The Second Shepherds' Play
|The Second Shepherds' Play|
The shepherds realise that the babe in the cradle is actually a sheep. Players of St Peter, London (2005).
|Written by||The Wakefield Master|
|Date premiered||Unknown (possibly c. 1500)|
|Original language||Middle English|
|Setting||Medieval England and Bethlehem
1st Century AD
The Second Shepherds' Play (also known as The Second Shepherds’ Pageant) is a famous medieval mystery play which is contained in the manuscript HM1, the unique manuscript of the Wakefield Cycle. It gained its name because in the manuscript it immediately follows another nativity play involving the shepherds. In fact, it has been hypothesized that the second play is a revision of the first. It appears that the two shepherd plays were not intended to be performed together since many of the themes and ideas of the first play carry over to the second one. In both plays it becomes clear that Christ is coming to Earth to redeem the world from its sins. Although the underlying tone of The Second Shepherd’s Play is serious, many of the antics that occur among the shepherds are extremely farcical in nature.
The play is actually two separate stories presented sequentially; the first is a non-biblical story about a thief, Mak, who steals a sheep from three shepherds. He and his wife, Gill, attempt to deceive the shepherds by pretending the sheep is their son. The shepherds are fooled at first. However, they later discover Mak's deception.
At this point, the storyline switches to the familiar one of the three shepherds being told of the birth of Christ by an angel, and being told to go to Bethlehem, where they offer gifts to the Christ child.
The play begins with the first shepherd (sometimes referred to as the first pastor) entering the stage. The shepherd begins speaking by talking to God and giving general details about the weather and the situation the shepherds are in, as well as the general personality of the characters. He begins by saying, “Lord, what these weders are cold! And I am ill happyed” which translates as “God, the weather is cold and I am ill prepared [for the weather]”
This is followed by the second shepherd entering the stage (he does not see the first shepherd) and he repeats the information about the poor weather. When the second shepherd finishes speaking about the weather, the tone of the play shifts and begins to become more farcical in nature. Immediately following the weather, the second shepherd begins to explain how married men suffer. True to the tradition of plays of this time period, the second shepherd refers to the cuckold. The second shepherd’s marital problems become clear through his opening speech, and at one point he even addresses the audience saying: “Be well war of weding” (Be very wary of marrying). The second shepherd continues to complain about marriage and even goes as far as referring to his wife as a whale.
At this point, the first and second shepherd meet and head towards a third shepherd (whose name is Daw). He too complains about hardship and asks for Christ’s help. Unlike the other shepherds who refer to the cold and winter, Daw says he has not seen such poor weather since Noah.
When the first two shepherds bump into Daw, they complain about Daw to him, explaining how he is lazy and a poor worker. Daw too complains, except he complains about employers. When Mak arrives, the problem is introduced. Mak is a well-known thief, and the three shepherds acknowledge this; however, rather than ostracise Mak, they pretend not to know who he is and decide to “ilkon take hede to his thing” (watch out for their personal belongings).
Mak recognises the shepherds and pretends to be a yeoman. The three shepherds question the validity of Mak’s story until their conversation nearly results in a fist fight and Mak becomes scared. Eventually Mak tells the truth and the shepherds admit they know him to be a well-known sheep stealer.
Mak tries to gain sympathy from the shepherds by explaining how his wife is a lazy drunk who gives birth to too many children. Mak’s story works and they all go to sleep. While they are asleep Mak decides to steal a sheep. He heads back to his cottage and at this point the audience is introduced to Gill, Mak’s wife. Gill firmly believes that Mak will be hanged for stealing a sheep. Mak devises a plan for the sheep to be hidden. Mak heads back to re-join the shepherds.
After his return, he pretends to awaken just like the other shepherds. Mak sets off to go home to Gill and all appears to be fine. However, at this point the shepherds begin counting their sheep. They realize it must have been either Mak or Gill who has stolen their sheep. They go to Mak’s house where they demand their sheep. Mak expresses his innocence and the three shepherds begin searching the house. Mak explains that Gill has just given birth and would be extremely upset if they disturb her; nevertheless, the shepherds continue their searching. Gill even goes so far as to say she would eat the occupant of the cradle if Mak were lying (of course, the occupant of the bed is the sheep, so either would gladly eat it). The shepherds leave but then decide to go back and apologize.
