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Cain by Byron: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

In this lesson, we'll review Lord Byron's ironic version of the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Then we'll analyze some key aspects of this classic drama!

Plot

Act I, Scene I

Cain is an angry guy. He's mad at God for planting the Tree of Knowledge. He's mad at his mother Eve for being tempted by the Serpent and taking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. He's mad at his father Adam for not taking fruit from the Tree of Life. He's even mad at his brother Abel for not being as angry as he is!

The drama opens with Adam, Eve, and their children Cain, Abel, Zillah, and Adah offering God a sacrifice. While everyone else praises God, Cain stays silent. He complains that he won't thank a god who has denied him immortality.

Later in the Act, Cain meets Lucifer. He tells Lucifer that even though the fruit of Knowledge was eaten, he still doesn't know what Death is and fears it.

Act II, Scene I

Lucifer takes Cain into the Abyss of Space, where Cain realizes how small and insignificant he is. Next, the two travel back in time, where Cain sees Earth in its former beauty. Finally, Lucifer brings Cain to the gates of Hades.

Act II, Scene II

Cain is horrified by shadowy Hades, the 'realm of Death.' Lucifer explains that the phantoms flying around are the spirits of beings that God made and destroyed before he made mankind.

All of this disgusts Cain, so much so that he simply wants to die and get it over with. He asks to stay in Hades, but Lucifer tells him he cannot, at least not yet. They return to Earth.

Act III, Scene I

Cain and his sister/wife Adah watch their sleeping son Enoch. Cain says that Enoch smiles because he is still too young and innocent to know that Paradise is lost. He briefly considers killing his son to save him from misery but backtracks when Adah chastises him.

Abel asks Cain to join him at a sacrifice. A column of fire ascends from Abel's alter into heaven, but a whirlwind destroys Cain's alter. Cain is happy to see the fruits scattered off of his alter, but Abel attempts to remake Cain's alter anyway. They argue, and Cain strikes Abel down. Before Abel dies, he asks God to forgive Cain.

Adam and Eve curse Cain and banish him from their home. Adah begs the family to forgive Cain, but they refuse. The Angel of the Lord enters and curses Cain. As punishment, the Earth will never bear fruit when Cain attempts to farm it. He will also be a fugitive, forced to wander the Earth forever.

Adah begs the Angel for mercy, saying that others will want to kill Cain for his crime. The Angel puts a mark on Cain's brow to warn others not to harm him. Cain begs for death instead, but the Angel refuses. Cain and Adah leave together with their son.

Analysis

Cain is a special kind of play called a closet drama. Closet dramas, unlike traditional dramatic scripts, are not meant to be performed on a stage. Instead, they should be read either silently to oneself or aloud in a small seated group of people.

Byron named his play Cain: A Mystery because he wanted it to conform to the language of ancient mystery plays. Mysteries were plays written in medieval Europe that retold stories from the Bible. However, unlike the medieval mystery plays, which were largely reverential to God, Byron's mystery has a decidedly ironic undertone to it.

The character Lucifer openly questions whether God is evil, pointing out that the Maker destroys as much as he creates. In addition, Byron's version of Lucifer demonstrates to Cain how insignificant man really is and how little he really knows or understands about the universe (despite Adam and Eve's having eaten from the Tree of 'Knowledge'.) This recognition that man cannot truly comprehend the full vastness of time and space was a major philosophical undercurrent that ran through numerous writers' texts during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and Byron battled with this dilemma in many of his compositions.

Before Byron even began to write Cain, he jotted down some lines in his journal and titled them 'Thought for a speech of Lucifer in the Tragedy of Cain.' One of those lines read: 'Were Death an Evil, would I let thee live?' This line never actually made it into the finished version of Cain. Still, it's a great line for us to consider, because it gets to the heart of a key message in Byron's play: eternal life is a far worse punishment than death!

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