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Article Title

Material Economy, Spiritual Economy, and Social Critique in Everyman

Abstract

Traditional views of Everyman as almost wholly abstract in its representation and theological in its concerns have discouraged attention to the social world the play constructs. In particular, prior criticism has not done justice to this text’s persistent economic language. Continual references to two kinds of wealth—one literal and mundane, the other metaphorical and soteriological—define two discrete economies. In the earthly economy, Everyman is a prosperous member of the mercantile and commercial class who places too much faith in his money; and in the divine economy, God is a feudal lord who acts at various times as a buyer, a donor, and a creditor.

Much of the play’s action can be read as a series of attempts by Everyman to create points of contact between these two systems of value such that his riches will influence the machinery of salvation. Examination of this plot line’s interactions with contemporary sociocritical discourse, as found in dramatic and non-dramatic literature of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, reveals Everyman’s engagement with conventions of complaint against the abuse of wealth, especially in corrupt legal proceedings. Everyman’s own attitudes begin at odds with this satiric tradition’s normative commentary on money and then converge with it as he reforms. His commitment to restitution and almsgiving dramatizes not only the play’s sacramental theology of salvation, but also an outwardly imitable conversion of earthly wealth into something having worth in the spiritual economy.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.

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