5. Note for Isaac and Jacob (Plays 5.a. and 5.b.)
While presented as separate works in the manuscript, the incomplete play of Isaac and the Jacob play that follows effectively form a single unit, with a continuous narrative involving the same characters written entirely in couplets; the subject — the feud between Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, based on Genesis 25–33 — is unique in early English biblical drama. This edition therefore treats them as a single play, but respects the original manuscript division into two parts or pageants, giving separate lineation and retaining the original manuscript titles. It is impossible to know what exactly is missing from the Isaac pageant, but the action could well have begun with the episode in Genesis 25 in which a hungry Esau, the firstborn and Isaac’s favorite, sells his birthright to Jacob, favored by their mother, Rebecca, for a bowl of lentil stew. The extant pageant begins with Jacob’s gaining his father’s blessing by deceit. Just prior to this in the biblical account, blind Isaac asks Esau to go hunting and to prepare a meal for him; Rebecca cooks meat and has Jacob bring it to his father, wearing Esau’s clothing in order to smell like him, and with the skin of young goats wrapped around his arms and neck so that he better resembles his hairier brother (Genesis 27:1–17). The pageant continues with the encounter between Isaac and Esau, who realize the deception. Jacob is then sent away into Mesopotamia (line 58) for his protection; he is still on his way there at the beginning of the Jacob pageant, when he encounters God in a dream. A more significant break in the action occurs after this, when he returns to the land of his birth, suddenly accompanied by his wives and children and “two ostes of men” (line 5.b.68). The existing division between plays is likely an error: a copyist (whether the Towneley scribe or someone responsible for transcribing an earlier original) was perhaps confronted by a leaf beginning with a speech heading for Jacob, following a leaf that (like many medieval biblical plays) ends with a blessing, and thus mistook these for the ending of one play and the beginning of another. The title “Jacob” may have been supplied from this initial speech heading or from an explicit or colophon, the most common placement for a title; the now-separate first part of the play could then have been entitled “Isaac” in order to differentiate it from what followed.
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