Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
I am going to use Adrian Guthrie's translation into modern English, linked below, for my quotations in this response in order to ensure it is as clear and helpful as possible. However, I strongly recommend that you read this play in its original Middle English, as Guthrie's rendering of the text is more an interpretation than a translation and loses some nuance. This is particularly evident when we consider one of the key themes of the text: social injustice and imbalance.
The language of this play is vital to its treatment of this theme. The playwright deliberately chooses to write in a local Middle English vernacular, full of dialectal features typical of Wakefield in Yorkshire. As such, he is demarcating his shepherds as simple, local men living ordinary lives. The playwright uses dialectal variation to set these shepherds aside from others: when Mak first enters, he is speaking in a southern English vernacular, pretending to be a lofty king's yeoman. The dialectal variation makes it evident that these northern shepherds (and their northern audience) felt that they were viewed as socially inferior to those who would have spoken in that "Sothren tothe." And, indeed, the shepherds are poor, "ill wrapped," "simple shepherds," "overtaxed and rammed." The first shepherd complains vehemently of being "like a pet tamed" by the upper classes. The third shepherd, too, complains of masters who "pay us late" and of having to work long hours. The second shepherd offers a more comedic complaint, about being in shackles to his wife, but it is evident that the three shepherds are avatars for the audience: common men in whom the humanity is very clearly drawn. The concerns of the shepherds reflect those of the audience; and, importantly, their situation foreshadows that of the Christ-child who will be born in a manger. Those who are socially inferior, the play suggests, may yet be people of importance.
Because this is a nativity play, meant to be performed at Christmas for a parochial audience, it...
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