Everyman Analysis

  • Everyman is an archetype, a character who stands in for every other man or person like him. In effect, Everyman personifies the idea of what the average person is like. The play uses this same technique to personify inanimate objects (in the character of Goods) and abstract concepts (such as Fellowship and Kindred). By using personification, the play allows individual characters to stand in for broader ideas.
  • Everyman is a morality play designed to teach its audience a very specific message: that we can only take our good deeds with us into the afterlife. At the end of the play, a character called the Doctor comes on stage to deliver this exact message to the audience, further cementing the lesson that Everyman learned during the play.
  • Themes of life, death, and religion intertwine in Everyman. The primary lesson of the play is that one's actions in life directly correlate to how one will be judged in the afterlife. Sins and good deeds follow one after death, whereas material possessions fall away. This is in keeping with Christian theology, but the play itself endeavors to impart a universal lesson not limited to Christians.

Analysis

A scene from a production staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company Published by Gale Cengage

Archetype
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.

Audience
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.

Character
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...

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Places Discussed

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

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...

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Compare and Contrast

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

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Topics for Further Study

Everyman is an morality play. Discuss how morality plays influenced Renaissance dramas, especially...

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What Do I Read Next?

The Second Shepherd's Play is one of two nativity plays that has survived from the medieval period. Both the author and the exact...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Barnet,...

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Bibliography

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.