How to Study the Medieval Play 'Everyman'

Study Guide: Plot, Characters, and Themes

Everyman rehearsals at Berlin Cathedral
Everyman rehearsals at Berlin Cathedral. Anita Bugge/WireImage/Getty Images

Written in England during the 1400s, The Summoning of Everyman (commonly known as Everyman) is a Christian morality play. No one knows who wrote the play Everyman. Historians have noted that monks and priests often wrote these types of dramas.

Many morality plays were a collaborative effort by clergymen and residents (often tradesmen and guild members) of the English town. Over the years, lines would be changed, added, and deleted.

Therefore, Everyman is probably the result of multiple authors and decades of literary evolution.

Theme

As one might expect from a morality play, Everyman has a very clear moral, one that is delivered in the beginning, middle, and end. The blatantly religious message is simple: Earthly comforts are fleeting. Only good deeds and God’s grace can provide salvation. The lessons of the play are delivered in the form of allegorical characters, each one representing a variety of abstract concepts (i.e. Good Deeds, Material Possessions, and Knowledge).

Basic Storyline

God decides that Everyman (a character who represents your average, everyday human) has become too obsessed with wealth and material possessions. Therefore, Everyman must be taught a lesson in piety. And who better to teach a life-lesson than a character named Death?

Man is Unkind

God’s chief complaint is that humans are ignorantly leading sinful lives, unaware that Jesus died for their sins.

Everyman has been living for his own pleasure, forgetting about the importance of charity and the potential threat of eternal hellfire.

Upon God’s bidding, Death summons Everyman to take a pilgrimage to the Almighty. When Everyman realizes that the Grim Reaper has called upon him to face God and give a reckoning of his life, he tries to bribe Death to “defer this matter till another day.”

The bargaining doesn’t work. Everyman must go before God, never to return to Earth again. Death does say that our hapless hero can take along anyone or anything that may benefit him during this spiritual trial.

Friends and Family Are Fickle

After Death leaves Everyman to prepare for his day of reckoning (the moment in which God judges him), Everyman approaches a character named Fellowship, a supporting role that represents Everyman’s friends. At first, Fellowship is full of bravado. When Fellowship learns that Everyman is in trouble, he promises to stay with him until the problem is resolved. However, as soon as Everyman reveals that Death has summoned him to stand before God, Fellowship ditches the poor guy.

Kindred and Cousin, two characters that represent family relationships, make similar promises. Kindred declares: “In wealth and woe we will with you hold, / For over his kin a man may be bold.” But once they realize Everyman’s destination, they back out. One of the funniest moments in the play is when Cousin refuses to go because he has a cramp in his toe.

The overall message of the play’s first half is that relatives and friends (as reliable as they may seem) pale in comparison to the steadfast companionship of God.

Goods vs. Good Deeds

After getting rejected by fellow humans, Everyman turns his hopes to inanimate objects. He talks to a character named “Goods,” a role which represents Everyman’s material possessions and wealth. Everyman pleads for Goods to assist him in his hour of need, but they offer no comfort. In fact, the Goods chide Everyman, suggesting that he should have admired material objects moderately ​and that he should have given some of his goods to the poor. Not wanting to visit God (and subsequently be sent to hell) Goods abandons Everyman.​​

Finally, Everyman meets a character that will genuinely care for his plight. Good-Deeds is a character who symbolizes the acts of charity and kindness performed by Everyman. However, when the audience first meets Good-Deeds, she is lying on the ground, severely weakened by Everyman’s many sins.

Enter Knowledge and Confession

Good-Deeds introduces Everyman to her sister, Knowledge – another friendly character who will provide good advice to the protagonist. Knowledge serves as an important guide for Everyman, instructing him to seek out another character: Confession.

Everyman is led to yet another character, Confession. This part is fascinating to me, as a reader, because I was expecting to hear a bunch of scandalous “dirt” on our main character. I was also expecting him to beg forgiveness, or at least apologize for whatever sins he has committed. Instead, Everyman asks for his vices to be wiped clean. Confession says that with penance Everyman’s spirit may become clean once more.

What does penance mean? Well, in this case, it seems that Everyman undergoes a severe and purifying form of physical punishment. After he “suffers,” Everyman is then amazed to discover that his Good-Deeds are now free and strong, ready to stand by his side during his moment of judgment.

And the Rest

After this purging of the soul, Everyman is ready to meet his maker. Good-Deeds and Knowledge tell Everyman to call upon “three persons of great might” and his Five-Wits (his senses) as counselors.

So Everyman calls forth the characters Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five-Wits. Combined, they represent the core of his physical/human experience.

What follows is a fascinating discussion about the importance of the priesthood.

FIVE-WITS:
For priesthood exceedeth all other thing;
To us Holy Scripture they do teach,
And converteth man from sin heaven to reach;
God hath to them more power given,
Than to any angel that is in heaven

According to the Five-Wits, priests are more powerful than angels. This reflects the prevalent role in medieval society; in most European villages the clergy were the moral leaders of society. However, the character of Knowledge mentions that priests are not perfect, and some of them have committed egregious sins. The discussion concludes with a general endorsement of the church as the surest path to salvation.

Unlike the first half of the play when he begged for help from his friends and family, Everyman is now relying on himself. However, even though he receives some good advice from each entity, he realizes that they will not go the distance as he journeys closer to his meeting with God.

Like previous characters, these entities promise to stay by his side. Yet, when Everyman decides that it is time for his body to physically die (perhaps part of his penance?), Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five-Wits abandon him. Beauty is the first one to take a hike, disgusted by the idea of lying in a grave. The others follow suit, and Everyman is left alone with Good-Deeds and Knowledge once again.

Everyman Departs

Knowledge explains that he won’t be going into the “heavenly sphere” with Everyman, but he will stay with him until he departs from his physical body. This seems to imply that the soul does not retain its “earthly” knowledge.

However, Good-Deeds (as promised) will journey with Everyman. At the end of the play, Everyman commends his soul to God. After his departure, an Angel arrives to announce that Everyman’s soul has been taken from his body and presented before God.

A final narrator enters to explain to the audience that we should all head the lessons of Everyman. Everything in our lives is fleeting, with the exception of our acts of kindness and charity.