Places: Places: Abraham and Isaac

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: Fifteenth century

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Mystery play

Time of work: Biblical antiquity

Places DiscussedAbraham’s home

Abraham’s Abraham and Isaachome. This miracle play does not specify where Abraham lives, apart from his early statement that he understands his home to be a gift from God. According to biblical accounts, however, Abraham lived in Beersheba, a town in southern Palestine where Abraham entered into an oath with Abimelech that guaranteed him both water and grazing rights. In the play, the residents of Abraham’s land practice human sacrifice; when he is called upon to take his son on a journey, he expects it will end in his son’s sacrifice. After being tested on the mountain, Abraham returns home and receives further blessing.


Mountain. Crest of an unnamed mountain on which the play reaches its climax three days after Abraham leaves his home. Biblical texts identify this place as Moriah. Abraham’s three-day journey to the mountain advances the plot and informs the audience that Abraham’s son Isaac is unaware that he is to be sacrificed, although Abraham is fully aware of what he is expected to do. A raised elevation on the stage suggests the proximity to divinity of the participants. It also removes the act from the normal realm of life, thus reinforcing the sacred obligation involved. The place of devotion to God and human elevation, in this play, ironically, becomes a temporary place of despair since Abraham fully intends to slay his son.

Dramatic tension is relieved when an angel interrupts Abraham’s sacrifice and a ram is substituted for his son. The mountain thereafter symbolizes complete devotion to the deity and marks a milestone in Abraham’s evolving theology. The mountain is the place of epiphany on which Abraham realizes that human sacrifice is not required of him, thus separating him from his social context. It also comes to be recognized as a place of divine provision. The play’s fifteenth century audiences associated Isaac symbolically with Jesus Christ and saw the play as a prefiguring of Christ’s Crucifixion; they therefore associated its mountain with the place of the Crucifixion.

BibliographyCollier, Richard. “Poetry and Instruction.” In Poetry and Drama in the York Corpus Christi Play. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978. Collier shows that the moral is explicitly drawn in the Abraham and Isaac plays by the Brome play’s Doctor, the Chester play’s Expositor, and in the dialogue of the York play.Mills, David. “Religious Drama and Civic Ceremonial.” In Medieval Drama. Vol. 1 in The Revels History of Drama in English. New York: Methuen, 1983. Discusses the way in which the verisimilitude of the Brome Abraham and Isaac threatens the exemplary quality of the drama. He also notes that the play was probably not part of a cycle.Rendall, Thomas. “Visual Typology in the Abraham and Isaac Plays.” Modern Philology 81, no. 3 (February, 1984): 221-232. Focuses on the way in which medieval staging underlined the typological overtones in the plays. Rendall points out the parallel staging between the Old Testament and New Testament plays.Williams, Arnold. “The Literary Art of the Cycles.” The Drama of Medieval England. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1961. Shows how scriptural exegesis is needed to understand the mystery plays’ use of biblical material. As an example of this, Williams notes that the Abraham and Isaac play is one of the types of the sacrifice of the cross.Woolf, Rosemary. “Types and Prophecies of the Redemption.” In The English Mystery Plays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Compares the Abraham and Isaac plays with the Noah and Moses plays of the mystery cycles. She considers the Brome, Chester, and Ludus Conventriae Abraham and Isaac plays the most accomplished among the cycles.
Categories: Places