The Second Shepherds' Play
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Second Shepherds' Play is a famous medieval mystery play which is contained in the manuscript HM1, the unique manuscript of the Wakefield Cycle. It gained its name from the fact that 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.
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 and toss him on a blanket as a punishment.
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.
Traditionally scholars have believed that the play is the work of an anonymous poet-playwright whom they dub The Wakefield Master who is responsible for other works in the Wakefield Cycle. It utilizes a regular distinctive cauda (or "tail") after each cross-rhymed octet, for example, and shares certain tonal qualities that have been noted by scholars from an early date. Some question the existence of one "Wakefield Master," and propose that multiple authors could have written in the Wakefield Stanza. 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.
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.