Although the character Death disappears after delivering his message to Everyman, death itself remains one of the play’s primary themes. The Christian Bible teaches that one of the consequences of the fall from grace (that is, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden) is that God made humans mortal. Therefore, death is simply part of what it means to be human. As the character Death proclaims at the beginning of the play, death is a weapon, one that punishes “every man … that liveth beastly / Out of God’s laws.” Indeed, Everyman’s fear of death stems not only from his preference for the material world over Christian devotion but also from his certainty that he has lived “out of God’s laws” and will therefore face eternal damnation after he dies. In other words, for those who lead ungodly lives, loss of life is a minor punishment—since death is just the gateway to eternal punishment.
This notion of death as a gateway is especially significant in light of the fact that Hell, in the author’s Christian worldview, is not the only possible existence in the afterlife. Highlighting the “transitory” and temporary nature of life, Death acts as a messenger, delivering souls to both heaven and hell. In the world of the play, death is not the end of existence, but merely a divider between the temporary material world and the eternal afterlife. Whether people end up in heaven or hell is, according to the play, entirely up to each person. For the righteous, death isn’t frightening at all, since it is the gateway to eternal happiness in heaven. Death is only to be feared by those who live in sin.
A person’s relationship to death can therefore be seen as a litmus test for their relationship to God. Whereas in the beginning of the play, Everyman feared and despaired of death, at the end of the play, he readily climbs into his own grave. This remarkable transformation in his attitude toward death correlates with his relationships to sin and Christianity. Whereas in the beginning of the play Everyman sinfully privileged material goods and pleasures over good deeds and Christian devotion, by the end of the play, Everyman has, with the help of Confession, Good Deeds, and Knowledge, purged himself of sin, given his wealth away, and undergone the sacraments of last rites. Now a righteous man, Everyman not only does not fear death but embraces it, as it will bring him closer to God.
Everyman’s willingness to die at the end of the play is portrayed as an act of piety, and throughout the play, the willingness to die for others is depicted as a rare virtue. Everyman’s friends—Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Strength, Five Wits, Discretion, and Beauty—all refuse to join him on his pilgrimage. No one, except for Good Deeds and Everyman, is willing to die. However, one complication of the play’s portrayal of Everyman’s self-sacrifice as virtuous is the fact that his sacrifice is motivated by selfishness, by his desire to gain admission to Heaven. An important distinction between Good Deeds and Everyman is that while Good Deeds is willing to die for Everyman’s sake, Everyman embraces death for his own sake. Since he has already been summoned by Death, Everyman has no choice in whether he lives or dies. Although he despairs of his own impending death, he displays no compunction when asking his friends to die and possibly go to Hell with him, bemoaning their abandonment when they refuse without seeming to realize that he is asking for the ultimate sacrifice. By contrast, Good Deeds is ready and willing to die for Everyman. Portrayed as the ultimate good deed, Good Deeds’s willingness to die for Everyman recalls Christ’s sacrifice. Just as Christ’s self-sacrifice gave mankind a path to salvation, Good Deeds’s self-sacrifice gives Everyman a path to salvation. One might argue, then, that Everyman’s ostensibly contradictory selfish self-sacrifice fits into an allegory of Christian salvation: in spite of our sins, humankind has been granted salvation (whether deserved or not) through a savior’s virtuous death.
Death Quotes in Everyman
Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God;
In worldly riches is all their mind,
They fear not my rightwiseness, the sharp rod;
My law that I shewed, when I for them died,
They forget clean, and shedding of my blood red;
I hanged between two, it cannot be denied;
To get them life I suffered to be dead
I set not by gold, silver, nor riches,
Ne by pope, emperor, king, duke, ne princess.
For and I would receive gifts great,
All the world I might get;
But my custom is clean contrary.
I give thee no respite: come hence, and not tarry.
I come with Knowledge for my redemption,
Repent with hearty and full contrition;
For I am commanded a pilgrimage to take,
And great accounts before God to take,
Now, I pray you, Shift, mother of salvation,
Help my good deeds for my piteous exclamation.
Everyman: Take example, all ye that this do hear or see,
How they that I loved best do forsake me,
Except my Good-Deeds that bideth truly.
Good-Deeds: All earthly things is but vanity:
Beauty, Strength, and Discretion, do man forsake,
Foolish friends and kinsmen, that fair spake,
All fleeth save Good-Deeds, and that am I.