The Second Shepherds' Play

In The Second Shepherds’ Play the birth takes place in B.C.E. Palestine, but it also is happening near Wakefield, 'now' - to a contemporary English group of shepherds and to the audience. The play continually is referring to their familiar world.

The Second Shepherds’ Play. (WAKEFIELD CYCLE) 
In the Second Shepherds’ Play the birth takes place in B.C.E. Palestine, but it also is happening near Wakefield, 'now' - to a contemporary English group of shepherds and to the audience. The play continually is referring to their familiar world. 

Therefore, just as the Festival of Corpus Christi is the moment in the year when the City itself (York, Wakefield, Chester, Norwich, London, etc) transforms itself into the Biblical Christian story: puts on its costumes and acts out its events through it’s civic life (the Guilds): so the Christian ‘text’ itself transforms itself into the secular world and the local life of the City. The Bible takes on a contemporary local habitation (e.g. Wakefield and its citizens) locating the sacred events within the familiar, secular world of the spectators. The lack of an illusionist mimesis keeps the actual world clearly in focus. The Bible becomes Wakefield, Wakefield becomes the Bible in a mutual metamorphosis. 

The Second Shepherds Play dramatizes the event in the New Testament:

“In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields
and took it in turn to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the 
Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They 
were terrified but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Listen. I bring you
news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the 
town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And
here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger. And suddenly with the Angel there was a great 
throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing:
Glory to God in the highest heaven
And peace to men who enjoy his favour”.

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord made known to us” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.

The play's place in the Cycle’s Supertext: 
In the medieval Cycles, each play is preceded and followed by a huge ‘Supertext’ (the great Cycle of plays) which ‘colors’ everything in the play.

Therefore we are not to look at the play as if it wishes to be a self-sufficient dramatic entity: it is only one stage in a larger story. It is a MAJOR stage, however: it dramatizes the single most important event in the cosmos since the Creation: the birth of God the Redeemer. Only Judgment Day can rival it. This is what makes the homeliness’ of the play so remarkable.

Account and analysis of structure.
The play is to show the miraculous intervention of the divine into fallen world by a redemptive god. Christ appears as the most humble and vulnerable of human figures: the babe. Figures will be summoned (shepherds, kings), by angels and amazing portents (the star of Bethlehem), to visit the stable and recognize the divine within the humble. There is a friendliness and even sweetness in this divine manifestation. Christ is a once-only, wholly new and irrevocable event, totally altering the history of the world, for all mankind. All reality that came before, and all that comes after, are altered by this event.
Time is thus now divided into a B.C. and A.D.
But, also, the reliving of the birth of Christ will recur annually in the history of the Christian community. It is the irrevocable event to be repeated until doomsday.

Opens with the three shepherds in their winter world of social injustice.
This is the unhappy ‘fallen’ secular world unvisited by Grace. But it is also a divinely designated space: its very misery is the precondition for Redemption.
ABOVE the unhappy scene is the heavenly-angelic one that pierces through the fallen world.
THE ACTED SCENE; (See pageant wagon illustration)
(However, it has been suggested it was acted in a great Hall)

If a Wagon, the heath where the shepherds meet would be in front: either on a platform that extended out when the wagon halted at its station: or just on the ground, along with the spectators. Entrances and exits would be from and to the back of the wagon.
MAK’S House of Discord would be set within the wagon; 
The Harmony of the holy crèche is either in the same place, transformed: or ‘above’ on the next tier of the wagon (or balcony in the hall).

( One commentator has suggested that the sets and costumes for each play in the CYCLE might have been made to imitate iconic illustrations: the Book of Hours or the stained glass windows in the churches. The iconic sets, costumes, only recreated the holy stories so that the comic subplots did not ‘invade’ the holy image but were distinctly and separately, realistic and contemporary.)

Again the DUALISM of the Christian world, which always maintains two separate levels of reality, the FALLEN WORLD and the HEAVENLY with an occasional miraculous ‘merging’ as in this play. ‘Harmony’ breaks through the disharmony of the everyday world The Staging would emphasize this duality.

If performed in an Interior [the great Hall of a Manor] the Holy Family would probably be above, in the musicians Balcony while the comedy of the shepherds would be acted below and they would ascend to the holy family.

