the subject matter at literal level (this mater) and the edifying purpose that the performance is designed to convey (the entent). The opposition of precyous and more gracyous is more obscure, particularly since precious can have a spiritual reference (MED, preciouse, 2[a]); but I take this to contrast the visual impact of the play (MED, preciouse, 1[b] “beautiful, fair; excellent”) with the doctrine of grace that the action transmits. The warning against responding to the play as a literal, sensory experience perhaps predicates a different initial expectation from its audience.

Through this outer frame, the play becomes a metaphor for the warning that God gives to humankind. Not only does it enact a memento mori, the coming of Death to Everyman to remind him of his mortality, it is itself a memento mori to members of the audience, serving to remind them also of their common fate. The Messenger of the play is analogous to Death as God's messenger, the play the message that he brings. God's play of Everyman becomes the playwright's play of God and Everyman.

This metaphoric use of drama extends to movement and playing time. It is self-evident that the action of Everyman is structured upon a journey. The image is biblical in its resonances,10 but is found widely in other literature as well. It is also the case that in allegorical drama the movement of an actor in the playing place and his proximity to or distance from a number of symbolic fixed points or characters have meaning beyond the literal. Everyman makes this link explicit by incorporating the journey within the text as a recurrent image and enacting the journey upon the stage. There are at least two fixed symbolic points on the stage. One, I have suggested, is the House of Salvation with God seated above. The other is the visible presence of Goods at the extreme of the playing area:

I lye here in corners, trussed and pyled so hye,
And in chestes I am locked so fast,
Also sacked in bagges. Thou mayst se with thyn eye
I can not styre; in packes, lowe I lye.


In a play with so little staging information, this is a remarkably detailed account, and the appeal to visible evidence demonstrates that the presence of Goods in material form throughout is essential to the impact of the play. Moreover, Goods lies in corners. The phrase predicates an enclosed playing space and suggests that at this important point in the play Everyman has reached the end of his physical and symbolic progress in one direction and is metaphorically “cornered.” The playing area is defined between the House of Salvation/God and Goods, the extremes of grace and damnation since the love of money is the root of all evil. These extremes, however, also embrace the audience. Effectively, this is a theater in the round.

From the moment that God introduces the image of journeying (a pylgrymage [68]), travel across the acting place becomes symbolic as well as literal. Death's initial greeting, “Eueryman, stande styll? Whyder arte thou goynge / Thus gayly?” (85-86), becomes a question about the direction and purpose of life. Everyman's movements are seemingly random, following the movements of his mind, as he accosts Fellowship, then Kindred and Cousin, and finally Goods. His movement from Goods must reverse his previous direction, since he cannot continue forward. It is when he thinks of his Good Deeds that he begins his movement that will lead initially to her, then to the guide of Knowledge. His movements now become purposive. He is led into the House of Salvation to perform penance and receive absolution, then returns to the wider playing space. This movement is repeated when Everyman returns to the House of Salvation to receive the Host and extreme unction and then returns to the wider playing area to go, with a sense of world-weariness and release, to the grave.

The grave constitutes a further symbolic and literal point in the play. Whereas in Elckerlijc Good Deeds lies upon a sick couch, her words in Everyman—“Here I lye, colde in the grounde” (486)—indicate that she is lying in a grave, symbolically dead and, like Goods, unable to move. Encountering this emblem, Everyman seems to recognize both his need and the true nature of the action in which he is involved. The grave becomes the central point in his physical journey and spiritual understanding and presumably occupies a midpoint in the playing area. The text gives no indication of the form that the grave might take, though it was presumably a monument of some kind, perhaps the kind of table-tomb usually shown in art representations of the Resurrection and adopted in the mystery cycles. The resurrection of Good Deeds is perhaps the strongest theatrical moment of the play, reminiscent of the powerful impact of the resurrections of Lazarus and of Christ in the mystery plays. As Everyman scourges his body, a ritual act observed by the audience, the voice of Good Deeds calls the audience's attention back to that now-moving figure:

I thanke God, now I can walke and go,
And am delyuered of my sykenesse and woe.
Therfore with Eueryman I wyll go, and not spare.


This is a further extension of the journey image, as the steps of the strengthening Good Deeds correlate with the blows of Everyman. He cannot see her approach, presumably kneeling with his back toward the wider playing space, and must take the assurance of Knowledge: “Now is your Good Dedes hole and sounde, / Goynge vpryght vpon the grounde” (625-26). Everyman is reunited with Good Deeds and on his return to the grave, the tomb becomes both the literal grave of Everyman and the point of symbolic union between the soul and good deeds.

The play derives its emotional power not from its affirmative theology, which has attracted much scholarly attention, but from its realization of isolation, loneliness, and betrayal, which are offered as the natural conditions of existence. God sits alone above the audience, soliloquizing on the ingratitude of humankind, which has abandoned its natural love for him and become vnkynde (23). His visible isolation reinforces his own sense of rejection; he has been forgotten:

I hanged bytwene two theues, it can not be denyed;
To gete them lyfe I suffred to be deed;
I heled theyr fete / with thornes hurt was my heed.
I coude do no more than I dyde, truely.
And nowe I se the people do clene for-sake me.


