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The Summoning of Everyman otherwise known as Everyman is a morality play which uses symbolic characters in an examination of the road to Christian salvation. The play offers a comprehensive illustration of the impact of the quality of life on the human perception of death. The main character Everyman is a representation of all human beings. He has to account for choices made throughout his life when he faces Death, an allegorical character representing the culmination of human life. Through Everyman, this play endorses the notion of judgment after death where every man has to account for his good and evil actions at the end of their life.
According to Law, morality plays are a type of medieval drama alongside miracle plays and mystery plays. Morality plays use allegory to personify human vices and virtues in a representation of mankind’s search for salvation. Other examples of morality plays include Magnyfyence written by John Skelton and Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thre Estaitis written by David Lyndsay in the 16th century. This essay analyzes the author’s perception and treatment of death in the play Everyman. Everyman is a morality (moral) play written by an unknown author in the late 15th century. The author describes Everyman as a discourse describing how God sends death to summon his creation to give an account of their life on earth.
A Summary of the Play
Everyman dramatizes the struggle between good and evil within the soul of the main character Everyman. In the play, God recognizes Everyman’s moral descent and sends death to summon him. Death’s visit makes Everyman take a closer look at the way he has lived his life. He is unprepared and unequipped for the journey he must take. His realization that his friends Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousin would not be accompanying him results in further anxiety. Everyman is only left to depend on Good Deeds whom he has neglected in the past. Although Good Deeds initially refuses to accompany Everyman on his journey, she offers moral support and sends him to her sister Knowledge for guidance.
In the final moments of Everyman’s life, the author clarifies the impact of a person’s choices and highlights the importance of knowledge and good deeds (represented by allegorical characters of the same names) in the road to salvation. Everyman’s encounters with Discretion, Beauty, Strength, and Five-wits reveal the insignificance of mundane features in death. When these characters eventually forsake him, Everyman understands that pleasure, beauty, strength, and intelligence cannot change the inevitability of death. The play takes the reader through Everyman’s vices and temptations in his journey through life, his encounter with Death, his descent into desperation and his subsequent spiritual awakening.
The main character Everyman is a representative of all humankind and their experiences in life. Everyman has to account for his actions when he is summoned by Death, an allegorical character representing the culmination of human life. Death is represented as a messenger from God sent to evaluate the quality of Everyman’s life. Despite the bad choices Everyman has made throughout his life, he is offered a chance at redemption. Everyman illustrates the inevitability of death and man’s capability for salvation through personal reﬂection, confession, atonement, commission, and forgiveness.
The Treatment of Death
In Everyman, the author treats death as a divine agent of God sent to deliver God’s message of repentance and educate the man on his final journey to redemption.
In Everyman, death is represented as a messenger from God. God’s summon of death refers to him as a “mighty messenger” to which Death replies, “Almighty God, I am here at Your will; Your commandment to fulfill” (Anonymous 2). A master-servant relationship ensues in the dialogue between the two characters. Foremost, God has the discretion to summon Death whenever he pleases. As well, Death’s prompt response to God’s call signifies obedience. In the extract, “Go thou to Everyman, and show him in My name A pilgrimage he must on him take” (Anonymous 2), God gives Death the authority to speak on his behalf. Death conveys God’s exact message to Everyman without falling prey to human persuasions such as material wealth.
As a messenger of God, Death does not conform to human expectations. He shows up whenever God sends him irrespective of humankind preparedness or lack thereof. Death responds to Everyman’s attempt to bribe him by asserting that he will not be persuaded by wealth or stature (Anonymous 4). Everyman’s attempt to bribe Death reflects a poor understanding of death. He expects that he can reason with Death to extend his life. However, Death is only a messenger from God, without the capacity to overrule God’s decisions.
Perception of Death in Everyman
The human awareness of the inevitability of death makes death an insufferable and dreaded subject. Different people have varying ways of treating and perceiving death depending on their religious, educational or ethnic backgrounds. Some of the evident perceptions of death in Everyman include:
Fear of Death
According to Moore and Williamson (3), fear is the most common response to death. The two authors believe that the awareness of death is the driving force of human progress (11). In the play, Everyman’s attempts to coax Death into prolonging his life is an accurate representation of mankind’s apprehension of death. “…I give thee if you wilt be kind, Yea, a thousand pounds shalt thou have; If thou defer this matter till another day.” The fear of death helps to maintain social order. For instance, religion prescribes societal norms by differentiating between profanity and purity. In governance, people in power use the fear of death to keep members of society in check by enforcing the belief that disorder leads to death and also the probability of an abysmal afterlife (Moore and Williamson 5).