If the Pageant Wagon was used the shepherds would have to arrive at Mak’s cottage and Mary’s stable and this would be more plausible if they made their ‘journey’ around the wagon. Then, either Mak and Gill’s parody of the Birth would be changed into the Holy Birth (by the same actors?) Or the wagon would be two-tiered into ‘above’ and ‘below’ 

(b) SETS are more important to the Cycle plays than to the Elizabethan theatre because of their ICONIC value. The pageant cart probably was impressively set up for its single short play, to make maximum visual impact: performance was repeated in station after station. In the York Cycle, there are FIFTY impressive sets!!! The many scenes and violent actions of an Elizabethan play would be hampered by the need continually to change the sets. Nevertheless, the memory of the medieval sets and costumes ‘haunt’ the Elizabethan plays – e.g.:
DR. FAUSTUS; RICHARD II; KING LEAR. We should keep this medieval theater in mind when studying Elizabethan drama.

Characters are ‘emblematic’ and exemplary and probably the least complex elements of medieval drama. Character will only become dramatically interesting with the concept of the Individual acting freely - and truly alarmingly. And to act freely, the character could not be part of a huge predetermined story. Dramatic Character begins to emerge in European drama when the metaphysical dimension becomes ‘problematic’ as it previously became, progressively, early in the Athenian drama.

The Eizabethan character, in contrast to the medieval, is in an anguished, uncertain relation to the metaphysical superstructure of Christian dogma. (Dr. Faustus is the clearest example of this: the ambiguities of the Elizabethan text and dramatic situation make tragic identity, absent since the Athenian drama, possible again).

Tragic Identity emerges when:

(a) A once sustaining metaphysical ‘explanation’ of the world and
our place in it becomes problematic and begins ‘disintegrating’.

(b) A ‘rational’ or cynical view challenges the old system leaving 
the individual isolated and vulnerable: tragically exposed to 
seemingly meaningless pain. (KING LEAR)

In the Cycle, by contrast, [e.g. THE SECOND SHEPHERD’S PLAY ] there is a static typology of dramatic character.

(1) Villainous- satanic’; (Satan; Cain; Mak; Herod)

(2) Christian Good figures: (Abel; Noah; Abraham-Isaac; 

(3) Divine agents and characters:

The villain, MAK is a “figure of the devil” yet also just part of the ‘discontent’ of the secular world in need of redemption. The disharmony about to be invaded by heavenly harmony: as it will be all through the Cycle. As Evil cannot really threaten the divine harmony, it is only comic.

Christ ushers in the ‘Age of Mercy’ to supplant the ‘Age of Judgment’. If the actual Devil appeared he would have to be punished severely, and this would disturb the emphasis on Mercy the play expresses. However, a surrogate ‘devil’ can be forgiven, and this is what the Shepherds do. (The actual penalty for sheep stealing was death by hanging) By showing Mercy to Mak, the shepherds reveal they deserve it, also. (On Judgment Day the blessed and the damned souls will be told by Christ that every kind or unkind act done to others was done to Him) Therefore the two plots are beautifully integrated into one action: the solemn plot and the comic plot. 

Christ as the sacrificial Lamb (AGNUS DEI) was already prefigured in Abraham and Isaac. Jesus, the Good Shepherd has been sent by God the Father to search out and save the Christian ‘flock’ from Satan. The divine Nativity Scene miraculously appears in the fallen world, as a 'gift' to the good shepherds. For the action of the birth of the Holy Babe a true satanic action would have been been too discordant. Therefore, Mak is an innocuous version of the satanic in the world that Christ will redeem.

(2) Christian Good figures: (Abel; Noah; Abraham-Isaac; Shepherds;)
‘The Shepherds are emblematic figures of the Church; ‘Pastors’, but here they stand for ‘us’ - ordinary, unheroic humanity’ to be rewarded with the redemptive experience of the divine. The action of the play cannot equal the ideal moments of the Mass, when the congregation through the ritual, makes contact with the divine; but it reminds us of that possible contact.. The profound anachronisms of the play insist the great Christian events (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Last Judgment also occur in our world in the present.

All through the Cycle, the spectator, as unheroic humanity, is the center of the story. He/she basically is confronted with only two options: to obey or disobey the divine call. 'Interesting disobedience' (like Faustus’ or Macbeth’s) is ruled out! When we come to Elizabethan drama we at last encounter the disturbing arrival of the clever machiavel and Evil no longer is a laughing matter as it is allowed to be in the Medieval Cycles.

