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...
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