Morality plays were common in the 15th and 16th century in Europe, but what defines something as a morality play? According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a morality play is “an allegorical drama in which the characters personify moral qualities (such as charity or vice) or abstractions (as death or youth) and in which moral lessons are taught.” Morality plays became popular after miracle plays were no longer acceptable due to the Protestant Reformation. A result of miracle plays no longer being performed, there was a need for morality plays to take their place.
Morality plays signified a change between religion-based plays performed under the scope of the church into a professional theater setting. At first morality plays were serious in manner and style, but as time went on the actors started to add in humor and wit to their roles. As morality plays transitioned from being serious in tone to being more farcical, churches no longer had a desire to sanction the plays. The purpose of a morality play was to communicate to the audience the importance of having good morals and what was necessary to be a good person. When the objective of having good morals stopped being the focus point the church no longer wanted to be involved.
In morality plays there are customarily three significant roles being played. These roles include the protagonist, the antagonist, and the personification of moral attributes. The protagonist in the play is challenged by decisions that will ultimately determine the path that the character goes down. This path will either be one of good virtue or one of sin. The antagonist in the play attempts to manipulate the protagonist decisions, leading the protagonist down a path of sin. While the antagonist is attempting to corrupt the protagonist, the personifications of moral attributes are attempting to persuade the protagonist in the right direction. The personifications of moral attributes want the protagonist to take the path of good virtue.
This is a classic example of the devil sitting on one shoulder while an angel is sitting on the other. The angel is going to be helping you to make a righteous decision, while the devil is going to be persuading you to do something evil. In the morality play Everyman, the protagonist was the main character Everyman. The antagonist of the play was death. The remaining characters: God, Fellowship, Knowledge, Confession, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Good Deeds, Five-Wits, Angel, and Doctor were all the personifications of moral attributes. As the play unfolds, each of these characters is developed explaining their position in each of these significant roles.
When it comes to what is moral and what is immoral, who is to judge which is which? In the case of morality plays, there is a direct link between religion and morality. In the play Everyman, the main character is faced with obstacles that he believes he must overcome to abstain from going to hell. Due to his religious beliefs, he feels that he must take specific steps to remain virtuous. If he can take the appropriate corrective actions, he will be able to atoll for his sins and will be permitted to go to heaven.
According to Saroglou’s model of religious dimensions “religion not only is particularly concerned with morality as an external correlate but also includes morality as one of its basic dimensions.” Based on numerous amounts of research, there’s a popular opinion that someone must be religious to be moral. Religion teaches us from an early age what is right or wrong. An argument could be made that religion provides humanity with the necessary guidelines to become a moral and virtuous person. On the opposite end of that argument, another argument could be made that religion is giving humanity a sense of false hope of an afterlife even if a person lives a moral and virtuous life.
According to Lawrence Kohlberg’s research, there are several different ways that an individual’s morals can be developed. His suggestions were based on the following theories: social learning, psychoanalytic, cognitive development, and personality. Through social learning, an individual is developing their moral compass through an external environment. In this theory, the individual could potentially be learning through a church, their parents, schools, etc. In the psychoanalytic theory, an individual is developing their morals through an instinctual drive and societal demands. This theory is best supported by an individual’s upbringing or their way of life. The individual may be accustomed to a certain type of lifestyle that would cause them to behave in a certain way.
Through the cognitive development theory, an individual is learning through reasoning. Using reasoning the individual is basing their moral decisions on logic more than they are on what they may feel is right or wrong. Lastly, through the personality theory, an individual is gaining a moral compass through human development. Learning morality through human development would vary between every individual as everyone develops differently. The social learning theory seems to be the most relatable to the play Everyman. The main character in Everyman doesn’t have a preconceived idea of what morals were important throughout his life. It is in the threat of death that makes the main character realizes that he needs to make corrections to the path he was living. He was not aware of his moral compass and must build out on his own through his environment what is acceptable behavior.