The pointed contrasts of lyfe-deed, heled-hurt, fete-heed, and the double sense of suffred (MED, sufferen 1[a] “to undergo physical, mental or spiritual distress or affliction”; 7. “to allow an action to occur”) intensify the sense of indignation, while the sequence of balanced half-lines lends force to the flatly prosaic line 34 with its final pleading truely, confirming the hurt bewilderment of these lines. Humankind seeks “after his owne pleasure” (40), not “the pleasure that I to them ment” (56), preferring the life of the world (38) to the heavenly company of angels (39). The play thus begins with God's sense of rejection. Unable to win humankind's fellowship by love, he applies fear (62). Death is his instrument of fear, the means by which he can coerce humankind to turn to him.

The fear that Death instills in Everyman separates the individual from his context, stripping him of social and physical support and identity until he is reduced to his essentials of his soul and his good deeds. The isolation of the individual soul before God translates into images of social rejection and abandonment in the two sets of “friends.” The action of the first part of the play, in which he accosts Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, and Goods, is a series of rejections that underline his exclusion from that society, to his growing bewilderment and despair. The cheerful self-regard of Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, and Goods counterpoints Everyman's growing despair and contrasts with the sympathetic response of Good Deeds. Their mindless pledges to Everyman—Cousin's “For, wete you well, we wyll lyue and dye togyder (324)—and their conventional farewells—Fellowship's “To God I be-take the” (298) or Cousin's “Now God kepe the, for now I go” (377)—are grimly ironic. The false currency of language equates here with the false currency of Goods. Their failure imaginatively to grasp Everyman's plight, combined with scorn for Everyman's naivety, wins him our sympathies. Later, as the spiritually cleansed Everyman leaves the House of Salvation, we see him gather to himself a new society, that of his faculties, which, because he has summoned it, he believes he can control. “Lacke I nought” (680), he claims, ill-advisedly. The aging process is translated into a process of social abandonment as each of the friends whom he summoned wilfully departs. Despair returns: “O Iesu, helpe! All hath forsaken me” (851).

Everyman turns to God because he has nowhere to go. Nothing in the selectively constructed world of the play affords human comfort or consolation, and it is with a sense of relief that Everyman turns from it: “Frendes, let vs not tourne agayne to this lande, / Not for all the worldes golde” (790-91). The acts of charity that Everyman has evidently performed and that speak for him before God are never played. No human being shows him sympathy, and he dies without human companionship. The Earth is as God describes it, a place of sin: “For now one wolde by enuy another vp ete; / Charyte they do all clene forgete” (50-51). Dramatically, this is a bleak world of loneliness and fear.

Everyman is of interlude length and is the only medieval play of which it is possible to claim that playing time represents real time. The period between Death's summons and Everyman's actual death seems very short. The play seems to concentrate upon what are regarded as the last moments of an individual life, and in that respect differs from the lifetime span of The Castle of Perseverance. Much of the tension in the play derives from the fact that Everyman has very little time to prepare for his journey. Lines such as

… without ony lenger respyte


Dyfferre this mater tyll an other daye
Eueryman, it may not be, by no waye


I gyue the no respyte. Come hens, and not tary


For thou mayst saye this is the daye
That no man lyuyng may scape a-waye


The day passeth and is almoost ago


give point to Everyman's frantic movements about the playing place. Although the play literalizes the time available to Everyman, it also uses the brevity of time as a metaphor, both of the life of humankind and of the life of the world.

The idea of a human life as a day evokes both the contemptus mundi topos and biblical writing.11 Something of this metaphoric sense is perhaps conveyed in the Messenger's line “How transytory we be all daye” (6). As Dennis V. Moran says, “The time allowed Everyman projects the fullness of life's experience.”12 Since, as we shall see, Death's initial commission is to warn, not to destroy, his coming can be read as a subjective realization rather than a physical attack by some terminal disease. Following his repentance, Everyman seems reinvested with the attributes of youth—Beauty, Strength, Five Wits, and Discretion—and returns to the wider playing area, apparently the world. It has been pointed out that the withdrawal of these attributes is an enactment of the aging process as well as of the process of death. Dying is not necessarily here the act of a few minutes but the inevitable outcome of a process of steady and inevitable decline, and the play advocates constant preparedness, not the importance of deathbed repentance.

The life of the individual is, however, microcosmic of the life of the world. Everyman is also a play of Judgment. Its outer frame is that of the “Doomsday” plays, and also to some extent the “Flood” plays, in the mystery cycles. God's speech in lines 22-63,

I perceyue, here in my maieste,
How that all creatures be to me unkynde,
Lyuynge without drede in worldly prosperyte.
Of ghostly syght the people be so blynde;
Drowned in synne, they know me not for theyr God.
In worldely ryches is all theyr mynde. …

metaphorically redesignates the performing space and assigns a role to the audience in the manner of the cycle plays where, as here, the literal gaze of the actor-God reconstitutes the audience as the totality of humankind and extrapolates the common condition of humanity from contemporary society:

I God, that all this world hath wrought,
heaven and yearth, and all of nought,
I see my people in deede and thought
are sett fowle in sinne.

