The Second Shepherds Play Summary and Themes – The Second Shepherds’ Play is a medieval English mystery play that belongs to the Wakefield or Towneley cycle. This cycle consists of a series of mystery plays, each depicting biblical stories in a dramatic and often humorous manner. “The Second Shepherds’ Play” stands out for its blend of religious and comedic elements, making it a unique and enduring piece of medieval English literature.
About Wakefield Master
The term “Wakefield Master” refers to an unidentified medieval English playwright who is credited with the creation of a significant body of work within the Wakefield or Towneley cycle of mystery plays. The Wakefield cycle consists of a series of mystery plays, also known as miracle plays, which dramatize biblical stories for the entertainment and edification of medieval audiences. These plays were performed by trade guilds in the town of Wakefield, England, during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
The exact identity of the Wakefield Master remains a mystery, as the plays were often written anonymously, and historical records from that period are scarce. Scholars have attempted to discern the authorship of the Wakefield plays, but the true identity of the mastermind behind these dramatic works remains elusive.
Despite the anonymity, the Wakefield Master is celebrated for the unique blend of religious narrative, humor, and social commentary present in the plays attributed to them. The mystery plays were an integral part of medieval English religious and cultural life, providing a dramatic representation of biblical stories for a largely illiterate audience. These plays were performed outdoors, often on elaborate pageant wagons that moved from one location to another, allowing different scenes to be presented to different audiences.
The Wakefield Master’s works, including “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” showcase a keen understanding of human nature, employing humor and satire alongside religious themes. The plays reveal a skillful playwright who could engage and entertain while conveying moral and religious messages. The Wakefield cycle, as a whole, covers a wide range of biblical narratives, from the Creation to the Last Judgment.
The Wakefield Master’s influence extends beyond the medieval period, as their works continue to be studied and performed today. The plays provide valuable insights into the religious and social attitudes of medieval England, offering a window into the cultural and intellectual climate of the time. The Wakefield Master’s legacy lies in their contribution to the tradition of mystery plays and their role in shaping the medieval dramatic landscape. Despite the anonymity, the Wakefield Master’s impact endures, as their plays remain important artifacts of medieval English literature and theater.
The Second Shepherds Play Summary:
The play opens with three shepherds, Coll, Gib, and Daw, who are guarding their flocks in the fields. Coll, who is discontented with his life, accuses Mak, a fellow shepherd, of stealing a sheep. Mak, however, manages to deceive the shepherds and hides the stolen sheep in a cradle. Meanwhile, the shepherds decide to visit the town to see the Nativity play, leaving Mak alone with their flock. Mak seizes this opportunity to visit his wife, Gill, who is unaware of his theft. He places the stolen sheep in the cradle beside his sleeping wife.
Upon their return, the shepherds, suspecting nothing, are shocked to find a baby in the cradle. They believe it to be a divine miracle and decide to offer gifts to the child. As they leave, Mak arrives and pretends to be a righteous man, expressing his desire to see the baby. Suspicious, the shepherds interrogate him, eventually discovering the stolen sheep. The play concludes with a moral lesson about the importance of humility and forgiveness.
The Second Shepherds Play Themes:
- Humility and Forgiveness: The theme of humility is central to “The Second Shepherds’ Play.” The shepherds, despite their rough exterior, exhibit humility when faced with the supposed divine miracle of the baby in the cradle. This humility contrasts sharply with Mak’s deceitful actions. However, the play also emphasizes the importance of forgiveness. Despite Mak’s transgressions, the shepherds choose to forgive him, demonstrating the redemptive power of mercy and understanding.
- Deception and Guile: Deception is a pervasive theme throughout the play. Mak’s theft of the sheep and his subsequent attempt to deceive the shepherds highlight the moral consequences of dishonesty. The play explores the consequences of deceit not only in earthly terms but also in a spiritual context. Mak’s actions disrupt the harmony of the community and serve as a cautionary tale about the destructive nature of deception.
- Social Critique: “The Second Shepherds’ Play” contains subtle social critique embedded in its portrayal of the shepherds’ lives. The shepherds, representative of the lower classes, endure hardships and struggle with discontentment. The play reflects the challenges faced by the common people during medieval times, shedding light on social inequalities and the desire for a better life.
- Divine Intervention: The theme of divine intervention is evident in the appearance of the baby in the cradle. The shepherds’ immediate assumption that the child is a miraculous gift from God adds a religious dimension to the narrative. This element underscores the medieval Christian worldview, where the divine could manifest in everyday life, reminding the audience of the omnipresence of God’s grace.
- Redemption and Transformation: Mak’s character arc embodies the theme of redemption and transformation. Despite his initial deceit, Mak undergoes a change of heart. The forgiveness extended by the shepherds becomes a catalyst for his redemption. This theme aligns with Christian teachings about repentance and the possibility of moral transformation through divine grace.
- Satire and Comic Elements: The play incorporates satire and comic elements, particularly in Mak’s attempts to outwit the shepherds. The humor serves not only to entertain but also to highlight the folly of human behavior. The comedic elements provide a lighter tone to the narrative while contributing to the moral lessons embedded in the play.
- Community and Solidarity: The shepherds’ community is a central aspect of the play. Their shared experiences, struggles, and interactions create a sense of solidarity. The communal response to the baby in the cradle and the eventual forgiveness extended to Mak emphasize the strength of community bonds. The play suggests that forgiveness and redemption are achievable within a supportive community.
- Symbolism of the Cradle: The cradle serves as a powerful symbol in the play. Initially, it conceals Mak’s deceit, becoming a vessel for deception. However, as the shepherds discover the baby, the cradle transforms into a symbol of divine intervention and the potential for redemption. The symbolism of the cradle reinforces the play’s themes of transformation and the unexpected ways in which grace can manifest.
The Second Shepherds Play Summary and Themes – The Second Shepherds’ Play is a multifaceted work that weaves together themes of humility, forgiveness, deception, and divine intervention. Through its engaging narrative and diverse characters, the play imparts moral lessons while offering a glimpse into the social realities of medieval England. The blend of religious elements and humor makes it a unique and enduring piece of medieval literature, resonating with audiences across centuries. As a part of the larger Wakefield or Towneley cycle, the play contributes to the rich tapestry of medieval mystery plays, showcasing the creativity and moral insight of its anonymous author.