Everyman's Last Rites and the Digression on Priesthood

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Editor: Michael L. LaBlanc
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,757 words

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[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, McRae examines Everyman's portrayal of the priesthood.]

Interpreters of Everyman often remark that when V. Wyttes and Knowlege digress on the priesthood, and offstage Everyman receives his last rites, the play exhibits the sacramentalism of the devotio moderna, the movement to reform the church from within that began in the low countries in the late fourteenth century. Since the digression preaches the enduring value of the sacraments as it admonishes priests to lead exemplary lives, it is for Lawrence V. Ryan both "theologically essential" and "dramatically appropriate" (731).1 In a similar vein, Thomas F. VanLaan reads the digression as a remedium to sin, V. Wyttes' naming of the sacraments effecting an "incantatory defeat" (472) of vice.2 Finally, in their authoritative recent edition of the play, Geoffrey Cooper and Christopher Wortham conclude that "Everyman asserts a view of man's spiritual needs which is unmistakably related to the reforming movement" (xxiii), and that the digression anticipates Erasmus, notably in his simultaneous veneration of priestly authority and condemnation of priestly cupidity.3

Although these perspectives are useful, especially for determining the priority of Elckerlijc, none ask the obvious question: why does Everyman visit Presthode offstage for the last rites? At first glance, the answer appears to involve simple dramatic economy. If, as A. C. Cawley argues, Confessyon and Presthode are identical, then Everyman's receiving his last rites onstage would in some measure be an unnecessary repetition of his earlier confession.4 But something far more basic than dramatic economy is involved here. Everyman's visit to Presthode cannot be dramatized because there are implications to what Knowlege and V. Wyttes say about the priesthood that prevent such a visit from being staged. The conversation between V. Wyttes and Knowlege indirectly records the tension in the play between its worldly outlook and its reformist message, with the result that perhaps the most important act of faith Everyman could show, his receiving of the last rites, and especially of holy communion, can never be dramatized.

The digression begins when Knowlege counsels Everyman, who now understands the importance of Good Dedes for his salvation, to receive the "holy sacrament and oyntment togyder" (line 709). This sacramentalist advice is heard again in V. Wyttes' proclaiming that the "preesthode excedeth all other thynge" (line 732) in that the priest "handeleth his Maker bytwene his [handes]" (line 739). V. Wyttes and Knowlege valorize the eucharist in a way that calls to mind Thomas à Kempis in the Imitatio Christi, the spiritual guidebook for the devotio moderna, first published some 50 years before Everyman: "For there is no...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420050689