God sends the messenger Death to summon Everyman on a “long journey” at the end of which he must make a reckoning. Everyman does his best to stave off the duty, including an attempt to bribe Death. Told that he can bring company if he can find anyone willing to accompany him, Everyman turns to Fellowship, who amusingly vows to stand firmly by his friend—until he learns the nature of the journey. Kindred, Cousin, and Goods also refuse the invitation.
When it occurs to Everyman to ask his Good-Deeds, he finds the latter weakened by sins and unable to make the trip, but she recommends her sister Knowledge, who vows to go by his side. After Knowledge leads Everyman to Confession, Good-Deeds is able to rise from the ground and join him.
A final set of abstractions representing bodily attributes—Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits (five senses)—accompanies him, but each leaves in turn as he approaches the grave. Eventually Everyman learns who is willing to go all the way with him to meet his Maker.
Like many other medieval works, Everyman uses the motif of the spiritual journey or pilgrimage to make a powerful statement of religious faith that also contains a warning to the spiritually lax in a period of increasing worldliness just prior to the Reformation.
Probably allegory has never worked more effectively than it does in Everyman. The play is an excellent example of the strengths peculiar to allegorical literature.
Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus.” College English 22 (October, 1960): 9-14. Kaula compares the two morality plays and the kinds of time represented in them. In Everyman, astronomical time is finally replaced by moral time with its attendant freedom, in which human beings can control their destiny.
Kinghorn, A. M. Mediaeval Drama. London: Evans Brothers, 1968. Examines the plot and themes of the play and its place in the tradition of the morality play.
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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. Examines the parable as a possible source for the play and includes a close reading of the play and its themes.
Potter, Robert. “The Unity of Medieval Drama: European Contexts for Early English Dramatic Traditions.” In Contexts for Early English Drama, edited by Marianne G. Briscoe and John C. Coldewey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Examines the relationship between Everyman and its Dutch analogues to argue the importance of seeing the larger contexts for early English drama.
Van Laan, Thomas F. “Everyman: A Structural Analysis.” PMLA 78, no. 5 (December, 1963): 465-475. Argues that the play’s popularity arises from a structure that accentuates its dramatic qualities. In the first half, there is a falling toward damnation, in the second, there is a rising toward God.