Everyman is a play which entered into the English culture during the 15th century, and the exact author of the work is still unknown. The Dutch version of the play is credited to the author Dorlandus, yet there is still question regarding the original manuscript, and the play may very well date back to an earlier author and culture (Child, 1910).
This piece of literature is described as a moral play, in that the ethical relationship of God and man is explored in detail. In the case of Everyman, his life is being judged as below the standards necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. God admonishes his materialism, claiming that humanity is “Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God; In worldly riches is all their mind”. In his search for solutions in aiming to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Everyman turns to his family, friends, and virtues to help guide him on his way.
Here, Death is viewed as either an obstruction from Grace or an accepting process, as a fence blocking the way to God or an open door welcoming Everyman into the immortal world. Although Everyman faces challenges and is often confused and misguided in his ideas about what will ultimately lead him to salvation, he eventually finds a way to clear his conscience and face Death free from sin. It is interesting to note that in facing Death free from sin, Everyman in fact enters into immortal Life with God.
The perception and treatment of Death in Everyman surrounds the idea of a final judgment, in that God reviews the good and bad deeds of a person’s life and decides upon the fate of the human soul.
Morality plays a significant role in the idea of what it means for Everyman to live a righteous life and to be able to die with dignity and assured of God’s favor. In facing Death, the idea of what it means to be a moral person is brought into the spotlight. Here, Everyman is faced with the expectation of behaving in accordance with the ways of the will of God (Potter, 1975).
The Lord instructs Everyman that he has much work to do in order to meet the expectations of God, “On thee thou must take a long journey: Therefore thy book of count with thee thou bring”. The book to which God is referring is like a ledger delineating the ways in which a person is decidedly carrying out moral acts of faith. The idea of the path of morality in relationship to death is the idea of a passage through a significant point in time, a point of time in which man leaves himself and becomes fully immersed in God the Father.
In order to remain on the right path and attain the joy and glory of Heaven, Everyman is encouraged to consistently evaluate his life and to make amends for the immoral acts committed during his life. Although Death will not slow down or go away, there is a way in which Everyman is able to align himself with morality and face Death with peace and confidence in the love of God.
God is described as having the discretion of knowing what it means to be a moral person, and Everyman must know that he is expected to align himself with the will of God. Here, morality is described as a close connection with the will of God, so close that man is able to assess his every action as either being in sync with the moral order and of life itself or out of touch and creating a hellish environment for himself and others.
In Catholic theology, there is God comprised of the Father Almighty, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, a Trinitarian view of the Lord to which Everyman needs to keep faithful. Catholicism laid out the foundation for Christianity and the birth of the Church, in that God the Father lovingly created his son Jesus Christ and sent him to found his Church on Earth. Through the life of Jesus Christ and the establishment of his Church, there was a moral order imposed upon the people to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself.
Making references to sins, angels, saints, and sacraments, one is immediately drawn into the Catholic perception of morality as it relates to death, in that people are able to exit the world in a hellish state or in a heavenly state, making death either something to be feared or something to be conquered, depending on how one receives the will of God and employs in his life (Egermeir, 1982). In speaking about how people have forsaken him, God declares, “They use the seven deadly sins damnable / In such wise that pride, covetousness, wrath, and lechery, / Now in this world be made commendable, / And thus they leave of angels the heavenly company.”
He admonishes the people for ignoring his will and calls attention to the way in which sins are able to reject the wise messages of the angels. The cultural establishment of Catholic theology in Everyman is that which serves as a guiding force, a structural hierarchy of knowledge about the desires of God in the life of Man. Everyman is indeed every man, as God is portrayed as speaking directly to his people and is frustrated by the tendency of his people to reject the truth of faith, religion, and the philosophy of the spiritual leaders.
Facing Death with the knowledge of his sin in placing too much value on material goods, Everyman turns to all of his possible companions to help him on his journey. Death encourages him to find someone willing to accompany him when he faces God on this day of reckoning, “Yea, if any be so hardy / That would go with thee and bear thee company.
Hie thee that you were gone to God’s magnificence, / Thy reckoning to give before his presence.” He first turns to the virtue of Fellowship for help, yet Fellowship notes that he is made for the land of the living and not of the dead, refusing to help. Everyman then turns to Kindred and Cousin for help, wanting to believe that the family members in his life will be able to support him on this judgment day, who refuse and make references which call into question their own morality.
In increasing desperation, Everyman turns to the Goods in his life, the material possessions he has accumulated over time, yet Goods declares that Everyman’s sin is relation to his greed and that the his bringing of Goods in the face of God would be foolish. Finally, Everyman seeks out Good Deeds, who have long been neglected by everyman. Although she is weak, Good Deeds agrees to accompany him, and they go together to visit her sisters, Knowledge and Confession.
