Everyman is normally considered one of the best morality plays, a fine example of this particular genre of medieval drama. In this unattributed work, the eponymous Everyman, is sent to God by Death to answer for the materialism and shallowness of himself and the human race. Everyman, wishing to bargain for more time in order to make proper account for his life, consults with the various people/forces that are important to him to find companions on his journey. On its surface, the play is a standard morality play that emphasizes the importance of being a good person, loving God and eschewing material wants - however, its treatment of Death and the afterlife also says important things about the finite nature of life, and the crucial nature of individuality. In Everyman, Death is the ultimate arbiter of a man's worth in life, and will allow nothing and no one to accompany you into life after death but one's Good Deeds.
Everyman is often compared and thought to come from the Dutch play Elckerlijc, or vice versa, or they are thought to come from a similar lost source (Tigg, 1939; Takahashi, 1953). However, the real issue of this play, regardless of source or inspiration, is its treatment of death - Death is dramatized and anthropomorphized here, as are many other concepts that are integral to the work's status as a morality play (Knowledge, Good Deeds, Fellowship, etc.). Unlike other works, in which Death is a shadow that only appears in the final act of a play, and usually treated with a great deal of sentimentality, the hero of Everyman begins to die right as the play opens; the play itself takes place during the stages of Death (Goldhamer, 1973). There is no real cause given for Everyman's demise; it is simply a thing that happens - this is meant to focus on how the hero reacts to his impending death, and his dealings with the stages of death themselves. Medieval death literature is presented as a significant source for Everyman, but the tone of these works are altered to a great extent in order to allow the main character to actually come to terms with his impending death (Goldhamer, 1973). The play itself does not treat Death as a plot device, or a way to end a character's presence in a story - the story is about Death, and as such it is a constant presence and topic of discussion in Everyman.
The play's prologue provides the audience with a Messenger who spells out the moral and theme of the work itself: "That of our lives and ending shows / How transitory we be all day" (p. 1). This statement cements the subject of the work, being the transitional and finite nature of our lives, as well as how this is shown through our 'ending'. This comes in the form of Death, which is summoned by God after He laments the wasting of human's lives that goes on under his watch. God commands Death to come, calling him a "mighty messenger" (p. 4). Death's first lines cement his relationship to God, which is that of a subordinate who eagerly obeys the commands of his master: "I am here at your will, your commandment to fulfill" (p. 5). Here, we see Death personified not as a deadly force with its own agency and evil ends, but as an instrument of God; whatever Death does, it does as an ultimate commandment of the Lord. To that end, we are shown the ultimate responsibility for our fates, and who we must account to in the afterlife - God. Death is merely the conduit, a middleman and messenger.
In the play, Death notes his relationship to man, as a force that is little seen or expected by man (personified here by the character of Everyman): "Full little he thinketh on my coming; his mind is on fleshly lust and his treasure" (p. 5). When he arrives, he is not destructive, or overtly playful; he is merely there to do God's commands, explaining to Everyman what he must do to all who are set to die and make account of their lives:
"On thee thou must take a long journey:
Therefore thy book of count with thee thou bring;
For turn again thou can not by no way,
And look thou be sure of thy reckoning" (p. 6).
Despite his lack of control over his own commands, he takes great relish in his job; he seems to have a great deal of malice towards humanity. One of the things Death continually points out is the lack of care or concern that humanity has with him; he calls himself "I am Death, that no man dreadeth, for every man I rest and no man spareth" (p. 6). No one can escape him, in that way, he has complete control and dominion over men's lives (apart from God's ultimate authority). Death cannot be avoided at all, and everyone is "run" over eventually (p. 4). Even when Everyman is allowed to make account of his life and query everything in his life he would like to go with him, Death merely waits for him since he is fully aware that no one can avoid him.
The personification of Death as this reflective force, a guide or messenger who helps to take account of one's life, is represented in a very theatrical way. As soon as Everyman is summoned by Death, the play itself is somewhat set in Death's world: "a play about endings, its dominant mode is retrospect: the distractions of life flourish in the past, and are represented in the present only so that the play can dramatize their falling away" (Garner, p. 281). In essence, Death is a steward away from the world of the physical into the world of the spiritual, as Everyman takes account slowly of all the things from his past that he must soon lose - constantly trying to hold onto them as long as possible (Kaula, 1960). Everything is reflective, Death seemingly allowing Everyman to check in with all of his friends and attributes as a courtesy, finally allowing his Good Deeds to come with him. By making this play so presentational and so stylized in its depiction of the process of Death, the lofty themes and personification of abstract ideas (such as Death) can be treated as the fable that it is.
As Everyman starts to learn the true way of life, and the values that he needs to place on Good Deeds and other virtues, he learns an interesting secret about Death, one which we are privy to near the beginning; Death has a great deal of power over the material world, is not able to influence God's choice over whether or not dead men go to heaven. God, in his rules and laws for living, presents the choice to beat Death by at least being allowed into heaven, something that permits him to escape Death's final choices. By the end of the play, Everyman has chosen God, and is informed by an Angel that he will live with them and be saved: "Thy reckoning is crystal-clear. Now shalt thou into the heavenly sphere, unto the which all ye shall come that liveth well before the day of doom" (p. 31). This demonstrates for the audience the way to truly beat Death: live for God, follow His word, and focus one's life on Good Deeds (for they are the only thing they can take with you).
In conclusion, Death's treatment in the morality play Everyman is as evidence of God's ultimate power over life and death. Death is inevitable, inexorable and malicious; it will not spare anyone, and no one can avoid it. However, with the help of God's commandments, and the virtue of Good Deeds, one can have victory over Death and join the angels in heaven. The stylized and abstracted way the play is staged and written allows these allegories to be made clear and the depiction of Death all the more presentational. Death's characterization as a force of nature, but one that is subordinate of God, shows the supreme nature of God's power and His glory, and functions as a powerful historical medieval morality play with clear themes and representation of these abstract concepts.
Garner, S. B. (1987). Theatricality in" Mankind" and" Everyman". Studies in Philology, 84(3), 272-285.
Goldhamer, A. D. (1973). Everyman: A dramatization of death. Taylor & Francis.
Kaula, D. (1960). Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus. College English, 22(1), 9-14.
Takahashi, G. (1953). A Study of "Everyman" with Special Reference to the Source of its Plot, pp. 33–39.
E. R. Tigg. (1939). "Is Elckerlyc prior to Everyman?", Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 38: 568–96.
Unknown. (1510). Everyman: A Morality Play.