In This Article Everyman

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions
  • Facsimile Editions
  • Editions of Elckerlijc
  • Translations of Elckerlijc
  • Date and Authorship of Elckerlijc and Everyman
  • Historical Background of Elckerlijc
  • Characters
  • Humor
  • Economic and Legal Imagery
  • Performance Aspects
  • Adaptations

British and Irish Literature Everyman
by
Charlotte Steenbrugge
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0021

Introduction

It is safe to claim that Everyman is the medieval English play best known outside the field of medieval drama scholarship. The play is considered to be a great work of art in its own right and is normally seen as the prototypical medieval English morality play. As such, it is often taught at undergraduate level and has been performed on numerous occasions. It has been adapted more often than any other medieval English play, most recently by Carol Ann Duffy, whose Everyman was performed to great acclaim at the National Theatre in London in 2015. It has influenced writers from T. S. Eliot to Philip Roth. One thing less widely known, however, is that Everyman, despite often being treated as the best English morality play, is in fact highly atypical. Part of its unusual nature derives from its origin: the play is a translation of the Dutch Elckerlijc. Moreover, while the date of the translation is unknown, the earliest surviving prints stem from the 16th century, which connects the English text more closely to Tudor interludes than to medieval morality plays. (The date of Elckerlijc is also not known, but the earliest prints are late 15th century.) Perhaps more important is the fact that the play’s focus on death is much more prominent than in other morality plays (and, for that matter, moral interludes). And the absence of true vice characters is, again, atypical. Its place in the canon, however well deserved, is therefore fraught.

General Overviews

Arguably, Everyman is not a medieval text, as it was probably translated in the 16th century (see also Date and Authorship of Elckerlijc and Everyman). However, most scholars discuss Everyman in relation to earlier plays rather than Tudor drama (Betteridge and Walker 2012 being an exception) and treat it squarely as a medieval morality play. Despite its questionable status as an English artifact (see also Priority), it is undeniable that thorough knowledge of the medieval English dramatic tradition is indispensable for students of the play. There are a number of excellent books introducing the complicated landscape of medieval English drama and works delving deeper into the morality play as a genre. Such works will serve as a useful entry point for students of Everyman, helping to contextualize the play and providing insight into the play itself.

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