Everyman Themes

The main themes in Everyman are remembering one’s own mortality, penance and purification, and the corrupting influence of avarice.

  • Remembering one’s own mortality: Everyman must confront his own mortality on his journey to salvation, accepting that only Good-Deeds can accompany him into death.
  • Penance and purification: By divesting himself of his worldly goods and attachments, and by scourging himself with a whip, Everyman purifies his soul.
  • The corrupting influence of avarice: Love of riches, represented by Goods, is depicted as the most dangerous and corrosive of the seven deadly sins.

Themes

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Remembering One’s Own Mortality

Everyman begins and ends with death, and the principal subject of the play is a journey toward death. Before he summons the personified figure of Death at the beginning of the play, God laments that men have forgotten that he died for them. They are focused solely on their mortal lives, “cumbered with worldly riches.” In order to bring them back to him, God must remind them of their own mortality.

The ultimate test of virtue for all the elements in Everyman’s life is whether they will accompany him on his journey to death. Good-Deeds, whom he has neglected so severely that she is too weak to stand upright, is the only one who passes this test. Her polar opposite is Goods, who not only refuses to accompany Everyman, but takes delight in having corrupted him and prepared him for damnation by distracting him from thoughts of his own mortality and focusing his attention on the acquisition of worldly treasure.

Within the context of the play, it is not morbid to think constantly of one’s own mortality. To forget it will result in sinful actions and neglect of duty, then in disillusion, upon realizing that all the things you valued were worthless and that friends and family can and will do nothing for you in the end. The end of this path, as the Doctor emphasizes at the end of the play, is damnation, which is eternal death. To maintain constant thoughts of one’s own mortality, however, is to focus on eternal life and therefore on what really matters.

Penance and Purification

The holy man Confession presents Everyman with a jewel called penance, which symbolizes the beauty and value of repentance. Immediately after this, he also gives him a scourge with which to whip himself. This stands for the pain of doing penance and the hard task of purifying the soul by mortifying the body. Scourging was a common form of penance in the Middle Ages. In 1174, King Henry II submitted to be whipped by the monks of Canterbury as he prayed for forgiveness for the murder of Saint Thomas Becket. As Everyman scourges himself, his heart becomes lighter and Good-Deeds is healed, so that she can make the journey with him to heaven. The paradox intensifies when Knowledge hands him the “garment of sorrow” even as she tells him to rejoice. The more Everyman’s flesh is mortified, the lighter and purer his heart.

Everyman presents the audience with the spectacle of a man gradually purifying himself in preparation for death. Penance is an important way of achieving this, while divesting himself of earthly considerations is another. He has to jettison his Goods, which have been dragging him down to hell, and his friends and family. Eventually, he must leave even Knowledge behind and present his account to God accompanied by Good-Deeds alone, since only she is altogether pure. While any sin remains on the reckoning, Everyman cannot enter God’s presence. Only when it is “crystal-clear,” as the Angel announces at the end of the play, can he ascend to heaven.

The Corrupting Influence of Avarice

At the beginning of Everyman, God mentions the seven deadly sins, which separate humanity from him. However, there is one in particular which he condemns and which the play consistently presents as uniquely corrosive. God says that people have deserted him in favor of “worldly riches,” a phrase he uses twice in his first speech. When Death appears on God’s command, he declares:

He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart.

Ironically, the first way of...

(This entire section contains 772 words.)

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averting Death that occurs to Everyman is to attempt to bribe him with a huge sum of money, an offer Death scornfully refuses, pointing out that he could have all the wealth in the world if he were prepared to take bribes.

It is in Everyman’s interactions with Goods that the playwright depicts the corrupting influence of avarice most strikingly. Everyman says that he has always loved riches, and he assumes that riches will return his affection. However, Goods shows only hatred and contempt for Everyman and is pleased by his plight. This is even more graphic than Satan or some other third party tempting Everyman with riches, since it is the riches themselves that want to do him harm. Goods acknowledges his own corrupting influence, frankly telling Everyman that he has wasted too much time in acquiring wealth and that, if Goods were to accompany him on his journey, it would only be to his detriment, since his “condition is man’s soul to kill.”

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