The Second Shepherds' Play

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The Second Shepherds' Play

c. 1450



The Second Shepherds' Play is part of the Wakefield mystery play cycle. It is play number thirteen of thirty-two contained in the only surviving manuscript, currently held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The Second Shepherds' Play dates from the latter half of the fifteenth century. No exact date can be determined, but studies in handwriting analysis of the manuscript suggest an approximate date of mid to late fifteenth century as a composition date. The play was written in Middle English, which is the vernacular (everyday) language that was used in England between about 1100 and 1500. The ascendancy of King Henry VII to the throne marks the end of the medieval period and generally signifies the shift from Middle English to Modern English (the basic predecessor of English as we know it today). Authorship of The Second Shepherds' Play is unknown, and the play is simply attributed to the Wakefield Master, whose real identity was also unknown, although a local cleric or monk was probably the author. The Second Shepherds' Play is included in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1 (1993) and in The Towneley Plays (2001), Volume 1, edited by Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley.

The title refers not to a second shepherd but to the fact that this play was the second of two plays that dealt with the biblical Nativity story. Mystery plays, which are so named because they refer to the spiritual mystery of Christ's birth and death, combine comic elements with biblical stories. For example, in The Second Shepherds' Play, the author combines the Shepherds' story of stolen sheep and a swindle involving the birth of a nonexistent infant with the biblical story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. The dual plot is designed to remind the audience of the two-fold nature of man's existence—the real world on earth and the spiritual world of the afterlife. The play, itself, contains no divisions of act or scene, but there are three distinct scenes: the Shepherds' soliloquies in which they lament their poverty, the oppressive natures of their lives, and the terrible weather; the scene with Mak and Gil in which they try to disguise the stolen lamb as their newborn child; and the adoration of the Christ-child in Bethlehem. The text shifts both time and place, referring to Christian saints and to the birth of Christ, although these things and events would have been separated by hundreds of years and reversed in time. Additionally, while the first half of the play takes place in Medieval England, the shepherds are easily able to walk to Bethlehem in a matter of hours, where events occurred fourteen centuries earlier. The audience, however, would have had no concern about such details, since The Second Shepherds' Play easily mixes symbolism and realism with entertainment and biblical lessons.


The series of plays attributed to the Wakefield master are likely the work of many authors over a vast period of years, perhaps as much as a hundred years. There is significant variation in stanza and verse forms, which suggests multiple authors. All of the authors associated with this cycle of plays remain anonymous. Scholars have long since concluded that the authorship of The Second Shepherds' Play cannot be determined. The exact date it was written is also unknown, though it is believed to have been composed around the mid to late fifteenth century.


  • A dramatic recording of The Second Shepherds' Play was directed by Howard O. Sackler and released as a twelve-inch record by Caedmon Records in 1962. As of 2007, the album is unavailable for purchase.
  • In 1965, The Second Shepherds' Play was filmed by Rediffusion Productions and directed by Charles Warren. The film is titled Mysteries and Miracles: The Second Shepherd's Play, with the apostrophe placed incorrectly. As of 2007, the film was not available for purchase.
  • A 1975 Films for the Humanities produc-tion of the The Second Shepherds' Play is one of three plays staged in Early English Drama: Quem Quaeritis, Abrahamand Isaac, The Second Shepherds' Play. This film, directed by Harold Mantell, includes additional historical commentary. As of 2007, it was not available for purchase.
  • The Second Shepherds' Play was filmed for a third time in 1998, and was produced and directed by Eric Peterson. As of 2007, the film was not available for purchase.
  • A 2000 production of the The Second Shepherds' Play was produced by Films for the Humanities. Medieval Drama: From Sanctuary to Stage is available in either VHS or DVD format from Films for the Humanities. This film traces the development of medieval drama, including excerpts from several morality plays.


The Three Shepherds

Although there are no divisions of scene or act in The Second Shepherds' Play, the play falls easily into three distinct parts. The first section contains the three Shepherds' soliloquies. The play's first speaker is Coll, who begins his soliloquy complaining of the cold weather. He is "ill happed" (badly covered) no matter the weather, since whether "in storms and tempest" he must still tend to his flock. He also complains about his poverty, which he blames on the rich landowners, "these gentlery-men," who keep him "so hammed, / Fortaxed, and rammed" (hamstrung or confined, overtaxed, and beaten down) that he cannot escape poverty. Coll continues his list of complaints, which he then directs to the rich landowner's overseer, who interferes with the work on the farm. Coll uses the word "husbands" at line 33, not to mean a spouse, but in the archaic use of the word, as one who takes care of the land. Coll does not own the land on which he shepherds the sheep, and he feels himself oppressed by the wealthy. He is brought near to "miscarry" or ruin and thus will never be in a position to work his own land. Coll continues to lament his lack of power and that he dare not complain to anyone about how he is treated, since the landowner's servant has too much power. Coll concludes his soliloquy with the more cheerful expectation that he will soon meet with other shepherds who also share his lonely life.

Gib soon enters the stage. He does not initially see Coll and begins to grumble about the terrible weather. It is so cold and the wind so fierce that his eyes water from the misery. Between the snow and sleet, his shoes have frozen to his feet, and he laments that life "is not all easy." Gib also whines that his wife nags him. According to Gib, "she cackles" and thus "Woe is him" since "he is in the shackles," imprisoned in marriage. The rest of Gib's soliloquy continues to articulate his argument that men would be better off forgoing marriage. Men have no will after marriage, says Gib, because their wives control them, whether "in bower nor in bed." Gil has learned his lesson about marrying, but he does note that some men marry a second time, some even a third time. At this point, Gil offers a warning and tells young men that there is little point in later saying, "Had I wist" (wished), since that serves no purpose. It is best for young men to "be well ware of wedding." Gil describes his wife as one who has brows like a pig's bristle and a bitter look on her face. She also has a loud voice and is as "great as a whale." Had he known that she has so much "gall" he would have run until "I lost her" before marrying. At this point in Gib's complaining, Coll finally speaks up and asks that God watch over the audience, who have had to endure Gib's increasingly vicious harangue about his wife and marriage, in general. When Gib realizes that he is not alone he asks if Coll has seen the third shepherd, Daw.

Daw enters and does not see Coll and Gib. Like the others, he begins his soliloquy with a complaint about the miserable weather. The rain and wind is so fierce that Daw compares it to Noah's flood. Daw, though, has faith that God will "turn all to good!" The floods afflict everyone, those in town and those who watch over the sheep and cattle in the fields. The weather creates equality among all men. When Daw greets Coll and Gib they tell him that they have already eaten and since he is late, he has missed the evening meal. His reply is that he will work as little as he is paid. This section of the play ends with Coll, Gib, and Daw singing together to cheer themselves.

Mak, Gill, and Their Baby

The second part of the play is the longest section. Mak enters the stage in disguise, with his head covered and using a southern accent. He is a thief and does not want the shepherds to be on guard. In his first few lines before his identity is discovered, Mak states that his children weep continually. Gib quickly recognizes Mak, though, and warns the others to watch their belongings so that Mak does not steal them. Although Mak pretends to be a yeoman and to have important business, the three shepherds do not believe him. Mak complains that he does not feel well and that he is hungry. When asked about his wife, Mak says that she is lazy, that she drinks, and that every year she produces another child and sometimes two. He says that he wishes her dead. After his complaints, the three shepherds lie down to sleep and insist that Mak lie between them so that they will know if he tries to steal a sheep during the night.

As soon as the shepherds are asleep, Mak arises. He casts a spell over the three shepherds so that they remain sleeping and then steals a sheep from the flock. He immediately takes the sheep to his cottage where his wife, Gill, worries that he will likely hang for being a thief. She comes up with a plan in case their cottage is searched. Gill will hide the ram in the cradle and she will take to her bed as if having just given birth. Mak returns to the shepherds and pretends to have been asleep with them all night. When they awaken, Daw tells of a dream in which a sheep was stolen. Mak responds with his own dream in which his wife gave birth to another baby. Before he leaves, Mak offers to let the shepherds search him for any stolen goods. When Mak gets home, his wife continues to worry that he will hang for stealing the sheep. She immediately swaddles the sheep like a baby and places it in the cradle. After she climbs into bed, Gill begins to moan with pain, as if having just given birth.

