Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > The Early Religious Drama > Everyman
  Mind, Will and Understanding Tendency towards the introduction of comic elements  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

III. The Early Religious Drama.

§ 22. Everyman.

The most famous, however, among all these moralities is Every-man, whose date of composition cannot be defined precisely; we only know that the earliest printed editions, both undated, must belong to the period between 1509 and 1530; but so early as 1495 a Dutch translation was printed. 4  Everyman treats, in allegorical style, of the hour of death, and thus deals with a sphere of ideas which, in the devotional literature of the later Middle Ages, is one of the main subjects; the most famous book of that sort, Ars moriendi, was published in an English translation by Caxton in 1491. The poet endeavoured to give dramatic animation to his subject by making use of a parable which is told in the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat: how a man had three friends, of whom one only declared himself ready to accompany him before the throne of the judge before whom he is summoned. This friend symbolises a man’s good deeds, which alone accompany him after death before the throne of God and interpose their prayers for him. The series of scenes—how, first, Death, as God’s summoner, bids man come; how, then, Fellowship, Kindred and others, when asked to bear him company, by empty phrases talk themselves out of the affair—exercises its impressive power even to-day, not only in the reading but also on the stage. Only Good-deeds, who lies on the ground fettered by Every-man’s sins, declares herself ready to assist him. How Every-man is directed by Good-deeds to Knowledge and Confession, and, finally, leaves the world well prepared, is shown forth in the last part of the play, where the Catholic point of view is insisted on with much unction and force. The comic element disappears almost entirely.   30

Note 4. Some take this Dutch Elckerlijk for the original of the English morality; but de Raaf, who inverts the relation, is, most probably, correct. The most convincing instance pointed out by him is vv. 778 f., where it appears, beyond doubt, that the Dutch text must have come from the English. Everyman, after receiving the last sacraments, says to his fellows:
Now set eche of you on this rodde your honde
And shortly folwe me….

where Elckerlijk has (vv. 749 f.):
Slaet an dit roeyken alle u hant
Ende volghet mi haestelic na desen.

Here, roeyken=virga has been written by a misunderstanding for rodde=crux: it is evident that Every-man-Elckerlijk had in his hand one of those crosses for the dying which play an important part in the Ars moriendi literature. [ back ]

  Mind, Will and Understanding Tendency towards the introduction of comic elements  

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