Critical Evaluation

Lord Byron’s Cain is subtitled A Mystery, but the mystery is not that of “who did it”; the story of Cain’s murder of Abel is well known. It is a mystery, but one that is a type of drama that had been used in medieval times to illustrate stories from the Bible. Unlike medieval mystery plays, Cain, like Byron’s Manfred (pb. 1817, pr. 1834), is a closet drama, meant to be read, not staged.

The story of Cain and Abel had intrigued Byron for years. When studying German as a boy, he had read Salomon Gessner’s Der Tod Abels (1758; “the death of Abel”) and came to think of Abel as “dull.” Cain has three acts, and the principal source is the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis. Byron’s Cain, however, is different from the Cain of Genesis. The influence of the Romantic movement is reflected in Byron’s Cain as he strives for independence and for understanding of a world he did not create.

Byron’s play includes Adam, Eve, Abel, and Zillah, but as minor characters. To Cain, Adam has been “tamed down,” and Eve has lost that intellectual curiosity that “made her thirst for knowledge.” Abel is a simple shepherd boy, and Zillah, like Abel, is happy with her simple life. Cain is alienated from all of them and is deeply conflicted.

Cain cannot understand why he should be punished for something someone else did. In addition, he cannot grasp why a God who has the power for good should set up circumstances so that humankind would fail and, therefore, be forced from Paradise and sentenced to till the earth and be subject to death. As the family gathers to pray, it is evident that Cain is not taking part. When asked why he is not giving thanks to God, Cain replies that he has nothing for which to thank God. Unlike his family, he is not content with “what is.” Byron has set Cain up as an outsider. He cannot be satisfied living outside Eden, and he questions the justice of being punished for a deed committed before he was born. He stands outside Eden, gazing at what should be his just inheritance, as the elder son. He reasons that God had deliberately tempted Adam and Eve, causing their fall, and he doubts God’s actions.

Cain’s doubt provokes the appearance of Lucifer, the fallen angel. The character of Lucifer is complex and serves as a catalyst for the tragedy of act 3. Byron’s Lucifer is different from John Milton’s fallen angel, Satan, in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Milton’s Satan is gigantic and is more human in his physical deformity. Byron’s Lucifer is less human and states he is not the serpent who had tempted Eve; however, he is, indeed, like Milton’s persuasive Satan, and he feeds Cain’s doubts by flattering Cain’s wisdom. By articulating what Cain feels, he makes Cain believe he has found someone who understands him, unlike his family. However, when Lucifer asks Cain to worship him, Cain refuses. In act 2, however, Cain will demonstrate his trust by traveling with Lucifer as his guide.

It is in act 2 that Byron anticipates certain scientific discoveries, referring, for example, to the world as having been created ages before the world that was created by God in Genesis. In a letter to his friend and fellow poet Thomas Moore, dated September 19, 1821, Byron identifies the creatures that Cain sees in act 2, scene 2 as “rational Preadamites, beings endowed with a higher intelligence than man, but totally unlike him in form.” The idea that there were beings on Earth before Adam was a common, although heretical,...

(The entire section is 1459 words.)