Everyman (Plot Summary)
Everyman is a one-act play that begins with a Messenger announcing the play’s purpose: Everyman will be called before God, and thus every man should look to the end of his life even as he begins it. The sin that initially looks sweet will eventually cause the soul to weep. Then God appears and tells the audience that man has forgotten the sacrifice that God made for them at the crucifixion. God is angry and disappointed with man, who has embraced the seven deadly sins. Since man has turned to sin, God is demanding a reckoning. He calls for Death and instructs him to seek out every man who has lived outside God’s law. Death is to bring forth these men for a final reckoning. Death promises to do so and seeing Everyman, Death asks him if he has forgotten his God. Everyman is unprepared for Death and is frightened at the journey Death proposes. After warning Everyman that his judgment is at hand, Everyman asks for time to find someone to accompany him in his pilgrimage.
Everyman first sees his friend, Fellowship, with whom he has spent so much time. Initially, Fellowship says he will accompany his friend wherever he is going, but when he hears of the destination, Fellowship declines. He will offer women and good times, but he will not go on a journey to face God’s judgment. Everyman is disappointed in Fellowship’s response but decides that family and blood ties might make stronger companions. With this thought in mind, he approaches Kindred. It initially seems that Kindred will accompany Everyman. But when Kindred learns of the destination, he also refuses to go. Everyman is feeling increasingly isolated.
Next, Everyman turns to Goods, for whom he committed so many of the sins that weigh heavily upon him. But Goods cannot leave earth’s bounds; what man acquires on earth must be left behind when he dies. Goods’s role is to tempt man to sin, and so Goods will go on to the next victim, since Everyman has no further use of Goods. The betrayal of these three — Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods — makes Everyman aware that he has trusted in the wrong things.
Everyman next asks Good Deeds for help, but Good Deeds is collapsed at Everyman’s feet. He is shackled by Everyman’s sins and cannot help. But Good Deeds suggests that Knowledge can be of help. Knowledge takes Everyman to visit Confession, where Everyman learns that knowledge of his sins and his repentance of them is the means to find salvation. The recognition of Everyman’s sins lifts the burden from Good Deeds, who can now help Everyman prepare for his journey. As he sets out on the final leg of his journey, Everyman has several additional companions to go with him. Discretion, Beauty, Strength, and the Five Wits are coming along with him, but they can only accompany Everyman for part of the distance.
Everyman receives last rites from a priest and prepares to meet Death. The audience is reminded that the priest is God’s representative on earth and that man must turn to priests to help him prepare for death. As the journey continues, each of his companions leaves Everyman. Beauty is the first to go, since beauty fades quickly as man approaches death. Next Strength departs, for as man’s health fades, physical strength is also lost. Next Discretion leaves, and then Five Wits abandons Everyman. Finally, Knowledge departs, and only Good Deeds remains for the final journey. An Angel greets Everyman to escort him the remainder of the way, where only Good Deeds can speak for him. At the play’s conclusion a Doctor of Theology appears to remind the audience that all men must make this journey and that only their good deeds will speak for them at God’s final reckoning.
Alienation and Loneliness
As Everyman is abandoned by Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods, he begins to feels increasingly isolated and alone. When his overtures to Fellowship are rejected, Everyman thinks that surely his family will stand by him as he faces his final judgment. Instead, what he discovers is that every man must face God’s judgment alone. Earthly friendships and family are left behind in such a situation, and man is never more isolated than in facing death.
Atonement and Forgiveness
When Everyman is feeling most afraid and alone, he is given the opportunity to atone for his sins. The recognition of his sin, provided by Knowledge, leads to his meeting with Confession and to penance. The medieval Christian tradition is that man must seek atonement for earthly sins, but that God’s forgiveness is always available to those who truly repent. At the end of Everyman, forgiveness is given freely and Everyman is prepared to meet God.
Everyman has placed his faith in friends and family. They have been his companions throughout life and each initially indicates their willingness to accompany him on a journey — Fellowship even vows to accompany his friend to Hell. But Fellowship and Kindred are both afraid of the real hell; both decline Everyman’s invitation when they learn he is going to meet God’s final judgement. This indicates that man will always be betrayed by earthly companions, since each man is ultimately selfish and must confront God alone. Their betrayal of Everyman serves a purpose, however, as their rejection forces him to search for greater truths.
