Art has always been a powerful medium. Some see it as a form of protest, injecting their political thought, to convince others of their ideology (or in this case, instill the fear of God in them), while others see it as another means of expression where political thought isn’t necessary.
Medieval art was no difference. What movies and TV shows are for us today, these plays were for the medieval average Joe and Jane. They were their form of escapism, a distraction from their everyday hard lives.
These plays also worked like fables. There was a lesson to be learned at the end of every tale. And like fables, the protagonist had to go through many obstacles, to realize what was truly important.
Among the few medieval plays that have survived is “Everyman” which this edition heavily focuses on. My advice is that you read every play, not just Everyman.
Each play is a retelling of biblical stories, with some being an original story where protagonist face some sort of obstacle they must overcome with the help of supernatural beings (like with “Everyman”). If these plays had relied solely on scary imagery, the audience would have felt little encouragement to stay through the whole event. Similarly, if the Merchant’s Guild (who financed these plays) had not thrown in something funny, the people would have felt just like they did at church.
The commons were eager for the arrival of the holiday season because it meant they would get to be part of another spectacle. Unlike movies today where you have to pay to see them, these plays were free.
At the time that “Everyman” was released, England had been embroiled in a civil war. The two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty, York and Lancaster, been fighting each other off for over three centuries. Although Lancaster had been wiped off, one scion remained.
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was seen as the new hope for the House of Lancaster. Those who had fought with his uncle and his fierce queen, fled England and joined him in exile. Henry promised that he would beat Richard and crown himself King, and marry the King’s niece, the Yorkist Princess, Elizabeth Plantagenet. Their union would bring the two sides together, thus, ending the conflict. This oath brought many disaffected Edwardian Yorkists to his side.
After Henry became King of England, there was an outbreak of sweating sickness. People were once again reminded of their stark reality. More than ever, these plays became necessary. They needed something to bring them respite from their everyday hardships.
More than escapism, these plays also offered them a sense of comfort. The common man could see himself in the protagonist, or identify with the other characters and go back home, thinking that like them, if they put enough trust in God, things would get better.