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The Second Shepherds’ Play is both typical and atypical of the medieval “mystery play” genre in a number of ways.
The play is a typical mystery play in the following respects:
- It is written in the vernacular language, as had become customary after the plays moved away from their Latin origins.
- It deals, at least at the very end, with an important episode from the Christian Bible, in this case the birth of Jesus.
- It actually presents Biblical figures, in this case the Angel, Mary, and the baby Jesus.
- It features music, in this case the “Gloria in Excelsis” sung by the angel.
- It appeals to a popular audience rather than being loftily learned or remote from everyday life.
- It does not deal with the lives of saints, which tended to be handled (at least in mainland Europe) in “miracle” plays.
- The writing is often “vigorous and pithy” (in the words of Martin S. Day in his istorHHistory of English Literature).
- It emphasizes humor, as do other plays in the so-called “Wakefield Cycle” of mystery plays.
- It resembles another play in the Wakefield Cycle – Mactacio Abel (“The Killing of Abel”) in its focus on figures who act and sound like contemporary Englishman and in its tendency to treat the Biblical content, the murder of Abel, almost as “an anti-climactic afterthought” (in the words of Day).
- It is designed to teach Christian lessons.
- Its characters are often vividly presented.
Several commentators have suggested that The Second Shepherds’ Play is unusual
- in its literary quality and excellence
- in its opening parody of the nativity story
- in its very elaborate rhyme scheme
- in being the second play on the nativity in one “cycle” of plays
- in the degree to which it contains material that has no Biblical source
- in the unusually strong emphasis it gives to what normally seem a comic “subplot”
- in the unusual degree to which the two elements of the plot are unified
The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, in introducing the play, argue that it
is exceptional among the mystery plays in its development of plot and character. There is no parallel to its elaboration of the comic subplot and no character quite like Mak, who has doubtless been imported into religious drama from popular farce.
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