Death is the means by which man finally meets God. It is impending death that forces Everyman to consider his life and his accomplishments. Like most men, Everyman is unprepared for death and seeks extra time. In this respect he is like all men, who would plead for time to make final plans and, most importantly, to make peace with God. Generally, most Christian religions suggest that death is not to be feared, but that a better, eternal existence will be known as a result of death. Still, the approach of death is often the most frightening experience that man will face. Everyman is no exception to this idea.
God and Religion
Plays such as Everyman are intended to help reinforce the importance of God and religion in people’s lives. In this play, God represents salvation, but it is religion that provides the means to achieve that salvation. Like most drama of the medieval period, the focus of this play is how religion and a belief in God will help man overcome any travail, including death. Although God appears as a character only at the beginning of the play, his presence is felt throughout as Everyman begins to recognize his need for help beyond the earthly realm.
According to Catholic belief, it is man’s accounting of himself and his good deeds that will provide admittance to heaven. Thus it is only Good Deeds who can accompany Everyman on his final journey. When faced with God’s judgment, man’s riches, the notoriety of his friends, and the importance of his family will not speak for his worth. Only the good deeds that a man does here on earth can speak for him before God. Accordingly, good deeds is more important than faith in achieving salvation.
When abandoned by his friends, it is Knowledge that leads Everyman to the help he needs. It is knowledge that helps man to recognize and understand how he has sinned. It is knowledge that permits him to recognize deception and falsehoods. And finally, it is knowledge that allows Everyman to find the way to Confession and penance. If it is only his good deeds that can save man, it is knowledge that allows man to recognize the importance of good deeds in finding salvation.
Sin is the reason for this play. It is sin that angers God in the opening lines. As a theme, sin is central, since it is Everymen’s sins that force his final judgment. He has sinned much in his life, and the audience is told that his sins are so great that Good Deeds is immobile. Only when he can recognize and renounce his sins can Everyman be saved.
The Angel appears briefly at the play’s conclusion to accept Everyman into God’s domain. Because of his virtue, Everyman will be accepted immediately into heaven with God.
Beauty is one of the companions that Everyman calls forth to accompany him for part of his journey to God. And while beauty can offer some comfort to Everyman, it is the first to depart when man begins the final journey to death.
Knowledge leads Everyman to Confession. Confession represents man’s best opportunity for salvation, since acknowledging Everyman’s sins and asking God for forgiveness is an important element of Catholicism. Although Knowledge can accompany Everyman part way on his journey, Knowledge cannot complete the journey with him.
When approached by Everyman, Cousin also declines to join his relative on his last journey. Instead, he states he would rather subsist on bread and water for five years than face God’s judgment.
Death is the means by which God will force Everyman to undertake a pilgrimage to God’s forgiveness. He seeks out Everyman, whom he describes as only focused on earthly lusts and money. Death tells Everyman that he is to begin his final journey immediately and refuses an offer of riches, but Death finally allows Everyman an opportunity to prepare for his journey and to seek out a friend who might accompany him. Death is allegorical, as are all characters in this play.
Discretion is one of the companions that Everyman calls forth to accompany him for part of his journey to God’s final judgment. Discretion represents Everyman’s ability to do the correct thing, to make the right choices in following God.
A Doctor of Theology makes the final speech. He tells the audience to remember that all of Everyman’s companions — Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits — abandoned him on his final journey. It is only man’s good deeds that will save him.
Everyman is a wealthy man who is suddenly called by Death to begin his journey to God. Everyman is not ready to go, since he has not prepared for this day and has more sins than good deeds to his credit. He pleads with Death to give him a brief time to find friends who will be willing to accompany him on his pilgrimage. After being rejected by friends, family, and his own wealth, Everyman comes to realize that he has put his faith in the wrong things. Through the guidance of Knowledge and Good Deeds, Everyman is prepared to make a final appearance before God. In the end, after all his earthly friends and companions have abandoned him, it is only his Good Deeds that speak for Everyman’s worth. Everyman is allegorical and represents the choices open to all men.
