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The Skill of Cain in the English Mystery Cycles Blair W. Boone 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.l 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 manipu­ lation. Moreover, other exegetical modes medieval and modem 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. These plays are of interest specifically because of their unique position as the first moral action in history. Situated between the Fall, which begins history, and the Flood, which nearly ends it, the Cain and Abel plays are both type and archetype, consequence and consequential. The general curse of the Fall finds a particular manifestation in the primal eldest curse in history of a brother’s murder, which in turn spawns in the race of Cain particular evils grown to an almost general BLAIR W. BOONE is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. 112 Blair W. Boone 113 condition of mankind.2 Having a fallen world to bustle in, Cain may commit an original sin, but not Original Sin. This linguistic paradox reveals an ambivalence inherent in the situation itself, an ambivalence that necessarily finds its expression in the language of the plays. Martin Stevens has sug­ gested that “the Wakefield Author brought to the Towneley Plays an active interest in the uses of language and that he did so to the extent of making that subject a major thematic concern in the cycle. Particularly, he characterizes the abuses of lan­ guage, concentrating on what Abel at one point in Play 2 calls ‘vayn carpyng’.”3 I would like to suggest that in each of the Cain and Abel episodes in the Chester, N-Town, York, and Towneley cycles the use and abuse of language not only become but also constitute the theme of those plays, and do so in a way that unites the structural ambivalence with the moral theme of the plays. The locus of this union may be most clearly determined in the Towneley play, in particular in the use of the word “skill.” The word also occurs in the N-Town play, and while it is not found in the Chester or York plays, it yet provides a key for a comparison of this structural and thematic unity in each of the four dramas of Cain and Abel. The entries for the word “skill” in the OED are prefaced by the following qualification: “The great variety of usage in ME. renders it difficult to assign par­ ticular examples to a definite sense.” Conversely, this variety of usage also renders definite senses rather slippery. Two defini­ tions given immediately concern the use of the word “skill” in the Towneley and N-Town plays: (a) ‘A sense of what is right or fitting’; (b) ‘That which is reasonable, proper, right, or just.’ Under this second definition the final example given is: ‘c 1460 Towneley Myst. ii. 260, I did hym never yit bot skill.’ Turning to the play, we find that the speaker is Cain, and that the “hym” referred to is God.4 The word appears again twelve lines later, once more spoken by Cain, this time as he addresses Abel...


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