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...
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that there were beings on Earth before Adam was a common, although heretical, speculation in Byron’s time. In the same letter to Moore, Byron explains that the prehistoric past that Cain describes, also in act 2, scene 2, was an idea he developed from the writing of Georges Cuvier. Byron writes that before the time described in Genesis, “the world has been destroyed three or four times, and was inhabited by mammoths, behemoths, and what not; but not by man.” He believes humanity is a recent creation.
It is notable that Byron had turned to science to supplement Scripture. While looking at such beings, Lucifer, in Cain, points out Cain’s nothingness, yet Lucifer reflects the Romantic worldview when he tells Cain to rely on his own mind and, if need be, defy the ways of God, rather than justify them to others. When Lucifer shows Cain the mightiness of a former world in comparison to Cain’s Eden-excluded existence, he works toward undermining what remains of Cain’s faith in an omnipotent God. He flatters Cain, yet lowers his self-esteem by showing Cain how nothingness is all humans can know. During their time together, Lucifer also attempts to make Cain jealous of his brother, noting that Abel’s sacrifices to God are more acceptable.
A third important character developed by Byron in the play is Adah, Cain’s sister and wife. Similar to her mother Eve, she is initially attracted by Lucifer. Cain tells Adah that Lucifer is a god, but she comes to realize that Lucifer only speaks like a god, as did the serpent that had beguiled Eve. Adah warns Cain against Lucifer and urges Cain to remain with her, stressing her love for him. Cain is torn between her love and the knowledge Lucifer offers; Cain, like his mother, rejects love. Adah offers him love and contentment, a way to accept life with its limits, but Cain wants more, to transcend his limitations by following Lucifer.
Adah, aware of the danger of Lucifer, shows integrity and strength against temptation. Cain, in act 2, is torn between her love and wanting to know more, so he follows Lucifer. He returns, not enlightened but diminished. When, in act 3 Cain sees his sleeping son Enoch and despairs that he, too, has been disinherited from Eden, Adah suggests that he cease mourning for Paradise and make another. Cain states it would be better to beat Enoch’s head against the rocks than to live in such a dispossessed state.
When Abel encourages Cain to sacrifice to God with him, Cain asks Abel to make his sacrifice alone since “Jehovah loves thee well.” However, Abel urges Cain to join him. Cain, as the tiller of the soil, offers fruits; Abel, as keeper of the flocks, offers a blood sacrifice. Abel kneels, but Cain stands, stating how God must love blood if he accepts Abel’s offering. When Cain’s gifts are rejected, and Abel’s are accepted, it appears that Abel has supplanted Cain. Cain strikes his brother in anger and to prevent the sacrifice of more lambs; he does not believe it to be a mortal blow. Cain deplores the bloody slaughter of a lamb, but, ironically, he sheds his brother’s blood. Although Lucifer had tried to make Cain jealous of Abel, it was not jealousy of Abel that caused the blow, but anger that God had rejected his offering.
Byron’s Cain is not a murderer; his fatal blow is an accident. He cannot believe he has killed his brother and states he would take Abel’s place and die to “redeem him from the dust”; he fully recognizes the consequences of his act, a major departure from the biblical account. Another difference is Eve’s cursing of her own son. Adam simply tells Cain to go away. At the beginning the play Cain feels alienated from his family, now they reject him. Adah, who represents the redemptive power of love, stands by him. She and their two children will accompany Cain eastward from Eden.
Cain is yet another of Byron’s heroes, similar to Manfred and, to a lesser degree, Childe Harold. Outside Eden at the beginning of the play, Cain becomes an outcast from the new world established outside Eden by Adam and Eve, as he is expelled from what he has known. His dissatisfaction with the choices of his parents and his future is exacerbated once he has killed his brother. This terrible sin results in his exile. Unlike Manfred and Childe Harold, both of whom choose exile, exile is not Cain’s choice. Byron’s Cain is not evil; he is a person who uses his gift of reason to question why he was expelled from Paradise before he experienced it. As a Romantic (Byronic) rebel, he shows how one who is disillusioned may turn from good intentions to violence. He is tempted by flattery and made to feel inadequate. Ironically, Cain’s act and its consequences echo the fate of his parents, but it is worse. Cain has become a murderer and is even more removed from the Paradise he once coveted.