Back to top

Everyman and Its Dutch Original, Elckerlijc: Introduction


1 Comparison may be made with another work of ambiguous genre, Of Gentylnes and Nobylité, issued by the press of John Rastell in c. 1529 and written either by him or by John Heywood; the title page in this case provides the identification “compilid in maner of an enterlude” (Greg, Bibliography, nos. 8–9). For discussion, see Walker, Politics of Performance, pp. 16–17.

2 See Bennett, English Books and Readers, pp. 65–76.

3 For theater history, see Erenstein, ed., Een theatergeschiedenis der Nederlanden, pp. 555–57, 680–85.

4 For the relation between the original Dutch play, early versions derived from it, and von Hof­mansthal’s Jedermann, see Adolf, “From Everyman and Elckerlijc to Hofmannsthal and Kafka.”

5 Vos, “De datering van de Elckerlijc.”

6 For a general survey of the Rhetoricians’ plays, see Hummelen, “Drama of the Dutch Rhe­tori­cians.”

7 See Hummelen, “Boundaries of the Rhetoricians’ Stage.”

8 See Cross and Livingstone, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Carthusian Order.”

9 See Kazemier, “Elckerlijc.”

10 Ibid., pp. 123–24.

11 The text of the three editions and the manuscript have been printed in a diplomatic edition by de Haan, De Spiegel der Zaligheid van Elckerlijc. The Vorsterman text has most recently been edited and translated into modern Dutch by Ramakers and Wilmink, Mariken van Nieumeghen & Elckerlijc.

12 See Wasson, “Morality Play.” For the extensive dramatic traditions involving saints, see the list compiled by Davidson, “Saint Plays and Pageants of Medieval Britain.”

13 Sir Thomas More 4.1.54 (Shakespeare Apocrypha, ed. Brooke, p. 403).

14 See Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe, pp. 68–85.

15 Douglas and Greenfield, eds., Records of Early English Drama: Cumberland, Westmorland, Glou­cester­shire, pp. 362–64. The text of The Cradle of Security is lost, but that it was well known is suggested by the inclusion of the title among the plays offered for acting by the Lord Cardinal’s Players in Sir Thomas More 4.1.41–42 (Shakespeare Apocrypha, ed. Brooke, p. 403).

16 “Mysteries, Moralities, and Other Early Dramas,” Retrospective Review 1 (1820): 332–35, as quoted by Potter, English Morality Play, p. 212.

17 Douglas and Greenfield, eds., Records of Early English Drama: Cumberland, Westmorland, Glouces­ter­shire, p. 363.

18 Coleridge, Statesman’s Manual, in Complete Works, ed. Shedd, 1.437–38.

19 Collier, History of English Dramatic Poetry, 2.287n. Less hostile, but nevertheless still under the influence of this view was Mackenzie, whose definition of the genre has been much quoted: “A mor­ality is a play, allegorical in nature, which has for its main object the teaching of some lesson for the guidance of life, and in which the principal characters are personified abstractions or highly univer­salized types” (English Moralities from the Point of View of Allegory, p. 9).

20 See, for example, Piehler, Visionary Landscape, p. 11 and passim.

21 Schmitt, “Idea of a Person”; Potter, English Morality Play, p. 34 and passim.

22 From antiquity memory was commonly compared to a wax tablet in which images could make an impression and take hold in the mind; see Carruthers, Book of Memory, pp. 27–30.

23 See Slack, “Mortality Crises and Epidemic Disease.”

24 See Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City.

25 See Gottfried, Epidemic Disease.

26 Everyman, ed. Cawley, pp. xvi–xvii; see also Spinrad, “Last Temptation of Everyman,” especially pp. 187–88, and, for a review of the context, Beaty, Craft of Dying, pp. 1–48, as well as the review of iconography in Mâle, Religious Art in France, pp. 348–55, and the listing by the editor of this English edition (on p. 529n116) of more recent studies not originally available to Mâle. For the Dutch ars moriendi tradition, see de Geus et al., eds., Een scone Leeringe om salich te sterven. A case can be made for the specific influence on Everyman of the textual and visual representation of the stages of dying in The Arte and Crafte to Knowe Well to Dye; see the summary in Beaty, Craft of Dying, p. 34.

27 Gibson, Hieronymus Bosch, figs. 31–32.

28 Ibid., p. 46.

29 For the filmscript (in translation), see Bergman, Four Screen Plays, pp. 95–164.

30 An example in which Death appears to a fashionably dressed young man like Everyman is to be seen in a panel painting at Newark-on-Trent (Tasker, Encyclopedia of Medieval Church Art, p. 184, fig. 6.22). See also Clark, Dance of Death, pp. 9–10.

31 Dugdale, History of St. Pauls Cathedral in London, pp. 131–32.

32 See King, “Pre-Reformation Painted Glass in St. Andrew’s Church, Norwich.”

33 Lydgate, Dance of Death, ed. Warren, p. 25.

34 Ibid., p. 4.

35 Puddephat, “Mural Paintings of the Dance of Death”; Davidson, Guild Chapel Wall Paintings, pp. 6–9, 50–55, pls. 19–20.