(Chester Mystery Cycle, play 3, “The Flood,” 1-4)

Drowned in sin, a phrase without counterpart in Elckerlijc, might suggest that the English translator recognized the affinity with the “Flood” plays. Throughout the speech, the blurring of the functional distinction between generalizing word and specifying name allows the combination of the general judgment at the end of time and the particular judgment that follows upon the death of the individual.13

God's concluding words,

They be so combred with worldly ryches
That nedes on them I must do iustyce,
On euery man lyuynge without fere,


would in the cycles be followed by the summoning of the angels to sound their trumpets and display the instruments of the Passion. Instead of this general announcement Death is commissioned, and at line 66 the pronoun him signals finally the play's focus on the individual, and not the generality of humankind. But the wider perspective is seen to return at the time of Everyman's death; the reference to “whan Deth bloweth his blast” (843) may suggest a trumpet of doom sounded by Death from the locus of heaven, and the reception of the redeemed soul into heaven amid heavenly music is reminiscent of the reception of resurrected and redeemed souls in the Judgment plays. As Douglas Cowling has pointed out, the song is probably “Veni electa mea,” since the first line of the Angel's speech echoes the opening of that text.14 The Angel also refers to “the daye of dome” (901) while stressing the “synguler vertue” (896) that admits the soul of Everyman on his death; and the English translator recognizes the same perspective. The concluding words of the Doctor's epilogue allude to the general judgment, embrace vs all (918), and speak of the uniting of body and soul (919). While there are significant differences between the specific and the general judgment, the play points to affinities between the two both in theme and in theater. The metaphor of time is further extended.

One difference between Everyman and the “Doomsday” plays is God's redesignation of the acting space and audience. Whereas the God of the cycles constructs the city in which the cycle is performed as the world, in Everyman specific allusions to worldly prosperyte (24) and worldly ryches (60) characterize a more restricted society, one that is wealthy and materialistic. Although the play is frequently performed today in ecclesiastical settings, the text seems rather to predicate the secular setting of the hall and to address the society within it. Pressure from this context lends added resonance to the “Doomsday” commonplace of the Judgment as a “reckoning,” itself an image of biblical origin:15 “It ys full youre syns I beheight to make a reckoninge of the right” (Chester Mystery Cycle, play 24, “The Judgement,” 9-10). The reference retains the specific force of fiscal accountancy. What is evidently a nobleman's hall thus becomes a metaphor of the world, its ostensible security the illusory materialism that is the prime initial target of the play, while the ambivalence of the accountancy image draws attention to its confused values. That image is actualized in the books of account that Everyman discovers beneath the feet of Good Deeds (or of Everyman, since he picks them up [500-8]).

The books are a property of major significance. They are held by Good Deeds, who brings them to Everyman from the grave—“Good Dedes, haue we clere our rekeynge? / Ye, in dede, I haue it here” (652-53)—and presumably carries them with her back to the grave. Opportunity exists for the illegible page to be displayed to the audience, and for the “clear” account to be displayed similarly. Such display of pages occurs elsewhere in medieval drama. In Chester's play 11, “The Purification,” Simeon's “correction” of the biblical text is emended first in red and then in gold letters by an angel and evidently shown to the audience in evidence. The blotted record of Mischief's court in Mankind seems likewise displayed, for comic ends. Books are also employed in the Doomsday plays of the cycles.16 The claim that “one letter here I can not se” (507) can be glossed from Goods' claim that “Thy rekenynge I haue made blotted and blynde” (419); the page is so blotted that the account cannot be read. Since the account has to be presented to God, it is possible that Good Deeds, who says “Fere not; I wyll speke for the” (876), presents the books to the angel after line 887, prompting the line “Thy rekenynge is crystall-clere” (898).

The “business” image is an extension of the wider distinction between treasure in heaven and treasure upon earth. Language plays its part in Everyman's confusion. The modern plural Goods, preferred in many editions, has ousted and hence obscured the force of the singular collective Good which is employed in the play. The combination of reference to material goods and to abstract virtue in the word provides the basis for ironic word play and pun—

O false Good, cursed thou be,
Thou traytour to God, that hast deceyued me
And caught me in thy snare


—where the staging polarities are caught in the verbal link of Good and God, and false Good picks up not only the duplicity of worldly wealth but also the idolatrous love of it as a false God that leads to damnation.


God's instruction to Death, “Go thou to Eueryman” (66), initially seems to lack a reference. Everyman is Anyman among the audience gathered in the space before God, and the actor Death might draw any one of them into the play, just as Death might strike anyone. Death's promise, “Lorde, I wyll in the worlde go renne ouer-all / And cruelly out-serche bothe grete and small” (72-73), suggests that, like the Virtues in the N-Town “Mary” play, he descends from the heavenly sphere to audience level, in this case, the floor of the hall;17 there he threatens the spectators with his dart (76) as he searches through them for his prey. The actor playing Everyman is either not present or—more likely—hidden among the audience, not obviously distinguishable by his dress. This easy interchange of actor and spectator is found in other hall interludes such as Medwall's Fulgens and Lucrece, where

There is so much nice array
Among these gallants nowaday
That a man shall not lightly
Know a player from another man!

(Glynne Wickham, ed., English Moral Interludes [London: Dent, 1976], 42, lines 53-56)

Death's description of Everyman as going gayly (86) seems to confirm the impression that he is the young gallant, the youthful retainer who wears the livery of a great lord and flaunts the excess of his wealth in extravagant dress. As Tony Davenport says, “Man glorifies his flesh by assuming the trumpery finery of the world or of the court, and flaunts his short gown and immodest codpiece, his wide sleeves, his striped hose, his lace trimmings, the elegant smooth tightness of his hose, his open shirt, his slashed doublet and sleeves.”18 Such familiar finery signals Everyman's social identity and constitutes an index of his material priorities, which he must subsequently shed in preparation for his scourging (605-6). It is never resumed, for, as Davenport also notes, Knowledge gives Everyman in its place a garment of sorowe (638-41), which sets him apart from the rest of the audience and marks the change in his spiritual status.

