The Presentation of Death in the Morality Play, Everyman
This paper puts Everyman in the wider context of medieval drama and discusses the ubiquity of memento mori in medieval culture – in the visual arts and in drama. It goes on to examine the ways in which is presented as the catalyst for all the events in the play and demonstrates that the presentation of Death i s wholly consistent with Catholic doctrine – which is also examined in full. Death’s interaction in the play with God and with Everyman is examined and finally there is reference to Shakespeare and his alleged debt to the Morality play tradition.
West European medieval drama consisted of three types of play: Mystery plays, Miracle plays and Morality plays. All three genres were related to religion and testify to the power and influence of the Church in Western Europe. In England, it was only in the 16th century that drama gradually became more secular and writers such as Shakespeare and Marlowe appear – although some experts see in their work the lingering influences of the plays of the medieval era – especially the Morality play. Despite the eponymous hero – Everyman – and the brief appearance of Death, it could be argued that Death is one of the most important characters in the play: he is certainly the catalyst for the play’s plot and Everyman’s journey to redemption.
Hundreds of morality plays exist from English, Flemish, Dutch and German medieval theatre. It was a very popular genre, Daniell points out the centrality of death by stating:
In morality plays, death is ever-present. It was accepted that Death was the penalty paid for the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden Whether Death was sent by God, or the Devil, was unclear, with no universal agreement. (56),
However, in this version of Everyman, Death is subservient to God and visits Everyman on his orders. The Devil is not mentioned or alluded to once in this version. We must remember the relative fragility of human life during the medieval period and the lack of medical knowledge; life expectancy was very short. For this reason, the notion of the inevitability of death as the defining action of human life is omnipresent in medieval culture. Everyman has an extremely intense memento mori (“Keep death before your eyes”) motif. (Cunningham, 195). Bruster points out that in the first extant printed copy of this play the woodcuts which are embedded in the text portray death as a “rotting corpse.” (57) Buster goes on to describe one woodcut in more detail: “Death stands amongst bones in a graveyard, holding a coffin and pointing a finger of warning to Everyman.” ( 58) Memento mori were ubiquitous in the iconography of the medieval era and Rosenberg assert that, “The Dance of Death [is] essential to the morality play.” (9) The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre) exists in hundreds of visual artefacts from the medieval period and they may give us an idea of how a Morality Play might have been staged, although we know very little about the staging of such plays.
The presentation of Death in the play is wholly consistent with Catholic doctrine at the time – these plays date from well before the Protestant Reformation and there was no ecclesiastical challenge to Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, the play, according to Craig, is “shamelessly didactic,” because it promulgates the catholic doctrine of salvation. In Protestant doctrine faith is central to salvation and this lead to the Protestant doctrine of predestination – the idea that we are already destined to go either to Heaven or Hell, and ther is nothing we can do to alter God’s will. By contrast, Catholic doctrine was, and still is, that salvation is a choice and lies on the power of the individual believer. Salvation, in Catholicism, rests on how we have conducted ourselves in life, as Summit puts it, “death is the fate of every man, and if our good deeds be few, we cannot hope to escape the everlasting fire. For after death we shall not have any of our faculties with which to make amends.” (79). Good Deeds is the allegorical figure in the play that allows Everyman to achieve salvation, after he has renounced his worldly and sinful past in an act of repentance as Potter makes clear. The play starts, according to Potter, with a reminder of mortality – “It is mortality with which Death confronts the rich and unsuspecting Everyman.” ( 46) – and moves relatively smoothly to its close: “In the world of Everyman, agents of repentance freely announce themselves, and a simple process of repentance on the hero’s part clears his book of sin and restores Good Deeds. (157).
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.