Essays On Morality Plays

Morality plays were popular in England for a long period which begins in the late medieval period and continues right up to the end of Shakespeare’s writing lifetime – from about 1400 to 1600. The word “morality” points the reader towards the genre’s central concern: dramatizing simple stories and events in a way which reinforces or makes manifest Christian morals and teachings. More generally, “morality” can refer simply to the matters of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and indeed, the morality plays often centrally focus on the battle between good and evil.

David Bevington, in his hugely important book Medieval Drama has defined the morality play as “the dramatization of a spiritual crisis in the life of a representative mankind figure in which his spiritual struggle is portrayed as a conflict between personified abstractions representing good and evil”, and, though it does not catch all of the surviving examples, this definition is a good starting point.

The moralities are certainly often peopled by – as Bevington suggests – “personified abstractions” and allegorical figures (Strength and Mercy are two examples from Mankind and Everyman respectively), but there are also more general types (such as Fellowship and Cousin from Everyman), and one must also be careful not to forget those exceptional characters who appear as themselves (God and Death in Everyman and the popular devil character Titivillus in Mankind.

There are about sixty surviving morality plays, many of which are anonymous, and GradeSaver has ClassicNotes online for Everyman and Mankind. There are two other important examples for the student of the genre. First is Mundus et Infans, which adapts and explores the common morality theme of transience and is one of the earlier recorded instances of the idea of the “ages of man”. The second is one of the longest that survive, The Castle of Perseverance, which follows the life of Humanum Genus and is almost 4,000 lines long.


English morality play, written circa 1495.

Everyman is considered the greatest example of the medieval morality play. Composed by an unknown author in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the play was long judged to be of historical interest only. It was successfully revived on stage at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, and has since become the most frequently performed of the morality plays. It has earned praise and admiration for its profound moral message, which is conveyed with dignity tinged with gentle humor, and for its simple beauty and vivid characters.

Textual History

The text of Everyman survives in four early sixteenth-century editions: two complete printings by John Skot (or Scott) entitled Here begynneth a treatyse how the hye fader of heuen sendeth dethe to somon euery creature to come and gyue a counte of theyr lyues in this Worlde, and is in maner of a morall playe (The sumonyg of eueryman) (c. 1522-29 and c. 1525-30), and two redactions by Richard Pynson (c. 1510-25 and c. 1525-30), which are extant only in fragments. From these initial publications until the work's revival in the twentieth century, Everyman was considered little more than a literary artifact, and appeared only in collections of pre-Elizabethan drama that sought to catalogue England's literary history. Such anthologies include Thomas Hawkins's The Origin of the English Drama (1773) and W. Carew Hazlitt's edition of Robert Dodsley's A Select Collection of Old English Plays (1874). No separate editions appeared until after the play's twentieth-century revival. Since then, the work has been reprinted numerous times, including A. C. Cawley's highly regarded 1961 edition. In addition, the play has been adapted and translated into various languages; Hugo von Hofmannsthal's German adaptation Jedermann is particularly noteworthy, having achieved great popular success in performance at the 1911 Salzburg Festival.

Plot and Major Characters

Everyman, like other morality plays, seeks to present a religious lesson through allegorical figures representing abstract characteristics. The play centers on the life of Everyman, a wealthy man in his prime who is suddenly called by Death to appear before God for judgment. On his journey to meet God, he seeks assistance from lifelong companions Fellowship (friends), Kindred and Cousin (family), and Goods (material wealth), but all abandon him. Because he has neglected her in life, Good-Deeds is too weak to accompany Everyman on his journey. She advises him to call on Knowledge (awareness of sin). Knowledge escorts Everyman to Confession, who directs him to do penance. In the process of Everyman's penance, Good-Deeds is strengthened and is finally able to accompany Everyman to his final reckoning. Everyman, now wearing the garment of Contrition, continues his journey—until now a quest for spiritual health, but increasingly showing the qualities of a pilgrimage—to salvation. Everyman, Knowledge, and Good-Deeds are joined on the journey by Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits (the senses). After donating his wealth to charity, Everyman follows the advice of Knowledge and Five Wits and receives the sacraments of Communion and Extreme Unction. Meanwhile, Knowledge and Five Wits converse on the subject of corrupt priests in the church. Approaching his grave, Everyman is again deserted by all his companions except Knowledge and Good-Deeds. As the story closes, Knowledge remains behind as Everyman and Good-Deeds together descend into the grave.

Major Themes

The themes in Everyman are strongly reflected in the allegorical characters which populate the work. The work teaches ethical and religious lessons about how to please God and how to treat humanity. The work has been seen by some critics as a dramatic treatment of the medieval Catholic church doctrine of “Holy Dying,” whereby a person forsakes earthly attachments and prepares his or her soul for salvation, but episodes such as the discussion between Knowledge and Five Wits on corrupt priests suggest the influence of the Protestant reform movement as well. The testing of Everyman's companions, all of whom fail except for Good-Deeds, reflects the medieval belief that friends must prove themselves before they can be accepted as true. Good-Deeds's loyalty additionally points to the Christian notion of friendship as a gift from God. Thus, this figure represents not only Everyman's own positive and good actions but God's blessing as well.

Critical Reception

Since its revival in the early twentieth century, Everyman has been considered the finest of the medieval morality plays. Critics have investigated numerous aspects of the play, including its source, the religious doctrine it presents, its structure, its style, and its use of allegory. Many critics propose that the primary source of Everyman may be the Dutch play Elckerlijc (c. 1490), because of the close similarity of the text and tone of the two works. Some scholars have gone even further and have asserted that Everyman is a translation of Elckerlijc. Scholars have also commented on the close integration of the play's structure and themes. According to Lawrence V. Ryan, the doctrine and the “theology presented actually determines the structure of the morality and helps to give it the place it admittedly deserves as the most successful thing of its kind in English literature.” Thomas F. Van Laan has argued that the play's “human action and its allegorical significance together form a distinct structural pattern which not only imposes discipline but also contributes its own intrinsic meaning.” The main thrust of the play, according to William Munson, is for the reader to understand that “a saving deed is, in the end, possible.” Ron Tanner has contested the claims that the morality play genre lacks humor by pointing to Everyman's dramatic irony. The poetry of Everyman has also been praised for its clear, direct style. Most critics agree that its vivid characterization, unadorned poetic style, and closely interwoven themes, images, and plot combine to make Everyman a peerless artistic achievement.


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