This is a rare copy of a famous morality play called The somonynge of every man, first written in the late medieval period and printed c. 1530.
It is usually just called Everyman, after the central character – an ordinary, flawed human being representing all mankind. He struggles to achieve salvation on his journey towards death.
What is a morality play?
Morality plays were popular in 15th- and 16th-century Europe. They used allegorical stories to teach a moral message, underpinned by Christian teachings. The characters personified abstract qualities of goodness and evil, virtue and vice, which engaged in a battle to win the soul of the ‘mankind’ figure. After giving in to the temptation of worldly pleasures and sin, the representative human repented and was saved, just in time to go to Heaven.
What happens in Everyman?
As shown on its striking title page, the play dramatises Everyman’s encounter with Death before the final judgement. God sees Everyman walking along with his mind on ‘flesshely lustes’, and sends Death to ask him for an account of his life, as a tally of good and bad deeds (A2r–A3r). Everyman tries to get other allegorical characters such as ‘Fellowship’ and material ‘Goods’ to join him on his journey, but he is forced to realise that they are no help to him.
Ultimately, Knowledge directs him to make a Confession, and he gains forgiveness. But when he dies, Everyman is left only with his Good Deeds to help him get to Heaven (D3v–D4r).
Morality plays and Christopher Marlowe
Many critics have noted that the playwright Christopher Marlowe adapts and subverts the morality play tradition in his works. In Doctor Faustus and Edward II, both protagonists are, like Everyman, distracted from good deeds by worldly desires. They repeatedly try to reform, and seem to be caught between good and bad advisers.
But, in a radical shift away from the morality play structure, both die without salvation. Faustus keeps his bargain with the Devil and launches towards damnation, while Edward II is murdered. One could also argue that both Faustus and Edward II are exceptional individuals, unlike the representative ‘types’ in the morality plays.