Article Title

The Skill of Cain in the English Mystery Cycles


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

The Cain and Abel plays, and indeed most of the four major English mystery cycles, have in recent years been read exegetically and especially typologically. This method has produced many useful insights and much worthwhile scholarship, but it has its limits as a critical method, several of which have already been pointed out.1 I would add only one further caveat: that typology teaches us more about the structure of the cycles than about the internal structure of particular plays within the cycles. Whatever intellectual and aesthetic appreciation we feel in adumbrating the structural unity of a cycle according to typology may be derived as much from foreknowledge of the typology as from its actual manifestation in the cycle. The playwright or playwrights working on a cycle could hardly have avoided the appearance of such formal unity when the Church Fathers had already established the unity of Christian history. At any rate, it is often practically impossible to distinguish between necessary recapitulation of sacred history and conscious artistic manipulation. Moreover, other exegetical modes medieval and modern may tell us more than typology (which is an end in itself) about the historical, theological, and mythological structures of the plays, particularly the Cain and Abel plays.

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