Typology as Contrast in the Middle English Abraham and Isaac Plays
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 2 (1985)
The critics who discuss the typological signification in the Middle English mystery plays of Abraham and Isaac most often consider Isaac the central character. They note that, according to patristic exegesis, Isaac’s willingness to die at his father’s command prefigures Christ’s acceptance of death on the cross. Abraham thus prefigures God the Father, who sacrifices his only son. In a widely accepted argument, Rosemary Woolf has maintained that this figural connection between Abraham and God compelled the medieval dramatists to present Abraham as a static character. Typological interpretation of the story, she writes, had … A straitening effect on the character of Abraham, for to the question of how Abraham would feel in this situation there was no answer which would not have been typologically inappropriate. Since Abraham prefigured the ‘Father, he could not even momentarily show himself irresolute (1957, 819). Granted, none of the six surviving Middle English dramatizations of the story show Abraham seriously contemplating disobedience to God’s command. Nevertheless, in certain ways, the plays do concentrate more on the feelings and actions of Abraham than on those of Isaac. In each play, Abraham speaks many more lines than Isaac; in fact, in all but the Brome play, he speaks more than twice as many. In each play, the dramatist shows Abraham in a growing state of perplexity and consternation even after Isaac has accepted his death; the Northampton play, in fact, shows Abraham still puzzling over God’s purpose even after Isaac has been spared. In short, despite the typological critics’ attention to the role of Isaac, the Middle English plays do seem to feature Abraham as their central character; despite his typological connection with God the Father, Abraham in these plays does offer a human, even dynamic response to God’s unusual test.