The Sacraments espoused by the Church are those which have been found to uphold a certain amount of sanctity in humanity, and it is these Sacraments which invigorate the morality of Everyman. The Sacrament of Penance is known to be one of the most vital Sacraments in the Church, whereby the sins of one’s past are confessed and forgiven and the person agrees to a certain act or set of acts of penance, by which the person is redeemed and reenters the grace of God.
When Good Deeds shows Everyman the way to Knowledge and Confession, Everyman has the opportunity to engage in the Sacraments of the Church. Good Deeds describes their hopeful journey to Confession, “Now we go together lovingly, / To Confession, that cleansing river.” In the presence of Confession, Everyman is offered the opportunity to perform atonement for his sins, something “Called penance, wise voider of adversity; / Therewith shall your body chastised be…” Penance is the tool by which Everyman both punishes himself and makes amends with the people he has harmed in his life, purging himself of sin (Garner, 1987).
In the end, Confession declares that Everyman is absolved of his sins, and Good Deeds is strengthened by the reparation. Good Deeds commends Everyman for his successful engagement in the Sacrament of Penance and declares that “For thee is prepared the eternal glory”. Now that Everyman has been made clean by his own recognition of his sins and his self imposed penance, Good Deeds finds her self “whole and sound”.
Everyman is honored by Knowledge with a “garment of sorrow” made from his own tears, and then Good Deeds calls for Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five Wits to join them. Everyman is then taken to a priest to receive the Sacraments of Anointing and the Eucharist, by which he is fully united with God by being bathed in the unifying oil and taking part in receiving the Body of Christ. By engaging in the purifying Sacraments of the Church and the healing Grace of their power, Everyman prepares himself to face Death, to journey into the kingdom of God, without the shame or guilt of sin.
Finally, Everyman has found the one companion who will journey with him to Death and speak to his virtues, the Good Deeds which he has performed during Life. After receiving the Sacraments, all of the Virtues abandon Everyman, for Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five Wits are unable to accompany him to Death. Only Good Deeds is able to go with him to the grave, and he dies with Good Deeds, ascending with her to Heaven where they meet the Angels of God’s Kingdom.
It is highly remarkable to consider that a person’s good deeds are the only things that people are able to take with them when they pass away, as these acts are what people remember of the deceased, the memory of whether a person has committed acts of goodness or acts of evil. It is true that when a person dies, then the knowledge, beauty, strength, and senses are obliviated, as these are mortal traits which are unable to accompany the deceased. What is immortal about a person’s life are the memories, the acts which someone performed, and it makes sense that Everyman could only be accompanied to Death by Good Deeds.
Everyman is a classic morality play, in that the fundamental nature of God and Man are perceptively interwoven, sending a profound message of the importance of spiritual values. On his journey to Death, Everyman is faced by being defeated or being triumphant in his passing to the next realm and his entering of the Kingdom of God.
Before his Death, Everyman is presented with the option to finally rectify his moral situation, to evaluate his life and to make amends if needed. God expresses his frustration with humanity, with Everyman, alleging that the corruption of Man by sin is marked first and foremost by his greed and hoarding of monetary Goods. It is of particular important to note the way in which Goods was unable to face God at the side of Everyman, since this would have infuriated the Lord.
In thinking about the plight of humankind in general, it is important to reflect upon the ways in which society allows for some members of the community to hoard more than their fair share. In Everyman, this is portrayed as an individual problem, in that Everyman was overly greedy and took more than what was due to him.
Although it is okay to regard Everyman as a gluttonous person who caused others to suffer, it is also important to note the ways in which other people allowed for him to acquire so much wealth (Fernandez, 1986). In modern and progressive society, it is often the government who administers justice in ensuring that no person is able to earn more than what is fair. In today’s world, it is important to have a strong government system which prevents people from being able to hoard the Goods of the world.
In facing Death, it is important for individuals to recognize their sins and to make amends, however, Death can happen at any time, to any person, and it is vital that society take charge in organizing itself in such a way that employers and upper level citizens are not allowed to take elitism to extremes and cause the poor members of society to experience too much harm.
Anonymous. Everyman. 15th Century.
Child, C. The second shepherds’ play: Everyman and other early plays. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910.
Egermeir, V. Everyman – Everywoman. Dramatic Publishing, 1982.
Fernandez, J. Persuasions and performances: the play of tropes in culture. Indiana University Press, 1986.
Garner, S. Theatricality in “Mankind” and “Everyman”. Studies in Philology 84(3), 1987, pp. 272-285.
Potter, R. The English morality play: origins, history, and influence of a dramatic tradition. Routledge, 1975.