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The Positive Effects of Everyman and Other Morality Plays

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Some may wonder if a religious lesson can benefit everyone or just the specified religion. Morality plays have been written and acted out for hundreds of years, to benefit society. Morality plays can be defined as two similar but slightly different things. Some sources refer to morality plays as a “religious sermon” acted out. Other sources refer to them as a moral lesson for the good of every person. It seems that morality plays were made to show good vs. evil as well as to teach a spiritual lesson. Everyman seems to be solely a religious play including religious lessons and morals, and it even has the character of God. But it can also be a positive story for someone who believes in a different religion or no religion at all. Morality plays, such as Everyman, are thought solely to have a religious story, but studies show that they also teach positive morals which have had a positive role in society for everyone.

Morality plays have been around for hundreds of years, yet Everyman is one of the most well-known ones not only in the past, but today as well. In England and France, morality plays were encouraged by the church and the civil authorities because they taught social and moral values through amusing dramatic actions. Everyman is a morality play that was written in the late 1400s. No one knows who the author of the play is. The complete title of Everyman is actually The Summoning of Everyman, but it has come to be commonly known as Everyman. The original language of the play is Middle English, but today’s copies are modern English editions. The tone of the play is considered dignified and somber. Morality plays, such as Everyman, used rhyming verses in the text (Jokinen). First looking at the play Everyman, one may think it is only religious based and its value is all religion because of the characters involved. Everyman was thought to be written under the Roman Catholic view but was meant for more of a moral lesson than anything else (Moses). The main character, Everyman, was created to represent every man and woman.

Throughout the story he earns his eternal reward through good actions and confession. He is considered a typical person who has neglected his spiritual life but repents for his sins in time to be saved (Warren). God is also a character in this play, representing God as viewed in Roman Catholic religion. Death is a character as well. Fellowship, Cousin, Kindred, and Material Goods are all characters who are Everyman’s earthly acquaintances who leave him in his time of need. Other characters, whose names represent both the characters and their actions, are Good Deeds, Knowledge, Confession, Strength, Angel, and Doctor. Many things happen in Everyman, such as that Everyman is summoned by Death to the court of God to make an accounting for his life. Throughout the story, Everyman seeks companionship and lessons for his dangerous path ahead. Many of his companions promise to join him, yet few keep that promise. The climax of the story happens when Good Deeds agrees to help Everyman into the afterlife. It takes awhile for Everyman to find someone willing to help him, so this was a big step. Good Deeds introduces Everyman to everyone he needs to know, such as Strength, Five Wits, Beauty, and Knowledge.

Everyone besides Good Deeds denies entering the afterlife with him; Good Deeds is the only one who agrees to go with Everyman to the afterlife. Everyman learns how to judge what really matters in the scheme of things and in the health of one’s soul facing death. This lesson doesn’t come easily to him, though; Everyman suffers a fair amount of grief that is viewed as humor by the audiences of the play. An example of Everyman’s grief is when he looks for someone to join his journey so he asks Kindess to join him in which Kindess replies in line 355 “No, by our Lady I have the cramp in my toe. God speed you now in your way to ell; And so, my cousin, a fond farewell.” In the fifteenth century, the topic of “man summoned by death” was common due to frequent starvation, wars, sickness, and crimes. This made the subject of death a very common thing everyday people constantly had to deal with, and still have to deal with today (Jokinen). Hundreds of years ago there were no television shows or video games. Going to a play was one of the things people did for entertainment. They taught lessons as well as entertained the audience.

Morality plays taught good morals often times through humor. According to research done by Kate Warren, A Morality has been defined by Dr. Ward as “a play enforcing a moral truth or lesson by means of the speech and action of characters which are personified abstractions — figures representing vices and virtues, qualities of the human mind, or abstract conceptions in general”, and, on the whole, that definition comprehends the main features of the Morality proper in its most characteristic form (n.p). These plays maintained their popularity up until the end of the sixteenth century. Everyman is the most commonly known morality play today, yet it is not nearly as popular as other types of plays in today’s world. Peter van Diest wrote a play called Elckerlijc, which is very similar to Everyman. After the sixteenth century, the public’s interest turned in many other directions (Moses). Mystery plays and miracle plays came before morality plays; they often referred to the Bible and were performed at church services. Morality plays were very similar to mystery plays, but morality plays represent the transition between religion based plays and a more professional theatre (Moses).

Morality plays became known as throughout medieval Europe to teach good morals of the audience, and although they are still very religious based, the ultimate goal of the plays was good morals, not to learn a religion. Before Everyman anything presented that wasn’t religious based was looked down on, so the fact that morality plays became popular was a very drastic change. They helped start the entertainment industry to teach life lessons. People liked morality plays because they could often relate to them and learn from them (Zesmer). Shakespeare often made references to morality play characters, which kept morality plays alive (Moses). Today, morality drama has become more politically correct, such as Walter Browne’s drama Everywoman. Everywoman, which was written in 1908, is an updated version of Everyman for modern audiences. Morality tales greatly influenced modern fiction and drama which is proven in European and American culture today. In almost every book or movie, especially in the children’s genre, a lesson is taught. Media is constantly trying to teach examples of good morals in hopes to teach people what’s wrong and what’s right.

Though this concept may seem simple, it still does trace back to morality plays. A well-known version of the play is known as Jedermann, by the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it is performed annually at the Salzburg Festival since 1920. In 2002 a movie version of Everyman was made, which was directed by John Farrell. Farrell updated the movie to make it seem as though it was in today’s world (Moses). Morality plays play a big part in teaching morals today. Central High is a new game made by Destiny Interactive. The New York Times calls this game “The Modern Morality Play” (Brown). This game is attempting to teach teenagers the difference between right and wrong, giving them a sense of good morals, The game never explains why some decisions prove to be the wrong ones. That is where the game’s pretenses to moral instruction begin to break down. If Central High is supposed to help teenagers learn morals and ethics, shouldn’t the game better explain why one decision is bad and another is wise? (Brown) The attempt to a morality play into a game so it is more modern and fun for teenagers is interesting. Morality plays seem to have only a positive effect on today’s population.

Though morality plays may not be nearly as popular today as they were medieval times, they have inspired books, movies, and games, such as this one, to attempt to teach people what is right and wrong (Brown). The lesson taught in morality plays is based around one thing, morals. Morals are learning what is right compared to wrong, or in medieval times they would say good vs. evil. There are multiple lessons in Everyman, taken very religious or not. It depends on how each person decides to take what is read. Everyman was clearly written for religious reasons, but compared to the plays before it, Everyman was not as religious (Moses).

One of the plays lessons is that material items have no value compared to the people around us. Although the lesson is religious, it is not limited to religion because any person can gain from it. Overall, morality plays can teach lessons that will help everyone in life. Any person, no matter his or her religion or lack of can benefit from morality plays. Although Everyman is thought to be a very religious play, it has lessons within that anyone can benefit from, such as teaching the difference between right and wrong and what it truly important in life. Everyman and other morality plays really helped the culture because they started teaching what is right and wrong in entertaining ways that people enjoyed. In the end, morality plays such as Everyman can benefit all people, religious or not.

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