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Everyman, originally known as The Summoning of Everyman, is an English morality play composed in the late 15th century; the author’s identity is unknown. The play, in which God summons the character of “Everyman” to account for his sins, uses allegorical characters to explore themes of Christian salvation and repentance. Though Everyman’s original performance date is unknown, the play has inspired numerous stage and cinematic adaptations and has given its name to the Everyman’s Library publishing company. This guide refers to the 1922 Everyman’s Library edition of the play edited by A. C. Cawley.
Everyman begins with a prologue in which the Messenger asks the audience for their attention. The Messenger introduces the subject of the play, which will highlight the “transitory” nature of human life and of worldly human pursuits such as Fellowship, Strength, Pleasure, and Beauty.
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God speaks next, complaining that human beings are more interested in the sinful pursuit of worldly goods than in serving him. Humans have no fear of heaven or hell and forget God’s sacrifice on the cross, when Jesus Christ died for their sins. Fearing that humans will continue growing worse, God decides to have a reckoning with Everyman. He summons Death and orders him to bring Everyman to him.
Death rushes to carry out God’s orders, observing that humans are too preoccupied with thoughts of worldly pleasures and gain to prepare for his coming. He finds Everyman and chides him for walking about “gaily” without any thought to God, telling him that he has been summoned for a reckoning before God. Everyman will need to bring his “book of count” (104), containing his good and evil deeds, when he goes before God to explain how he spent his life.
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Everyman is alarmed by what Death tells him and asks for more time, protesting that he is “full unready” for his reckoning. When he learns the identity of his interlocutor, he tries in vain to bribe him with money. Death confirms that Everyman’s journey is final and unavoidable, but he allows Everyman to take a companion with him—provided he finds one brave enough to come.
Everyman laments his fate and Death’s untimely arrival, wondering where to seek a companion for his journey. Fellowship enters and asks Everyman why he is so upset. Everyman reveals that he is in danger and Fellowship promptly promises never to abandon Everyman. This encourages Everyman, who tells Fellowship of the journey on which he must go. As soon as Fellowship learns about the situation, he demurs from his previous promise never to abandon Everyman. He declares that he will not accompany Everyman on his journey, leading Everyman to understand that Fellowship can accompany him only in pleasure, not in pain.
After Fellowship leaves, Everyman calls to Kindred and Cousin, who similarly promise to stay with him and to “live and die together” (324). But they, like Fellowship, renege on their promise and abandon Everyman when they discover the journey he must make.
Everyman wonders where to turn next, and thinks of his “Goods and riches” (392), whom he has loved and pursued throughout his life. Goods enters in response to Everyman’s call. Everyman tells Goods of the journey he must make, but Goods tells him right away that he cannot accompany anybody on such a journey. Goods explains that the love of worldly wealth is directly contrary to the eternal love of God and that humans’ possession of Goods is only ever temporary. As Goods leaves him, Everyman realizes that he has been deceived in believing the pursuit of worldly wealth to be valuable.
Everyman turns at last to Good Deeds, but finds that she is too weak to move or walk and thus cannot accompany him on his journey. Good Deeds is, however, able to direct Everyman to her sister, Knowledge, who is equipped to help Everyman face his reckoning. Knowledge promptly enters and guides Everyman to Confession, who dwells in the “house of salvation” (540). Confession instructs Everyman on how to ask God for mercy with penance. Everyman pleads for forgiveness and mercy, acknowledging his sins and punishing his body. Through Everyman’s penitence, Good Deeds regains the ability to walk and promises to accompany Everyman on his journey.
Knowledge gives Everyman a symbol of his repentance—a “garment of sorrow” that is wet with his tears (643)—and instructs him to put it on. Thus clad, Everyman is joined by Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits, who promise to accompany Everyman on his journey. Everyman’s courage grows. Knowledge then advises Everyman to go to Priesthood to receive the sacrament and extreme unction. Five Wits seconds this advice, praising the importance of priests and the sacraments within the worldly realm. As Everyman receives the sacrament, Knowledge and Five Wits discuss the importance of priests while condemning corrupt members of the clergy who take bribes and break their vows of celibacy.
After receiving the sacrament, Everyman returns to his friends, ready and even eager to go to his reckoning. Strength, Discretion, and Knowledge all reaffirm their resolve to remain with Everyman. When the group comes to Everyman’s grave and Everyman begins to die, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits all leave him. Good Deeds, however, vows to remain with Everyman. Even Knowledge admits that she cannot remain with Everyman after his soul leaves his physical body, though she will remain with him until his death. Everyman now proclaims the lesson he has learned at last:
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 (867-69).
Everyman finally commends his soul to God, asking for mercy and forgiveness, and enters his grave with Good Deeds at his side. An Angel enters to receive the soul of Everyman into Heaven, followed by a Doctor who explains the moral of the play: that when humans die, they can take only Good Deeds with them to their final judgment, or “reckoning,” with God.