36 Quoted from Stratford-upon-Avon, Birthplace Trust Records office, DR399/5/5, in Davidson, Guild Chapel Wall Paintings, p. 52.

37 See Davidson, Illustrations of the Stage, pp. 132–35, and, for Vérard’s woodcut, see for con­ven­ience Briesemeister, Bilder des Todes, fig. 126. The reverse title page of the Huth edition has woodcuts, including the Everyman figure from the title page, along with others purporting to illustrate Fel­low­ship, Beauty, Discretion, Strength, and Kindred; see Davidson, Illustrations of the Stage, fig. 157.

38 The woodcuts in the Skot editions of Everyman echo the woodcut on the title page of the Vor­sterman edition of Elckerlijc. This illustration shows Death with a spear about to stab a young man who has thrown up his hands in terror; see Elckerlijc, ed. Logeman, p. 100. The scene is not set in a ceme­tery, and is a rather crude representation, though at least it is printed from a single block. See also our note to Everyman, line 76, below.

39 Roper, Lyfe of Sir Thomas Moore, Knighte, ed. Hitchcock, p. 6.

40 See Riehle, Middle English Mystics, p. 17.

41 Kolve, “Everyman and the Parable of the Talents.”

42 The expression “Day of Reckoning” in some form seems to have been used very early for the day of the Last Judgment, and this is what is implied in Everyman. “Rekenynge” (Dutch: “reken­inghe”) in the context of the play in Elckerlijc indicates calculating the value of one’s good deeds, as these necessarily derive from virtue, toward salvation or of one’s debits toward damnation in the context of the psychostasis or weighing of souls. John Audelay understood such good deeds to involve having “peté of the pore” — deeds that are required if one should wish not to “be schamyd and chent / When thou art callid to thi rekynyng; / Ther God and mon schal be present, / And al the world on fuyre brenyng / The[e] to afray” (Poems, ed. Whiting, p. 9).

43 The story of the false friends in the play requires, however, to be understood in the context described by Conley, “Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman.” For the earliest known stage of the par­able, see the Georgian version, believed to be derived ultimately from the Sanskrit tradition by way of lost Manichaean and Arabic texts, as translated by Lang, Wisdom of Balahvar, pp. 82–83. For a listing of some other Western versions of the parable, see Barlam and Iosaphat, ed. Hirsch, p. 201.

44 See, for example, British Library MS Egerton 876, fol. 303v, as transcribed by Keiko Ikegami (Barlaam and Josaphat, p.166), and, for Caxton’s translation of the parable in The Golden Legend, the Appendix to the printed volume.

45 This interpretation of the gowns is present in the Georgian version of the parable (Wisdom of Balahvar, pp. 65, 82–83). That the translator of Everyman was vaguely familiar with this point is sug­gested by lines 292–93, but he gets things turned around since he has Fellowship say to the protag­onist, “Nay, and thou wolde gyve me a new gowne, / I wyll not one fote with thee goo.”

46 Barlam and Iosaphat, ed. Hirsh, pp. 57–59.

47 See Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, ed. Herrtage, pp. 127–32.

48 Middle English Sermons, ed. Ross, pp. 86–89.

49 See Johnson, “Double Desertion.”

50 Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, pp. 527–28, citing John Bromyard, Summa Predicantium, s.v. “Mors”; attention is called to this passage by Johnson, “Double Desertion,” p. 86.

51 The anxiety expressed in the second set of desertions brings into question the analysis of Van Laan, “Everyman: A Structural Analysis,” who attempts to see a conventional pattern of rising and falling action in a play that we believe defies simplistic formal analysis.

52 Greg, Bibliography of the English Printed Drama 1.4.


54 Death also kills a mankind figure with a spear in Thomas Chaundler’s Latin morality, Liber Apol­o­geticus de Omni Statu Humanae Naturae, ed. Shoukri, pl. 13; see also Davidson, Illustrations of the Stage and Acting, p. 64, fig. 66. So too Death wields a dart or “launce,” similarly struck into Mankind’s “herte rote,” in The Castle of Perseverance (lines 2807, 2842). Death’s dart, like the scythe which signi­fies his role as the grim reaper, frequently appears in iconography; see, for example, Briesemeister, Bilder des Todes, passim. But, as noted above, the woodcut on the title page of the Vorsterman edition of Elkerlijc holds a spear with which he is about to kill the protagonist.

55 See Briesemeister, Bilder des Todes, figs. 1, 3, 32, 34, and 38.

56 Speaight, William Poel, p. 161.

57 Ibid., pl. facing 224.

58 See Elliott, Playing God, pp. 17–18, 42–44, for commentary on the law and its loopholes as exploited by Poel, the changes which satisfied the censor in commercial theaters, and the official denial in one instance that God had ever been presented on stage.

59 Potter, English Morality Play, pp. 222–25; Cole, “Elizabethan Stages and Open-Air Stages.”

60 Poel later denounced the theology of the play and indicated that he was “moving away” from the drama in an interview; see Speaight, William Poel, 166.

61 Potter, English Morality Play, 225.

62 Pickering, Drama in the Cathedral, pp. 48–50.

63 Charles Williams’ Cranmer, which dramatized the accomplishments and martyrdom of the reforming Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, is of particular interest here on account of the playwright’s use of a skeletal Death-like character that must have been influenced by Everyman; see Browne and Browne, Two in One, pp. 102–07.

