Everyman (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Helen S. Thomas (essay date 1960-61)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Thomas F. Van Laan (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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John Conley (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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V. A. Kolve (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Allen D. Goldhamer (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 6748 words.)

Thomas J. Jambeck (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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William Munson (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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”:


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Murdo William McRae (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)

Ron Tanner (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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David Mills (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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,...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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.


(The entire section is 269 words.)