The Second Shepherds' Play

by Wakefield Master

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Critical Evaluation

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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 gifted playwright known only as the Wakefield Master. Known also as the Towneley cycle, because the manuscript was long at Towneley Hall in Lancashire, this group of plays developed in three parts. The first part is a series of rather simple plays, some of which seem to have been borrowed from the York cycle. The second part is a group of plays that were incorporated into the cycle in the early fifteenth century. The third part, added before the mid-fifteenth century, was the work of the Wakefield Master, who contributed several plays in a characteristic nine-line stanza and revised several others. The Second Shepherds’ Play is the most distinctive of the master’s additions.

The historical importance of the work is in its departure from the devotional thrust of the mystery play. It is true that the mystery play long accommodated extraneous secular material as it developed into a more elaborate dramatic structure. It is even true that the humor, in the situation and in language, frequently became coarse. What is striking about The Second Shepherds’ Play is basically a matter of proportion and individual talent. In this play, the secular component completely overwhelms the biblical. Although the focus of the play is on the Nativity and it concludes with a devout pageant, the intrigues among the shepherds, which dominate most of the play, are only tangentially related to the Nativity and are hugely entertaining in...

(This entire section contains 975 words.)

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their own right.

In many mystery plays, the action moves quickly and easily between devotion and vulgar farce. The Second Shepherds’ Play is more neatly divided and better controlled. The first part of the drama deals with the experiences of the shepherds, particularly with the conniving of Mak and his wife Gill. The dialogue of the three shepherds, as they complain of their lot, is full of cynical, comical reflections on their human situation. The plot of this section is simply the duping and their discovery of it. The tone is lighthearted, no great harm is done, and all is an excuse for good-humored repartee. The stanza of nine lines of different lengths accommodates short set speeches as well as rapid, witty interchanges.

The second part of the play, by way of contrast, involves the shepherds in gift-giving in the Christmas tableau. Ostensibly it is connected to the first part only by the presence of the same shepherds. Nevertheless, there are some surprising continuities. Despite the seriousness of the event, the poet maintains the same light touch and sensitivity to the mundane concerns of humankind. The tone, however, does not interfere with the solemnity of the scriptural occasion and with the appropriate decorum. Rather, the pageant gains a vitality all too often lacking in religious representations.

There is yet another connection between the two plots insofar as the story of Mak is a sort of secular parody of the Nativity. In the farcical plot, the shepherds do not give their gifts willingly but are conned out of them. When they finally approach the cradle, it is surrounded by the duplicitous Mak and Gill rather than Joseph and Mary, and the cradle contains not the Lamb of God but a real sheep. The main events of the play are a playful, but ultimately not blasphemous, secularization of the Christmas story. The Wakefield Master infused the Nativity into a pedestrian comedy and then transferred the joyous vitality of the farce to its solemn conclusion, thus stretching the mold of the mystery play in an unprecedented manner. As a result, The Second Shepherds’ Play shares more with the kind of comedy that was to follow in the Renaissance than it does with its contemporaneous liturgical antecedents and neighbors.