Second Shepherds’ Play


Second Shepherds’ Play
(Towneley Secunda pastorum)
(ca. 1475)
   The Second Shepherds’ Play is the best known and most highly regarded of the popular MYSTERY PLAYS of medieval England. The play is one of several in the TOWNELEY CYCLE (associated with the town of Wakefield in Yorkshire) written by an anonymous artist known as the “Wakefield Master,” whose plays are identifiable by their use of a 13-line stanza rhyming ababababcdddc. The Second Shepherds’ Play, so named because it is the second play in the Towneley Cycle concerning the Nativity, is unusual among mystery plays in the complexity of its comic subplot and its development of character. Particularly notable is the character of the sheepstealing Mak, one of the great comic characters of medieval theater.
   The play opens on the night of Christ’s birth. A shepherd enters and complains about the weather, sounding remarkably like an English shepherd from the Yorkshire moors. He continues to complain about injustices in the social order. He is joined by a second shepherd who also grumbles about the weather and then moans about his relationship with his wife. A third shepherd, an employee of the others, continues the grousing about the weather, but goes on to complain about his relationship with his employers. Ultimately the three shepherds assuage their sorrows by singing a song in three-part harmony—a musical resolution of the earlier discord. Thus the reconciliation of the shepherds to their human relationships at the beginning of the play prefigures the reconciliation of the world to God through the birth of his Son.
   At the close of the song, Mak enters. His reputation as a thief makes the shepherds disinclined to trust him, but when he tells them he is hungry and not welcome at home, the shepherds relent and allow Mak to spend the night with them. Mak waits until the shepherds fall asleep, then rises, steals one of their ewes, and takes it home to his wife, Gill. He returns to the shepherds’ camp before they awake to avoid suspicion.
   In the morning Mak awakes with the shepherds and takes his leave. At that point they notice the missing sheep, and visit Mak’s house to look for the sheep. Gill pretends that she has delivered a child that night, so that she and Mak can disguise the ewe as a child and hide it in a cradle. Having found no sign of their ewe, the shepherds apologize and leave, but they remember the new baby, and decide they should present the child with gifts. When they return and discover the sheep hidden in the cradle, Mak and Gill try to brazen it out, swearing that some elf must have altered the child’s appearance. The shepherds, forgoing any more severe punishment, decide to let Mak off with a simple blanket-tossing, and they leave with their sheep.
   It is doubtless that the shepherd’s acts of basic human charity—their allowing Mak to spend the night with them, their desire to present the baby with gifts, and their forgiveness of Mak for his theft—are what make them worthy recipients of the angelic message. And that message comes immediately after the shepherds finish with Mak. An angel directs them to the Christ child, and when they arrive in Bethlehem, they find the child with Mary in the stable. The first shepherd gives the baby a bob of cherries; the second gives him a small bird to play with; the third offers a ball, saying he hopes the baby will grow up to play tennis. The play ends as the shepherds sing another song. At first glance it seems that the actual story of Christ’s nativity is merely an afterthought appended to the comic “subplot” of Mak and the sheep, which is four times as long. But it is not difficult to see the parallel between the stolen sheep in Mak’s cradle and the Lamb of God in Mary’s manger. Aside from inviting us to compare the fallen world of the first part of the play (a world whose anachronistic shepherds make it very much like the contemporary world of the audience) with the restored world of Christ’s nativity, the shepherds’ charity demonstrates the appropriate frame of mind necessary for human beings to accept God’s grace.
   Bibliography
   ■ Gardner, John. The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
   ■ Meredith, Peter. “The Towneley Cycle,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 134–162.
   ■ Stevens, Martin. “Language as Theme in the Wakefield Plays,” Speculum 52 (1977): 100–117.
   ■ Stevens,Martin, and A. C. Cawley, eds. The Towneley Plays. 2 vols. Oxford: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1994.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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