Fellowship is the first friend that Everyman greets. Initially Fellowship is willing to help Everyman in whatever way he needs, but upon learning of Everyman’s request, Fellowship is forced to deny him. The journey to face God is not one he is willing to make. Like all the other characters, Fellowship is allegorical and represents man’s reliance upon earthy, transient, and superficial friendships, which are not a part of man’s heavenly life. While Fellowship is Everyman’s friend in drinking and lusting after women, he will not face God’s judgment with his friend.
Five Wits are the counselors that Everyman calls forth to accompany him for part of his journey to God. The Five Wits represent man’s senses and the ability to understand God’s commandments and the world around him. The senses lead to reason and a way in which Everyman is able to understand and appreciate the world he inhabits.
God is the first character to speak and tells the audience that man appears to have forgotten the sacrifice that God made at the crucifixion. Instead, man lives in wicked sin. God, who is angry, calls Death to bring forth a reckoning of those sinners who have ignored God’s mercy.
Good Deeds is at first very weak and cannot rise up from the ground, since Everyman’s sin keeps her bound. But she instructs Everyman to seek out knowledge for help in preparing for his journey. After Everyman has done as Knowledge instructs, Good Deeds is ready to accompany Everyman before God. It is man’s good deeds that will speak for his worth at God’s final judgment. Good Deeds is the only character who can accompany Everyman the entire way and, as such, is representative of Catholic belief that it is a reliance on good deeds that will provide man with salvation before God.
Goods represents all the riches that Everyman has accumulated in his lifetime. Goods also declines to accompany Everyman on his pilgrimage, reminding him that Goods cannot leave the earthly realm (reinforcing the cliche “you can’t take it with you”). Goods also reminds Everyman that it is because of his focus on material wealth that he is now at risk before God’s judgment. Goods has been lent to Everyman for only a short period of time, he tells him, and now he will move on to deceive another man. Goods is another allegorical figure that represents man’s interest in riches rather than prayer.
Like Cousin, Kindred also forsakes Everyman’s pleas. He tells him he would give him a wanton woman to enjoy, but he will not accompany Everyman to answer before God. Kindred and Cousin both indicate that man cannot trust upon family to intercede before God.
Knowledge leads to Everyman’s redemption, because it is knowledge of his sins that leads Everyman to ask for God’s forgiveness. Knowledge represents a consciousness of Christianity and God’s will and is the fundamental tenet of salvation. While Knowledge can lead Everyman to Good Deeds, Knowledge cannot accompany him all the way on his journey before God, indicating that learning has only limited utility in saving one’s soul.
The Messenger appears in the prologue to introduce the play and its subject matter. Messenger reminds the audience that while sin may be enjoyed during life, by the end of life, it will cause the soul to weep. The Messenger also reminds the audience that the material, transient things that man values in his corporeal existence will be worthless in the next life.
Strength is one of the companions that Everyman calls forth to accompany him for part of his journey to God. Strength will make Everyman stronger for his journey, but as he prepares for death, the strength of the body also leaves, and finally Strength is forced to abandon the final journey.
The word archetype is generally used to describe a character who represents a pattern from which all characters or “types” are derived. The term derives from the work of Carl Jung, who expressed the theory that behind every unconscious lies the collective memories of the past. In literature, the term is often applied to a character type or plot pattern that occurs frequently and is easily recognized. In Everyman, Death is such a character, and the audience would immediately recognize this character and his purpose in the plot.
Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Certainly the unknown author of Everyman intended this drama to instruct the audience. Since few people were literate, a medieval writer could use drama to tell a story or teach a moral. The lesson in this play is how to lead a proper religious life and prepare for death and God’s judgement.
The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Characterization is the process of creating a life-like person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.
Everyman differs slightly from this definition, since each character is little more than a “type.” The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Fellowship represents little more than a quality, not an individual. The audience understands that Fellowship signifies the friendships than men have while here on earth.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. In Everyman, drama is aligned with spectacle and is intended as a mechanism to instruct the audience on how to prepare for death.
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama, novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Everyman is a morality play.