64 Larsen, “All Things to Everyman.” Some further productions and adaptations of interest, in­cluding a puppet production by Peter Arnott, are noted by Schreiber, “Everyman in America.”

65 Census of Medieval Drama Productions, Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 36 (1997): 192–93.

66 Robert Potter, “Everyman at the Millennium,” unpublished paper read at the international col­lo­quium of the Société Internationale pour l’etude du Théâtre Médiéval at Groningen, The Nether­lands, in 2001.

67 O’Connor, “Everyman, The Creation and The Passion.”

68 Everyman, ed. Astington.

69 Greenfield, “Processional Everyman at St. Martin’s College.”

70 Census of Medieval Drama Productions, Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 37 (1998): 128.
Everyman has been frequently anthologized and is generally represented as the best and most original example of the English morality play. The morality has popularly been claimed as a bridge between the medieval mysteries and secular Renaissance drama cul­minating in Shakespeare. While the excellence of Everyman is not in doubt, there are never­theless several problems with the usual view.

1. Everyman is announced on the title page of the two complete editions printed by John Skot as “a treatyse . . . in maner of a morall playe,” and this implies that it should be re­garded as a literary or religious work rather than drama.1 Further, there is no record of its production before the modern revival by William Poel in 1901. It could, of course, have been staged, though unrecorded, any number of times in the early sixteenth century, and would have been ideal for presentation as a school play. The fact that four printed editions are known (the two produced by the press of Richard Pynson are incomplete) argues for wide­spread popularity of the play in the decades prior to the time when Henry VIII’s cam­paign of Protestantization began in earnest in 1536–39. Very possibly other editions, now lost, were originally printed. Everyman would have been quite consistent with the taste of the time for treatises on dying and on the spiritual life and hence would have served well as reading matter catering to the interests of the public both on the Continent and in early sixteenth-century English.2

2. The originality of Everyman is a matter to be set straight. The play certainly possesses originality in concept and execution, but not as entirely an English work. More than a cen­tury of scholarly discussion has in our view convincingly shown that Everyman is a trans­lation and adaptation from the Dutch Elckerlijc, a work which is regarded in the Low Countries as an important part of Dutch literary heritage with notable productions being mount­ed well in­to the modern age, especially by Johan de Meester in 1907 and at the Holland Festival be­tween 1950 and 1971.3 It also stands behind Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann: Das Spiel vom Sterben des reichen Mannes of 1911. In earlier times Elckerlijc had even greater popu­larity as a readers’ text, with translations and adaptations not only into English but also into Latin and German, even by the violently anti-Catholic Thomas Kirsch­mayer (“Nao­geor­gus”), whose Mercator dates from 1540. Adaptations known to have been staged include Hans Sachs’ Ein Comedie von dem reichen sterbenden Menschen of 1549 which derives from yet another version, Hekastus by Joris van Lankvelt (Macropedius), whose Latin text had been used for performance by his students at the Hieronymusschool in Utrecht in 1538.4

The influential 1536 Latin translation entitled Homulus by Christianus Ischyrius, rector of the Maastricht Latin School, provides the information that Elckerlijc won a prize at a theater contest in Brabant. Whether the prize was earned at the Antwerp Landjuweel (drama festival) of 1496 may be questioned, since the first known edition, issued by Christiaen Snel­laert at Delft, has the same date, and there are differences that suggest a prior Dutch ver­sion. This even led the Dutch scholar R. Vos to assign the play to the early fifteenth century,5 though of course a date closer to 1496 is more plausible. In any case, the play is definitely associated with city life since the story tells of the rich citizen who has forgotten how to re­ceive salvation by sharing with the poor and showing his charity, and we know that Antwerp, for example, had an extensive tradition of Rhetoricians’ plays that was flourishing prior to the sixteenth century.6 These plays were presented on booth stages, tem­porary struc­tures set up in the market square or similar location.7

In considering the matter of authorship, there­fore, we thus need to look first to Elckerlijc, which, according to the translator of Hom­u­lus, was written by Petrus from Diest. Some have believed this to have been a reference to the Carthusian Petrus Dorlandus from the Zel­em monastery near that town. Current opin­ion is that this author, who was a member of a strict and cloistered order 8 and who wrote main­ly in Latin, is not a likely candidate for the creation of a play for the popular stage. The many secular and humorous details in the Dutch play are as significant as the theological knowledge is basic. There is no need to search for a scholarly theologian as author, though, in the light of the ending of the play, some con­nection with the late medieval mystical tradi­tions of the Low Countries has been pro­posed.9 The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruus­broek declared that in the heavenly virtue of char­ity we are above every human intellectual functioning, and his influence might be found in the idea that we deserve our place in Heaven according to our virtue.10

