The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama

By Davidson, Clifford | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama


Davidson, Clifford, Papers on Language & Literature


The absence of staged tragedy in the Middle Ages is a commonplace of theatrical history. However, there was no lack in the late medieval period of a vernacular drama that specialized in pain, suffering, and that deeper sort of mental hurt that usually is classified under the term Angst. These qualities had been far less noticeable in the liturgical drama, though such twelfth-century plays as the Fleury Lazarus and Ordo Rachelis or the Beauvais Ludus Danielis(1) did dramatize moments of severe anxiety. In its emotional structure, the music-drama of the Church with its beautifully stylized presentation was intended for production indoors in nave and choir and hence differs greatly from the more realistic and often violent scenes in the mainly outdoor vernacular plays which were designed to capture the attention of ordinary people. These vernacular plays, whether dramatizing a saint's martyrdom or the Passion of Christ, were capable of the same kinds of sensationalism and intense audience response that can be traced in secularized form in the great Renaissance tragedies of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.(2)

There is nothing inherently bland about these early vernacular plays, which have been proven to be vibrantly stageworthy in modern production when not subverted by either excessive piety or fashionable antagonism to religion.(3) Developing in the small cities and towns of pre-industrial and pre-Reformation England, these were in the main civic plays that were produced for both spiritual and financial gain by amateur actors of the community. Shielded from a tragic view of history by an essentially optimistic religious belief, the producers and performers were not isolated from violence, which nevertheless their communities worked diligently to overcome, sometimes, as in the application of cruelty in the punishment and execution of criminals--for example, in drawing and quartering, and in exposing their decapitated heads in public places--with methods that were themselves violent. It is in this context that the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, one of the most popular of the Old Testament stories to appear on the late medieval stage, will need to be understood.

Narratives such as the story of the sacrifice of Isaac may not at first impress us as wildly violent and disturbing on account of their familiarity. In the version told by the authors of the Genesis account, Isaac is the miraculous child of aged parents.(4) Much loved, he nevertheless is to be given up in a sacrificial act to be performed by his father on Mount Moriah. The act of sacrifice has been commanded by God himself, and Abraham will do as he has been told. In Genesis Abraham is given the ordeal as a test of his obedience. Obedience is also at the core of medieval accounts and explains the presence of Abraham's sacrifice as the subject of the initial illustration at the beginning of the tenth- or eleventh-century manuscript containing the Psychomachia of Prudentius that is now British Library, MS. Cotton Cleopatra C.VIII.(5) In the Middle English Cursor Mundi the Lord merely orders, in a single sentence, that "I will ??ou offer [Isaac] to me" (line 3130), and Abraham acquiesces with hardly any qualms: "Blythly, lauerd, ??ou me him gaue, / Gode skill es ??at ??ou him haue" (3131-32). Abraham is utterly acquiescent; his will is entirely subsumed by God's inscrutable will.

"Figures and their fulfillment," V. A. Kolve has argued, establish the "formal shape" of the English play cycles that treat Old Testament material (99). Careful attention to the iconography and the structure of individual plays will qualify this view somewhat, but unquestionably the choice of episodes following the Creation and Fall does result in the presentation of characters and the dramatization of events that look forward to their fulfillment in the life, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. The selection of the Abraham and Isaac story is a primary exhibit, for it demonstrates how what might be regarded as a difficult and even outrageous lesson in obedience had received widespread attention and eventually became rich material for the stage. …

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