Following the revivial of theatre in the eleventh century, the Catholic Church began to introduce brief dramatized episodes into the mass on the occasion of major festivals. These gradually developed into complete plays, performed in public places by the trade guilds, and were known as mystery plays. In some towns, there was a cycle of dramatized stories from the Creation to the Last Judgement. These were succeeded in the fifteenth century by morality plays, allegorical presentations of human vices and virtues in conflict. Among these, Everyman is perhaps the best known.
A parable is a story intended to teach a moral lesson. The story in Everyman is designed to teach people to lead a good, religious life so that they may properly prepare for death and the afterlife. The Bible is one of the most obvious sources of parables, since religion traditionally relies upon stories to teach lessons. This tradition stems from a period in which most men and women could not read, and the clergy found that stories were the most effective way to instruct moral lessons.
This term refers to the pattern of events within a play. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Everyman is how a man searches for a friend to accompany him to his final judgment. But the theme is how man can find salvation in God and Good Deeds.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses how theme and character development can be employed to stage Everyman in a manner that appeals to modern audiences.
One of the significant problems with any modern staging of Everyman is that contemporary audiences have trouble appreciating the play on the same level that medieval viewers would have. The play’s original audiences understood the role of religion in their lives. They believed in the reality of death, the afterlife, heaven and hell. In a period where the plague was likely to cut short life, where infant mortality was so high that people expected their children to die, and where the church could dictate behavior, the fear of death, of hell, and of Satan assumed a much larger role in life. Those factors are all much more abstract now, and modern audiences would find that fear, which Everyman experiences when faced with an unprepared death, very foreign. But the play has modern appeal, according to several writers who argue that with the correct emphasis, Everyman can transcend 600 years of cultural history to find a modern audience.
A successful contemporary staging of Everyman is possible, according to Ron Tanner in the Philological Quarterly, especially if the production emphasizes the irony that is present in the plot. In his essay, Tanner argued that one important key to appreciating the irony in Everyman is in visualizing the presentation of death. The medieval audience, Tanner noted, would have been horrified at seeing Death’s approach on stage, and when Everyman attempts to bargain with or bribe Satan, the audience would have been shocked but also “tickled” at Everyman’s nerve. Tanner argued that Everyman’s “gall is almost admirable.” When confronted by death, Everyman says, “thou comest when I had thee least in mind.” This bit of irony is common to all humans, and most can appreciate Everyman’s next words: “a thousand pound shalt thou have, /And defer this matter to another day.” To bargain with death, to attempt a bribe is what all men would have liked to do but what few would have even considered. When Everyman observes, “I may say Death giveth no warning,” the audience once again can laugh at Everyman’s foolishness. Death gives no warning and Death takes no bribes. Every member of the medieval audience would recognize the foolishness of Everyman’s words. Tanner pointed out that this irony is more evident in production than in simply reading the text, but even absent a staging, the play’s humor is clearly evident in the text.
A second place where irony or humor might be emphasized in production is in the first half of the play when Everyman is searching for someone to accompany him in his journey to meet God. Certainly the play ceases to be humorous once Everyman falls victim to despair and Knowledge enters the play, but while Everyman is seeking the help of Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods, there is humor in their exchanges, humor that a modern audience can appreciate. When Fellowship offers to accompany his good friend, saying that even if “thou go to hell, / I will not forsake thee,” the audience understands the irony in those words.
Fellowship, who easily promises to go “to hell” with his friend, has in mind a more decadent location on earth. Fellowship suggests a more localized hell, one where women and drink occupy their attention. In fact, when he learns of Everyman’s true destination, Fellowship admits that he is afraid of having to give an accounting to God. And when reminded by Everyman that he promised to accompany him to hell, Fellowship admits to having made that promise, and says, “but such pleasures be set aside.” The use of “pleasures” makes it clear that Fellowship intended his own definition of hell. As Tanner noted, Fellowship makes seven promises to help, each one equally elaborate, before he learns Everyman’s destination.
Everyman’s interview with Kindred and Cousin also fails to advance his need for company on his journey. When apprised of the nature of his pilgrimage, Kindred states that he would rather exist only on bread and water for five years than face God. The speed with which he chooses a fast over facing God is humorous, since he wasted no time in making such idle promises. When faced with more pleadings from Everyman, Cousin claims to have a “cramp in my toe.” His evasiveness is funny, although the audience understands that Everyman’s plight is very serious. This intermingling of brief humor in the face of tragedy portends the formula that William Shakespeare would later adopt for his tragedies one hundred years later. The audience needs a few brief moments of laughter to recover from the tragedy unfolding on stage.
