English Literature for Boys and Girls - H. E. Marshall

The Story of Everyman

A little later than the Miracle and Mystery plays came another sort of play called the Moralities. In these, instead or representing real people, the actors represented thoughts, feelings and deeds, good and bad. Truth, for instance, would be shown as a beautiful lady; Lying as an ugly old man, and so on. These plays were meant to teach just as the Miracles were meant to teach. But instead of teaching the Bible stories, they were made to show men the ugliness of sin and the beauty of goodness. When we go to the theater now we only think of being amused, and it is strange to remember that all acting was at first meant to teach.

The very first of our Moralities seems to have been a play of the Lord's Prayer. It was acted in the reign of Edward III or some time after 1327. But that has long been lost, and we know nothing of it but its name. There are several other Moralities, however, which have come down to us of a later date, the earliest being of the fifteenth century, and of them perhaps the most interesting is Everyman.

But we cannot claim Everyman altogether as English literature, for it is translated from, or at least founded upon, a Dutch play. Yet it is the best of all the Moralities which have come down to us, and may have been translated into English about 1480. In its own time it must have been thought well of, or no one would have troubled to translate it. But, however popular it was long ago, for hundreds of years it had lain almost forgotten, unread except by a very few, and never acted at all, until some one drew it from its dark hiding-place and once more put it upon the stage. Since then, during the last few years, it has been acted often. And as, happily, the actors have tried to perform it in the simple fashion in which it must have been done long ago, we can get from it a very good idea of the plays which pleased our forefathers. On the title-page of Everyman we read: "Here beginneth a treatise how the high Father of heaven sendeth Death to summon every creature to come to give a count of their lives in this world, and is in the manner of a moral play." So in the play we learn how Death comes to Everyman and bids him follow him.

But Everyman is gay and young. He loves life, he has many friends, the world to him is beautiful, he cannot leave it. So he prays Death to let him stay, offers him gold and riches if he will but put off the matter until another day.

But Death is stern. "Thee availeth not to cry, weep and pray," he says, "but haste thee lightly that thou wert gone the journey."

Then seeing that go he must, Everyman thinks that at least he will have company on the journey. So he turns to his friends. But, alas, none will go with him. One by one they leave him. Then Everyman cries in despair:—

"O to whom shall I make my moan

For to go with me in that heavy journey?

First Fellowship said he would with me gone;

His words were very pleasant and gay,

But afterward he left me alone.

Then spake I to my kinsmen all in despair,

And also they gave me words fair;

They lacked no fair speaking,

But all forsake me in the ending."

So at last Everyman turns him to his Good Deeds—his Good Deeds, whom he had almost forgotten and who lies bound and in prison by reason of his sins. And Good Deeds consents to go with him on the dread journey. With him come others, too, among them Knowledge and Strength. But at the last these, too, turn back. Only Good Deeds is true, only Good Deeds stands by him to the end with comforting words. And so the play ends; the body of Everyman is laid in the grave, but we know that his soul goes home to God.

This play is meant to picture the life of every man or woman, and to show how unhappy we may be in the end if we have not tried to be good in this world.

"This moral men may have in mind,

The hearers take it of worth old and young,

And forsake Pride, for he deceiveth you in the end,

And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion,

They all at the last do Everyman forsake,

Save his Good Deeds; these doth he take.

And beware,—an they be small,

Before God he hath no help at all.

None excuse may be there for Everyman."


Everyman: A Morality (Everyman's Library).


Front Matter

In the Listening Time
Cattle Raid of Cooley
Sorrows of Story-Telling
A Literary Lie
Story of Fingal
Old Welsh Stories
The Story of Arthur
The Reading Time
"The Passing of Arthur"
Adventures of an English Book
The Story of Beowulf
The Father of English Song
How Caedmon Sang
The Father of English History
Alfred the Great
When English Slept
Havelok the Dane
About some Song Stories
"Piers the Ploughman"
"Piers the Ploughman" (cont)
The Bible came to the People
Chaucer—Bread and Milk
Chaucer—"Canterbury Tales"
Chaucer—Tabard Inn
First English Guide-book
Barbour—"The Bruce"
"The Bruce" (cont)
A Poet King
The Death of the Poet King
Dunbar—Thistle and Rose
Sign of the Red Pale
Beginning of the Theater
How the Shepherd Watched
The Story of Everyman
How a Poet Comforted a Girl
The Renaissance
Land of Nowhere
Death of Sir Thomas More
The Sonnet Came to England
Beginning of Blank Verse
"Shepherd's Calendar"
Spenser—"Faery Queen"
Spenser—His Last Days
About the First Theaters
Shakespeare—The Boy
Shakespeare—The Man
"Merchant of Venice"
Jonson—"Man in his Humor"
Jonson—"The Sad Shepherd"
Raleigh—"The Revenge"
Bacon—New Ways of Wisdom
Bacon—The Happy Island
About some Lyric Poets
Herbert—Parson Poet
Herrick and Marvell
Milton—Sight and Growth
Milton—Darkness and Death
Bunyan—Pilgrim's Progress"
Dryden—New Poetry
Defoe—First Newspapers
Defoe—"Robinson Crusoe"
Swift—"Journal to Stella"
Swift—"Gullivers Travels"
Addison—"The Spectator"
Steele—Soldier Author
Pope—"Rape of the Lock"
Johnson—Days of Struggle
Johnson—End of Journey
Goldsmith—The Vagabond
"Vicar of Wakefield"
Burns—The Ploughman Poet
Cowper—"The Task"
Wordsworth—Poet of Nature
Wordsworth and Coleridge
Coleridge and Southey
Scott—Awakening of Romance
Scott—"Wizard of the North"
Byron—"Childe Harold"
Shelley—Poet of Love
Keats—Poet of Beauty
Carlyle—Sage of Chelsea
Thackeray—The Cynic?
Dickens—Smiles and Tears
Tennyson—Poet of Friendship