When they get back, they find the “baby” crying and they go to comfort it. Daw lifts the baby out of its cradle, and at this moment the shepherds realise the "baby" is the missing sheep. They leave Mak and go to sleep in the field. At this point an Angel comes down and speaks of the coming of Christ. When the shepherds awake, they follow the star and talk of a virgin birth. They head to Bethlehem and Mary (Mother of Jesus) explains how she will give birth and that Jesus was conceived through God. The shepherds rejoice and the play ends.
The name “Wakefield Master” is a title given by Charles Mills Gayley to an unknown author of at least five of the plays that are found in the Wakefield Mystery Plays. In 1903, Gayley and Alwin Thaler published an anthology of criticism and dramatic selections entitled Representative English Comedies. It had long been believed that the Towneley Play was a mediocre work that showed extensive borrowing from other sources but containing vibrant and exciting material, apparently by one author, who was responsible for four or five complete pageants and extensive revisions. Gayley refers to this person as the "master" (with a lowercase m) in the book. Then, in a 1907 article, Gayley ammended this to "The Wakefield Master," the name which is still frequently used (Wakefield Cycle Authorship). Of the 32 plays found in the manuscript, tradition has attributed The Second Shepherd’s Play to the “Wakefield Master,” along with Noah," "The First Shepherd's Play," "Herod the Great, and The Buffeting of Christ. A sixth play, The Killing of Abel is also thought to have been heavily influenced by him if not exclusively written by him, along with The Last Judgment, of which he contributed to at least half. Many of the other plays in the manuscript have a few stanzas that were most likely written by him as well.
Although nothing is known about the author, or the origins of the plays, it is agreed by several scholars that they date sometime between 1400-1450. Because of his influence in most of the Wakefield plays, it is possible he was brought into Wakefield with the purpose of editing and reworking the several plays that were already written, and did such a successful job that he was kept on to write several other plays afterwards. The plays he wrote might have replaced plays that were taken from York and it is believed that he is a contemporary to the “York Master,” another unnamed playwright who produced several other influential plays during the same era.
Some question the existence of one "Wakefield Master," and propose that multiple authors could have written in the Wakefield Stanza. However, scholars and literary critics find it useful to hypothesize a single talent behind them, due to the unique poetic qualities of the works ascribed to him.
The plays of the “Wakefield Master” are identified by their unique stanza form, which is nine lines rhyming a a a a b c c c b with internal rhymes in the first four lines.
We that walk in the nights, our cattle to keep,
We see sudden sights, when other men sleep.
Yet methink my heart lights—I see shrews peep.
Ye are two all-wights! I will give my sheep
But full ill have I meant;
As I walk on this bent,
I may lightly repentMy toes if I spurn.
This stanza format is the primary evidence critics use to identify what has been written by him. Along with his unique stanzas, the “Wakefield Master’s plays are also characterized by their emphasis on characterization that delves into the rural contemporary life of the characters. Using modern day technology which included plows, mills, and forges, as well as colloquial speech amongst the dialogue between the characters, the stories exemplified early traits of realism that would have made the stories more relevant for the audience of that time period.
Depending on the area of the performances, the plays were performed in the middle of the street, on pageant wagons in the streets of great cities (this was inconvenient for the actors because the small stage size made stage movement impossible), in the halls of nobility, or in the round in amphitheatres, as suggested by current archaeology in Cornwall and the southwest of England. All medieval stage production was temporary and expected to be removed upon the completion of the performances. Actors, predominantly male, typically wore long, dark robes. Medieval plays such as the Wakefield cycle, or the Digby Magdalene featured lively interplay between two distinct areas, the wider spaces in front of the raised staging areas, and the elevated areas themselves (called, respectively, the locus and the platea). Typically too, actors would move between these locations in order to suggest scene changes, rather than remain stationary and have the scene change around them as is typically done in modern theater.