The specific Dutch text used by the anonymous translator who produced the English Everyman is not known and seems not to be extant, but probably was a printed edition such as Snellaert’s edition of 1496 or the edition printed by Govaert Bac in Antwerp in c.1501, both incomplete. A manuscript, now at the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels (MS. IV 592), is based on a yet earlier text that is now lost. Unfortunately, this copy, written out by a cer­tain P. Wilms in 1593–94, is a somewhat modernized text rather than an exact duplication of the fifteenth-century version on which it was based. The edition issued by Willem Vorster­man of Antwerp in c. 1525 — and which bears close resemblance to the Bac edition — hence is traditionally used as the base for modern editions and is chosen in the present volume for the text to be included for comparison with Everyman.11

Though it is derived from the Dutch Elckerlijc, we still can say that Everyman is a superb work, though some scholars have faulted its translation of certain passages and its handling of some of the rhymes. We feel that it fully deserves its high reputation, but we also think that its origin in Continental theater deserves attention in the classroom, in anthologies, and in general theater studies, which unfortunately have generally been too little concerned with the niceties of scholarship. For this reason we have provided the original Dutch text, with translation, and the English Everyman on facing pages in the present edition.

3. Since Everyman is adapted from Elckerlijc, it is hard to see it as being a typical example of the English morality play. The early morality plays in English are few in number, and it is not possible to recognize in them a consistent theatrical tradition or, most importantly, a necessary step between the mystery cycles or religious biblical plays played in the main by amateurs and the professional drama of the great theatrical companies that were founded in the latter half of the sixteenth century. A very few plays — The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, and Wisdom — hardly argue for anything other than an alternative theater mode (not a genre in itself) that sometimes occurred, mainly in East Anglian drama, before 1500. Remarkably, in contrast to the verifiable profusion of plays on saints’ lives, there are no documents verifying performances of morality plays of this kind in England during this time,12 though the plays named above surely were designed to be staged. Yet they are each very different from the other in numerous ways, including in the number of actors required for acting. Though needing a much smaller company of players than, say, The Castle of Perseverance, Everyman’s sixteen roles, even allowing for doubling, would have required more personnel than the “Foure men and a boy” specified for the play within-a-play offered by the Lord Cardinal’s Players in Sir Thomas More13 and given by David Beving­ton as more or less a pre-1576 norm for a traveling company.14 The nature of the early mor­ality in England indeed remains obscure, and a very likely theory is that some plays in this mode were used as mayors’ plays to be presented before the mayor without remuner­ation to show that the troupe is handling religious themes legitimately. Such a mayor’s play, albeit at a much later date, in the 1570s, at Gloucester, was described by R. Willis. This was The Cradle of Security, which like Everyman could be construed as a warning of the coming Judg­ment predicted by the Bible when everyone, from high to low in the society, would be called to account.15 But with the lack of evidence concerning moralities prior to the Refor­mation in England we cannot be sure that there ever was a recognizable genre until the sixteenth century. For the theatrical tradition into which Everyman must be placed we therefore need to look to the Continental evidence.

Like The Cradle of Security, which Willis as an old man of seventy-five was able to recall vividly from his childhood in his Mount Tabor (1639), Everyman and the Dutch Elckerlijc are allegorical plays. About allegorical drama over the years there have been some serious mis­conceptions such as evidenced in a statement by an anonymous early nineteenth-century writer in the Retrospective Review, who complained about the lack of plot, character, and “scenic illusion” and wondered how such plays “should have attracted such attention and excited such interest amongst all ranks of society.”16 Hence it may come as a surprise that such a form could so impress a person that as an aging adult Willis found the play “as fresh in my memory, as if I had seen it newly acted.”17 The current understanding of allegory still often remains too much under the spell of critics such as Coleridge, who defined it as “but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself but an abstraction from objects of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot.”18 Coleridge was merely af­firming Enlightenment prejudices which, applied to the morality drama, would be implied in John Payne Collier’s assessment: “A Moral, or Moral-play, is a drama, the characters of which are allegorical, abstract, or symbolical, and the story of which is intended to convey a lesson for the better conduct of human life.”19 But in actuality, as students of Dante’s Com­media have long known, this view of allegory assumes a modern mechanistic world in which external things no longer mask psychological and spiritual realities.20 Further, as the re­searches of Natalie Crohn Schmitt and Robert Potter indicate, when allegorical figures such as Everyman, Good Deeds, and Knowledge are presented by actors — or, in the case of Everyman, are possibly imagined to be presented by actual persons — these characters take on a life of their own that can be very powerful.21 They may be rooted in ideas, but they are given a larger identity and humanized when they are joined with living actors and given visible presence on stage.

In the early sixteenth century — a time when mortality was always of an immediate threat and hence when there was intense concern with death and its aftermath — the power of such a play as Everyman, even if read rather than staged, would presumably have been more deeply felt than today and would have left a more powerful lasting impression. The intended visual effect, whether on stage or in the imaginations of readers, was to create a kind of memory theater to which the mind would return again and again as a way of being reminded in symbolic terms of human mortality and the consequences of one’s actions in this life.22 It will need to be remembered that the mortality rate, especially in urban areas, was often greater than the birth rate,23 and in cities an influx of people from outside the walls was needed to maintain the population level. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, important cities such as Coventry and Norwich were in a state of crisis on account of the severe decline in their populations.24 Readers of Everyman and its potential audience as a stage play would have had an awareness of these larger demographic factors. The character Everyman is a relatively young male, but the high mortality rate for men as well as women simply had to be a cause of severe anxiety. Death was a destabilizer of family and the community alike in addition to being the source of personal fear, which during this period led either to denial or to recognition of its implications for life beyond the grave. This period in history has been identified as an age of bacteria,25 and of course there was no social democratic safety net. In 1490 William Caxton had published A Lityll Treatise Spekynge of the Art and Crafte to Knowe Well to Dye, followed by other editions and versions of the same work. A. C. Cawley especially notes its relevance for Everyman since in one of the sections on the temptations which the dying man faces it identifies too much attention to “outwarde thinges,” including family, friends, and riches.26 Life’s terminus is examined here, and advice is given about how to meet death and to prepare for the life hereafter.

