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.
- Full title:
- 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 somonyg of eueryman.)
- 1530?, London
- Book / Quarto / Woodcut / Illustration / Image
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Eric Rasmussen, Ian DeJong
- Renaissance writers, Deception, drama and misunderstanding, Comedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong introduce Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, which combines self-conscious theatricality with sharp satire.
- Article by:
- Tom White
- Form and genre, Language and voice
Literacy rates in the Middle Ages were low, but those who were unable to read could experience literature through ways other than private, silent reading. Tom White explains how 'illiterate' individuals encountered literary texts and traditions through textiles, wall paintings, sculptures and listening to works read aloud.
- Article by:
- Hetta Elizabeth Howes
- Form and genre, Faith and religion
The mystery plays and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries were very different from modern drama. They were performed in public spaces by ordinary people, and organised and funded by guilds of craftsmen and merchants. Hetta Howes takes us back in time to show how these plays portrayed scenes from the Bible, conveyed religious doctrine and encouraged their audiences to lead Christian lives.
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