Critical Essays On Everyman

Everyman

English morality play, written circa 1495.

Everyman is considered the greatest example of the medieval morality play. Composed by an unknown author in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the play was long judged to be of historical interest only. It was successfully revived on stage at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, and has since become the most frequently performed of the morality plays. It has earned praise and admiration for its profound moral message, which is conveyed with dignity tinged with gentle humor, and for its simple beauty and vivid characters.

Textual History

The text of Everyman survives in four early sixteenth-century editions: two complete printings by John Skot (or Scott) entitled Here begynneth a treatyse how the hye fader of heuen sendeth dethe to somon euery creature to come and gyue a counte of theyr lyues in this Worlde, and is in maner of a morall playe (The sumonyg of eueryman) (c. 1522-29 and c. 1525-30), and two redactions by Richard Pynson (c. 1510-25 and c. 1525-30), which are extant only in fragments. From these initial publications until the work's revival in the twentieth century, Everyman was considered little more than a literary artifact, and appeared only in collections of pre-Elizabethan drama that sought to catalogue England's literary history. Such anthologies include Thomas Hawkins's The Origin of the English Drama (1773) and W. Carew Hazlitt's edition of Robert Dodsley's A Select Collection of Old English Plays (1874). No separate editions appeared until after the play's twentieth-century revival. Since then, the work has been reprinted numerous times, including A. C. Cawley's highly regarded 1961 edition. In addition, the play has been adapted and translated into various languages; Hugo von Hofmannsthal's German adaptation Jedermann is particularly noteworthy, having achieved great popular success in performance at the 1911 Salzburg Festival.

Plot and Major Characters

Everyman, like other morality plays, seeks to present a religious lesson through allegorical figures representing abstract characteristics. The play centers on the life of Everyman, a wealthy man in his prime who is suddenly called by Death to appear before God for judgment. On his journey to meet God, he seeks assistance from lifelong companions Fellowship (friends), Kindred and Cousin (family), and Goods (material wealth), but all abandon him. Because he has neglected her in life, Good-Deeds is too weak to accompany Everyman on his journey. She advises him to call on Knowledge (awareness of sin). Knowledge escorts Everyman to Confession, who directs him to do penance. In the process of Everyman's penance, Good-Deeds is strengthened and is finally able to accompany Everyman to his final reckoning. Everyman, now wearing the garment of Contrition, continues his journey—until now a quest for spiritual health, but increasingly showing the qualities of a pilgrimage—to salvation. Everyman, Knowledge, and Good-Deeds are joined on the journey by Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits (the senses). After donating his wealth to charity, Everyman follows the advice of Knowledge and Five Wits and receives the sacraments of Communion and Extreme Unction. Meanwhile, Knowledge and Five Wits converse on the subject of corrupt priests in the church. Approaching his grave, Everyman is again deserted by all his companions except Knowledge and Good-Deeds. As the story closes, Knowledge remains behind as Everyman and Good-Deeds together descend into the grave.

Major Themes

The themes in Everyman are strongly reflected in the allegorical characters which populate the work. The work teaches ethical and religious lessons about how to please God and how to treat humanity. The work has been seen by some critics as a dramatic treatment of the medieval Catholic church doctrine of “Holy Dying,” whereby a person forsakes earthly attachments and prepares his or her soul for salvation, but episodes such as the discussion between Knowledge and Five Wits on corrupt priests suggest the influence of the Protestant reform movement as well. The testing of Everyman's companions, all of whom fail except for Good-Deeds, reflects the medieval belief that friends must prove themselves before they can be accepted as true. Good-Deeds's loyalty additionally points to the Christian notion of friendship as a gift from God. Thus, this figure represents not only Everyman's own positive and good actions but God's blessing as well.

Critical Reception

Since its revival in the early twentieth century, Everyman has been considered the finest of the medieval morality plays. Critics have investigated numerous aspects of the play, including its source, the religious doctrine it presents, its structure, its style, and its use of allegory. Many critics propose that the primary source of Everyman may be the Dutch play Elckerlijc (c. 1490), because of the close similarity of the text and tone of the two works. Some scholars have gone even further and have asserted that Everyman is a translation of Elckerlijc. Scholars have also commented on the close integration of the play's structure and themes. According to Lawrence V. Ryan, the doctrine and the “theology presented actually determines the structure of the morality and helps to give it the place it admittedly deserves as the most successful thing of its kind in English literature.” Thomas F. Van Laan has argued that the play's “human action and its allegorical significance together form a distinct structural pattern which not only imposes discipline but also contributes its own intrinsic meaning.” The main thrust of the play, according to William Munson, is for the reader to understand that “a saving deed is, in the end, possible.” Ron Tanner has contested the claims that the morality play genre lacks humor by pointing to Everyman's dramatic irony. The poetry of Everyman has also been praised for its clear, direct style. Most critics agree that its vivid characterization, unadorned poetic style, and closely interwoven themes, images, and plot combine to make Everyman a peerless artistic achievement.

Davenport, W. A. Fifteenth-Century English Drama: The Early Moral Plays and Their Literary Relations. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982. A useful overview to the play, its genre, and contemporary works written in the same or a similar genre. Bibliographical references, index.

Foster, Edward E. “Everyman.” In Masterplots, edited by Frank N. Magill and Laurence W. Mazzeno. 2d ed. Vol. 4. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1996. Half of the essay is dedicated to an insightful critical evaluation of the play.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus.” College English 22 (October, 1960): 9-14. Kaula compares the two morality plays and the kinds of time represented in them. In Everyman, astronomical time is finally replaced by moral time with its attendant freedom, in which human beings can control their destiny.

Kinghorn, A. M. Mediaeval Drama. London: Evans Brothers, 1968. Examines the plot and themes of the play and its place in the tradition of the morality play.

Kolve, V. A. “Everyman and the Parable of the Talents.” In Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual, edited by Jerome Taylor and Alan H. Nelson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. Examines the parable as a possible source for the play and includes a close reading of the play and its themes.

Potter, Robert A. The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition. London: Routledge, 1975. Comprehensive examination of Everyman and like dramas. Bibliographical references, index.

Potter, Robert. “The Unity of Medieval Drama: European Contexts for Early English Dramatic Traditions.” In Contexts for Early English Drama, edited by Marianne G. Briscoe and John C. Coldewey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Examines the relationship between Everyman and its Dutch analogues to argue the importance of seeing the larger contexts for early English drama.

Taylor, Jerome, and Alan H. Nelson, eds. Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. Includes in-depth examinations of several aspects of the play. Includes index.

Van Laan, Thomas F. “Everyman: A Structural Analysis.” PMLA 78, no. 5 (December, 1963): 465-475. Argues that the play’s popularity arises from a structure that accentuates its dramatic qualities. In the first half, there is a falling toward damnation, in the second, there is a rising toward God.

Vocht, Henry de. Everyman: A Comparative Study of Texts and Sources. Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1963. An indispensable guide to the varying texts of the play, the principal sources including the Dutch play Elckerlyc (1495), and the stylistics of the text itself. Bibliographical references, index.

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