A discussion of this motif should perhaps not neglect reference to the painting The Death of a Miser by Hieronymus Bosch in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.27 This work, from c.1490 and hence roughly contemporary with the writing of Elckerlijc, may be seen as an important analogue to the drama and its English adaptation. To be sure, there are differences, for the rich man in the painting is old rather than young, and, it would appear from the details that are shown, he is unlikely to achieve salvation. As Walter S. Gibson explains, “his guardian angel supports him and attempts to draw his attention to the crucifix in the window above, but he cannot draw his mind from the earthly possessions he must leave behind; one hand reaches out almost automatically to clutch the bag of gold offered by a demon.”28 A chest open at the foot of the bed shows a man, presumably the miser prior to his terminal illness, dropping a coin into an open bag that is being held up by a demon. At the left the figure of Death is making his appearance at a door; he has a dart in his hand that is aimed directly at the dying man in the bed. The tension between the love of goods and the necessity of a good death as described by the treatises on the art of dying is graphically depicted here as it is in Everyman and its Dutch source.

4. In Everyman, as had been the case in Elckerlijc, the art of dying was indeed to be vir­tually the substance of the play. The effect that is achieved, however, is timeless and may be compared with the presentation of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s 1956 screenplay The Seventh Seal, set in the time of the Black Death but reflecting modern fears of a nuclear apocalypse.29 In Everyman there is a strong emphasis on the shock of recognition when Death comes to the protagonist and announces to him that he must die. This is of course exactly what hap­pens in the Dance of Death,30 for which John Lydgate provided translations of the French text that accompanied the paintings in the Cemetery of the Innocents at Paris. These would be widely known and imitated, for Lydgate’s verses and copies of the paintings at Paris were given great visability on account of being prominently displayed in the cloisters of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In Sir William Dugdale’s description, the portrayal was of “the picture of Death leading away all estates.”31 The Dance of Death derived from the concern with death that developed after the arrival of the Black Death in 1348–49. In Lyd­gate’s text and in the illustrations representing the arrest of human beings by the sinister figure that represented mortality, Death comes as if with extreme suddenness to each indi­vidual, from the highest (Pope, Emperor) to the lowest (child, clerk, hermit). So it is in the single scene that remains at St. Andrew’s Church in Norwich, where a Bishop in full epis­copal vestments is being taken by the right hand by a cadaverous figure draped with a shroud. The Bishop, who is turning away from the unwished visitor, is standing on a tile floor reminiscent of a chessboard and hence indicative of the role of fortune or chance in bringing about one’s end.32 Lydgate’s text, in the Lansdowne manuscript, gives this victim the following response:
Of these tidynges I am no thyng glaad
Which Deth to me so sodeynly doth bryng;
It makith my face and countenaunce ful saad. . . .33
In words which seem to refer directly to the action of Everyman, the translator in the Elles­mere manuscript announces that the dance at St. Innocents in Paris — and, consequently, in English versions — “Portreied is with al the surplusage / To shewe this worlde is but a pilgrimage.”34

At Stratford-upon-Avon, Dance of Death paintings and verses on the north wall of the nave of the Guild Chapel that would for some time survive the Elizabethan desecration of religious images — and remain visible into the lifetime of William Shakespeare — are now very fragmentary but in that state hidden under paneling that was put in place in the 1950s.35 The King’s dying words in this wall painting, as recorded by Wilfrid Puddephat, are: “we shall all to dede ashes tourne.”36

The connection between this iconography and Everyman is made even more explicit in the woodcuts that appear on the title pages of the Huth and Huntington Library editions of the play printed by John Skot. In each case two separate woodcuts are brought together to show the figure of Everyman at the left and on the right a cadaverous Death in a graveyard who is holding a tomb cover and pointing generally in the direction of his victim. These woodcuts in no sense are related to any production of the play, either real or theoretical. The Everyman figure is printed from a factotum block that had originated with the Parisian printer Antoine Vérard, while Death is a copy of a woodcut that had been used in a book printed earlier by Wynkyn de Worde, in turn a copy from Vérard’s Kalendrier et compost des bergiers (1493).37 Together they do make an allusion to the Dance of Death that could not at that time have been missed.38

