Everyman: Morality Play Summary and Analysis

Section 4 (l.651-922)

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Everyman is ready to go on his pilgrimage, but Good Deeds stops him, telling him he needs three more people to accompany him: Discretion, Strength and Beauty. Knowledge also adds that Everyman needs to call his Five Wits along to counsel him. Everyman calls them all to him, and they all enter. Each tells Everyman that they will be his adviser, his help and his comfort. Everyman seems happy, and says that now he has everything he could need to go on his pilgrimage.

Knowledge tells Everyman to go to Priesthood to receive the holy sacrament and extreme unction. Knowledge then makes a speech about priesthood, and how priests are a means to become close to God via the seven sacraments and their teaching of holy scripture. God has given priests more power than to any angel in heaven, Knowledge says. Everyman exits to go and receive the sacrament. Knowledge continues by making a speech damning sinful priests, who father children and have relationships with women. Sinful priests “giveth... example bad” to the people, Knowledge continues.

Everyman re-enters with a crucifix, having received the sacrament and extreme unction. He asks each of his companions to set their hands on the cross, and go before. One by one, Strength, Discretion, and Knowledge promise never to part from Everyman’s side. Together, they all journey to Everyman’s grave.

Everyman feels faint and cannot stand. Everyman announces to his friends that he must creep into the earth and sleep. Beauty is terrified and asks “What, shall I smother here?” (“What, am I supposed to suffocate here?”). When Everyman says, “Yea”, Beauty turns and leaves, swearing not to come back for “all the gold in thy chest”. After Beauty leaves, Strength quickly follows suit. Everyman reminds Strength that he promised to stay with him, but Strength simply tells him that he is a “fool to complain” and leaves.

Moreover, as Everyman notes that “Both Strength and Beauty forsaketh me”, Discretion tells Everyman that he too will leave him. Discretion says that he always follows Strength. Everyman begs Discretion to look with pity on his grave, but Discretion refuses and exits. Everyman notes that

...when Death bloweth his blast

They all run fro me full fast.

Only Five Wits is left, and, though Everyman tells him he “took [him] for [his] best friend”, he too will no longer stay with Everyman. Five Wits exits, and Everyman is left alone with Good Deeds: “O Jesu, help!”, Everyman says, “All hath forsaken me”.

Good Deeds speaks up and says that she will not forsake him. Everyman is grateful. Everyman realises that it is time for him to be gone to make his reckoning and pay his spiritual debts. Yet, he says, there is a lesson to be learned:

Take example, all ye that this do hear or see

How they that I loved best do forsake me,

Except my Good Deeds that bideth truly.

Commending his soul into the Lord’s hands, Everyman disappears into the grave with Good Deeds. Knowledge wryly points out that Everyman has suffered something that “we all shall endure”. Angelic music sounds, and an Angel appears with Everyman’s Book of Reckoning to receive the soul as it rises from the grave. The Angel says that, because of Everyman’s “singular virtue”, his reckoning is “crystal clear” and his soul will be taken into the “heavenly sphere”.

A doctor appears to give the epilogue. He tells the hearers to forsake Pride, Beauty, Five Wits, Strength and Discretion – all of them forsake “every man” in the end. It is only Good Deeds who goes along with you ; though, he adds, if the Good Deeds are only small, they will not help either. You cannot, the Doctor tells the audience, make amends after your death. If your reckoning is not clear at death, God will say “Ite, maledicti, in ignem aeternum” (Depart, cursed one, into eternal fire); yet he whose reckoning is clear will be “crowned” “high in heaven”.

Analysis

There is, in this final section of the play, a horrible symmetry between the first set of forsaking friends and the second. There is a real sense of dramatic irony and inevitability created: we, the audience or the reader, know that Strength, Discretion, and Beauty (and their compatriots) will desert Everyman just as his earlier false friends did. Notably, in the structure of the play, the two sets of friends take up approximately the same number of lines. Yet there is a key difference: where the first set of false friends (Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods) were things external to Everyman, the second set are internal aspects of Everyman himself (Discretion, Strength, Beauty and Five Wits).

It is, perhaps, only with this second set of friends that the grim point of the play truly comes home to us. It is not only your money and your fine clothes, your friends and relations that you cannot take with you beyond the grave, but your intellectual and physical qualities – your intelligence, your strength and your beauty will all depart from you. It is, in one sense, a play that makes a single point again and again, but it is one at the center of Christianity: this life is a prequel to the next, and with almost everything that people in the world think are valuable, you can’t take it with you once you are dead.

Except, of course, for one thing: Good Deeds. It is Good Deeds who movingly does accompany Everyman into the grave. Within the play itself there is a certain amount of satisfaction derived from the fact that Everyman the character has finally found a loyal friend, and, in performance, I suspect, a moving sense of resolution that someone has not forsaken Everyman. The allegorical point, though, is also clear, and it reflects the Christian doctrine of the time. After death, it is not what we have received that counts, but what we have given: we are, in essence, rewarded only for our good deeds to others, rather than the worldly goods, knowledge or attributes we have amassed.

Everyman, as Good Deeds accompanies him to the grave, seems to speak directly to the audience – now, in the words of G.A. Lester “as firm in understanding as he was formerly in ignorance”:

Take example, all ye that this do hear or see

How they that I loved best do forsake me,

Except my Good Deeds that bideth truly.

This is the moral of the play, oft-stated, and, at the end, made manifest in the resolution of the plot. It is a traditional Christian teaching, and one that would have met with the strong approval of the Catholic Christian Church dominant in England at the turn of the 16th Century.

Yet the play is not simply concerned with abstract morals or didactic relation of Christian teachings; in the highly distinctive discussion of the priesthood, Everyman touches on a theme which would have been perhaps shockingly contemporary to the original audience or reader: the role of the priesthood. For, though the play certainly establishes the important religious role of priests in administering the sacrament and in being a vessel for Christian teaching, it also examines the abuses of the clergy which were a controversial topic at the time the play was written.

The sinful priests that Knowledge describes, who father children and have relationships with women, “giveth... example bad” to the people – and were a common problem for the Catholic Church of the late medieval period. There were numerous instances of priests having sexual relationships or fathering children (both forbidden for the Catholic priesthood, then and today) and dissatisfaction with these abuses was one factor which led Martin Luther to initiate the Protestant reformation in 1517, within 20 years of this play being written. It is an important reminder that Everyman is not simply a moral lesson, but a play which engages with the problems of its time, and speaks directly to the people who read or heard it in c.1500.