As the quotation from Fulgens and Lucrece suggests, the livery of the retainer is analogous to a costume, assigning a role and, equally important, an identity to the wearer and encouraging him to act out his stereotypical part in a self-contained social drama. Death calls Everyman into a different play, that devised by God. But the values of Everyman are those of his society. Fellowship, the first friend to whom he turns, is the collective of such gallants (MED, felaushipe, 6. “An organized society of persons united by office, occupation, or common rules of living”). He voices the normative standard of conduct for the group, from which, like the servant B in Fulgens and Lucrece, he emerges. Fellowship's values confirm God's assessment of humanity. Fellowship proposes revenge (“If ony haue you wronged, ye shall reuenged be” [218]), gluttony and lechery (“And yet, yf thou wylte ete, & drynke, & make good chere, / Or haunt to women the lusty company” [273-74]), the sport of murder (“But and thou will murder, or ony man kyll” [281]), and the love of finery (“and thou wolde gyue me a newe gowne” [292]). Fellowship thus serves to define Everyman for us. The subjective sense of his name, “the mutual relationship, or characteristic behavior, of boon companions” (MED, felauship, 3) points to compatibility and may well suggest that the two actors are costumed identically.

Such concerns suggest affinities with the Youth interludes and seem to herald a sociopolitical critique on contemporary mores and crime. The play's date coincides with the popularity of the Youth plays,19 and its affinities with the genre might therefore have seemed the more significant. Although, as Ian Lancashire points out, Everyman is a very different kind of play from Youth and Hickscorner,20 the potential for development in the direction of social comment is not only present but to some extent exploited in this section of the play. Everyman is imprisoned within the literalism of the world that he inhabits and must be led to recognize that those around him, including himself, are bound up in their own allegorical limitations and ambiguities.

Continuing to search the playing area for help, he encounters two further representatives, Kindred and Cousin, his blood relatives. To some extent this might seem to repeat the encounter with Fellowship since they too reflect society and its values. But they also offer Everyman an alternative identity to that provided by society, that of descent, birth, and inherited rank. The word kinrede encompasses not only our modern sense of “kinsfolk” but also “stock, family, lineage, race” (MED, kinrede, 1). The personification here seems to take the form of an older, established member of society. The comment

It auayleth not vs to tyse.
Ye shall haue my mayde with all my herte;
She loueth to go to feestes, there to be nyse,
And to daunce, and abrode to sterte


has the jocular tone of an older generation looking indulgently upon the pleasures of the young. The picture of a society feasting, dancing, and wandering abroad, and the use of nys with its semantic range from “frivolous” to “lascivious” (MED, nice), briefly calls to mind the errors of the spoilt child in morals of education such as Nice Wanton. In a hall setting, the allusion to feasting would be strongly underlined by the context, while the performance of a moral play would establish this occasion as distinctively different from those described. If the actors here double as the sisters, Good Deeds and Knowledge, then it would seem probable that Kindred and Cousin are also played as women, and that the maid is a lady's maid.21

Cousin seems closer to the age group of Everyman. We are half a century from the first OED example (1561) of the verb cozen, “to cheat, defraud by deceit,” but it is difficult not to suspect a pun on the word in the otherwise surprising “Trust not to me, for, so God me spede, / I wyll deceyue you in your moost nede” (357-58). While no less firm in refusal than Kindred, (s)he identifies more fully with the plight of his/her kinsman, learning from his situation, almost as an example to the audience of their response: “Also of myne owne an vnredy rekenynge / I haue to accounte; therfore I make taryenge” (375-76).

As we have seen, the final encounter of this socially focused section of the play takes Everyman to the physical and moral limit of his travel through the literal and metaphorical acting space. He has now reached the heart of his own and society's corruption. Goods stands as the material wealth that sustains their pleasure and maintains their illusions of self-sufficiency. This is a society in which money can override all claims of morality and justice:

For, parauenture, thou mayst before God Almyghty
My rekenynge helpe to clene and puryfye,
For it is sayd euer amonge
That “money maketh all ryght that is wronge.”


The section thus ends with a critical observation on the contemporary values that structure Everyman's philosophical framework. He has extrapolated from the activities of the world in which he lives the values by which the universe operates, in ironic reversal of God's true intention.

The limited vision which these empirically deduced values promote is shown in Everyman's encounter with Death. Everyman's initial failure to recognize Death may seem to deny the literal level of the action in order to make an ironic allegorical point about Everyman's spiritual blindness. Death's self-description suggests that he takes the traditional form of a dart-armed skeletal figure (76), and although he does not verbally identify himself until line 115, he does announce himself as a messenger of God at the start of their dialogue (90-91). The problem is for a producer to address, though it admits of a number of possible solutions. Death may be literalized by Everyman as a curiously costumed actor, whose serious purpose only gradually penetrates his understanding. Alternatively, Death may speak at some distance from Everyman, calling out to him (“Loo, yonder I se Eueryman walkynge” [80]) and moving round him until he confronts him at line 115. Or he may be in cloaked disguise, revealing his identity visibly only at 115. Whatever the solution preferred, Everyman responds as if dealing with a normal master-messenger relationship of a kind he is accustomed to handling. He has received an unwelcome invitation, which he is not at the moment minded to accept (101, 113), and seeks to bribe the messenger to go away until a more suitable moment (122). His attitude is that of the busy man of the world, interrupted with an unwelcome bill at an inopportune moment. His “What desyreth God of me?” (97) is not, I think, a statement of surprise but a brusque, impatient remark on being jolted out of his reveries of lust and treasure.