Faced with death’s certainty — and the uncertainty of the time of its coming, particu­lar­ly in a historical period of widespread plague and other afflictions — as well as the inevitability of the hereafter, what is one to do? Everyman speaks to this dilemma, even to those who would be indifferent to the existential realities that were generally assumed by the people of the time. The play’s advice does not extend, however, to the encouragement of a de­tached mystical piety or monastic retreat from the world. It is very far from the separation from society that was found among the highly respected Carthusians, among whom Sir Thomas More spent four years “in devotion and prayer” while considering what direction his life should take.39 Rather, in presenting a figure who has been very much in the world — indeed, a world of fashionable clothes and style of living — the play reflects an affluent and secure position in the society. It is, in fact, consistent with the kind of society in which the Dutch Rhetoricians’ plays such as Elckerlijc were written and produced. As such, it was a play world that was easily adaptable to the English scene, whether aristocratic or mer­can­tile. The protagonist is one who, because he has laid up treasures on earth, has been in a position to do good deeds, but he has been very lax about it and instead has pursued en­joy­ment and wealth, the latter hoarded instead of being shared with the poor and needy. By so doing, he has not been able to lengthen his life, nor has he gained a secure place in the afterlife. Now he must, as the medieval mystics knew, endure the solitariness of leaving behind all that has given him comfort in this world.40

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30, to which V. A. Kolve has called atten­tion in an influential article, will provide a measure of how Everyman has fallen short in his care for the talent (in the modern signification of the term) and the wealth that has been en­trusted to him.41 In commercial terms, his accounts are not in order or ready for the audit before the divine Judge. Everyman is thus unprepared for the final “rekenynge” that will be demanded of him.42 For this reason he is in danger of being “cast into outer darkness” where there “shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But the other parables in Matthew 25 are also relevant. Everyman at the beginning of the play is ominously like the foolish virgins who fail to keep their lamps burning for the moment when the Bridegroom comes without warn­ing, for he indeed has failed to keep in mind the uncertainty of life and the certainty of having to be ready for the arrival of the one who will either take him into the marriage feast or have him denied entrance. But the ethic promoted by the play is even more directly in­fluenced by the concluding parable of the chapter (Matthew 25:33–46) which describes the coming down of the Son of Man with his angels to sit upon “the throne of glory.” Here the acceptance or rejection of those who have been gathered from all time and all nations will be dependent upon whether the individuals seeking to enter bliss have performed the Corporal Acts of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, providing shelter for the homeless and the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners — to which was added the burial of the dead. In Everyman we are reminded of these acts whenever “saint charyté” — that is, “holy charity” — is invoked. Such charitable deeds, rather than cheating, stealing, or looting the public in order to create and hold personal wealth, have permanent viability. Those who will not have done them will be cursed and thrown into the “everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.”

However, according to Catholic theology there is hope even for the stingy capitalist if he undergoes penance, beginning with confession to a priest, whose absolution provides a conditional forgiveness of sins — conditional on the subject’s contrition and sincere willing­ness to carry through the final stage of satisfaction, including making amends, that will result in the perfect cleansing of the soul. In Everyman’s case, he must make restitution for the wrongs he has done, and he must share the remainder of his wealth with those in need. In other words, he must not do what the miser would do: he must not deny assistance to the needy, for he must act according to the moral standards established in the Corporal Acts of Mercy. His only recourse is to make the necessary provisions in his will before he proceeds to the final moment of his life and that terrifying instant when he must look into the grave which is to receive him.

5. Everyman, like Elckerlijc, is thus not a straightforward sermon about the necessity for reformation of one’s life, but rather is designed to present an existential experience of ima­gin­ative participation in facing the inevitable. Its method is, if we may use the terminology developed by the theologian Robert C. Neville, “symbolic engagement,” in which the reader or audience is brought into a symbolic action in a way more immediate than by reading an abstract presentation concerning death. Though never esoteric, the theological under­pin­ning, as the notes to the present edition will demonstrate, is throughout a presence in the play. Yet the play’s intent is not to teach abstract doctrine but to move its readership or audi­ence emotionally and intellectually toward a resolution that emphasizes both one’s indi­vidual responsibility and the importance of being connected in this life with one’s com­munity. Everyman differs from the confrontation with death in a modern sensational terror film such as The Night of the Living Dead, which is designed to titillate rather than to engage deeply or to cause one to think of life’s realities.

One source for the story dramatized in Elckerlijc and subsequently in Everyman is a Bud­dhist parable of false friends that very early migrated to the West.43 The version that the author of the Dutch play most likely knew was the one included in the story of Barlaam and Josaphat in the popular Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, which also was very well known in England. Here three friends, two of whom represent aspects of worldly pleasure and vanity, are sought out by a man who, having fallen into mortal peril, has been summoned to the king.44 He requests assistance from the first (riches), whom he loved even more than himself, but he is only offered two gowns, interpreted as garments for his burial.45 The man then goes to the second (kinsmen), whom he loved as much as himself. He also refuses. In desperation, the man goes to the third friend, whom he has not loved very much at all. This friend, however, responds quite differently and grants him the help that he needs. He represents good deeds, faith, hope, and charity, and will go ahead of the man to intercede for him with the king. A similar version is contained in the extended story of Barlaam and Josaphat contained in Cambridge University Library, Peterhouse MS 257, where the transgression of the protagonist is a “dette of ten thousande besauntys that he aught the kynge” while the friends are riches, kindred, and “mannys good workys. That is, feith, hope, charite, almasdede, and al other vertuys whych gone before us ere we deye and prayen God for us, that he wyl delyvere us fro oure crewel enmyes that maken grete ac­cu­sacions agens us, and ever awayten to take us and to distroye.”46

