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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761

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I am going to quote from the original Middle English text of this play in this response. I will give my own translation for each quotation I use, but I feel it is important to quote from the text itself. One of the main reasons for this is that The Second Shepherds' play, while being of literary interest, is also extremely important from a dialectological standpoint and offers some interesting insights into the development of the English language. Because it is impossible to illustrate these points using a translation, I will quote the original text.

Readers familiar with Chaucer will note that there are many differences in orthography (spelling) and lexis (word form) between Chaucer's writing and that of The Second Shepherds' Play. This is because the play is written in a northern dialect of English with many marked dialectal features, and is closer in orthography and form to the language of, say, William Dunbar, who was writing in Scotland. By the early sixteenth-century, southern or "Chancery" English had become the base for a standardized form and was a "prestige" or preferred form of English, but we do not know when exactly this idea of it as a prestige form began to be fixed. The Second Shepherds' Play, then, is vital to linguists because of the insight it offers into this question:

Mak:
what! ich be a yoman / I tell you, of the king;
The self and the same / sond from a greatt lordyng,
And sich.
ffy on you! goyth hence
Out of my presence!
I must haue reuerence;
why, who be ich?

(Mak says: "What! I tell you I am a yeoman of the king; yes, exactly that, sent by a great lord...and so on. Fie on you! Go away out of my presence. I demand reverence: why, who am I?")

Compare Mak's language here to the language used in the rest of the play, and the choices he makes become very interesting. Instead of the "I" pronoun used by the shepherds, Mak uses "ich," and "you," instead of "ye," which is perhaps the most obvious difference observable to the modern eye. His choice of French lexis, however—"presence,"—also mark his language as elevated. The other speakers rarely use French-derived lexis. Note also Mak's wavering words—"and sich," and "what!"—and it becomes clear that he is doing, effectively, an impression. This would have been very funny to the gathered audience, not least because of the first shepherd's response:

Now take outt that sothren tothe,
And sett in a torde!

(Take that "southern tooth" out of your mouth and stick it in a turd.)

But it's very interesting that, in order to portray somebody who is the opposite of the thief the shepherds know him to be, Mak adopts a southern accent and lexis similar to that used by the king's yeomen. This is an indication that, at the time of writing, some degree of prestige had already come to be associated with this particular variant of English. It also gives some insight into the ways in which the intended audience of the play—working class Yorkshire people—were already thinking about those who lived in London and the south. Here we see the beginnings of the north-south cultural (and language-based) divide which continues in the UK to this day.

The theme of social division is keenly felt in this play. The shepherds are supposed to appeal to the audience as avatars; they share the concerns of those who work outside and are resentful of their employers. The first shepherd complains:

No wonder as it standys / if we be poore, ffor the tylthe of oure landys / lyys falow as the floore,
As ye ken.

(No wonder as it stands, we are poor, for the land we once tilled lies as fallow as the floor, as you know.)

As a dramatic technique, the appeal to the audience is interesting, and clearly indicates where sympathies are expected to lie. The shepherds frequently speak in these asides to the audience; theater at this time was an interactive experience and the audience would have responded to and engaged with the characters in the play, who, like them, are working men:

Thus lyf we in payne.

(So we live in pain.)

Because so strong an association is drawn between the shepherds and the audience throughout, the shepherds' joy in the end, too, is keenly felt by the audience, as the play impresses upon them the festive feeling that Christ comes to the poor as well as to the rich, viewing all people alike.

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