The staging of this play likely required two sets. It is suggested that the first stage is composed of Mak’s house. In Mak’s house, many of the farcical actions occur (for example, this is the location of where the sheep was “born”). The other stage is where the holy manger and the religious iconography would occur. This is more than likely where the angel appears and where the Shepherd’s go to visit Mary. These two different stages would allow the audience to easily see the parallels between farcical and serious.
Criticism and interpretation 
Albert C. Baugh complained of the combination of low farce and high religious intent in the play, The unity is a distinctive feature of the play, where the Mak-subplot has been shown to have numerous analogues in world folklore. Wallace H. Johnson theorized that the union of a complete and independent farce with a complete and independent Nativity play resulted from the accumulation of years of horseplay and ad-libbing in rehearsal. Some have seen the folk-origins of the story as contributing to an extended reflection on class-struggle and solidarity in light of immediate and eternal realities  while others have emphasized the theological dimension, in which 14th century England is mystically conflated with first-century Judaea and the Nativity with the Apocalypse.
Maynard Mack explains that this play is often categorized as simple and contains little artistic merit. What begins to emerge in Maynard's article is that he feels that the play is not only sophisticated, but the comedic aspects are there to enhance the rest of the text. He explains that by examining the text as two separate entities, that the viewer is doing the text a great injustice; rather, one should view them as a collection whole in order to understand the importance of exaggeration and the idea of a terrible beauty.
Sandy Feinstein explains the origin of the word Shrew in her article titled "Shrews and Sheep in 'The Second Shepherds' Play'". She talks about the possibility of Shakespeare's influence was more than likely the Wakefield master. While certainly a bold consideration, the article has many interesting references to both and explains how Shrew is not simply a term for women, but men as well.<"Feinstein"/>
See also 
- God Spede the Plough
- Easter drama
- Liturgical drama
- Medieval theatre
- Passion play
- Wakefield Mystery Plays
- Robinson, J. W. (1991). Studies in Fifteenth-century Stagecraft. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Medieval Institute. ISBN 0918720389.
- Abate, Michelle Ann (2005). "Oversight as Insight: Reading The Second Shepherds' Play as The Second Shepherd's Play". Early Theatre (Literature Resource Center). Retrieved 17 July 2012.
- Wakefield Master (2010). In John C. Coldewey. "The Second Shepherd's Play." in Early English Drama: An Anthology (Rev. ed.). New York: Routledge. p. 343-63. ISBN 0824054652.
- Purdon, Liam O. (2003). The Wakefield Master's Dramatic Art: A Drama of Spiritual Understanding. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0813026032.
- Coldewey, John C., ed. (2010). "Introduction." in Early English Drama: An Anthology (Rev. ed.). New York: Routledge. p. 1-8. ISBN 0824054652.
- Vaughan, Míċeál F. (Jul 1980). "The Three Advents in the Secunda Pastorum". Speculum (Medieval Academy of America) 55 (3): 484–504. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
- Malone, Kemp; Albert C. Baugh (1969). In Albert C. Baugh. Literary History of England: Vol 1, The Middle Ages (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 281. ISBN 0203392736.
- Cosbey, Robert C. (Jul 1945). "The Mak Story and Its Folklore Analogues". Speculum (Medieval Academy of America) 20 (3): 310–17. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
- Johnson, Wallace H. (1966). "The Origin of The Second Shepherds' Play: A New Theory". Quarterly Journal of Speech 52 (1): 47.
- Davis, Adam Brooke (1992). "Folklore and the Second Shepherds' Play: A Study in Discursive Archive and Cultural Politics". Allegorica 13: 3–20.
- Feinstein, Sandy (2001). "Shrews and Sheep in The Second Shepherds' Play". Pacific Coast Philology 36: 64-80.
- Maynard, Mack, Jr. (Jan 1978). "The Second Shepherds' Play: A Reconsideration". PMLA (Modern Language Association) 93 (1): 78–85. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
- "Everyman," with Other Interludes, Including Eight Miracle Plays. Full text versions of text of The Second Shepherd's Play at Project Gutenberg.
- "Middle English Play Texts." Full text resources from the Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.
- "The Second Shepherds' Play and Early English Theater." A three-part series on the Mystery Plays with Richard Paul of the Folger Shakespeare Library.