The shepherds quickly discover that a sheep is missing and immediately suspect Mak. After the shepherds arrive at Mak's cottage they confront him with their suspicions and are invited to search his house. They find nothing amiss in the house, although Daw does suggest that the newborn baby smells as badly as their missing sheep. As the shepherds begin to leave Mak's cottage, Daw decides to give Mak some money so that his new baby will not starve. Daw insists on seeing the new baby and soon the ruse is discovered. Even though the trick has been discovered, Mak still makes an attempt to deny that his "baby" is the missing sheep, while Gill claims that her baby was stolen by an elf or fairy and this "changeling" was left in its stead. The shepherds toss Mak in a blanket and return to their flock. Although this is not the usual punishment of death for stealing sheep, the story of Jesus's birth that follows in the final section of the play reminds the audience that forgiveness is the focus of New Testament teaching.

The Adoration of the Christ Child

In this final part of the play, the shepherds lie down to rest and an angel appears to them and announces the birth of the Christ child. The humor and absurdity of the previous scene disappears and the shepherds are in awe of the angel and the message that they have received. For those few moments the shepherds forget the cold weather, their poverty, wives, and all of their other complaints. They know they must go to Bethlehem to see the child, even though they "be wet and weary." Gib recalls the prophecy that they have been taught that a savior would be born to relieve them of their sins and all three agree to go and see the baby. The stage directions state that "they go to Bethlehem and enter the stable," but there is no mention of time passing or a lengthy journey undertaken. Each shepherd has brought a gift. Coll offers cherries and Gib offers a bird, while Daw brings a ball for the child. Each gift is symbolic in some way. The cherries are red and symbolize humanity and remind the audience that Jesus will be called upon to shed blood for mankind. The bird symbolizes the dove, the Christian emblem of peace and divinity. The ball (or orb) is the symbol of majesty and power. At this point, Mary briefly recounts how she conceived the infant and tells the shepherds to remember the child. The play ends with the shepherds singing the child's praises.



Coll is the first shepherd to speak. Like the two shepherds who accompany him, Coll is a Yorkshire shepherd and thus familiar to the audience, since they are all from Yorkshire. His complaints are more political than those of the other two shepherds. Coll recognizes the inequities of the world and he relates them to himself. His complaints about the weather focus on the weather as it affects him personally. He is a tenant farmer, who must work the land to survive, but the landowners are letting the flat farmland lie fallow and are instead using the land for sheep. This forces the farmers to work as shepherds, rather than working the land. The sheep must be watched constantly to keep them safe. Coll gets no rest and those like him, who want to care for or husband the land, cannot do so. He feels powerless to fight his oppressors, and explains that "Dare no man reprieve" his master. The inability to even protest his lot adds to Coll's bitterness. His soliloquy is the longest at seventy-eight lines, and so presumably, he is the oldest and most experienced, since he also speaks first. When Mak is confirmed as the thief who stole their sheep, it is Coll who affixes the punishment of tossing Mak in a blanket. Since hanging was the usual punishment for stealing livestock, Coll is more compassionate than might be expected of most shepherds, whose livestock have been stolen. He understands the New Testament and Jesus' teaching about forgiveness.


Daw is a boy who works for Coll and Gib. He has a very brief soliloquy that only laments the awful weather but which he links to Noah's flood. Because of his youth, he is not angry at the injustices of a life that leaves him working as a shepherd; nor is he disillusioned about women. He is also not a fool. When the shepherds discover that a sheep is missing, it is Daw who immediately exclaims that "Either Mak or Gill" is responsible. After the shepherds search Mak's cottage and leave, it is Daw who is worried that Mak has no money or food for the new baby. It is Daw who discovers the stolen sheep after he tries to give money for the new baby that must be fed. Daw assumes the voice of authority when he orders the two older shepherds to rest after they have recovered their sheep.


Gib is the second shepherd to enter the stage. Like Coll, he feels oppressed and powerless, but one difference is in how each shepherd begins by complaining about the weather. Where Coll personalized the weather, Gib discusses the weather as an effect upon the world. The remainder of his soliloquy, which is almost as long as Coll's, focuses on marriage and his general unhappiness with his wife and all wives, in general. He is also older and specifically refers to being "late in our lives." Gib's primary complaint is that men have no control over their lives. Unlike Coll, who lays blame for his unhappiness on the unfair division of land and money, Gib sees women, specifically wives, as the oppressors. According to Gib, women must be in control and men "must abide." Gib describes his wife in negative language, comparing her brows to those of a pig and her size to that of a whale. He also directly addresses the audience with such vehemence, that Coll interjects, saying "God look over the raw!" Coll calls on God to protect the audience from being harangued any further.


Gill is Mak's wife. Mak has told the shepherds that his wife gives birth to a new child every year and in some years two. The audience's first glimpse of Gill is of her spinning wool as a way to earn extra money. Since she is engaged in working late at night and the children are all asleep, her work suggests that she takes an active role in helping to support the household. With her husband, she plots to hide the lamb that Mak has stolen. She is the one who devises the plot to pretend to have just given birth as a way to hide the sheep. She swaddles the sheep and places it in the cradle. Stealing sheep is a hanging offense, and she reminds Mak of this possibility several times, but the play's content does not suggest that she joins Mak solely to protect him. When the shepherds arrive to search for their sheep, she easily hides the sheep and explains that "if it were a greater sleight, / Yet could I help till." Even if she were asked to do more, she would willingly help. Gill enjoys the deception and enjoys being part of the effort to hide the sheep. Her actions suggest that Gill is a good match for Mak.


Mak is the thief who, after the shepherds are asleep, steals one of their sheep. He is the trickster figure. The trickster is a common figure in Native American stories, but the trickster is also common in many other cultures, as Mak's character illustrates. His role is to play tricks on other characters and sometimes to be the object of other characters' tricks. Mak casts a spell over the shepherds to keep them asleep and steals one of their sheep, but there is no suggestion that Mak is a witch or that he is evil. He is only described within the context of his being a thief. So that his thievery will not be discovered, the sheep is disguised as an infant and swaddled and placed in a cradle. Mak is accustomed to lying. He enters the stage pretending to be what he is not, disguising his voice with a southern accent and his person with a cloak to hide his face. Mak explains to the shepherds that his wife has a baby every year and in some years two babies. He absolves himself of any responsibility for all these children. He is apparently not a good provider, since they are starving, but he does not see this failing. Instead, he explains to his wife that "in a strait I can get / More than they that swink and sweat / All the long day." Thus Mak can do a better job of supporting his family by stealing than men who work for an honest wage. When the stolen sheep is discovered, Mak continues to deny that his "baby" is a sheep and instead claims that his baby was only bewitched to look like a sheep. Like his wife, Mak provides a good deal of comedy in the play.



Much of the action and most of the dialogue in the middle section of The Second Shepherds' Play is absurd, filled with nonsense and humor. Mak steals a ram and his wife, Gill, is easily able to swaddle the ram in blankets, as a newborn infant is swaddled. Gill takes to her bed and begins moaning so loudly that Mak tells her that all the noise is harming his brain. For her part, Gill embraces her deception so thoroughly that she tells the shepherds "If ever I you beguiled, / That I eat this child / That lies in this cradill." The child in the cradle is the stolen ram, of course, and she has every intention of eating him when the opportunity presents itself. The audience would have enjoyed the humor of Daw's comments that the new baby smelled like a sheep and no doubt laughed heartily when Gill proclaimed her new baby a "pretty child" and a "dillydown" (darling). Mak and Gill also try to pass off their new baby's sheep-like appearance as the work of fairies. This whole section is so humorous that the usual punishment of hanging is ignored, although the audience is reminded several times by Gill that stealing sheep is an offense where the punishment is death.