Variant versions of the parable also appear in the Gesta Romanorum 47 and in other sources. In a sermon in British Library MS Royal 18.B.xxiii, four friends are asked for assis­tance when the protagonist of the story has “trespased agenys the kynge of the londe, and so had forfette agenys the lawe that he was [w]urthye to die.” The first (the world) refuses and says that he will do no more than provide a burial cloth. The second (kindred) also refuses to help a felon beyond coming with him to his execution, while the third (the devil) offers to “helpe to hange hym,” for he too is “a frend to a tyme, but he dwelleth not in the daye of tribulacion.” But the fourth friend (Christ), for whom he had least liking, agrees to go with him to ask forgiveness of the king and even offers to die in his stead.48 Here too the order of the false friends does not precisely match those in the play, and it may be that the adaptation of the parable initially for the Flemish stage could have been based on a text that, though unknown to us, might have provided more details for the playwright to draw upon. To be sure, structurally the Dutch and English plays are more complex than this parable in any of its forms — or, for that matter, in any version likely to have existed — with a carefully constructed plot that is built on the motif of a “double desertion” pattern in which totally false friends first leave him, as do friends who logically cannot help him across into the life beyond this life though they have been useful at stages along the way.49 An exemplum detailing the desertion of strength, beauty, and worldly wisdom as well as earthly goods from the dying man contained in a sermon by the Dominican John Bromyard is reported by G. R. Owst, but here the sinner is destined for Hell fire rather than the Heaven to which Everyman will aspire following his confession.50 It is, after all, the second set of desertions at the conclusion of the drama that is most moving, since this signals the very end of one’s life with a finality that is terrifying.51

6. Everyman, as noted above, is represented by four separate printings, two of which are incomplete (the Bodleian copy is actually a fragment only), between c. 1510 and c. 1529. The copy chosen as the basis for the present text was printed by John Skot and is found in the Huth collection (Huth 32) housed at the British Library. This printing, dated c. 1530–35, was declared by W. W. Greg to be the edition that is possibly closest to the original English text prepared by the translator,52 and may be compared with the copy, sometimes called the Britwell copy, which was also printed by Skot, in the Huntington Library, and with the incomplete British Library copy printed by Pynson and the Pynson fragment in the Bodleian Library. We have corrected the Huth text when warranted with readings from the other editions, and significant differences between them are cited in the textual notes. Speech headings have been regularized, as have the letters u/v and i/j. Abbreviations have been spelled out. It should be mentioned that biblical citations in our critical notes are to the Douay-Rheims translation.

The text of Elckerlijc in this volume, presented for the purpose of comparison with Everyman, follows the edition published by Vorsterman, whose reputation as a printer was, it should be noted, not stellar since the books produced by him were marred by compositors’ mistakes and other errors. We have corrected minor errors mainly by reference to the other early editions and the late manuscript copy (adding, for instance, a line from the Brussels man­u­script at line 62). Because the emphasis of the present edition is on Everyman, we have not found it necessary to include a separate set of notes to Elckerlijc. Readers with a reading know­ledge of the Dutch language are directed to the modern editions of the play listed in our bib­liography since they contain valuable critical and textual notes. In particular, we would refer readers to the edition of A. van Elslander (1985), which can be found on­line.53 Elslander’s edition provides vari­ants from all versions in addition to his own edited text and introduction. Although Elslander’s base text is not Huth, we have worked to corroborate our line numbers with his in order to facilitate cross-referencing between the editions. The trans­lation that ac­com­panies our Dutch text is intended to be a fairly literal English version for comparison with the Middle English Everyman for non-Dutch readers.

The Stage History of Everyman

As noted above, the first performance of Everyman of which we have record was in July 1901 when it was given three Saturday productions by William Poel in an outdoor staging at the Charterhouse in London. The figure of Death in this production was given a trumpet and drum, but not the dart, a sign of his lethal nature,54 as a sign of his arrival to announce to Everyman his imminent mortality. As a symbolic representation the trumpet is not out of line with traditional iconography.55 On the whole, Poel’s production may be described as pre-Raphaelite, in part because the costumes, borrowed from Holman Hunt, were copies of designs in Flemish tapestries.

Medieval drama at this time was still regarded with suspicion, and, as Poel’s biog­rapher reports, his request to present the play in the Westminster Abbey cloisters had been re­fused.56 Some aspects of this initial production, including the casting of a woman as Every­man, may be looked on as oddities, but it was nevertheless a spectacular success, though the depiction of Adonai (played by Poel himself) as an old man with gray beard 57 continued to scandalize some and to transgress against the prohibition in English law against depicting God on stage as blasphemous.58 When the play, under a new director, Ben Greet, was moved to New York for the 1902–03 season, the furor was louder in spite of moving God off stage, but this production, which was the first performance in America on an approximation of a Renaissance stage, also would subsequently be very successful and would tour as far west as St. Louis.59

