The Second Shepherds’ Play, England’s “First Comedy”

41N5-tNbm2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg  The Wakefield mystery play cycle included The Second Shepherd’s Play. The author is unknown, but the play is commonly attributed to the Wakefield Master. This play dates from the latter half of the 15th Century. It is written in Middle English. 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 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 play’s title comes from the Towneley cycle of plays, and this one was the second one of two Shepherds’ plays. A. W. Pollard, bibliographer and scholar of English literature, suggested that in the Prima Pastorum, the author knew some success in telling the story, but in the Second Shepherds’ Play, he achieved the nation’s “first English comedy.” 

According to, “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 manuscript was originally preserved at Towneley Hall, Lancashire, but was presented by the craft guilds of Wakefield, thus, the name of the piece. According to The English Drama (eds. E. W. Parks and R. C. Beatty, New York, W. W. Norton, 1935), “the cycle is a composite on: (1) a group of didactic-religious plays; (2) a group probably derived from an earlier version of the York plays; (3) a group of five by a single writer of marked dramatic power and bold humor. This final group was completed by 1420.”

wake2shep With no connection to Biblical incidents, many consider The Second Shepherds’ Play England’s first original comedy – a boisterous English farce. The only Biblical reference comes at the ending scene in which the English shepherds are “transported” to Bethlehem where they view the Christ child. Even in this scene, the shepherds’ speech is quite colloquial. One of shepherds even presents the Christ child a tennis ball as a gift. 

The play has many anachronistic phrases and oaths such as “for God that you bought” and “By him that died for us all” and “Christ’s cross me speed.” There is also a reference to Saint Nicholas, which sets up the theme of stealing, for Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of thieves. At line 626, the shepherds toss Mak in a sheet and then return to the fields. Tossing Mak in the sheet was a superstition in action. Being “tossed in a sheet” would allow Mak to have more children. Such phrases and actions may not “entertain” those of our time, but they would prove hilarious to those of medieval times. 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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