- 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 play’s didactic purpose at the end: one’s actions in life directly correlate to how one will be judged in the afterlife.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
The origins of Everyman are mysterious. The play appears to have been written toward the end of the fifteenth century, between about 1470 and 1500, and may have been based on the Dutch morality play Elckerlijc, attributed to Peter van Diest. However, scholars of the period are divided as to which play came first. Everyman is one of the last morality plays in English, as well as being the best known, the culmination of a tradition that goes back centuries into the Middle Ages.
Although it is a product of the late Middle Ages, Everyman often strikes modern readers and audiences as a complete contrast to the early Renaissance dramas that succeed it in the Elizabethan era. Its allegorical figures and overt didacticism are a long way from the highly wrought emotional and psychological drama of Shakespeare or Marlowe. However, the dramatic interest of Everyman may be compared with one of Marlowe’s plays which has the opposite conclusion: Doctor Faustus. The central question, one of compelling interest for a Christian audience, is whether the protagonist will be able to repent of his sins, purify his soul, and achieve salvation.
This means that there is considerable dramatic tension in Everyman. The title of the play renders its conclusion as mysterious as its origins. Not every man is damned, but not every man is saved either. At first, Everyman’s position appears hopeless, and it grows steadily worse. Unlike Faustus, he makes no conscious pact with the powers of darkness. He seems to have let his soul slip away from him rather than selling it. His friends desert him first, then his family, while his riches, personified as Goods, actually want him to face damnation for devoting himself to them.
There are, of course, various didactic messages in the play, which the Doctor draws out explicitly in the epilogue. Friends and family will ultimately desert you, as will beauty, intelligence, and strength. One should not neglect the opportunity to do good deeds while one has time, since God will take account of these in deciding everyone’s fate. This emphasis on instruction, however, does not affect the dramatic interest of the play, since Everyman’s damnation would have provided a similar opportunity for the playwright to draw moral lessons from Everyman’s conduct. Indeed, one might argue that the play suggests one can leave good deeds and thoughts of salvation until one’s old age, attending to these matters, as Everyman does, immediately before death.
If Everyman were a more virtuous character, therefore, the play would be more instructive in terms of morality but less dramatic, since the audience would see only a man who had done all the right things taking his rightful place in heaven. As things stand, Everyman does not get onto the right track until relatively late in the play, when he scourges himself with the whip given to him by Confession and, in doing so, restores the strength of Good-Deeds, who has been reduced to a state of extreme feebleness by his neglect.
While the dramatic structure of Everyman is similar to that of Doctor Faustus, one great event divides the two plays: the Protestant Reformation. The importance of this dichotomy is illuminated by the remarks of Five-Wits concerning priests. When Everyman was written, there was one great universal Church. Individual priests, prelates, and monks might be corrupt, and were frequently satirized throughout the Middle Ages, but the Church itself was the source of knowledge and truth, guiding mankind to the grave as Knowledge does in the play. Although Everyman was probably not written much more than a...
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century beforeDoctor Faustus, a considerably greater mental effort is required for the modern reader to recapture the attitudes of its medieval audience. The damnation of Faustus is shocking, but the possibility of damnation for Everyman would have been even more alarming for the play’s original audience, since it represented a present danger to their own souls.
Marlowe’s original audience would, for the most part, have been Christian as well, whatever the poet’s own religious beliefs. Many people who watch or read both plays now, for that matter, may well hold Christian beliefs. However, in the aftermath of schism, the monumental, monolithic certainties of the Middle Ages could never be taken for granted in the same way again. The theological instruction would have been an integral part of the drama of Everyman, in which the audience must have participated more completely than any modern audience can.