Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798

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One of the fifteenth century mystery plays performed by guild members in various towns in England, Abraham and Isaac tells the biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. The Brome version of the play is distinguished from others by its greater length and its fuller development of the characters of Abraham and Isaac. The mystery plays, although often simple in both plot and design, helped to provide the background and tradition from which Elizabethan drama later emerged. The play is in verse, sometimes written in five-line stanzas rhyming abaab, sometimes in eight-line stanzas with alternate rhymes, these stanzas often ending in a shortened line. Sometimes there is no clear rhyming or stanzaic pattern. It is difficult to determine whether the play was originally written in a more careful poetic pattern, now lost through successive copying and oral repetition, or whether it was originally written in a form close to the present version.

Abraham and Isaac is a type of work that could have been created only in an age of faith. Dealing as it does with the ultimate subject of human duty to God, it depends for its effectiveness on a set of shared assumptions between playwright and audience about the omnipotence and omnipresence of God, humanity’s relationship to God, and God’s justice. The slightest hint of skepticism or rationalistic questioning of values—for example, asking why God’s commandment should be obeyed blindly when it appears so arbitrary and unjust, or how one can be sure that this is truly the word of God—would be fatal. As it is, the playwright handles his subject not only with a perfect consistency of tone but also with great clarity, with dramatic power, and, most important, with considerable insight into the human dimension.

The central issue of the play is made clear at the outset when God says, “I shall assay now his good will,/ Whether he loveth better his child or me./ All men shall take example by him my commandments how to keep.” This issue never deviates thereafter. The play is an exemplum, or moral tale, as shown by the Doctor’s appearance on stage at the end to reinforce the moral and to make the personal application to the audience explicit. The dramatic power of Abraham and Isaac derives largely from the manner in which the degrees of ignorance of father and son become knowledge. The audience, from God’s first speech and also from its own knowledge of the Bible, knows the significance of the events to come, making dramatic irony possible. Abraham is ignorant of God’s will for an appropriate sacrifice until the angel partially discloses it to him. His knowledge makes him heavy with grief, and so he tries to keep Isaac ignorant of the dire event to come until it is no longer possible to conceal it. When Isaac becomes aware of God’s will, he acquiesces immediately, and the plight and subsequent behavior of father and son in their state of partial knowledge become poignant in the extreme. Finally, this partial knowledge of God’s purpose is revealed as true ignorance when the angel stays Abraham’s hand and informs him of God’s real purpose in demanding the sacrifice of Isaac. The full knowledge thus acquired provides characters and audience with new insight not only into God’s power and authority but also into his beneficence.

If the play were merely an exemplum, it would no longer interest the reader except on the level of didacticism and as an indication of medieval attitudes toward God. This play, however, is an intensely personal work; the playwright is not simply a dramatic preacher, but a man who shares and makes his audience share the agony of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s love for his son is one of the first dramatic facts established in this play. The loving father’s anguish and near despair as he is torn between his reverence for his God and his love for his son are powerful even on the printed page. Isaac does even more to create audience sympathy. By turns he shows the reader his innocence, his filial love, his devoutness, his trustingness, his anxiety at the sight of Abraham’s sword, his fear, his resignation to the will of God, his courage (even exceeding his father’s), his mildness under sentence of death, his concern for his mother, his plea for a quick death, and finally his joy at his deliverance. He also displays his lingering fear of the knife and the hill on which he so narrowly escaped slaughter. All of these psychologically sound changes of mood, material for a play of far greater length, are handled with a dramatic skill that is economical, convincing, and moving.