  • Research peasant clothing from the late medieval period in England. After you have several ideas about costuming, consider how, if you were staging this play, you would costume the characters. Would traditional medieval costuming work best? Would you consider modern dress as an alternative? Create a poster that illustrates the kinds of costumes that you would use. Be prepared to defend your choices and explain their importance to increasing the audience's understanding of the play.
  • Mak's wife warns him several times that stealing sheep is a hanging offence. Research the fifteenth-century English justice system. Your research should also include information about medieval prisons in England. Choose several of the crimes most often committed by the peasant class and the punishments that these crimes received. Present your findings to the class.
  • With small groups of your classmates, prepare a series of posters that recreate the staging of this play. Include drawings of the stage wagons and the placement of scenery, including Mak's cottage, the manger scene in Bethlehem, and the pasture where the three shepherds meet and sleep.
  • It is thought that drama reflects the values and ideology of the society in which it is written. After a careful study of this play, write an essay in which you consider the following question: What values and beliefs can be drawn from studying The Second Shepherds' Play? Be sure to use quotations from the play as supporting material for your argument.
  • In fifteenth-century England there was an enormous increase in the number of outlaws and corresponding outlaw legends. In part this was caused by the dire economic plight of the peasant class, who looked to Robin Hood—like figures to rescue them from miserly landlords. Research and read several of these legends and then write your own outlaw legend. Your legend should be historically accurate, in that the events that you are depicting are compatible with this period and location.

Class Conflict

Coll's opening speech focuses on the inequities of class. By the mid fifteenth century, peasant life in England was undergoing a change. Landowners had discovered that they could make more money with sheep than by farming, and so farmland was allowed to lie fallow and become pasture for sheep. Tenant farmers, who rented their land from the larger landowners, lost their land, homes, and incomes. To make more pasture for sheep, whole villages were destroyed and those who lived in the villages displaced and made homeless. Coll refers to the economic realities of his world when he says that "husbands" are "nearhands / Out of the door" (nearly homeless). The wealthy landowners have created terrible poverty, but those most affected cannot complain. Coll explains that "Woe is him that him grieve." Even the landowners' servants have authority over the tenants and can use force ("What mastery he maes") to seize any property that belongs to the tenants ("He can make purveyance"). The former tenant farmer must make his living by caring for the sheep. Rather than sleeping inside his warm home at night, the shepherd

sleeps in the fields and guards the sheep. Mak tells Gill that he can provide more support for his family by stealing than by working. But when the shepherds search his cottage all they note are the "two tome platters." There is no meat, either fresh or salted and only empty plates. If Mak can provide more money through stealing than working as a shepherd there cannot be much money to be made as a shepherd. The irony is that Mak is forced to steal a sheep to support his family and yet it is the sheep who created his poverty.

Religious Belief

The third section of the play turns the audience's focus back to the lesson the play is meant to teach. Although much of the play has focused on the misery of the shepherds and their lack of food, religion takes over in the final part of the play and negates the Shepherds' misery. All three shepherds are exhausted after the search at Mak's cottage. Coll complains that he is "sore," and Gib that the sheep weighed "seven score," or about 140 pounds. Since he complains of the sheep's weight, Gib must have carried the ram from Mak's cottage back to the pasture. Coll and Gib are so exhausted that Daw must get angry in order to force the two of them to stop and rest. However, after the angel appears and sings of the birth of the promised savior, theshepherds awaken and no longer complain of cold, fatigue, or hunger. Religious belief has helped them forget their misery, at least for a short time. The men only recall the beauty of the angel's voice. The three men also realize that they are important, since "so poor as we are / That he would appear, / First find and declare / By his messenger." The angel appeared to them first, not to the wealthy landowners. The play ends with them recognizing that their souls have been redeemed, and they leave the stage singing. The play began with the shepherd's misery, but it ends with their having achieved a sense of worth and purpose. Religious belief is depicted as having provided this change.


Educating the Audience

When The Second Shepherds' Play was first performed, the audience was likely made up by illiterate townspeople, who would not have been able to read the Bible. Thus, the mystery plays would have been the best way for audiences to learn biblical lessons. The author, then, would be writing to teach religious and moral lessons and educate the audience about biblical scripture and, in some cases, the life of Jesus. The lesson in The Second Shepherds' Play is that the misery of poverty and of earthly life will eventually be erased through belief in God and the afterlife.

Mystery Plays

The Second Shepherds' Play is a dramatic presentation that incorporates comedy and liturgy (public worship and ritual) into a theatrical staging. In some cases these plays might also be described as religious pageants, especially when several of the plays are performed as part of a cycle.

Indeed, mystery plays were medieval dramas that explored the so-called mystery of religious scripture. Mystery plays were generally performed from wagons and were part of a cycle of plays exploring both Old Testament and New Testament events. Although mystery plays developed from liturgical drama (a play acted in or around the church that portrays Bible stories or saints‧ lives) and were initially performed in Latin, they soon began to be performed in the vernacular language of the audience. Mystery plays were designed as a way to teach biblical stories to the uneducated, and almost always illiterate, medieval townspeople. The Second Shepherds' Play is the best known and most celebrated of the mystery plays.

Discrepancy and Anachronism

The location for The Second Shepherds' Play covers both medieval England and biblical Bethlehem. The two locations and historical periods are discordant, but the audience would not have cared. Other inconsistencies also occur between historical periods, and this is known as anachronism. There are references to Christian saints and to Christ's birth, but saints did not appear until hundreds of years after Christ's birth. However, once again, the audience would not have minded this, since the audience also accepted that religious belief often presents inconsistencies and mysteries that ordinary men cannot understand. The audience simply accepted what was presented on stage without questioning the lack of logic or the inconsistencies too closely. Theater has always relied upon the audience's ability and desire to suspend disbelief; this was as true in the Middle Ages as it is today in modern theater and film.


The soliloquy is a common dramatic device that offers a way for the playwright to divulge a character's inner thoughts. The soliloquy requires that the character must think that he is alone on stage, as he reveals before the audience exactly what he is thinking. The shepherds use the soliloquy as a way to divulge their misery. Notably, a soliloquy is different from a monologue, in which a character speaks his thoughts aloud, but with the knowledge that other characters are present. In the opening scene of this play, the soliloquy is used by each of the three shepherds to relate important information about their lives to the audience.

Stanzaic Form

Although often associated with poetry, some dramas are also written in stanzas. Formal stanzas should be consistent in terms of meter, length, and rhyme scheme, and each formal stanza should repeat the same structure. The Second Shepherds' Play uses a thirteen line stanza with an internal rhyme (ab / ab / ab / ab / cdddc). There are eight long lines with a short ninth line, followed by three lines with a single rhyme. The concluding line rhymes with the ninth line. This form of stanza is a variation of the rondel (a French verse form). The purpose of the recurring rhyme is to create unity between the stanzas.

Religious Symbolism

Symbolism is common in medieval drama. In The Second Shepherds' Play the scene with Mak and his wife and their sheep/infant has its own comic meaning, but it is also meant to be symbolic of the more serious nativity scene that ends the play. Mak and Gill's lamb/infant symbolizes the birth of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Symbolism is also obvious in the gifts that the shepherds present to the Christ child. Coll's gift of red cherries symbolizes humanity and blood, which reminds the audience of the crucifixion. Gib gives a bird, which symbolizes the dove, the Christian emblem of peace and divinity. Daw presents the child with a ball, or orb, the symbol of majesty and power. Kings are often painted with an orb, symbolizing the world, in their hands, suggesting their power over their subjects. Many medieval audiences were much better educated about religious symbols than modern audiences and would have easily understood what each gift was meant to represent.


Church Influence and the Creation of Medieval Drama

Although the author is unknown, The Second Shepherds' Play provides content, themes, and ideology that reflect the teachings of Catholic Europe, which suggests that the writer might have been a cleric or friar. The use of Christianity as a topic and a force behind theater reflects a significant change from Christian opposition to early theater. Traditionally, the Catholic Church opposed drama because it frequently included nudity, fights with wild beasts, and because the sacrifice of Christians was often included as a part of pagan spectacle in ancient Rome. An additional reason for church opposition was the use of falsehood. In drama, an actor pretends to be someone else. Although modern audiences accept this as "acting," it was interpreted by the early church to be lying.