Thus far, Everyman has occupied a timeless present; he expects past joys to continue unchanged, and that illusion has been translated into allegorical figures that outlast the life span of the individual. Goods says,

For whan thou arte dede, this is my gyse—
Another to deceyue in this same wyse
As I have done the, and all to his soules reprefe.


Now Everyman's punning progression from Goods to Good Deeds, from material to spiritual, corresponds to his change of physical movement as he turns away from the corner toward God. In so doing, he redesignates the acting space, from worldly society to the inner world of the mind. Whereas those whom he has encountered so far manifest themselves in familiar material guises, the appearance of the sisters Good Deeds and Knowledge is not readily determinable. Though they could be dressed in religious habits, such identification would seem to link them confusingly with the familiar social world, and a more anonymous dress, such as the linen gown of Lady Holy Church in Piers Plowman, might be more appropriate. The transition to this theater of the memory is, however, less abrupt than might at first seem, for Everyman has been, from the outset, a play about memory.

God's initial complaint is that his sacrifice is forgotten: “My lawe, which I shewed, whan I for them dyed, / They forget clean / and shedynge of my blode rede” (29-30). Death comes to Everyman not to dispatch him but to remind him of what he already knows but has since forgotten:

Full lyttell he thynketh on my comynge;
His mynde is on flesshely lustes and his treasure. …
Thoughe thou haue forgete him here,
He thynketh on the in the heuenly spere.

(81-82, 94-95)

Everyman does not think that he is immortal, and he knows from the start what is required of him and his unpreparedness: “Full vnredy I am suche rekenynge to gyue” (113). Death is not simply the destroyer of life; he is the messenger of God, sent to warn humanity, and as such is also a part of Everyman's consciousness. What he brings is a reminder of mortality into the mind of Everyman.

Even the theater of society has been in part a mental construct. Everyman has first to explore the concerns that were at the forefront of his mind when the realization of his impending death came before him. His physical and spatial progress is a mental progress, leading to the center of his own priorities and beliefs, and each dialogue is followed by a soliloquy in which Everyman reflects upon the process so far, clarifies his own false preconceptions, and moves on to the next possibility. As William Munsen says, “The rhythm of act and learning leading into new act shapes a local texture of continuous trial and correction.”22 The significance of Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, and Goods is a projection of Everyman's own understanding. They are not as he constructs them. Goods, the inanimate object, states this point finally and clearly:

Mary, thou brought thy selfe in care,
Wherof I am gladde.
I must nedes laugh, I can not be sadde.


Goods is neutral, to be used for salvation through almsgiving when valued with reasoned moderation but a force for damnation when the sole focus of humankind's desires, the more usual role: “If I saue one, a thousande I do spyll” (443). As Jambeck suggests, this capacity of Everyman to be read as a drama of the inner being may account for some of its modern appeal.23The Castle of Perseverance, for example, also dramatizes a process of repentance. Humanum Genus rejects Shrift but is led to repentance by the prodding spear of Penitence and goes into the castle of perseverance to be defended by the seven virtues. What we witnesss is an inner drama; but what we experience is a play in which Humanum Genus is displaced from the center of the action by powerful external forces for good and evil. In Everyman the issue is determined by Everyman's misreadings of the world he occupies. The play's theatrical strategy denies the determinism of the Castle, responsibility is shown, both morally and dramatically, to rest with the individual.

In turning to Good Deeds, therefore, Everyman is also moving further into his own mind, having freed it from the preconceptions that are immediately present in his material environment. With the change of allegorical mode, the play has reached a point of transition. Good Deeds “exists” only in Everyman's past. Paradoxically, she is called to mind perhaps by Goods' reference to alms-deeds, that is, active charity. Hidden in the ground, she is also buried deep in the memory of Everyman. She directs him to Knowledge, who can instruct Everyman more clearly. Whereas Good Deeds is particular to Everyman, taking a different form in each individual, Knowledge is both individual and collective.24 She is what Everyman already knows, the way to salvation. As Everyman is definable in terms of his social station and values, he is also definable in terms of his Christian upbringing; he is Every-Christian-man. But Knowledge is also the collective knowledge of Christendom, from which Everyman's particular knowledge itself derives, and she can therefore survive him in a way comparable to that of the “social” allegories. She is the link to the guardian of that collective knowledge, the institution of the church, and hence leads Everyman out from one social construct, his secular world, into another, that of church sacraments, rituals, and worship.


The House of Salvation where the holy man Confession dwells constitutes a new theatrical space, invitingly present from the start. I have accepted that God's throne might be located above it, providing both the high place and an appropriate proximity to what is clearly construed as a church beneath. The entry into this structure is an act of withdrawal from the theater of society, a rejection of the values of the surrounding community, similar to Humanum Genus's entry into the Castle of Perseverance. Within this specifically designated space—perhaps an open-sided scaffold—Everyman enters a new kind of drama, a series of ritualized and formalized acts that are prescribed for him and undertaken unquestioningly under the direction of Knowledge. This is a different kind of allegory; familiar rituals and their associated symbolic objects, to which value has been arbitrarily attributed, are here translated into dramatic actions and stage properties and require authoritative explanation in order to make sense of the otherwise meaningless actions.

