The Second Shepherds' Play

by Wakefield Master

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Second Shepherds' Play is a medieval mystery play which is part of the Wakefield Cycle. The thirty-two Wakefield Mystery Plays are written in English verse, often in short rhyming lines, and based on stories in the Bible, functioning to help a primarily illiterate audience become more familiar with Biblical stories. The plays were performed from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries in the village of Wakefield in Yorkshire, England. The authors of the cycle are unknown. The plays were performed by amateur actors, including craftsmen who were members of local guilds, probably to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi in early summer.

The Second Shepherds' Play is an interesting mixture of biblical and secular themes and of popular comedy and religious instruction. The first part of the play is a comic treatment of three shepherds, tending their sheep near Bethlehem, lamenting the hardships of their lives. Mak, a criminal, manages to steal a ewe from them as they sleep and hides it in his house. The shepherds, after a few clever plot twists, manage to recover their sheep.

After the ewe is safely recovered, an angel appears to the shepherds and announces the birth of the Savior, Jesus. This part of the play recounts and embellishes the Biblical account. The shepherds follow a star to the manger where Mary is staying with her newly born infant, Jesus. The shepherds give gifts to Mary and her child and then depart to spread the Good News to the world.

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