The Second Shepherds’ Play
Washington State University
THE SECOND SHEPHERDS’ PLAY
This 15th-century mystery play — probably serving as a replacement for the earlier “first” Shepherds’ Play — was created by the so-called Wakefield Master, praised for his skill in comedy. Shepherds Coll, Gib, and Daw, along with the sheep-thieving Mak and his wife Gill provide the comic parody. The pre-Christ days, despite a tendency towards time-and-space-collapsing anachronism making the majority of the play sound and feel like 15th-century northern England, involve familiar complaints about taxation, the abuses of the rich, and other social ills. Marriage is a misery too (we hear from a man). Also, how about this weird weather, huh?
Darkness and confusion seem pervasive, and disgruntlement, again familiarly, has become a way of life. Mak, in fact, presents himself as one of them by bemoaning his own afflictions too. Buthe represents himself also as one of the kind of yeomen the first shepherd had griped about, and Mak also affects the linguistic style of the south (whose modern parallel would be British actors adopting that “BBC” accent).
Mak’s wife Gill is able to supplement earlier anti-feminist material with her own perspective. But the highlight of the comedy comes with Mak and Gill disguising the stolen sheep as their baby in a cradle — a burlesque in advance of what’s coming: the scene of baby Jesus in the manger. Iconographically, the devil has a long snout and of course horns, so the changeling implications are sophisticated, but not sacreligious. The shepherds finally just “cast him [Mak] in a canvas” — that is, toss him in a blanket. So they seem to forego the old law of vengeance, perhaps softening their hearts, and therefore are now ready for the final scenes of the angel sending them to Bethlehem, where no doubt the stable is the same set used for Mak and Gill’s home.
Instead of frankincense and such, the shepherds offer rustic gifts.First is a bob (or cluster) of cherries, which are picked in midwinter and therefore represent birth amid death. Second is a bird, perhaps representing the Holy Spirit. And third is a tennis ball, the orb being a symbol of royalty.
The Second Shepherds’ Pageant. Medieval Drama. Ed. David Bevington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975. 383-408.
The Second Shepherds’ Play. Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas J. Garbáty. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.H. Heath & Co., 1984. 882-906.
The Second Shepherds’ Play. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. 8th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. 406-435.