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The Staging of the First Murder in the Mystery Plays in England Cherrell Guilfoyle The killing of Abel is reported very briefly in Genesis: "Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him."l The writers of the mystery cycles had no canonical indication of what exactly took place except that the murder of Abel was in the open air ("egrediamur foras"); nor is there any identification of a weapon. The playwrights had to make up their own minds. In the Towneley Mactacio Abel and in N-town, the text specifies a jawbone as the murder weapon, and diere is some evidence that this weapon was also used in other cycles in England. In Towneley (11. 323-24), "With cheke-bon, or that I blyn,/ Shall I the and thi life twyn"; in N-town (1. 149) "With bis chavyl bon I xal sie be."2 In the York cycle, the crucial two pages covering the murder of Abel are missing from the manuscript, yet there is strong likelihood that the jawbone had been featured here also. The Cursor Mundi, which had been written not long before the presumed date of composition of the earliest York plays (1340-50), is recognized as a source for material in the plays with similarities in style, meter, and language; and the editor of the Middle English metrical paraphrase of the Old Testament (c.1400) writes that this poem was in turn influenced by some of the York plays. In both of these long poetic narratives, Cain uses a jawbone, further identified as the jawbone of an ass: Wit be chafte ban of a ded has Men sais {tat har wit slan he was (Cursor Mundi, 11. 1073-74) Cayn, that sythyn so cursyd was Be cause of Abell meke and myld That he slow with a cheke of a nase (ME Paraphrase, 11. 234-36)3 42 Cherrell Guilfoyle43 Further, Clifford Davidson has drawn attention to the Great East Window in York Minster which shows Cain attacking Abel with a jawbone; and he suggests that this gives additional credence to the idea that the missing pages of the York Cain and Abel play had reference to the jawbone as the murder weapon—or, at die least, that such a weapon was used in the play.4 The weapon is not specified in the Chester cycle, where the stage direction "Tunc Cayne fratrem Abell occidit" appears shortly after line 612: "for dye thou shalt this night."5 As die York cycle drew on Cursor Mundi, among other sources, so the Chester cycle drew on the French Mistère du viel testament; according to Rosemary Woolf, die Chester writer worked consistently from the Mistère for the Old Testament plays. The jawbone weapon is not mentioned in any of the French sequences; in the Mistère Cain wields "ce baston," a stick or club.6 The French influence may account for the fact that the jawbone does not feature in the Chester play. However, this curious weapon, named in two English cycles, one from Yorkshire and die otiier from East Anglia, is also found in die extreme south-west of the country in the Cornish Creadon of the World play. The earliest extant text is dated 1611, but appears to be a transcription of a much older original, possibly based on a lost sequence in English.7 The stage directions are given in English: before die murder, "A chawbone readye," followed by "Abell ys stryken with a chawebone, and dyeth." The relevant lines of text (in modern English translation) are "Take that/ Thou foul knave/ On the jowl with [the] bone of the jowl" ("war an challa gans askern an challa").8 This indicates not only the weapon but also the way in which it was used: by a blow to the face. The Cornish writer is not alone in playing on die word "jowl" in this context and in showing the jawbone used to club the victim to death. Some two centuries later Shakespeare picked up the allusion in Hamlet; seeing die gravedigger dig up a skull, Hamlet exclaims, "How die knave jowls it to the ground, as if 'twere Cain's jawbone...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 42-51
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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