Everyman: Morality Play Summary and Analysis

Section 3 (l.462-650)

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Everyman is left alone and asks

O, to whom shall I make me moan

For to go with me in that heavy journey?

He recaps how he has been deserted, one after the other, by Fellowship, his kinsmen, and his Goods (whom, he says, he “loved best”). He feels ashamed that he did not realize that Goods brought people towards hell – and says that he himself is “worthy to be blamed”. He decides to turn to Good Deeds but worries that she is so weak that “she can neither go nor speak”.

When Good Deeds enters, she does not need to hear from Everyman about his pilgrimage or that he has been summoned to make his account – she knows already. Good Deeds says that Everyman’s book of account would be in great shape if only he had focused his attention on her. As he has not spent any time with Good Deeds, though, she is weak and cannot go with him. She does, though, have a sister who can accompany Everyman – Knowledge.

Knowledge enters and tells Everyman “I will go with thee and be thy guide”. Everyman is delighted. With Knowledge by his side, Everyman decides to go and find Confession in the House of Salvation. Confession is then “seen at a distance within the House of Salvation”. Everyman kneels to him and asks for mercy.

Confession, like Good Deeds before him, knows already of Everyman’s sorrow, but can give him the comfort of “a precious jewel” called “penance”. Jesus, Confession continues, suffered on the cross for mankind, so man in turn must remember Jesus in suffering himself by undergoing the “scourge of penance”. Confession tells Everyman to fulfill this penance, and that Knowledge will tell him how he can clear his account book with God.

Everyman makes a long prayer to God, begging for forgiveness and mercy. At the end of this speech, he “strips off his fine clothes” and “takes the scourge”. Knowledge says now Everyman can “make his reckoning sure”. Everyman continues to scourge himself “for the sins of the flesh”. With that, Good Deeds is suddenly able to walk; she gets up and announces she is able to go with Everyman. This makes Everyman’s heart light, and he scourges himself even faster than he did before.

Knowledge then hands Everyman the Garment of Contrition, which he is to put on to rid him from sorrow. The Garment, Knowledge tells Everyman, “pleaseth God passing well”. Everyman puts on the garment. Everyman’s reckoning is now clear and he is ready to go on his way.

Analysis

Students often struggle with the verse form of the Everyman. You often see it called iambic tetrameter or iambic pentameter, but in fact, the verse form is more irregular than that. To take two lines at random, for example, and highlight using CAPITAL LETTERS a strong beat, leaving a weak beat in lower case, would look something like this:

WASH fro ME the SPOTS of VICE unCLEAN

that ON me NO sin MAY be SEEN

It is certainly true that the second of these two lines is a regular line of iambic tetrameter, but the first is missing an initial weak stress if it is a line of pentameter. The writer also regularly employs lines which have far too many or too few beats to be a pentameter or tetrameter line: like, for example, “O glorious fountain, that all uncleanness doth clarify” (l.545). We might best describe the verse form as irregular rhyming verse (which tends towards rhyming couplets).

This section begins with one of Everyman’s soliloquies. Everyman soliloquizes several times during the play, and a soliloquy is a speech made by a character who is alone on stage, sometimes addressed to the audience, but sometimes intended more as “spoken thought” – as if the character is talking to him or herself. As we have no information about the original stage history of Everyman, it is impossible to say whether or not Everyman might have addressed an audience directly with his problems, though if he did, the stagecraft itself would provide a neat encapsulation of Everyman’s own role in the play: Everyman talking to every man. His problems, shared with the audience, would become their problems – which, considering Everyman represents humankind, they are anyway!

Why, some students often ask, does Everyman not immediately go to his grave once his Good Deeds has emerged? Though it is not stated particularly clearly in the play, it likely would have been common knowledge among Everyman’s original audience. Christian doctrine teaches that good deeds are of no use to a man in a state of sin: and, just as Catholics today believe, Everyman must cleanse himself of sin before he can progress to make his reckoning and be rewarded for his good deeds.

It is Good Deeds’ sister, Knowledge, who takes over at this point as Everyman’s “guide”, who perhaps, rather than knowledge in a more general sense, could be said to represent “acknowledgement of one’s own sin”. Everyman has to face up to and repent for his own actions. It is interesting that we do not really see Everyman commit sin; his sins, of course, have been committed before the play begins, which is the reason that God calls Death to visit Everyman in the first place.

Victorian critics read the play through the lens of the seven deadly sins, and it is certainly true that all of those sins seem to be underlined in either Everyman or one of his friends at some point during the play. We have already seen how Fellowship wants to feast, drink and consort with women (gluttony and lechery) and the odd mention of murder as a form of entertainment (wrath). Everyman’s fine clothes and his lofty offer to bribe Death with a thousand pounds might be seen as representing pride and covetousness. All of Everyman’s friends, as G.A. Lester has noted, “by their unwillingness to go on the journey could be said to exemplify sloth”, and Goods shows a “recognized form of envy” in showing such delight in Everyman’s bad fortunes.

Everyman’s “scourge” is usually interpreted as Everyman whipping himself; an example of the common medieval idea that physical pain would teach man to be sorry for his sins. It is still a practice today in some forms of Christianity. That this is depicted on stage (rather than just described) is perhaps unusual, though it is perhaps an essential step in this section’s point-by-point examination of the road to salvation as late medieval Christianity taught it: contrition (feeling sorry for the sin), confession (confessing the sin), absolution (making amends for the sin) and finally satisfaction and salvation. It is another interest moment to consider tone. Might Everyman’s scourging be depicted as bloody and painful, a reminder of the grisly consequences of sin? Would it shock the audience with its realism, or simply be a symbolic representation of absolution? It is almost impossible to say with any certainty, though it is an important choice for any modern production.

The sharp-eyed reader may well have noted that line 552 refers to “Shrift” (meaning confession) as the “mother of salvation”, where lines 539-40 make it quite clear that Confession is a “holy man”. Is Confession a male or a female? The critic Cawley (editor of one of the best regarded editions of the play) believes this to be intended figuratively – the idea of “mother” is metaphorical rather than literal – though it could just as easily be a mistake in the extant text.