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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

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. 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.