Poel had come to the play during a period of grief after the death of his mother. As a drama incorporating a universal theme, Everyman appealed to him in spite of its theology, with which he had little sympathy.60 It was, however, in Greet’s American stagings that the play suf­fered drastically from the pruning away of the didactic and more overtly theological matter con­tained in the text.61 In England, Poel subsequently turned Everyman over to Nugent Monck, whose Maddermarket Players would bring the play in 1929 to the Can­terbury Festival,62 later the venue for T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and Charles Williams’ Cranmer (1936).63

The play seems to have suffered much more from directors of some later productions, most egregiously in a television version presented on Ombibus, a series funded by the Ford Foundation, on 5 April 1953. A review by Erling Larsen which found its way into a little maga­zine of the time complained that the mystery permeating the original play “lasted perhaps fifteen seconds,” then shifted into “pure soap-opera with the play rewritten so that hardly a line was recognizable and the idea behind the play in toto altered.”64 But even in a production of the play at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis during the 1974–75 season very odd things happened as the role of Everyman was distributed to each of the actors in turn, while for a finale the members of the cast walked through the audience inap­pro­priately singing “Bless This House” by May H. Brahe. In the Steppenwolf Theatre Company performances of 1994–95 in Chicago, the choice of the person to take on the role Everyman was made by chance at the beginning of the play as books were passed out to each of four actors; the one who received the book with the protagonist’s part would then be Everyman. According to Robert Potter’s report on the production, Death was an alluring woman who “embraces Everyman literally as well as figuratively, in delivering her message.”65 In this the director, Frank Galati, was de­parting from the iconography of Death coming as a shock and instead showing how mortality can come about as the ultimate result of very tempting behavior. The terror represented by Death’s arrival in this case was, however, perhaps not diminished.

The Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theatre Company produced its Everyman in the Mall in 1994 at the Santa Monica Place Mall, a production revived in 1997–98. In this case the medieval text was used to assault contemporary American consumerism. The audience was taken on a pilgrimage from narrow service corridors into the glittering arcade of the mall itself where real shops (e.g., a jewelry store) were used as backdrops. The production successfully blended the authentic text and modern interpolations and was energized by a transformational acting style with multiple Deaths, Everymans male and female, and so forth. Kindred and Cousin, two clowns, were never able to get off a down escalator to aid Everyman. Goods was a seductive mannikin; Knowledge, Confession, and Penance were minority custodial staff. The production ended with a harrowingly real cardiac arrest that brought the naked truth of Death into the fantasy world of American materialism.66

Another professional production of Everyman was introduced by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1996. Though some changes were made in the roles (for example, Five Wits was also Discretion), all the play’s lines were spoken, albeit along with stage action very different from what a sixteenth-century audience would have expected or accepted. Death again was a woman who came to dance with Everyman, hence giving motivation to his/her first words: “Everyman, stonde styll.” When other characters entered as a circus troupe, the reviewer Marion O’Connor at first mistook them for Hell’s Angels. O’Connor nevertheless found the production, which emphasized the relationships between the characters and also the importance of the visual dimension of the play, to be a “com­pelling” performance and “wholly appropriate to the ideology of the play.”67

Some of the most successful and the most innovative productions of Everyman have been those mounted by university troupes. The University of Toronto’s PLS (Poculi Ludique Societas) had the advantage of a performance text prepared by John Astington with extensive director’s notes on acting.68 A performance at St. Martin’s College, Olympia, Wash­ington, in 1992 chose to take the journey of life iconography literally as the structuring device for a processional production that led through the campus and used the scene to full advantage in placing Everyman within a familiar contemporary setting. Its conclusion was actually in a graveyard, the location where Everyman is confronted with Death in the woodcuts on the title page of the Huth and Huntington editions printed by John Skot.69 Another university production, by the Workshop Theatre of the University of Leeds in 1997, was praised by James Cummings for not “being forced to convey messages that were not originally intended”; thus the “strength of the actors’ skill” was allowed to “bring across the original meanings with clarity and effectiveness.”70

Early Editions of Everyman

Indexed as items 10603–06 in Pollard and Redgrave, eds., Short-Title Catalogue:
  • [Everyman.] London: Richard Pynson, [c.1510–25]. British Library C.21.c.17 (STC 10603).
  • [Everyman.] London: Richard Pynson, [c.1525–30]. Douce Fragment, Bodleian Library (STC 10604).
  • The Somonyng of Everyman. London: John Skot, [c.1525–30]. British Library, Huth 32 (STC 10605). [Base Text.]
  • The Somonynge of Everyman. London: John Skot, [c.1530–35]. Huntington Library, formerly at Britwell Court (STC 10606).
Everyman has been frequently printed, and hence those editions cited in the bibliography are only the most important editions as well as the major recent anthologies that contain the play.

Manuscript and Early Editions of Elckerlijc
  • Den Spiegel der Salicheyt. Brussels: Bibliothèque Royale MS. IV–592.
  • Elckerlijck. Delft: Snellaert, 1496.
  • Den Spyeghel der Salicheyt van Elckerlyc. Antwerp: William Vorsterman, [c. 1496]. [Base text.]
  • Den Spiegel der Salicheit van Elckerlijc. Antwerp: Govaert Bac, [c. 1501].

Go To Everyman and Its Dutch Original, Elckerlijc