The Second Shepherds' Play

by Wakefield Master

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Second Shepherd's Play is a medieval mystery play contained in manuscript HM1, whose language and manuscript history date it to Wakefield in Yorkshire. The shepherds in the play are, ostensibly, Biblical shepherds, but the play, dating from the era when Middle English had no standard and varied by geography, utilizes local language and makes jokes suggesting that the shepherds are actually from Yorkshire. This reflects the play's generally comic tone.

There are three shepherds in the play, described in the play's directions as first shepherd, second shepherd, and third shepherd, although we learn that their names are Col, Gib, and Dave. Little distinction is made between them; they are intended to be viewed as a unit, from which Mak is separate. This is indicated in the opening lines of the first and second shepherd, in which the second shepherd echoes the first's concerns about the terrible weather. The third shepherd arrives late, saying he thinks he has seen strange lights, whereupon the first shepherd, who seems to be his senior, calls him a "lazy swine." The second shepherd, presumably a more amiable character, asks Col to leave the boy alone. The interaction between the three shepherds is supposed to be one of humorous banter, but the texts leaves us in no doubt that they are a cooperative, as when they all sing together in harmony.

Mak, meanwhile, is evidently a local miscreant well known to the shepherds. When he arrives, his language is very distinct from that of the shepherds, although the play must be read in Middle English to see this, as it is generally not well represented in translation. Where the rest of the play is in a distinct northern dialect, Mak says:

What ich be a yoman: I tell you of the kyng
The self and the some, sond from a greatt lordyng

He is pretending to be a king's yeoman, and consequently, we can infer that he is putting on a Southern accent; the first shepherd sharply tells him to "take out that Sothren tothe," in other words, to stop speaking in that Southern way. He is telling Mak here that they all know who he is. Eventually, Mak drops his act, but it is clear that the shepherds were right to fear he might "take all their things." Mak's deviousness and deceit are the core of the play; when the shepherds fall asleep, he takes a sheep from their flock and takes it home to his wife, Gill.

Gill seems to have little time for her husband. When he arrives with the sheep, she tells him she does not want to be hanged for this lamb and suggests he go hang himself instead. Their interplay, wherein the man appears to be somewhat under the thumb of his more sensible wife, is common in medieval plays and continues a tradition in local town plays to this day. Gill is something of an archetype. Mak is, ultimately, able to convince her to pretend that she has given birth to a baby boy, who will be "played" by the sheep he has stolen.

At the end of the play, the shepherds of course find Mak out. At this point, the narrative changes with the arrival of an Angel, who tells them a child has been born, lying in a crib between two beasts, who is God's child.

The shepherds hurry to the stable, where they also encounter Mary and the Christ child. As such, the play ends in a fairly standard nativity play format, leaving the shepherds (and audience) with the impression that the world is full of grace after all, despite the existence of crooks like Mak.

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