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There is Judgement and Life After Death
The play Everyman embodies this Christian perspective of death. After God sends Death to summon Everyman, Death makes the following remarks:
Every man will I beset that liveth beastly, Against God’s laws, and dreadeth, not folly:
He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart, His sight to blind, and from heaven to depart,
Except that alms be his good friend, In hell for to dwell, world without end. (Anonymous 2)
In this excerpt, Death vows to unearth everyone that lives contrary to God’s laws, strike them from Heaven and condemn them to hell. These remarks reveal the Christian credence of judgment and life after death. According to Ayodeji (515), Christians perceive death as a stage in human life where dying only opens a door into another reality. Christianity embraces the concept of judgment after death after which people who have lived reckless lives are condemned to hell whereas individuals who lived virtuous and honest lives will go to Heaven where they will revel in eternal bliss.
Death is Inevitable
Through the character of Everyman, the play’s author brings out the inevitability of death despite an individual’s social status or bequest in physical appearances. The character Death is a symbolic representation of somatic death. In response to Everyman’s attempt to bribe him. Death retorts that no gold, silver or riches from emperors, kings, princes, and popes can sway the inevitability of death (Anonymous 4). Good Deeds also acknowledges the irrelevance of earthly possessions, physical appearance and “foolish friends and kinsmen” (Anonymous 27), in the road to salvation.
God has Control over Death
The author also differentiates human helplessness in the face of death from God’s ability to control death. Mankind is expected to be obedient when summoned by Death (Anonymous 4). However, Death is submissive before God. He tells God, “I am here at your will, Your commandment to fulfill” (Anonymous 3). Death is an inevitable stage of life that all humans must undergo to get back to God. The author represents death as merely a messenger doing God’s will. The play begins with the statement “… a treatise how the High Father of Heaven sendeth death to summon…” (Anonymous 1). God sends Death to summon Everyman so that he may account for his life on earth and Death relays God’s message as he was instructed without question.
Death is Unpredictable
Everyman portrays death as sudden. When Death introduces himself, Everyman asserts that he did not expect him. “O Death, thou comest, when I had thee least in mind” (Anonymous 4). The unexpected visit by Death agonizes Everyman since he cannot produce a sufficient account of his life. Everyman weeps and tries to bribe Death to no avail.
However, despite the plays strong message and relevance to modern audiences, Everyman has been criticized on the premise that the play undermines God’s sovereignty. Being a sovereign authority, God has sole discretion on mankind’s salvation. According to Allen the statement “…I could no more than I did, truly,” (Anonymous 2) understates God’s sovereignty by implying that God has reached his limit.
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In summation, Everyman perceives death from a Catholic Church viewpoint alluding to practices such as confession and sacrament. The play sends a message on the importance of Christian living to avoid being ambushed by death without being spiritually prepared. Through Everyman, the author gives hope to the audience that through repentance, every person is capable of salvation and eternal life. Despite the main character’s many flaws and indiscretions, God still offers him a chance to redeem himself. In view of the inevitability of death, it is important to live according to God’s will. The author also reminds the audience of the irrelevance of material possessions in life. Additionally, the play acknowledges that despite the strength of connection to a person’s family and friends, they cannot change the inescapability of death. It is only through repentance that a person can be saved.
- Allen, Caleb S. “Refutation of The Doctrine of Death in The Morality Play, Everyman.” Caleb S. Allen. N.p., 2017. Web. 18 Oct. 2017.
- Anonymous. Everyman. 2017. Web. 17 Oct. 2017.
- Ayodeji, Olowe. “Christians’ Perception of the Concepts of Death and Judgment: A Multimodal Discourse Analytical Study of Selected Editions of Christian Women Mirror Magazine.” International Journal of English and Literature 1.10 (2013): 508-515. Web. 18 Oct. 2017.
- Law, Jonathan. The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre. Bloomsbury: A & C Black, 2011. Print.
- Moore, Calvin Conzelus, and John B. Williamson. “The Universal Fear of Death and The Cultural Response.” Handbook of Death & Dying 1.1 (2003): 3-13. Web. 17 Oct. 2017.