Everyman Analysis

  • Everyman is an archetype, a character who stands in for a broader group of people. In effect, Everyman represents the average person. The play uses this same technique to personify inanimate objects (in the character of Goods) and abstract concepts (such as Fellowship and Good-Deeds).
  • Everyman is a morality play designed to teach its audience a very specific message: that people can only take their good deeds with them into the afterlife.
  • The doctor reiterates the plays didactic purpose at the end: one's actions in life directly correlate to how one will be judged in the afterlife.


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The word archetype is generally used to describe a character who represents a pattern from which all characters or "types" are derived. The term derives from the work of Carl Jung, who expressed the theory that behind every unconscious lies the collective memories of the past. In literature, the term is often applied to a character type or plot pattern that occurs frequently and is easily recognized. In Everyman, Death is such a character, and the audience would immediately recognize this character and his purpose in the plot.

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Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Certainly the unknown author of Everyman intended this drama to instruct the audience. Since few people were literate, a medieval writer could use drama to tell a story or teach a moral. The lesson in this play is how to lead a proper religious life and prepare for death and God's judgement.

The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Characterization is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.

Everyman differs slightly from this definition, since each character is little more than a "type." The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Fellowship represents little more than a quality, not an individual. The audience understands that Fellowship signifies the friendships than men have while here on earth.

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Latest answer posted November 21, 2013, 5:45 pm (UTC)

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A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. In Everyman, drama is aligned with spectacle and is intended as a mechanism to instruct the audience on how to prepare for death.

Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means "kind" or "type." Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama, novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Everyman is a morality play.

Morality Play
Following the revival of theatre in the eleventh century, the Catholic church began to introduce brief dramatized episodes into the mass on the occasion of major festivals. These gradually developed into complete plays, performed in public places by the trade guilds, and were known as mystery plays. In some towns, there was a cycle of dramatized stories from the Creation to the Last Judgement. These were succeeded in the fifteenth century by morality plays, allegorical presentations of human vices and virtues in conflict. Among these, Everyman is perhaps the best known.

A parable is a story intended to teach a moral lesson. The story in Everyman is designed to teach people to lead a good, religious life so that they may properly prepare for death and the afterlife. The Bible is one of the most obvious sources of parables, since religion traditionally relies upon stories to teach lessons. This tradition stems from a period in which most men and women could not read, and the clergy found that stories were the most effective way to instruct moral lessons.

This term refers to the pattern of events within a play. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Everyman is how a man searches for a friend to accompany him to his final judgment. But the theme is how man can find salvation in God and Good Deeds.

Places Discussed

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Journey to Paradise

Journey to Paradise. Long journey from life to death that Death orders Everyman to make. Everyman is to take with him his full book of accounts; he must be careful, as he has done many bad deeds and only a few good ones. When he reaches Paradise, he will be required to account for his life. Death permits Everyman to take with him on his journey any companions he wishes, but only Good-Deeds goes with him the entire way.

With several stops along the way, Everyman’s journey takes on a dual purpose. On one hand, the image of his traveling from place to place to find a suitable companion is similar to a realistic trip; on the other, and on a more spiritual plane, Everyman’s peregrination characterizes his quest for salvation. On this path, Everyman is damned until he realizes that he must free himself of his sins before he is permitted to enter the heavenly sphere. He can accomplish that task only with the help of the sacraments and his own good deeds.

House of Salvation

House of Salvation. Place where Everyman receives the sacrament of penance from Confession. On a certain level, the House of Salvation represents Heaven and is where the play begins—with God speaking about humankind’s forgetfulness of his son’s sacrifice—and ends with the angel taking Everyman’s soul, as does human life.

Historical Context

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Cultural Changes in England
The end of the fifteenth century marked the end of the medieval period in England. The sixteenth century brought with it the first of the Tudor kings and a period of relative peace following the civil wars that had plagued England during much of the preceding century. And although it was still present in smaller, yearly outbreaks, the threat of the Black Death (a plague that had killed a large portion of the European population) had finally decreased. England at the beginning of a new century was becoming a good place to live. The first of the Tudors, King Henry VII, formed alliances with neighboring countries and trade flourished in London. The cloth made from the wool of English sheep became an important commodity in Europe trading.