  • 1400s: English Landowners gain a monopoly in the grain market when a statute is passed that prohibits the import of grain. Food prices begin to increase while wages remain low (a trend that will continue for the next two hundred years), thus increasing poverty and hunger.

    Today: In 2005, a British newspaper revealed that wealthy landowners were receiving substantial taxpayer-provided subsidies to agricultural farmers. Small farmers do not receive these subsidies.

  • 1400s: Most art and plays are religious in theme and content. Indeed, most of the art produced during this period is commissioned directly by the Church and is intended for the Church.

    Today: Although religious art is still made, most art and plays are produced independently of the church, and their themes and content are not necessarily religious. Rather, most art is today is concerned with political, racial, or sexual themes.

  • 1400s: Bubonic plague, known as The Black Death, continues to claim lives, although not as many as during the 1300s, when one third of Europe's population died. Still, thousands continue to die from plague, creating a significant labor shortage.

    Today: Bubonic plague is almost nonexistent in England, although it still exists in some areas of the world. Even the American Southwest records deaths from bubonic plague each year.

  • 1400s: The first English paper mills open in 1494. This, combined with the new moveable type presses, which were first established in England in 1476 by William Caxton, means that more books can be printed and at less expense. The movement toward literacy in England has begun.

    Today: Although it was sometimes claimed that computers and the Internet would mean the end of printed materials, books, magazines, and newspapers continue to enjoy a huge audience.

In the ninth century, musical elaboration of the Latin liturgy began to appear as part of certain feasts. Their purpose was to heighten

and enhance the religious experience of the worshippers, and by the 10th century, brief enactments of biblical episodes were practiced at monasteries and abbeys. The most famous was an Easter morning reenactment of the three Marys asking for Jesus at his grave. Clerics dressed for the parts and sang the piece as dialogue, answering one another. These tropes, as they were called, were not plays exactly, but contained all the elements of drama. They had progressive plots, brief development of character, conflict, resolution, and visual spectacle. Over a period of 100 years, tropes became more elaborate and more complicated. The topics were usually biblical and the actors were clerics, monks, and choirboys. But the language was Latin rather than vernacular languages, and the audiences were almost exclusively limited to those living in monastic communities. By the tenth century, drama would again become acceptable to clergy when it was reborn as liturgical drama. The earliest liturgical dramas were included as a part of the church service and were often simply a dialogue, frequently sung, between two clerics. Eventually this exchange began to include additional participants and by the thirteenth century, these dramas became a means to educate an illiterate congregation. Widespread deaths from plague changed the nature of medieval drama and opened the way for another type of performance. When labor became scarce and expensive, people moved into the cities, which became centers of economic and cultural growth. More elaborate staging of plays began to be included in feast day celebrations, and these performances eventually moved from the church to the town square, which accommodated a larger audience. Eventually plays were sponsored by various guilds or trades, and they became known as miracle or mystery plays.

The Guilds: From Liturgy to Theater

The guild system evolved in the later medieval period, as more people began to move into small towns. The guilds functioned much like a modern union. They provided some protection for merchants, and they helped to maintain standards for goods and services, which benefited both merchants and townspeople. Eventually, the guilds became very powerful. In many villages, the guilds were associated with the Catholic Church and often even had a patron saint assigned. The guilds eventually became a part of every aspect of village life. In addition to the merchants and craftsmen who originated the guild system, there were guilds for fellowship, including drinking, and religious guilds. Although eventually the guild system became too powerful politically and perhaps can be credited with hampering free commerce, the guild system did accomplish a lot of good. Better standards for goods helped to eliminate poor quality and fraud, and guilds helped to train artists and artisans, who became more skilled in their trade. The guilds can be credited with helping to develop better village government and better products and services, and they also helped to provide social venues for townspeople, in large part through their sponsorship of early medieval drama. Cycle or mystery plays evolved in towns and cities and were sanctioned by the church. Vast productions that taught Christian history and values were produced in the towns with lay people as actors and as a part of feast day celebrations. Each guild was assigned a story, from Creation to Judgment, and each guild produced a pageant that best fit the guild's purpose. A great many of the townspeople participated as stage crew, actors, managers, and supporting cast. The audiences were large, drawn from everyone within traveling distance. Eventually, morality plays grew out of this beginning. The morality plays differed from mystery plays, in that they used allegorical figures to represent mankind's struggle between good and evil. However, with the coming of the great Elizabethan theater, morality plays disappeared as a more modern society demanded greater complexity and more elaborate entertainments. The guilds also began to lose their power and disappear during the Elizabethan age, when Queen Elizabeth's parliament instituted strong laws to govern the guilds.


Given the time period in which the play was first written and performed, it was not initially subjected to what we now see as traditional criticism. Indeed, its initial reception and waxing and waning popularity was caused mostly by religious controversies between church and state. The Second Shepherds' Play is part of the Wakefield play cycle and was traditionally performed during the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrated the Catholic Church's teaching that the body of Christ was present in the Holy Eucharist. (The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek and means thanksgiving. Roman Catholics believe that when they participate in the Eucharist, which many Christians call communion, they are partaking of Jesus‧ body and blood.) The whole play cycle would be performed beginning at dawn and continuing until dusk on that feast day. It has been estimated that it would take fourteen to fifteen hours to perform the entire cycle, and so, in some cases, the cycle might be performed over a period of two days. After Henry VIII established himself as the supreme head of the Church of England in 1534, he moved to eliminate the influence of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church in all aspects of English life. In many communities, this meant that religious plays were performed less frequently. In some cases, the manuscript was edited to remove content thought to be too heavy in Roman Catholic ideology, but in other cases, the play was removed completely for government review and never returned. In 1540, King Henry issued a decree banning the printing or performance of all plays that did not conform to official Church of England doctrine. In the years that followed the 1540 edict, there were a number of local attempts to ban performances of religious drama, but the plays generated a lot of money for communities, so local officials often ignored the ban. However, in 1576, the Diocesan Court of High Commission completely banned any performances of the Wakefield cycle. None of the plays were performed again until the twentieth century.

The Second Shepherds' Play is the only play from the cycle to still be performed regularly, which suggests that the play provides an entertainment that transcends the nearly 600-year gap between when it was first written and today. In Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual, Lawrence J. Ross calls The Second Shepherds' Play "the finest single achievement of the English cycle drama." Ross argues that the play requires an "appreciation of the brilliant farcical action, realistic characterization, and pungent social protest of its ‘secular’ part rather than on judgments of the play as a whole." Maynard Mack, Jr., in his essay in PMLA, is even more complimentary, stating that the play is one "of radiant simplicity." But even more, it is also "a play of rare sophistication and even artistic daring." Mack praises The Second Shepherds' Play for its "skillful modulation" with which the play moves from the Shepherds' laments to low comedy to the final revelation of the nativity scene. Almost every anthology of British literature that contains a section on medieval literature includes the text of The Second Shepherds' Play as an example of medieval theater.

While it is true that the Wakefield plays were not performed for several centuries after 1576, The Second Shepherds' Play has undergone a resurgence in the past hundred years and is often performed as a Christmas play. When the play was presented as children's theater in 1981, Carole Corbeil, writing in the Globe and Mail called it "uncloying, unsentimental, uncommercial, funny, warm, and mercifully short." Corbeil also notes in her review that "you don't even have to be a kid to like it." Occasionally The Second Shepherds' Play is also titled as The Shepherds' Play or The Shepherds' Christmas. Because The Second Shepherds' Play has been recently limited to performances during holiday entertainment, the play is returning to its medieval roots as it is reincorporated into a religious observance.


Sheri Metzger Karmiol

Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University's Honors Program. Karmiol is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay, Karmiol discusses the play's renderings of women's lives and how the traditional church view of women colors medieval drama.

