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Everyman - A Medieval Morality Play by Anonymous

Study Guide: Plot, Characters, and Themes

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Historical Context and Authorship:

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 of Everyman:

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).

The 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.

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