Another moment of laughter occurs when Everyman seeks help from Goods. By now it is clear to the audience the direction the play is taking, and the only surprise remains the means that Goods will take to avoid helping Everyman. Goods is very direct in his refusal to help; the irony comes near the end of their exchange. Goods, having told Everyman that he should have used his money to help the poor, completes his task by saying that he must be off to deceive another just as he has deceived Everyman. He exits the stage, saying, “Have good day,” as if Everyman was not facing imminent death and final judgment. Since the very next scene is an encounter with Good Deeds and a shift to more serious ideas, the audience needs this last little ironic reminder from Goods.
Another view of the play’s adaptability to modern theatre is suggested by Carolynn Van Dyke in Acts of Interpretation, The Texts in Its Contexts 700-1600, who focused on allegory in her argument that Everyman can find an audience in today’s students. Van Dyke pointed out that allegory offers opportunities for actors to transcend the time period in which the play is written to create a more modern and more easily appreciated representation of the central characters. She argued that the characters in Everyman are realistic, that “they behave like familiar individuals.”
This characterization takes the characters beyond the limitations of pure allegory. Fellowship is not simply an abstract representation of Everyman’s friends. He is a real character with whom the audience may identity. Friends often promise what they cannot deliver; students and audiences will
“ONE OF THE SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS WITH ANY MODERN STAGING OF EVERYMAN IS THAT CONTEMPORARY AUDIENCES HAVE TROUBLE APPRECIATING THE PLAY ON THE SAME LEVEL THAT MEDIEVAL VIEWERS WOULD HAVE”
recognize that reality. Van Dyke maintained that “those characters’ material forms not only represent but also redefine their names.” Each character has a distinct personality or at least has the promise of a distinct personality, if given the opportunity in performance. It is actors who infuse personality into these abstract characters. “As categories and abstractions,” Van Dyke noted, “they cannot be fully realized by any creature.” But, she continued, “their embodiment in individual actors . . . must call upon the techniques of realistic characterization.” With a skillful actor, the relationship between text, ideas, and audience can become clearer. The actor is infused with identity, and the audience has a practical application of the ideas.
Writing in Studies in Philology, Stanton Garner also argued that medieval morality plays must be viewed within their medium to be fully appreciated and that thus far, plays such as Everyman have not been valued as theatre pieces because modern audience fail to understand their correct role within the genre of drama. Although Garner was not focusing on humor, he was arguing that the visualization of characters, such as Death, is crucial to appreciating the play. Garner noted that “in performance, a stage devil is physically there, in real proximity to the audience, and with every gesture and movement he draws attention to his immediacy. The audience is forced to acknowledge and be aware of Death because he is not an abstract character drawn on the page. Instead, he becomes a personification of the Death that threatens all men.”
Garner pointed out that this living embodiment of Death helps to suggest a world beyond the limited locations created by the words of the text. Instead of Death as an abstract concept representing a world beyond the audience’s imagining, there appears on stage a form that suggests reality. Salvation ceases to be an abstract promise of the church and becomes instead, the “presence of the here-and-now.” Garner made the additional observation that the audience can only understand Everyman’s aloneness by seeing the play in performance. The reader understands that Everyman becomes increasingly isolated as Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods abandon him. But the audience actually sees these characters leave the stage never to return, and with each departure, Everyman becomes increasingly isolated.
Although Everyman proved very popular with medieval readers, there is no evidence that it was staged during that period, and records citing performance after 1600 make no mention of the play’s staging. There have been, however, a number of successful productions in the twentieth century. In 1901, William Poel’s staging of Everyman was so successful that he took it on the road in England, Scotland, and Ireland. He eventually brought the play to the United States. Its United States tour was successful enough that British productions of the play returned several more times in the next thirty years. Today, Everyman is occasionally staged at colleges and universities, as well as by church organizations. But these productions are either academic in nature or focused on religious ideology. Tanner, Van Dyke, and Garner have all argued that this play has value beyond such limited focus. A closer evaluation of the plot and characters would support such a move.