(3) Divine agents and characters: In the Cycles these are unambiguous and their pronouncements are always clear, binding and good. Evil characters are obviously bad. Damnation is the punishment for bad players of a game of Christian Snakes and Ladders who do not read or understand the rules. Wrong choice, you slide down a snake; right choice, you climb the ladder. (This was the British version of the game in my childhood. I think the U.S. version is the less sinister Slides and Ladders).

In Elizabethan tragedy the supernatural can be ambiguous as agents of Good and Evil (the problematic Ghost in Hamlet; witches in Macbeth); or devastatingly absent (King Lear). Elizabethan drama inherits the ‘medieval world picture’ but its machinery seems to be seriously malfunctioning.

ACTION Past and present actions merge. Palestine/Wakefield.
The main action is the divine intervention into the unhappy world: historically, this happened only once, back in Palestine some 1300 years before the play; but, doctrinally, it recurs throughout a Christian life. So the action, alternating between Palestine and Wakefield, involves two concepts of Time; the archetypal and the ever-contemporary.
The subplot action illustrates the fallen world the divine birth has come to redeem. It is a world of unhappiness and complaint – and transgression.

The Shepherds divide the dialogue into separate forms of worldly complaint:

The First Shepherd
His complaint is about social injustices in the world he shares with the spectators. A litany of discontents. Poverty; taxation; oppressed socially, with their feudal superiors usurping their wagons and ploughs for their own benefits. The verses are not subversive social criticism. Rather, they acknowledge the perennial discontents in the fallen world. The world is intrinsically unhappy and only life after death can redeem it: The Cycles are not advocating social reform in this world.

Second Shepherd. 
The harshness of weather, and warning to spectators of woe in marriage.

Third Shepherd. (The youngest and subordinate): hunger, thirst, physical discomforts.

The essential aspect of these three is their representative humanity. 
They conclude their 'dialogue’ with a song just as MAK appears. 

The ‘satanic’ comedy of discord of the Cycle is here centered on a devil-substitute, MAK. MAK ‘disguises’ himself as a stranger. This action, like his language is histrionically crudely duplicitous, not attempting plausible motive or likelihood. It is there to remind us of Satan’s. ‘guilefulness' and why Christ has to be born. So he ‘casts a spell’ with a parody of Christ’s words on the Cross( 88) His ‘villainy’ is extremely naive and elementary because it does not have to convince, or to plausibly ‘advance the plot’- only, as an emblem, to ‘stand in for’ the diabolic presence.

The turning point of the subplot is the moment when the three shepherds decide to return to Mak’s house with gifts for his new babe. They discover the deception, and ‘punish’ MAK mercifully. This ‘prefigures’ their gifts to the Christ child later: and their action is a ‘figure’ of Christ’s MERCY to us.

After their game with MAK, the actual sacred text from LUKE ‘kicks in’
Just TWO paragraphs: and only 10% of the play!
On the human level the story is given more three-dimensional figures than usual in medieval drama. In the action of "searching for the lost sheep" the actors might have moved into the audience, making the association of flock and the Christian community. The tossing of Mak in the blanket is a form of exorcism of the ‘satanic’ to prepare for the presence of the divine child, which the purified scene and actors can now witness. 
Music is either hideous discord (Mak & Gill) or divine harmony (angels).

The contrapuntal parallels in the play. 
Mak pretends to have a dream of his wife's new birth (92) : 
the three shepherds see a vision announcing the divine birth.
Mak's house with its teeming children, is of incontinence, not a Virgin birth 
Gill is the parodic opposite of the Virgin, Mak of Joseph 
(Do the same actors play the unholy and the holy families, with the same props?) 
The two 'children':  divine 'lamb' and stolen sheep; the two domiciles; stable and Mak's house
the two 'singings' - angelic choir and Mak and Wife's dissonant singing.. 

Mak and Gill protest they would rather 'eat their child' than lie; they intend to and also parody the Corpus Christi sacrament of eating Christ. 

The Secular plot: Mak’s theft of the sheep, and the shepherds 'search for the lost sheep' and its rescue from the clutches of Mak and his wife, parallels and parodies the Divine plot where Christ the Lamb (and Shepherd) is born to save the ‘lost’ human flock. The ‘sheep’ and the ‘flock’ are conventional terms for the Church and the Christian congregation. The lost sheep is the Christian who has gone astray and fallen into the power of the Devil (Mak). The Shepherds who protect their flock and rescue the sheep represent the 'pastors' of the Church. 