The ascension of commerce, however, changed the face of England. Once a predominantly agrarian culture, the cities of England—especially London— became more densely populated and urban. Farm lands were enclosed, and displaced rural families fled to the larger cities, where crowding, unemployment, and plague were a greater problem. The feudal order was ending, as well as the era of knights on horseback, who became obsolete after Henry V proved that there was a more efficient way to win a battle. Literacy increased, too, as moveable typesetting made books and other printed material more available.

Drama in the Fifteenth Century
The Renaissance began in Italy during the fifteenth century, but it did not begin in England until the early part of the sixteenth century; thus Everyman really represents one of the last medieval plays to be written. For the people of the medieval period, the Catholic church was the center of their lives. Its teaching guided all their actions, and its rules provided people with a pattern upon which to base all behaviors. The teachings of the church and its masses were in Latin, which few except the most learned could understand; the church held a position of authority that could not be challenged by the majority of those under its rule. Its representatives were charged with interpreting the word of God to the people, who trusted blindly in their clergy. The Catholic church still maintained a strong hold on England at the beginning of the sixteenth century. But the first stirrings of the Reformation were being felt in Europe, and by the last year that Everyman was reprinted, 1537, the Catholic church's rule in England had ceded to Protestantism.

Medieval drama was originally derived from church liturgy. In the ninth century, musical elaboration of the Latin liturgy began to appear as part of certain feasts. The purpose was to heighten and enhance the religious experience of the worshipers, and by the tenth century, brief enactments of biblical episodes were practiced at monasteries and abbeys. The most famous was an Easter morning re-enactment of the three Marys asking for Jesus at his grave. Clerics dressed for the parts and sang the piece as dialogue, answering one another.

These "tropes," as they were called, were not plays exactly, but they contained elements of drama. They had progressive plots, brief development of character, conflict, resolution, and visual spectacle. Over a period of 100 years, tropes became more elaborate and more complicated. The topics were usually biblical and the actors were clerics, monks, and choirboys. But the language was Latin rather than native languages, and the audiences were almost exclusively limited to those living in monastic communities.

Widespread deaths from the plague changed the nature of medieval drama and opened the way for another type of drama. When labor became scarce and expensive, people moved into the cities, which became centers of economic and cultural growth. Cycle or mystery plays evolved in towns and cities and were sanctioned by the church. Vast productions that taught Christian history and values were produced in the towns with lay-people as actors and as a part of feast day celebrations. Each guild was assigned a story, from Creation to Judgment, and each guild produced a pageant that best fit the guild's purpose. A great many of the townspeople participated as stage crew, actors, managers, and supporting cast. The audiences were large, drawn from everyone within traveling distance. Eventually, morality plays grew from this beginning. However, with the coming of the great Elizabethan theatre (the works of Shakespeare and others), morality plays disappeared as the evolving society demanded more elaborate entertainments.

Compare and Contrast

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1495: Henry VII is king of England. Catholicism is still the religion of the country and will remain so for the next thirty years.

Today: Because of a bloody history of oppression and suppression, anti-Catholic feelings in Great Britain have remained high since the mid-sixteenth century when Mary I had Protestants burned at the stake.

1495: The Black Death (also known as the Plague), continues to claim lives. The death toll has decreased from the fourteenth century, when one-third of Europe's population died from the disease. Still, thousands will die from the Plague over the next few years.

Today: The Plague is almost non-existent in England, although it still exists in some areas of the world. Even the American Southwest records deaths from the disease each year.

1495: The Spanish Inquisition continues to persecute all "heretics" (those who disagree with Catholic doctrine) with religious zeal. Many are put to death for questioning the church.