Within this context, physically and symbolically close to the actor-God, Everyman's memory reaches beyond his personal history of wrongdoing to retrieve the knowledge that God required at the outset: “To remembre thy Sauyour was scourged for the / With sharpe scourges, and suffred it pacyently” (563-64). This extension of memory is accompanied by an act of prayer to God which introduces a new voice of adoration into the play:

O eternall God / O heuenly fygure,
O way of ryghtwysnes / O goodly vysyon,
Whiche dyscended downe in a vyrgyn pure
Bycause he wolde euery man redeme,
Whiche Adam forfayted by his dysobedyence:
O blessyd God-heed, electe and hye deuyne,
Forgyue me my greuous offence!


This Latinate high-style appropriate to its high subject and purpose reflects in its formality the formal action of the speaker before God, and signals the ritualistic mode of the scourging, and subsequently the administration of the sacrament and the anointing. Everyman's memory now reaches into divine history, to Fall and Redemption. He has been called back to the opening vision given by God, the collectively available redemption, and the distinction of the individual and the generality of humankind has again been dissolved. He can now be “mery and glad” (623).

Everyman's unhappiness has been repeatedly restated by him as each of his friends in society deserted him. His exchange with Kindred emphasizes the recurring issue:

Alas, that euer I was bore!
For now shall I neuer be mery,
If that you forsake me.
Ah, syr, what ye be a mery man!
Take good herte to you, and make no mone!


The self-focused joviality of the speaker not only contrasts with Everyman's growing misery, but that misery actually feeds the sense of joviality, as Everyman becomes the object of amusement in his mistaken readings. The sneering laugh of Goods, “I am gladde; I must nedes laugh, I can not be sadde” (455-56), is the most deriding and cruel. Everyman is made the more wretched by what are in effect stage-directions indicating the disposition of the actors toward him. He in turn, by his indifference, has caused distress to his Good Deeds, as her reproachful response implies: “If ye had parfytely chered me” (501) (MED, cheren, 1[a] “To cheer [sb] up”; 3. “To treat hospitably”). Knowledge's exhortation therefore sharply reverses the situation that has so far obtained. Now, with the arrival of Good Deeds beside Everyman a new language of tender affection is introduced, intensified by the cumulative appellations of Good Deeds, by the mutual use of the possessive pronoun, and accompanied by Everyman's tears of happiness:

GOOD Dedes:
Eueryman, pilgrim, my specyall frende,
Blessyd be thou without ende. …
Welcome, my Good Dedes! Now I here thy voyce,
I wepe for very swetenes of loue.


After the sequence of scornful rejections, Everyman has at last found the loving security and support he sought.

After his investment with his new “costume,” the “garment of sorowe,” glossed as “Contrition” (643-45), Everyman is ready to leave the House of Salvation, but he will return to receive the sacrament and extreme unction from Priesthood (750ff). This episode has occasioned some debate. The words go (707) and yonder I se Eueryman come (769) may suggest that Everyman goes from the audience's view after the speech of Five Wits (749), constituting, incidentally, the only infringement of unity of action in the play. It is at this point that the much discussed digression upon the authority of the priesthood between Five Wits and Knowledge occurs. The dialogue is in two parts—the praise of the power of the priesthood to Everyman, and then, in his absence, a criticism before the audience of the shortcomings of priests who lead lives of public scandal. Possibly the administration of the sacrament and the anointing are carried out in full view of the audience in a mimetic action within the stage of the House of Salvation while the dialogue between the two allegorical characters proceeds outside.

This section provides a further example of calling to memory, the need to remember the role of the church in the scheme for salvation, as evidenced in the comment on the sacraments: “These seuen be good to haue in remembraunce” (726). The sacraments are reminders of God's grace to humankind and also the pathways to redemption. The speeches also stress a distinction between the office of priesthood, as allegorized within the theater of salvation and sacramentalized within the church, and the particular holder of that office in society. The ability to separate the role in the play from the actor occupying it becomes a means of understanding the distinction between the individual priest and the power which that office within the church confers upon him.


As Everyman prepares to leave the House of Salvation for the first time, he is instructed by Good Deeds to accept as companions Discretion, Strength, and his Beauty, and by Knowledge to accept Five Wits (657-69). These new companions are called onto the stage by a conscious act of mind:

Also ye must call to mynde
Your Fyue Wyttes as for your counseylours.
GOOD Dedes:
You must haue them redy at all houres.
Howe shall I gette them hyder?
You must call them all togyder,
And they wyll here you in-contynent.


Their coming heralds the final theater of the play, in which the action shrinks to that of the body. The changing designation of the playing space interconnects the two realms that Everyman inhabits, his social world of men and the world of his own body. It is difficult to understand how these different attributes might have been represented on the stage; possibly some form of costume incorporating symbolic designs could have been worn. Their gathering around him, however, marks the reconstitution of the body of the redeemed as a help and comfort in the world (676), instead of the seat of fleshly desires which work to damnation. Symbolically, this is a moment of rebirth; dramatically, it is emblematized in the return of Everyman from the House of Salvation to the outer acting area, where these qualities make up his defense against the temptations that once beset him.

