In the late medieval morality play Everyman, the character Death makes a grand entrance on stage only to be met with utter misrecognition and incomprehension. When Death explains that he is here to take Everyman on a “longe iourney” to make his “rekenynge … before God,” Everyman's incomprehension is humorous even as it reveals him to be deeply unready for Death's summons: he asks Death, “Sholde I not come agayne shortly?” Everyman's inability to recognize the permanence of Death's “journey” raises the question for the audience of what might constitute such a recognition. Depicting death as a presence initially inscrutable to its central character, Everyman asks what it means to make our own mortality present to us, to recognize our finitude, and to remember that we must die. The play presents a surprisingly circuitous answer to that question, first providing a sustained investigation into how one learns the meaning of a word, and then concluding that individual understandings of words, concepts, and mortality emerge through the interpersonal relations and communal rituals that reveal and guarantee their meanings. Through its focus on the interrelational dimensions of penance, the play emphasizes the impact of community on the formation of Everyman's self-understanding. By showing penance in performance, Everyman reveals penance itself to be performative, dynamic, and capable of changing Everyman's understanding of both himself and his relation to others. Attending to the play's investigation of language and penitential practice allows us to understand more fully the role of theatricality in medieval notions of subjectivity, wherein even the most individual of experiences are shown to rely on communal processes of generating meaning. By investigating Everyman's presentation of the communal dimensions of penance, we can develop a new understanding of a morality play itself as a deeply social drama.
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