Kohlberg believed that there were five different stages of moral development. The five stages cover the age ranges of infancy to preteen to teenage years. In stage one an infant can only sense what feels good or bad. The infant would have no way of inherently knowing right from wrong. In stage two a toddler is learning what is right and wrong based on the things that the people around them are telling them. They are not necessarily learning on their own but are being told what type of behavior is acceptable in different scenarios.
This behavior will be directly correlated with what their parents or guardians see as morally correct. In stage three the preschool child is starting to understand and adapt family values; these values are what guide them to understand the consequences of their behavior. In stage four the child is between 7-10 years old and is beginning to question the morals of the people around them. At this point, they are becoming capable of thinking on their own and deciding what they feel is correct. In stage five, peers of the preteen/teenager become their reasoning to what is right and wrong.
This stage is where the preteen/teenager is going to test out how far they can push the boundaries on what is acceptable behavior. Realizing what is acceptable and what isn’t comes with maturity and development over time. Everyman had to develop what was right and wrong by the time that he was to pass away. He had to see what mistakes he made and what corrections were necessary to become morally virtuous.
There is no definitive proof of what theory is the best for learning morals. There is also no timeframe for how long it takes any one person to learn how to be moral. The play Everyman demonstrates that morals are learned throughout our lives, not just as we are children. The main character Everyman was learning how to be moral right up until his death. As humans, we are always evolving and growing as a society, what may have been morally acceptable five hundred years ago may not be morally acceptable today. The important message about being moral seems to be that we as humans should live the best possible life we can. Meaning that we should make the efforts to do good deeds and help one another as much as possible. If we were to go through life living selflessly, we would be better off as a society. There is no such thing as it is too late to learn how to be moral and just.
Understanding where morality plays came from and what it means to be moral will help us to better understand the characters from the Everyman play. The main character Everyman is an allegorical character that is faced with figuring out what is the right or wrong path to take in life. At the beginning of the play he is consumed by worldly vices that are immoral. Some of the vices that Everyman is guilty of committing are being greedy and having lust. Upon the request from God, Death confronts Everyman with an account of the good and bad deeds that he has committed. It is at this point that Everyman must figure out how to atone for his sins and find a path back to righteous living.
Everyman is not giving a long-time period to figure out these difficult decisions that he must make quickly. That is not a simple task for Everyman, he doesn’t know where to start and seeks out help in the wrong places. First, he attempts to get help from his family and friends, but they are no help to him. It is through the characters Good Deeds and Knowledge that Everyman learns how to make the necessary atonement for his sins. Everyman must learn to let go of his worldly possessions and seek forgiveness from God to be purged of his sins. Having an attachment to his worldly possessions has made him greedy. To be moral is not to be greedy and have an unhealthy relationship with those that are around us. It is important to put a higher importance on the people that we love as opposed to inanimate objects. The things that humans perceive to be important in life such as possessions, money, and personal wealth will not make up for living an immoral life.
Although their roles are not lengthy, Death and God play an important part in Everyman. God is ultimately overseeing what is happening in Everyman’s life. He is keeping an eye on the things that Everyman has done and fears that if he doesn’t take corrective actions, he will not get into heaven after his death. Death comes into the play as a messenger for God. It is through Death that God shows Everyman that he is at risk of not getting into heaven. Death makes it very clear that Everyman will have to find a way to atone for his sins. He doesn’t provide Everyman with the exact actions that he will need to take, just that he will need to figure out what to do before he will be granted life in heaven. This wake-up call is where the rest of the characters are introduced to the play.
