The Second Shepherds’ Play is one of the best of the medieval mystery plays. Unlike the medieval morality play, which was allegorical in method and restricted to a few topics concerning salvation, the mystery play had much greater range in subject matter and characterization. Although originally limited to the dramatization of biblical events, mystery plays increasingly treated stories from Scripture and Church history with a good deal of latitude. The primary aim of this form of drama was the elucidation of biblical and traditional wisdom for the laity, but from the mystery play emerged the elements of Renaissance drama. In this evolutionary process, a group of plays called the Towneley cycle was very important and, of the Towneley plays, the most influential was The Second Shepherds’ Play.
The mystery play had its origin in an antiphonal part of the mass for Easter called the Quem quaeritis (Whom do you seek?), which was the forerunner of liturgical innovations that used dialogue, adapted from Scripture, to enliven the worship. As the dialogues expanded, they were moved out of the mass proper, where they were becoming a distraction, to other services such as matins. When the practice was extended to Christmas and other feasts, the range of subjects and the scope of dialogues were correspondingly amplified.
Eventually, the dialogues began to incorporate materials that were irrelevant, sometimes even inappropriate, to the liturgy. These rudimentary plays were removed from the church to the courtyard and finally to the marketplace, where they slipped out of clerical control. Responsibility for the productions was assumed by the civil authorities and delegated to appropriate guilds; the Noah plays, for example, were assigned to shipbuilders. There followed a slow process of secularization, although biblical themes survived into the sixteenth century.
Early in the fourteenth century, it became customary to perform the plays on the feast of Corpus Christi. Many towns, especially in the north of England, developed cycles of plays covering the whole range of biblical history. The largest extant group is the York cycle, but there were impressive collections at Norwich, Coventry, Newcastle, Chester, and elsewhere.
The Wakefield cycle was the most impressive, partly because of the enormously talented contributions of a...
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