While the author of The Second Shepherds' Play is unknown, the play was likely written by a man, or men. Indeed, there is only one known female author of morality plays written at this time. When literature is written by men, women are seen through male eyes. Because sexual roles can be so embedded in a society that they are unseen by most observers (and sometimes by writers), the way females are portrayed by men is of note. Comedy can help to mitigate these portrayals, in large part because both males and females become the object of humor. This is what happens in The Second Shepherds' Play. There are two depictions of marriage in this play and neither should be understood only at face value. In the first portrayal, Gib presents a soliloquy that is so negative toward women and so filled with exaggeration that the audience immediately understands that Gib is a stock comic character—the henpecked husband. His wife makes him so miserable that he condemns all wives and all marriages, since marriage puts men "in the shackles." The second image of marriage is provided by Mak and Gill. The audience sees this marriage twice. In the first instance, the audience sees the marriage only through Mak's eyes as he describes his wife in unflattering terms, although still not as filled with disapproval as the description provided by Gib. Later the audience meets Gill and sees her interaction with her husband, and a completely different depiction is offered. Instead of the kind of wife that Gib earlier described so negatively that he wished he had never been married ("I would I had run [till] I lost her"), Mak has a wife who is more than his equal.


  • In his essay "The Magi and Modes of Meaning: The Second Shepherds' Play as an Index of the Criticism of Medieval Drama" (in Early Drama to 1600, Acta, Vol. XIII, 1995, pp. 107-120), David Lampe traces the scholarly criticism of the play as a way to study the political and religious reception of medieval drama from the Elizabethan period to the present.
  • The Chester Pageant of Noah's Flood is another early English mystery play. It dates from the mid-fifteenth century and was so popular that it was still being performed late in the sixteenth century. This play is available in Medieval and Tudor Drama: Twenty-Four Plays, edited by John Gassner, 2000.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (1994), by Richard Beadle, is directed at students who want to learn more about medieval drama. The book contains a series of essays that provide extensive information about plays, theater, and performance in the medieval period.
  • Michael Rose's edition of The Wakefield Mystery Plays: The Complete Cycle of Thirty-Two Plays (1961) contains all thirty-two plays, in modern translation. This is an easy-to-read edition rendered in modern English.
  • Gail McMurray Gibson's The Theater of Devotion: East Anglican Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (1995) is an interdisciplinary examination of how drama and art were influenced by religious life in the medieval period.
  • Anthology of Medieval Music and Medieval Music (both 1978), by Richard H. Hoppin, are meant to be used together. When combined, these two texts provide a rich history of medieval music, including both religious and secular music. Since this play also includes several areas in which the shepherds sing, knowledge of the music of the period can further add to a student's enjoyment and understanding of this play.
  • A New History of Early English Drama (1998), edited by John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan and with a Foreward by Stephen J. Greenblatt, is a historical look at how society influenced the production of medieval theater.
  • A Source Book in Theatrical History (1959), by A. M. Nagler, is a comprehensive examination on the history of theater throughout the world. There is information about acting, rehearsals, audiences, and many photos and illustrations.

When men tell women's stories, what do they tell? Women are empty vessels, only understood or seen through their household roles. Women are seen in relationship to children, as mothers, or through their husband's eyes, as wives, but they are not seen solely as women. They are not individuals. In some cases, women are nags, witches, or worse; they are rarely seen as having their own unmet needs. In The Second Shepherds' Play, the women are described in negative terms, but it is in describing them that men diminish women. For instance, Mak describes his wife as lazy, as one who "Lies waltering, by the rood, / By the fire," and as one who "drinks well." Besides being a drunk, she is also gluttonous and "Eats as fast as she can." In Gib's soliloquy, women are described as nags or scolds, leaving men "not all their will." According to Gib, "men are led / Full hard and full ill." In the case of Gib's absent wife, women are so controlling that her husband fears for all men who marry. Since the audience never meets Gib's wife, it is impossible to judge the degree of truth in his words. In contrast, Gill is present in the play and is able to refute both her husband's words and those of Gib, who paints all women as equally bad.

Mak complains of his wife's laziness, yet when the audience first sees Gill she is spinning wool. This was not perceived as hard work, however. For a feudal serf, spinning was an obligation of women, who had to spin and weave material for the lord of the manor. Tenant farmers‧ wives could also earn money from spinning. Indeed, this was the only source of cash income in Mak's household. Since Mak is clearly not a good provider—the search by the three shepherds reveals that there is no food in the house—Gill spins to earn money to provide food for her children. Mak's idea of providing for his family is to steal, and even Gill warns her husband that he is at risk of hanging as a thief. When Mak arrives home with his stolen sheep, Gill is spinning. It is late at night, since the shepherds have already gone to sleep. Since none of the many children that Mak claims to have fathered are in sight, the audience assumes they are also sleeping. This evidence counters Mak's complaints of Gill's laziness. Mak grouses that his wife produces a child every year and in some years two, and so she must be either constantly pregnant or just recovering from childbirth. Rather than lazy, she must be exhausted from constant pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare. More importantly, the audience would have recognized that Gill was not what Mak had claimed her to be; as a result, he is further cast as a comic figure, the traditional stock character of the henpecked husband, who on closer examination is not henpecked at all. Instead, it is his wife who deserves the audience's sympathy.

Despite Mak's complaints about his wife's laziness, research suggests that during the medieval period, women living in rural areas, especially poor peasant women, had hard lives, working every waking hour. In their book, Women in the Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph Gies point out that a peasant wife "fully shared her husband's day-in, day-out drudgery." In addition to all the work that women did inside the home, the cleaning, cooking, sewing, and childcare, she also did all of the outside work. While the husband left to work the fields, or in the case of Gib to watch the flock, the wife "milked the cows; soaked, beat, and combed out the flax; fed the chickens, ducks, and geese; sheered the sheep; made the cheese and butter; and cultivated the family vegetable patch." According to the Gies, wives might also work with their husbands—"sowing, reaping, gleaning, binding, threshing, raking, winnowing, thatching." Some wives "even helped with the plowing." Since Mak's family was destitute, Gill likely did not have outside animals for which she was responsible, since it takes some financial means to buy farm animals. Instead, she was likely one of the wives that the Gies suggest "spun and wove to eke out a cash income." The Gies describe the peasants who were "poor cottagers" as living at the bottom of the economic scale. Technically the villeins—the lowest economic level of serfs—lived in small cottages on the manor estate and worked the land. In England many villeins were free, but the Gies note that "freedom, without land, was worth little." The Wakefield Master provides no real information about Mak and his wife, other than their absolute poverty, but given that they are not homeless, as Coll suggests is the case for many peasants, it is likely that their small cottage is on property that they do not own.

Since the historical and social evidence suggests that Gill would have had a hard life, one that would have required that she spend her entire married life performing tedious and often labor-intensive work, it is worth considering why her depiction in this religious drama is so negative. Katie Normington, writing in College Literature, explores some of the reasons for the often negative portrayals of women in medieval dramas. Normington writes that "One of the central issues which restricts women characters is that God is placed in absolute authority, and, thus, a strong hierarchical model is at work within the cycles." The early leaders of the Christian church were men, from Paul and Peter, to Philo, to Jerome, to Chrysostom, and Augustine. These men have in common their belief in God and their belief in a world created for and governed by men. Their authority as church leaders and their reliance upon the story of man's fall in Genesis 3 created a dogma of male supremacy that lies at the heart of church doctrine and the tradition of church-based patriarchy that governed society during the Middle Ages. After Adam and Eve fall and they are confronted by God, Adam places the blame on Eve and complains that the fault lies with the "woman whom you gave to be with me." Adam's words prove to be prophetic, for they define a tradition of affixing the blame for man's fall upon the woman. As punishment for their actions, Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise, and Eve is told that henceforth she will be subject to man's rule. Early interpretations of Genesis 3, especially those of Paul, Philo Judaeus, Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom, provided the foundation upon which the family, church, and society was established. And so with the assistance of the church, the story of Eve became a dominant force in the establishment of a patriarchal society, which resulted in a hierarchy that placed women in a subordinate, silent, and obedient role.

