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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. Historians note that monks and priests often wrote these types of dramas.
Morality plays were vernacular dramas, spoken in the language of the people, rather than the Latin of the Church. They were meant to be seen by the common people. Like other morality plays, "Everyman" is an allegory. The lessons being relayed are taught by allegorical characters, each one representing an abstract concept such as good deeds, material possessions, and knowledge.
God decides that Everyman (a character who represents an 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; they are 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.
On 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 the 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 abandons him.
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 Kindred and Cousin realize Everyman's destination, they back out. One of the funniest moments in the play is when Cousin refuses to go by claiming 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 deserts Everyman.
Finally, Everyman meets a character who 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 laying on the ground, severely weakened by Everyman's many sins.
Enter Knowledge and Confession
Good-Deeds introduces Everyman to her sister, Knowledge. This is 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 Confession. Many readers expect to hear scandalous “dirt” on the main character, and expect him to beg forgiveness, or hope he will at least apologize for whatever sins he has committed. Such readers will be surprised here. 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? In this play, it means that Everyman undergoes a severe and purifying form of physical punishment. After he suffers, Everyman is amazed to discover that Good-Deeds is now free and strong, ready to stand by his side during his moment of judgment.
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.
Everyman calls forth the characters Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five-Wits. Combined, they represent the core of his physical human experience.
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 as part of his penance), Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five-Wits abandon him. Beauty is the first one to leave, 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.
Knowledge explains that he won't be going into the “heavenly sphere” with Everyman, but will stay with him until he departs from his physical body. This allegorically implies 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 all should heed the lessons of Everyman: Everything in life is fleeting, with the exception of acts of kindness and charity.
As one might expect from a morality play, "Everyman" has a very clear moral, one that is delivered at the beginning, middle, and end of the play. The blatantly religious message is simple: Earthly comforts are fleeting. Only good deeds and God's grace can provide salvation.
Who Wrote 'Everyman?'
Many morality plays were a collaborative effort by clergymen and residents (often tradesmen and guild members) of an 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.
When Everyman summons the Five-Wits, a fascinating discussion about the importance of the priesthood follows.
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 of priests in medieval society. In most European villages, the clergy were the moral leaders. 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.