Overview of the Classic Morality Play Everyman
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.
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.
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."
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 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.