God's punishment to Eve is that her "desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." While Genesis 3 provides the source for what was to follow, the biblical text does not bear the sole responsibility for the fate of women. Those who interpreted and commented upon its content bear the greatest blame for the church's reliance upon Eve's story as a means to chastise and control women. One of the first commentators to use Eve in this manner was Paul. In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul tells wives to "be subject to your husbands" and "the husband is the head of the wife." This hierarchy is again reinforced in verse 24: "Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands." This repeats what Paul says in chapter eleven of his epistle to the Corinthians. In a section that emphasizes the desired behavior and appearance of women, Paul begins by stating that "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife." Paul again mentions the status and role of women in his epistle to Titus. Paul tells women "to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited." Thus, according to Paul, if women fail to assume their role and the standard of behavior that he has just provided, they are guilty of discrediting God. They are guilty of denying God's decree, which is blasphemous. This is a serious charge, since blasphemy was interpreted as a denial of God's providence or being. Paul's authority is God and Genesis: God made Adam first and then Eve. Therefore, God created the hierarchy, and Paul is only serving as God's mouthpiece.

But perhaps the most damage is derived from the verse that follows. Of the fall, Paul notes that "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor." No blame for the fall is attached to Adam; the fall is Eve's fault. Yet Paul ignores his own text: Adam was not deceived and Eve was. He knowingly sinned, and yet Paul places no blame on Adam. In ignoring Adam's sin here, he presents a sexist model for the church. Men were not the innocent victims of female deception, and women were not simply flawed copies of the original perfect man. In Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, Elaine Beilin declares that "the image of a disobedient and talkative Eve reaching for the apple had threatened all women." Unfortunately, and for a thousand years after Paul, many members of the clergy accept and adopt Paul's writings about women as the governing rules for the relationship between wives and husbands. This damaging coloring of women's lives is heavily invested in medieval drama, where just in one drama, The Second Shepherds' Play, women are either Gib's definition of fat, loud, and angry, or they are Mak's wife—lazy indiscriminate breeders of countless children. The only remaining option for women is the very brief idealistic Virgin Mary who appears in the final nativity scene. Clearly, though, she is not the model the author had in mind when he created Gib's wife and Gill.

A more positive way to look at Gill is to think of her as a predecessor for Shakespeare's unruly women. Gill is a woman with the kind of humor and courage that Shakespeare will use to define Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Gill is a woman who challenges traditional views of women who manipulate or trick their husbands. Instead of tricking him, Gill is more than willing to help her husband hide the stolen sheep and she does so not just because they are hungry and she needs to feed her children. She willingly engages in Mak's deception because she enjoys it and she enjoys the partnership with her husband. She even expresses a willingness to do more, saying "If it were a greater sleight, / Yet could I help till." She is fully capable of doing more, of being her husband's peer. In helping him, she becomes his equal. And in helping to protect him, she escapes her traditional role of a subservient woman in need of protection. Gill's portrayal on stage might even suggest to the women in the audience that there is another way to circumvent their role as subservient wife. The suggestion is not to engage in committing crimes with her husband. Rather Gill suggests that women can be equal partners with their husbands. They can even help to protect their husbands, when called upon to do so. As a model for medieval women, Gill presents a more fluid paradigm of possibilities. Her portrayal suggests equality, even if true equality is far in the future.

Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on The Second Shepherds' Play, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Michelle Ann Abate

In the following excerpt, Abate argues that the second shepherd, Gyb, is not merely an echo of the first shepherd, Coll. Instead, Abate claims, Gyb foreshadows the events that are to come later in the play.

As numerous past and present critics have noted, Secunda Pastorum is the most widely recognized, anthologized, and analyzed pageant of a mystery cycle, Towneley or otherwise. In the words of David Lampe, ‘The Towneley (Wakefield) The Second Shepherds' Play is clearly the single most popular piece of medieval English drama, appearing in every anthology of English literature that devotes space to the medieval period’. Given, its popularity, criticism about The Second Shepherds' Play has been both numerous and diverse. In addition to examining the pageant from its original cultural and religious contexts, studies have considered it from a wide range of thematic, symbolic, and even theoretical perspectives. Such sentiments pervade current analyses as well.

In spite of all the past and present attention Secunda Pastorum has received, none of these studies has focused exclusively on the shepherds in general or Gyb in particular. Although Coll, Gyb, and Daw make important individual contributions to the drama, most critics agree that they are best viewed not as independent characters but as an interdependent unit or whole. Jeffrey Helterman, for instance, argues that Coll, Gyb, and Daw have an ensemble effect that is more important than the contributions made by their individual characters. Similarly, F. P. Manion outlines the benefits of seeing the shepherds not as discrete entities but as a type of chorus working in unison with both each other and the plot. As a result of such sentiments, no articles to date are exclusively devoted to Gyb or the role he occupies in the text. Instead, he is commonly considered a mere echo or extension of his cohorts, Coll and Daw. Exemplifying this belief, John Gardner asserts that the vast majority of the second shepherd's speeches do not introduce new information or announce fresh themes in the pageant. On the contrary, they merely ‘pick up on Coll's tone’. Such sentiments pervade present analyses as well. Recent essays by Lee Templeton and Ken Hiltner echo or at least fail to challenge these previously established views of the shepherds. Examining the carnivalesque atmosphere within the pageant and its use of punning and political parody respectively, they tend to view Coll, Gyb, and Daw as a unit and lock them into fixed positions.

Although the tendency to emphasize the interconnected nature of the three-shepherds may enhance the overall unity or coherence of Secunda Pastorum, it forecloses the possibility that the trio may occupy positions outside this role. More than simply echoing the comments made by the first shepherd or providing a segue to those of the third shepherd, Gyb plays an important and previously overlooked role in Secunda Pastorum. Instead of merely shadowing his companions, he foreshadows key events and central themes of the pageant. For these reasons, Gyb is not simply one of the characters in Secunda Pastorum, but a central one.

John Gardner articulates what he considers the controlling metaphor of the drama: ‘The Second Shepherds' Play is in a sense an exploration of the Christian significance of the number three: the play focuses on three shepherds; it begins with three soliloquies which open the first of three distinct movements; it treats three motifs appropriate to the Nativity story—law, charity and wonder—and associates them with the Holy Trinity; it closes with the three adorations of the Christ child and the giving of three symbolic gifts’. Given the predominance of this number throughout Secunda Pastorum, Gardner concludes that ‘threes are by no means simply graceful embellishment. They are the heart of the matter’. While Gardner's observation about the importance of numerology in the pageant is apt, it may be time to alter or modify its focus. After several decades of focusing on the significance of threes in Secunda Pastorum, the insight made possible by the bibliographic oversight suggest that the time has come to consider the importance of another digit in the drama: the number two.

Not simply a mere echo or shadow of the first shepherd, Gyb's role as a foreshadower of key events emerges from his opening speech in the play. When Gyb first appears on stage, he remarks, ‘Bensté and Dominus.’ A mock blessing that would have been understood as comical by even lower-class members of the audience, the second shepherd's invocation establishes one of the central features of Secunda Pastorum: the farcical blending of secular and sacred. Although the first shepherd laments the harsh conditions on earth and wonders why God would allow them to exist, he never transforms this disillusionment into heretical comments about the divine. Instead, Coll's discussion of man's cruel state only confirms his belief in a saviour. After articulating the ways in which he is both tortured by the weather and exploited by wealthy landowners, Coll closes with the suggestive lines, ‘For I trowe, perdé, / Trew men if thay be, We gett more compané / Or it be noyne.’ Although ostensibly foreshadowing the arrival of his companions, Coll's remarks also allude to the arrival of the Christ child in the close of the drama. As Mack Maynard asserts, ‘What better introduction could there be to a world in need of redemption, to a story that will end with Christmas?’