The heedless confidence of the gallant on his first entry into the playing space is paralleled now by his newfound confidence in his own self-sufficiency as he reenters; he thanks God

          that I haue hyder brought
Strength, Discrecyon, Beaute, and V Wittes. Lacke I nought.
And my Good Dedes, with Knowledge, clere.
All be in company at my wyll here.
I desyre no more to my besynes.


Everyman has found a kingdom that responds to his will to replace the one that worked in willful independence of him.

He asserts this control by making his will, an action that has both social and literary associations.25 Everyman is now reconstituted in his youthful prime. For the first time his words embrace the audience as well as his newfound friends as spectators, casting them as witnesses to the will:

Now harken, all that be here,
For I wyll make my testament
Here before you all present.


The making of a will was a necessary preparation before embarking on a physical journey, but it is also the prudent act of any whose death is approaching. Everyman's will is a product of his newfound Discretion in the world and constitutes a significant piece of stage-business, a model in itself. Perhaps surprisingly, the will does not follow the usual formula of bequeathing soul to Christ and body to church or making provision for funeral expenses. Its concern is with the distribution of the Goods to which Everyman spoke earlier. Here half the money will go to alms-deeds and the other half to paying debts and making other restitution, thereby reclaiming authority over the still-visible Goods who had gloated over his fate. The will, like the books of account, may be displayed; it is presumably entrusted to Knowledge. It is from this point that Everyman properly embarks upon his journey.

Returning from Priesthood, Everyman carries a crucifix (778). Whereas previously he had been reluctant to undertake his journey, he is now positively eager (“let vs go with-out longer respyte” [776]) and expresses weariness with life itself (“Frendes, let vs not tourne agayne to this lande” [790]). With Knowledge, Good Deeds, and bodily qualities he sets off for the grave which, we assume, had been vacated previously by Good Deeds and which is now literalized. The journey to the grave is evidently what the bodily qualities understood by his request to “folowe me” (779), for at the graveside they abandon him. This enacts the aging process, which carries the young man from youth to senility. The attributes leave him as they leave an aging man—first Beauty, then Strength, then Discretion, and finally his Five Wits. They are conscious of the appropriate sequence, suggesting an unstated inevitability about their departure. Strength comments that this is the appropriate time for him to leave: “Ye be olde ynoughe, I vnderstande, / Your pylgrymage to take on hande” (817-18). Discretion says that he must leave after Strength (834-35), and Five Wits follows the others (846). The dramatization of the aging process transforms the play into a “life of Humankind” format, which realizes the physical and mental degeneration of the aged in terms of a visible social isolation. Everyman is again threatened with loneliness, the more acute because of his earlier confidence and because he—and we through him—has experienced such isolation before. Again his sense of security has proved delusory, and a mistaken value has been projected upon autonomous characters. The parallel is emphasized by Good Deeds: “Beaute, Strength / and Dyscrecyon do man forsake, / Folysshe frendes and kynnesmen that fayre spake” (871-72).

The play concludes by returning the audience from the play world to the everyday world. Everyman first offers himself to the audience as example (“Take example, all ye that this do here or se” [867]). This is then taken up by Knowledge, who steps out of her allegorical role to become at one with the audience: “Now hath he suffred that we all shall endure” (888). Next the Angel turns from addressing the soul to addressing the audience: “Now shalte thou in to the heuenly spere, / Vnto the whiche all ye shall come” (899-900). Presumably the Angel is responsible for leading the soul to the locus of heaven. Finally the Doctor addresses “Ye herers, take it of worth, olde and yonge” (903) and urges their assent to the final prayer: “Therto helpe the Trynyte! / Amen, saye ye, for saynt charyte” (921-22). These prayers seem to be made against the tableau of heaven, with Knowledge standing at the grave.

The tightly controlled structure of Everyman sets it apart from the looser structures of our longer fifteenth-century morality plays. It would be a mistake, however, to overstress its atypicality. The effectiveness of the play lies not in any one unique feature, but in the skillful allusions to a range of different kinds of drama and allegory, all familiar and established. De Vocht's claim for its priority over Elckerlijc may no longer be accepted, but he rightly pointed to Everyman's comfortable accommodation into the existing traditions of English drama and devotional writing: “Everyman is as intimately connected with English Literature as any literary document of the period” (1967, 211). It was perhaps as much the recognition of that compatibility as of the appropriateness of its propagandist theme that led to its translation. At the same time, however, the play imaginatively exploits those resources and extends our understanding of the term “morality play.”


  1. Arnold Williams, The Drama of Medieval England (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1961), 160. On Poel's revival, see Robert Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition (London: Routledge, 1975), 1-5.

  2. A. C. Cawley, ed., Everyman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961), xv-xvi. All quotations are from this edition.

  3. Alan J. Fletcher, “Everyman: An Unrecorded Sermon Analogue,” English Studies 66 (1985): 297; Thomas J. Jambeck, “Everyman and the Implications of Bernardine Humanism in the Character ‘Knowledge,’” Medievalia et Humanistica 8 (1977): 103-23.

