Could the Second Shepherd's Play be considered allegorical? If so, what are the specific reasons?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Second Shepherd’s Play seems a far less allegorical work than many other medieval literary texts, at least according to standard definitions of the word “allegory.”  Thus, the World English Dictionary defines an “allegory” as a

poem,play, picture, etc, in which the apparent meaning of the characters and events is used to symbolize a deeper moral or spiritual meaning.

In the medieval morality play Everyman, for instance, the title character represents every single human being. He is not a specific individual so much as he is a symbol of everyone. When he is approached by Death, this process symbolizes the way that death comes for all people. Similarly, when Everyman is deserted by his various friends, this process represents the ways in which almost all the things we rely on in life eventually desert as when we face death. Finally, when Good Deeds ultimately walks into the grave with Everyman, we are meant to understand that only our own good deeds follow us beyond death, and so on.

The Second Shepherd’s Play does not seem allegorical in these blatant or obvious ways. Coll, Gib, Daw, Mak, and Gill do not seem to “stand for” or “represent” any particular ideas or concepts – at least not in the obvious way or to the clear extent, for instance, that Una (in Edmund Spenser’s later work The Faerie Queene) “stands for” or “represents” the One True Church. Instead, most of the characters in The Second Shepherd’s Play seem to be simply (and simple) human beings interacting with one another, although ultimately they find themselves caught up in the miraculous story of Christ’s birth.

Even here, the play does not seem particularly allegorical. Thus, Coll presents the Christ child with a “bob of cherries” (1035), but these cherries do not obviously seem to “represent” or “stand for” anything.  They seem to be real cherries – an appropriately simple gift. The same seems true of the bird Gib presents and of the ball “Daw” presents.  Clearly these presentations by three shepherds remind us of the gifts presented to Christ by the three wise men in the Bible, but any allegorical significance of the presentations seems muted and suggestive (see, however, the Google link below). Any allegory is not obvious, as it is in Everyman.

The earlier defeat of Mak has sometimes been seen as an allegory of the defeat of Satan, just as the earlier recovery of the sheep has sometimes been seen as an allegory of the saving of the Christian flock by Christ, but alleged allegorical touches such as these seem pale in comparison to the kind of full-scale allegory found in the other works already mentioned.