Although Gyb reiterates many of Coll's grievances, his opening speech takes a dramatically different tone. Rather than begin with a complaint, Gyb begins with a mock blessing. In addition to deviating from the worldview of his companion, the second shepherd's remark announces the primary comedic element on which the drama is based: the mixing of the pious with the parodic. As numerous past and present critics have pointed out, the vast majority of Secunda Pastorum is concerned with the comic parody of the Nativity rather than the devout retelling of it. But the blend of secular and sacred contributes to its role as a comedy of instruction. According to Rose Zimbardo's definition of the ‘comic mockery of the sacred’ in Secunda Pastorum, the humorous annunciation and adoration scenes in the opening half of the pageant simultaneously foreshadow as they reinforce the sacred and more serious ones that are to come in the final segment. Phrased in a more vernacular (and metaphoric) way, they are the ‘spoonful of sugar’ that first captures the audience's attention and then helps make the sacred lesson that they are about to receive both more palatable and memorable. Gyb, with his own invocation of the sacred and profane, participates in or contributes to this phenomenon. The mock blessing that he utters in his opening speech is reiterated in a more serious and sacred form later in the pageant when Gyb first sees the Christ child: ‘Hayll, sufferan sauyoure, for thou has vs soght!’ In this way, the second shepherd has not only helped prepare audience members for the pageant's account of the biblical story, but also assumed an important role in the actual telling of it.

Coupled with alluding to the recurring tension between farce and worship in Secunda Pastorum, Gyb's mock blessing also foreshadows transitional speeches by subsequent characters. For instance, when the three shepherds wake from their slumber later in the narrative, the first shehperd makes a proclamation that similarly traffics in mock religiosity: ‘Resurrex a mortuus! … / Iudas carnas dominus!’ Echoing this passage, Mak engages in heretical mockery of sacred invocations at several points in the drama. When preparing to steal a sheep from the unsuspecting Coll, Gyb and Daw, for example, the trickster figure does not ask for the blessing or assistance of God. Instead, he utters, ‘Manus tuas commendo, / Poncio Pilato.’ Like Gyb in his opening remarks, Mak forgoes the pious for the parodic. Significantly, because he casts the spell on the shepherds soon after uttering his mock-piety, many critics read Mak as a demonic figure. Dabbling in the supernatural and calling on the assistance of the man who presided over the crucifixion of Christ, the comic trickster has been deemed the Antichrist.

The way in which Gyb's opening speech announces central themes and important events in Secunda Pastorum continues into the second stanza. In this section, Gyb shifts his lament from the harsh condition of making of living by animal husbandry to the harsh condition of being a husband. In what has become an oft-quoted passage, the second shepherd launches into an extended harangue about the enfeebling effects of marriage and the emasculating nature of women: ‘These men that ar wed haue not all thare wyll; / When they ar full hard sted, thay sygh full styll. / God wayte thay ar led full hard and full yll; / In bowere nor in bed thay say noght thertyll.’ In light of this unflattering portrait of wedlock, Gyb admonishes the men of marriageable age in the audience to avoid or at least be cautious about matrimony: ‘Bot, yong men, of wowying, for God that you boght, / Be well war of wedying.’

While critics have rightly condemned Gyb's misogyny in this passage, their focus on reprimand has caused them to overlook an important facet of his speech. More than simply announcing the second shepherd as a hen-pecked and embittered husband, his remarks also prefigure the personality of Mak's wife. As Gardner aptly notes, ‘Mak's Gill is a living emblem of all Gyb complained about earlier.’ Recalling Gyb's unflattering portrait of his spouse, Gill is described ‘As sharp as a thystyll, as rugh as a brere.’ In addition, the portly and hard-drinking woman is characterized as being ‘as greatt as a whall’ and frequently having ‘wett hyr whystyll.’ Echoing Gyb's description of his wife, therefore, Gill has both a literal and figurative ‘galon of gall.’ In light of Gill's tough demeanour and copious fertility, it comes as no surprise when Mak gives voice to Gyb's closing wish: ‘I wald I had ryn to I had lost hir!’.

In addition to foreshadowing Gill's crude personality, Gyb's misogynistic view of women and unfavorable portrait of wedlock anticipates another central event in Secunda Pastorum: the couple's comic concealment of the sheep. When the pair hides the stolen animal in a cradle and attempts to pass it off as their newborn infant, Gill makes noises similar to those that Gyb associates with his wife: feigning the pains of childbirth, she not only ‘kakyls’ but begins ‘to crok, / To goyne or to clok.’

Throughout the remainder of Secunda Pastorum, Gyb makes additional remarks that teem with future textual resonance. Soon after Mak joins the shepherds, for instance, Gyb identifies him as someone who has the look ‘Of stelying … shepe.’ In addition to setting the stage for the central secular event of the drama, Gyb's comment alludes to the manner in which the ruse is detected. Interestingly, Mak's criminal potential is not rooted in his generally distrustful nature or prior deviant behavior. Instead, the second shepherd makes his judgment on this character's appearance. Soon after seeing Mak, Gyb observes, ‘An thou has an yll noys / Of stelyng of shepe.’ Although the word ‘noys’ is commonly translated as ‘noise’, it can also be read as ‘nose.’ Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Fernand Mossé's A Handbook of Middle English, in fact, list ‘noys’ as an archaic spelling of ‘nose’ while the Middle English Dictionary includes ‘noyse’ in its entries for both ‘noise’ and ‘nose.’ Putting this knowledge into practice, Marital Rose's modernized translation of Secunda Pastorum uses the word ‘nose’ rather than ‘noise’ for this line in Gyb's speech.

Awareness that the term ‘noys’ can be read as ‘nose’ instead of or in addition to ‘noise’ adds another facet to his role as a foreshadower. Echoing Gyb's observation that Mak has an ‘yll noys’ for stealing sheep, the attempt by the comic trickster and his wife several scenes later to conceal the stolen sheep is foiled by the shape of the animal's nose. When Daw removes the blanket covering the couple's supposed newborn infant, he is shocked by its visage: ‘What the dewill is this? He has a long snowte!’ Upon hearing this exclamation, Coll and Gyb return to the college to investigate and, significantly, the second shepherd unveils the fraud. After seeing the woolly four-footed infant, he proclaims, ‘Ill-spon weft, iwys, ay commys foull owte. / Ay so! He is lyke to our shepe!’

In spite of the important individual contributions Gyb makes in Secunda Pastorum, he has never been identified as a central or even important character in the pageant. On the contrary, this distinction has consistently gone to the trickster Mak. Wallace H. Johnson, for instance, argues that the drama has received so much critical attention because of ‘the appeal of its leading character, the sheep-stealing Mak.’ Similarly, Richard Axton asserts that the pageant's primary ‘provision of "entertainment" is concentrated in the shape-shifting Mak’. Finally, a recent article by Rick Bowers argues that the trickster figure is the locus for the pageant's comedy and, as a result, the catalyst for its carnivalesque atmosphere.

The way in which the second shepherd hints at key plot developments and announces central themes throughout Secunda Pastorum calls this critical tendency into question. Gyb's numerous allusions call for a reconsideration of his importance in the drama. In many ways, these elements allow the second shepherd to equal or even eclipse Mak as the character of import in Secunda Pastorum. Accordingly, the misspelling of the Second Shepherds' Play as the Second Shepherd's Play forms something more than the bibliographic ‘myshappe’ or disjunction first believed. Rather, it provides a new and previously overlooked interpretive strategy through which to approach and examine this important pageant.

Source: Michelle Ann Abate, "From Shadower to Foreshadower: Taking a Second Look at the Second Shepherd," in Early Theatre: A Journal Associated with the Records of Early Drama, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2005, pp. 95-108.

J. W. Robinson

In the following excerpt, Robinson discusses the importance of numerology in The Second Shepherds' Play. The elaborate use of numerology is representative of early fifteenth-century texts and reveals a complex composition that transforms the traditional nativity story.