(a) The subplot, then, is an ‘allegory’, or ‘parable’ –an illustration, in homely realistic terms, of what 
(b) the divine, wondrous event (the crèche) signifies: the defeat of Satan/Mak; the saving of the lost sheep;
(c) It is able to do this as Comedy because the Christ-child’s presence banishes the ‘real’ devil who is totally powerless in the divine presence.
(d) Without the comic subplot there really could be no play and no action taking place in the community of Wakefield.
(e) The static, wondrous, iconic image of the Holy Family must be arrived at through the bitter experience of the fallen world and the Shepherds’ action of Mercy.

DIALOGUE (The absence of metaphor)
Unlike Elizabethan drama, the dialogue is without metaphor or imagery (there’s not even a simile) because the medieval drama can present its meanings openly (though allegorically) and directly juxtapose the real with the visionary. Each ‘speaks its separate presence’ directly. There is no uncertainty or doubt about the metaphysical structure into which everyday reality is ‘slotted’.

The metaphors of Elizabethan drama, by contrast, will be ways of infiltrating into the ‘realistic’ story metaphysical dimensions forbidden by the authorities from being openly stated.

The Language of Elizabethan Drama
In Marlowe and Shakespeare, the old metaphysical dimension of the medieval theater is discouraged by the authorities. It therefore becomes ‘internalized’ - the language becomes intensely metaphoric. Areas that medieval drama presented openly, ‘side by side’ (the real world and the sacred) now have to be surreptitiously linked by metaphor.

Metaphors often articulate forbidden areas of discourse. i.e. metaphor, in Shakespeare, indicates a metaphysical dimension not openly or confidently present but only implied, questioned or sought. We’ll say more about this later: but one of the features we should follow in this course, is the evolution of a powerful metaphoric language that will be the defining characteristic of Elizabethan drama. It often compensates for what has been forbidden as direct presentation.

Dramatic Counterpoint and future Elizabethan Drama. 
In THE SECOND SHEPHERDS’ PLAY we have a simple form of dramatic counterpoint, where the humble shepherds’ subplot is played off against the divine-level plot. Staging would make these parallels apparent.  If we are looking for premonitions of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama it could be here in this concept of the subplot, creating dramatic counterpoint - which is where Elizabethan drama most differs from the Greek. The use of the subplot is taken to its highest level in KING LEAR.

ALLEGORY requires dualism: two separate yet interlocking systems: the secular realistic and the analogous sacred system or code existing ‘beside(above) it’ which reveals reality’s true meaning. Thus, the world we live in is illusory, a code we must decipher to discover its true meaning which is revealed only when translated into the other, divine system. Reality, [the world, ‘us'] is always unreal, requiring ‘translation’ into its true language. This is the function of the Church.
In the medieval drama there are:

(a) secular facts (of the fallen world) and behind these there are 
(b) sacred meanings decoded in Church doctrine: 

The two realms, though interdependent, are kept distinctly apart: one a ‘figure’ of the other. EVERYMAN will give a clearer example, where the allegorical method becomes more abstract. 
In the medieval Cycle plays the ‘subplots are realistically rendered.

***Tensions will arise `when the metaphysical system that gives meaning to human experience becomes a ‘problematic’ space - a locus of new questions coming from a dynamically changing, and therefore, uncertain culture. This is the renaissance world that is troubled with tensions and doubts that disintegrate the medieval Great Chain of Being. “The new philosophy puts all in doubt.”
The disintegration occurs on both levels:

(a) the experienced (secular) world and 
(b) the metaphysical interpretation of that world.

The experienced world, because of startling new events (the discovery of the New World; Copernicus’ heliocentric universe; the Gutenberg revolution; the new economic dynamism; nationalism) becomes too complex for the old metaphysical explanation which, in turn, cannot disguise its inadequacies and contradictions. These tensions will generate the cultural conditions that allow Elizabethan culture to create the terms of a tragic drama for the first time since the Greeks.

For an example of how Elizabethan/Jacobean drama might have evolved had it not been required to renounce its medieval and Catholic supertext, the clearest example is the brilliant Spanish Golden Age drama.