Today: Religious belief is still a significant cause of warfare and death in many countries. In Ireland, Protestants and Catholics have begun a fragile peace. In the Middle East religious zealotry continues to fuel terrorist actions.

1495: Exploration of the New World has continued since Christopher Columbus's voyages in 1492. In the next year, England will send the first of its explorers, John Cabot, to claim land in England's name.

Today: Modern explorers are now heading into space. Often dubbed ‘‘the final frontier,’’ space is now the region humankind is examining for possible habitation and resources.

1495: A year earlier, the first English paper mills opened. This, combined, with the new moveable type presses, means that more books can be printed for at a significantly reduced cost. The movement toward literacy in England has begun.

Today: Although it was earlier prophesied that computers and the Internet would mean the end of printed materials, books, magazines, and newspapers continue to enjoy a huge audience. Many publications are flourishing as both print and electronic media.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Anonymous. Review of Everyman in the Athenaeum, July 20, 1901, p. 103.

Barnet, Sylvan, editor. Types of Drama: Plays and Contexts, Longman, 1997, pp. 149-51, 182-85.

Cary, Elizabeth Luther. Review of Everyman in the Critic, January, 1903. pp. 43-45.

Garner, Stan ton B. Jr. ‘‘Theatricality in Mankind and Everyman’’ in Studies in Philology, Vol. 84, no. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 277-85.

Montague, C. E. Review of Everyman in the Manchester Guardian, November 1, 1902; reprinted in William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival, by Robert Speaight, Heinemann, 1954. pp. 162-63.

Peek, George S. "Sermon Themes and Sermons Structure in Everyman’’ in the South Central Bulletin, Vol. 40, no. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 159-60.

Tanner, Ron. "Humor in Everyman and the Middle English Morality Play’’ in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, no. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 149-61.

Further Reading
Fifield, Merle. The Castle in the Circle, Ball State University Press, 1967. Fifield studies the staging of morality plays. He also offers a staging of the play using medieval production information.

Munson, William. ‘‘Knowing and Doing in Everyman’’ in the Chaucer Review, Vol. 19, no. 3, 1985, pp. 252-71. Munson argues that one of Everyman's primary points is the assertion that struggle is as important to man as knowledge.

Speaight, Robert. "Everyman and Euripides'' in his William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival, Heinemann, 1954. Speaight describes Poel's production of Everyman and discusses his problems with the play's theology.

Thomas, Helen S. "The Meaning of the Character Knowledge in Everyman'' in the Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XIV, no. 1, Winter, 1960-61, pp. 3-13. Thomas argues that Knowledge is a ‘‘wisdom figure whose function it was to counsel Everyman wisely.''

Van Dyke, Carolyn. ‘‘The Intangible and Its Image: Allegorical Discourse and the Cast of Everyman’’ in Acts of Interpretation, The Texts in Its Contexts 700-1600: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature in Honor of E. Talbot Donaldson, edited by Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk, Pilgrim, 1982, pp. 311-24. Going against the majority opinion, Van Dyke argues that the characters in Everyman go beyond simple archetypes to create realistic, individual characters.


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Sources for Further Study

Davenport, W. A. Fifteenth-Century English Drama: The Early Moral Plays and Their Literary Relations. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982. A useful overview to the play, its genre, and contemporary works written in the same or a similar genre. Bibliographical references, index.

Foster, Edward E. “Everyman.” In Masterplots, edited by Frank N. Magill and Laurence W. Mazzeno. 2d ed. Vol. 4. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1996. Half of the essay is dedicated to an insightful critical evaluation of the play.

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 A. The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition. London: Routledge, 1975. Comprehensive examination of Everyman and like dramas. Bibliographical references, index.

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.

Taylor, Jerome, and Alan H. Nelson, eds. Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. Includes in-depth examinations of several aspects of the play. Includes index.

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.

Vocht, Henry de. Everyman: A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources. Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1963. An indispensable guide to the varying texts of the play, the principal sources including the Dutch play Elckerlyc (1495), and the stylistics of the text itself. Bibliographical references, index.

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