… In the Second Shepherds' Play a rule is that the three shepherds speak in turn throughout the play. In many mystery plays, groups of three and four characters—soldiers and shepherds, for example—speak in rotation for some of the time, but in the Second Shepherds' Play the system is complete. With four exceptions, the second shepherd always speaks after the first, and the third after the second; and when they are all present, all three always speak. As a consequence of this constant rotation of speeches, the first shepherd begins the play and the third ends it. Further, the same number of whole stanzas is alloted to each of them. Each of their opening complaints consists of six stanzas, although young Daw's six are interrupted by an exchange with his two self-righteous elders; their references to the prophets occupy one stanza each; and their praise for the baby Jesus also one stanza each. This symmetry is harmonious, and suggests truth and perfection as well as politeness and graceful behavior. Paradoxically, when the symmetry is broken, it is broken by young Daw only in his eagerness to get at the truth. He is an impatient and clumsy youth, given to flinging himself about and jumping into the middle of things; he understands better than the two older shepherds what is happening, and interrupts the orderly rotation of the speeches to blurt out the truth, to inflict some cheerful sarcasm on old Nicholas, the first shepherd, and to provide him with some much-needed guidance. It is, appropriately, Daw who ends the play, both because of his insights and because he is third. Since it is his impetuosity which brings the shepherds to the truth, it is tempting to see his interruptions, natural to his character, as produced by organic rather than symmetrical form, but they may also be thought of as playful, and compared to the way in which in Gothic art a figure will extrude slightly from the frame to the enhancement of the whole design …

The Second Shepherds' Play is composed numerically, perhaps more thoroughly than the other plays by the Wakefield Master, who, it seems, habitually uses numbers within his plots to distinguish the human from the divine, in connection with his practice of elaborating the worldly or evil contrasts to divine truth found in many of the mystery plays, and turning them into foolish lazzi which carry a burden of horror with them, or into comic or horrifyingly wrong adumbrations of Salvation. He develops his comic routines along the lines of those already established in the mystery plays (his plays, for example, perform the familiar feat of trying to imitate the angel's song); a difference between his plays and most other mystery plays is that he so plots divine history that the human shadows of salvation swell and multiply and occupy larger proportions of the plays than is usual. The effect is thought-provoking, although his general meaning is hardly more hidden or obscure than the typology found in many of the plays, or than the point of the pagan imitations (which appear in the earliest vernacular plays) of Christian language—"By the grace of Mahound"—from which it had long been necessary for audiences to draw the proper inferences. In fact the playwright makes a point of plainly demonstrating what he is doing by repeating—in a way perhaps characteristic of medieval literature—his jokes. In his play of Noah, for example, Noah has two rounds of fisticuffs with his wife, instead of the usual one round. In the First Shepherds' Play the playwright produces not one but five stumbling versions of the sacramental bread and wine. In the Second Shepherds' Play he shows his audience what he is up to by providing them with a bold clue (first noticed in modern times by William Empson) in the form of Mak's melodramatic asseveration, spoken as he points to the cradle with the sheep wrapped up in a baby's blanket in it,

As I am true and lele, to God here I pray
That this be the fyrst mele that I shall ete this

… In the First Shepherds' Play, the shepherds are busy hopelessly chasing invisible sheep, wasting good flour, and drunkenly addressing the bottle until the angel appears to them and the play takes on a new direction. This play contains 502 lines, divided into 56 stanzas. The angel appears exactly between the end of the first three-fifths of the play and the beginning of the final two-fifths, speaking the whole stanza 34, and the tumult and confusion cease as the first three-fifths of the play come to a halt with the words,

That chyld is borne
At Bethelem this morne.

It is in stanza 33 of this play that Jesus Christ is mentioned as the third shepherd crosses himself, in symbolic reference, perhaps, to Christ's human life-span; Sir Gawain crosses himself finally in stanza 33 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a thoroughly, "numerous" work …

Many readers have formed the impression that this play is somehow a comprehensive work, and perhaps the most obvious explanation of the significance in it of the number 6 (other than its circular nature and its pythagorean and Christian perfection) is that it has reference to the ages of the world as they are commonly explained in the Middle Ages, in the Golden Legend, for example, which varies from St. Augustine in stating that the six ages of the world are the ages of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. As the play opens, the audience sees an old man rising up out of the mud; old Nicholas rises falteringly to his feet, like Adam when God breathed into him (Genesis 2.7), an episode dramatised in all three northern English mystery play cycles. Nicholas is shortly joined by Gilbert, who brings with him the story of his cackling wife, his Eve. The first sixth of the play is in this way reminiscent of the first of the world, the age of Adam. Daw begins his complaint by referring to the impermanence of this world; when he comes to speak the first line of the second sixth of the play he makes a direct reference to Noah—"Was neuer syn Noe floode sich floodys seyn"—as if he is ushering in the second age of the world, the age of Noah. The fifth sixth can clearly be associated with the fifth age of the world, the age of David. It is in this part of the play that the youthful Daw, a diminutive of "David" ("a young one, who keepeth the sheep," 1 Kings 16.11), comes into his own, leading the way to the discovery of the lost sheep, teaching his angry elders to show mercy, and preparing them for the angel's announcement. The beginning of the final sixth of the play plainly inaugurates the sixth age, the age of Christ, the present age.

At the same time, apart from this and other intellectual schemes and symmetrical patterns that may be found in the plot, it is also true that the Second Shepherds' Play proceeds at a farce-like pace, with powerful contrasts, climaxes, surprises, theatrical tricks, broad humor, and clowning. The playwright's interest in entertaining and amusing his audience is strong but not exclusive. It is reconciled with an equally strong interest in significant proportions and numbers. In both ways he happily demonstrates the wonder of the Incarnation …

In summary: the Second Shepherds' Play, which may well have been intended to be staged and acted with gusto, is governed by patterns and numbers, and at the same time gives a lively appearance of spontaneity. The sequence of the speeches follows a set pattern, yet allows young David to bounce his way through the play. The plot is divided intellectually by numbers, yet is full of suspense and surprises. The stanzaic form is rigidly adhered to, yet the characters seem to be uttering their thoughts as they occur to them. The language is a chronically rhyming mosaic of high and low (mostly low) formulas and idiomatic phrases, and yet the impression given is one of colloquial vigor.

Art such as this, with an extremely rich surface texture, crowded narrative, technical virtuosity, and partially obscure meaning and design is characteristic of the first two-thirds of the fifteenth century in England, towards the end of which period the Wakefield Master most probably worked. His cleverness seems to be never-ending. He has worked up the traditional nativity play into a formal, and highly elaborate and ornamented, representation of this world before and after the Incarnation.

Source: J. W. Robinson, "Form in The Second Shepherds' Play," in Proceedings of the PMR Conference: Annual Publication of the International Patristic, Mediaeval and Renaissance Conference, Vol. 8, 1983, pp. 71-78.


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Dyer, Christopher, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520, Yale University Press, 2002.

This text provides an economic history of England during the Middle Ages. Dyer discusses the economic life of the peasant class, which helps readers of this play better understand the first shepherd's complaints about economic injustice.

Finucane, Ronald C., Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England, Palgrave Macmillan, 1995.

In this text, the author studies popular belief in miracles, saints, and the importance in believing in some sort of religious intervention for those whose lives were in need of help. The author's study suggests that the lower classes were particularly influenced by this sort of belief.

Fleming, Peter, Family and Household in Medieval England, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

This book provides a history of family life in the middle ages that relies upon both primary and secondary documents. Fleming provides information about marriage, childbirth, divorce and widowhood. This text provides an interesting examination of the topic that Gib focuses on in his soliloquy.

Hanawalt, Barbara A., The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford University Press, 1986.

This book provides one of the few texts that explores the lives of English peasants in the medieval period. The author uses court records and coroner reports to examine the economic and family lives of the peasant class.

Rowling, Marjorie, Life in Medieval Times, Perigee, 1973.

Rowling's text offers a social history of medieval life that includes information about religious, family, and economic life. The author includes information about both peasants and the nobility.

Schofield, Phillipp R., Peasant and Community in Medieval England, 1200-1500, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

This book offers an overview of the world of the English peasant. In addition to focusing on family life and the relationship between tenant and lord, the author includes a broader look at how the peasants fit into the legal, economic, and religious life of the medieval world.

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