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Overview of the Classic Morality Play Everyman

Updated on September 23, 2011

The Morality Play

Morality plays were a form of drama that developed out of the Middle Ages, becoming increasingly popular in 15th and 16th century Britain. The morality play was similar to the religiously based mystery play, but unlike the scriptural stories related in the mystery plays, the morality play centers on a generalized human character (Youth, Everyman, Mankind) faced with a choice between virtue and vice.

In the morality play, concepts like vice and virtue become characters, and are given simplistic names such as Good Deeds, Fellowship, Vice, or Knowledge. Morality plays had the social function of instructing people on proper pious behavior, as well as dealing with the issue of the soul’s fate upon judgment. While these plays were often infused with crude comedy, Everyman is an exception to that rule as it utilizes a more subtle, sardonic humor.

From the Miracle Players' abridged performance of Everyman.
From the Miracle Players' abridged performance of Everyman. | Source

The Summoning

At the beginning of the play, Everyman meets Death, and is told that he must undertake a journey towards "reckoning" before God, where his sins and virtues will be taken into account. Everyman begs for a reprieve, telling Death: “all unready is my book of reckoning.” He engages in a bit of a last-minute scramble to rectify that on his journey to judgement, calling upon those attributes he has amassed in life, personified by Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods.

All of the human relationships, Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousen prove to be fickle, they refuse to go with Everyman to his day of judgment. As for Goods, it is explained that his “condition is man’s soul to kill," and thus he is unable to help. Everyman learns that is the nature of wealth to destroy a man’s soul before God, unless of course he has “loved moderately” and given charity to the poor, which Everyman obviously has not done.

The Journey

Everyman is thus deserted in his day of reckoning by all of his worldly comforts, and he is forced to turn to what he has provided to the world, Good Deeds. Unfortunately, Everyman has been a selfish sort, with very little Good Deeds to his name.

As a result, the character of Good Deeds is too small and weak to help. He leads Everyman to the more virtuous characters of Knowledge, Confession, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five-Wits, who accompany Everyman on his journey for a while. However, Knowledge and Confession can also only lead him so far, and the other four, “Beauty, Five-Wits, Strength, and Discretion,/They all at the last do Everyman forsake."

The Judgement

Ultimately, everything that Everyman has gained, earned, learned, and discovered on earth has forsaken him, “save his Good Deeds there doth he take." Good Deeds are free of the sin of Pride, who will also “decieveth you in the end” (line 903). They also do not exist for personal or worldly satisfaction. It is Good Deeds alone that will endeavor to make “his account whole and sound” (line 915), to provide him with a counterbalance to any sinful action that he has accrued, provided that he has confessed of course.

The Lesson

The moral message for the audience is that only Good Deeds will hold weight against sin on the day of reckoning. Everything else is transient, and will be left behind on earth. The audience is supposed to learn from this example to concentrate more of their energy on amassing good deeds, and less on friendship, wealth, and even virtue.

Everyman is meant to help its audience learn proper piety through the theme of judgment at the end of life. Everyman, the title character, faces inevitable judgment before God, as “we all shall endure." “After death amends may no man make,” says the Doctor. Only Everyman's life on earth will be a part of this accounting, and out of this life, good deeds are really the only thing that matters.

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    • Anaya M. Baker profile image
      Author

      Anaya M. Baker 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Haha, I hate this play too!

    • profile image

      Scarlet Scrivener 6 years ago

      Not of fan of Everyman. I think it must have been written for children. Interesting that it's still being performed...

      Interesting and Vote Up!

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image
      Author

      Anaya M. Baker 6 years ago from North Carolina

      collegatariat, I believe Everyman is by an unknown author. But very similar to Pilgrim's Progress, which I confess I have not actually read, just went through the summary:)

      Flora, dahoglund, ubaichijioke, Will, thanks for the dropping by! Flora, I thought it was interesting you'd come across it in theatre studies! When I was looking for photos I was surprised to find that the play is still performed, I thought it was something lost to the relics of English departments focusing on completely obscure things!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I read your Hubs with great interest, Anaya. This one was also excellent, and voted that way.

    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 6 years ago from Lagos

      Good deeds always pay. I read everyman in the university in a core theatre course and other morality plays. You ve done a great review. I praise you so much. Kudos. Voted awesome and beautiful

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I recall reading Everyman in a college course on the middle ages. This was a nice review since it was a long time ago.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I've read some morality plays -when I was in university as part of Theatre appreciation classes. But Everyman wasn't one of them, even though I am quite familiar with it.

    • collegatariat profile image

      collegatariat 6 years ago

      An interesting overview... I've not read it, but is this something similar to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress? The general theme and style sound like they would be similar. Also, do you happen to know who wrote this play?