  4. Henry de Vocht, “Everyman”: A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources (Louvain: Librairie Universitaire, 1947); E. R. Tigg, The Dutch “Elckerlijc” is Prior to the English “Everyman” (London: privately printed, 1981). For a translation of Elckerlijc, see Adriaan J. Barnouw, The Mirror of Salvation (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1971).

  5. See Barnouw, The Mirror, xiv-xvi; R. P. Meijer, Literature of the Low Countries, 2d ed. (Cheltenham: Thorne, 1978), 54-56.

  6. W. W. Greg suggests that probably some ten editions may have been produced (Everyman, Materialen zur Kunde des älteren Englischen Dramas 20 [Louvain: Uystpruyst, 1910], 35n2). The four extant editions are described by Cawley (Everyman, ix-x).

  7. Cawley, Everyman, xix-xx; David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 35.

  8. C. J. Wortham, “Everyman and the Reformation,” Parergon 29 (1981): 23.

  9. E.g., Play 5 in the Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, EETS supp. ser. 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974). See also the use of the figure of Contemplacio in The “Mary” Play from the N-Town Manuscript, ed. Peter Meredith (London: Longmans, 1987).

  10. Most significantly, Hebrews 11:9-16.

  11. Cf. Matthew 20:1-9, John 9:4, etc.

  12. Dennis V. Moran, “The Life of Everyman,Neophilologus 56 (1972): 325.

  13. See particularly Carolynn Van Dyke, “The Intangible and Its Image: Allegorical Discourse and the Cast of Everyman,Acts of Interpretation: The Text in Its Contexts 700-1600: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature in Honor of E. Talbot Donaldson, ed. Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1982), 311-24. On the general judgment, see particularly Matthew 20 and 21; on the individual judgment, Hebrews 9:27.

  14. Douglas Cowling, “The Angels' Song in Everyman,N& Q 85 (1988): 301-3.

  15. Cf. Matthew 18:23-30, Romans 14:12, 1 Peter 4:1-8.

  16. Chester Mystery Cycle, play 11, “The Purification,” lines 1-118; Mankind (Mark Eccles, ed., The Macro Plays, EETS 262 [London: Oxford University Press, 1969], 176), lines 679-86. On books in the “Doomsday” plays, see, for example, Towneley play 30, “The Judgement,” lines 134-42; Chester Mystery Cycle, play 24, lines 549-564+Latin. The underpinning biblical text is Revelations 20:12.

  17. Meredith, The “Mary” Play, lines 1215-22.

  18. Tony Davenport, “‘Lusty Fresch Galaunts,’” Aspects of Early English Drama, ed. Paula Neuss (Cambridge: Brewer, 1983), 112.

  19. See David Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 50-51.

  20. Ian Lancashire, ed., Two Tudor Interludes: “The Interlude of Youth”: “Hickscorner” (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), 48.

  21. On doubling in the play, see John W. Velz, “Episodic Structure in Four Tudor Plays: A Virtue of Necessity,” Comparative Drama 6 (1972-73): 88-90.

  22. William Munson, “Knowing and Doing in Everyman,ChR 19 (1984-85): 255.

  23. Jambeck, “Everyman,” 120.

  24. The exact reference of “Knowledge” has been much debated. Among suggestions are: “both self analysis and its product” (Allen B. Goldhamer, “Everyman: A Dramatization of Death,” Classica et Medievalia 29-30 [1968-9]: 610); “Everyman's experience of the world, his awareness of sin, and his understanding of God's mercy and grace” (Moran, “The Life of Everyman,” 326); “‘contrition’ or, better, ‘acknowledgement of one's sin’” (Lawrence van Ryan, “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,Speculum 32 [1957]: 728).

  25. See Eber Carle Perrow, “The Last Will and Testament as a Form of Literature,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters 17 (1914): 682-753.

Further Reading

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Garner, Stanton B. Jr. “Theatricality in Mankind and Everyman.Studies in Philology 84, no. 3, (summer 1987): 272-85.

Compares Mankind and Everyman based on their performance on stage and their dependence on the performance.

Potter, Robert. “Everyman in the Twentieth Century.” In The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, pp. 222-45. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975).

Considers the treatment and reaction to Everyman in the twentieth century by directors, actors, audiences, and critics.

Rendall, Thomas. “The Times of Mercy and Judgment in Mankind, Everyman, and The Castle of Perseverance.English Studies in Canada 7, no. 3, (fall 1981): 255-69.

Compares three plays and the manner in which they each tried to reach the audiences of their times, based on the beliefs that existed in those times.

Richardson, Christine, and Johnston, Jackie. “Didactic Drama: Everyman and Other Morality Plays.” In Medieval Drama, pp. 97-107. Macmillan Education Ltd., 1991.

Defines the morality play and compares a number of them, including Everyman, in order to demonstrate that they are not all the same.

Schreiber, Earl G. “Everyman in America.” Comparative Drama 9, no. 2, (summer 1975): 99-115.

Discusses the production of the play in America and how it has remained unchanged for the most part.

Speaight, Robert. “Everyman and Euripides.” In William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival, pp. 161-78. Melbourne: William Heinemann Ltd., 1954).

Examines Poel's interpretation of Everyman with respect to his production of the play.

Tigg, E. R. “Is Elckerlijc prior to Everyman?” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 38, no. 4, (October 1939): 568-96.

Argues that Everyman and Elckerlijc are so similar that whichever was written first had to be known to the author of the latter.

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Essays and Criticism