The next characters that are introduced are Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousin. Fellowship is representational of Everyman’s friends, where Kindred and Cousin are representational of Everyman’s family. Quickly after learning of the predicament that Everyman is facing, the three characters abandon Everyman. Each of the characters has made a promise to Everyman to be loyal and stay by his side no matter what is happening throughout his life. That does not prove to be the case when they find out that he is facing death and must decide if they will help him to atone for his sins. Having nothing to offer to Everyman, they cannot stay by his side. There is no way that they can provide any assistance to him as he faces this journey of atonement. They are unclear on even a direction to give him as he tries to get back to a path of righteousness. It’s easier for them to walk away from Everyman because there are no consequences for them if they do.
Unfortunately for Everyman, the next character that’s introduced is Goods. Goods is a representation of humanity’s material possessions. Goods let Everyman know right away that there is nothing he can do to help. Material possessions are not something that anyone can take with them when they pass away. Goods is very direct about the fact that things such as material possessions do more harm than good for anyone trying to live a moral life. If Everyman had donated or spread his wealth throughout his life goods would have worked in his favor. However, Everyman had been greedy with his wealth and possessions. As humans, we are susceptible to wanting things to improve our social status instead of focusing on the things that will give us long-term happiness and peace in life.
Luck seems to be turning around for Everyman with the introduction of the next few characters, Good Deeds, Knowledge, and Confession. At first, Good Deeds is too weak to be of any assistance to Everyman. He has not done enough good deeds in his life to give the character anything substantial to survive. For Good Deeds to help Everyman in his journey Everyman must listen to Knowledge and talk to Confession. Knowledge is meant to be a guide for Everyman to help him take the appropriate corrective actions necessary for atonement. Confession gives Everyman the opportunity to seek forgiveness and gives him a place where he can wash away his sins. After Everyman has made his confessions and asked for forgiveness, Good Deeds gains the strength to stay with Everyman until he faces God.
Good Deeds ends up being the only character that stays with Everyman until the very end. Knowledge stays with Everyman for the most part but cannot stay for the final judgment. There is a significant amount of importance with the character Good Deeds. Through Good Deeds, the audience is being taught that good deeds outweigh anything else in life. If you want to get into heaven, you need to go through life performing good deeds not out of fear but out of good will. The audience is also being shown that only something internal like good deeds can be carried with you into heaven. Other things such as external properties cannot be taken with you when you leave.
The next four characters that are introduced are Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five-Wits. Each of these characters promises Everyman that they will stay with him through his journey. Again, this is not the case for any of the characters. Once they discover that Everyman is facing his judgment day, they abandon him one at a time. Five-Wits is representative of humans five senses. Everyman believes that Five-Wits is his best friend and they will surely stay with him to the end. As usual, Everyman is wrong, these characters all represent earthly importance but hold no intrinsic value in heaven. Having beauty, strength, discretion, and five-wits on earth may seem important to us all, but once the day of judgment comes, these are nothing but valueless pleasures.
Lastly, the characters Angel and Doctor are introduced. The character Angel is used as the transition between soul and body for Everyman. Angel takes Everyman from his grave and transcends him to heaven. Although Angel’s role was short, it is important in explaining if the corrective actions that Everyman took were worthwhile or were without merit. As can be seen, by Angel’s role, Everyman was permitted to go to heaven. The character Doctor also has a short but important role. Doctor reiterates that earthly possessions will do you no good once your judgment day has been made. There are no persuasions that can be made after you have passed away. Anything that you have or have not done in your life will be accounted for on the day of your judgment.
As we have learned, morality plays have played an important role in British history during the 15th and 16th century. The study of morality still plays an important role in our current society. With all the variations on how morals are learned and taught there is still much to discover. It is unclear if there will ever be a best practice for teaching and learning good morals. The decisions that we will make throughout our lives do need to have a starting point whether that be in a church or through our family members. It is important to keep in mind that if we lose our focus in life that there are always ways to turn around our behavior and still atone for our sins. Nothing in this life is permanent and our time is limited. We never know when we will be called into judgment and should live each day as if it is our last. Everyman may have learned that lesson a little too late but was able to take the corrective actions he needed through the help of Knowledge and Good Deeds.