The Second Shepherds’ Play (R Feb 21)

“The Wakefield Master” managed to create a play that incorporates both humor and biblical references. How does humor contribute to the religious themes present throughout The Second Shepherds’ Play? Is the exploitation of the nativity scene proving to be more than just comical entertainment? Keeping in mind the addition of Mak, do you think that this play was written to share the gospel or rather make a societal criticism?

9 thoughts on “The Second Shepherds’ Play (R Feb 21)

  1. I think humor contributes to the religious themes in “The Second Shepherd’s Play” insofar as it provided that audience with a satirical entertainment that’s unusual and might have contributed to holding the audience’s attention more — which is to say that people simply could have learned more about religion because it was treated in a less exalted and more approachable manner. This is evident when Mak feigns disassociation after being threatened: “God look at you all three! Methought I had seen you. Ye are a fair company” (217-218). The play undoubtedly communicates some of the gospel, but its purpose isn’t overtly to do so; it does have a certain amount of social criticism in that it contrasts the life of the shepherd with that of the yeoman, or land-owning farmer.

  2. I think that the humor is used to make the play more attractive to the low-class illiterate audience. It is meant to be an entertaining play as well as a religiously educational play. The social criticisms made in the play are meant to relate to the target audience.The sense of humor and similar social circumstances of the the shepherds connects them to the everyday layman. The second shepherd complains about the toll his wife takes on his spiritual life with: “For, as ever read I pistill, I have one to my fere/ As sharp as a thistle, as rough as a brier;/ She is browed like a bristle, with a sour-loten cheer” (99-102). These same complaining, mistreated shepherds are at the end of the play “To sing are … bun—” because of their overwhelming joy in having seen the holy child (368). This is an outstanding change in their emotions which the target audience was bound to feel because they could understand the destitution and disappointments the shepherds had in the beginning. The addition of the Mak story, I think, is meant to add even more contrast to the change the sight of Christ makes on the shepherds’ disposition.

  3. When reading “The Second Shepherds’ Play” I did not find the comical aspects in the story to be intended for making a mockery of the gospel. Rather, the storyline varying from the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth just provided more interest and was more likely to capture the attention of the laypeople. The story of Mak and his wife is a funny way of showing what the Shepherds were doing when they were called by God to be present with Mary. Although there is no Biblical truth to this part of the story, the most important aspect is that the story of Jesus’s birth gets told. After seeing the angel the Second Shepherd says, “Of David and Isaiah, more than I min-They prophesied by clergy, that in virgin Should be light and lie, to slokyn our sin And slake it” (685-687). These lines help the common people understand that the birth of Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament.

  4. As any playwrite should, The Wakefield Master must have considered the audience while writing “The Second Shepherds’ Play”. Probably one of the easiest ways to reach a diverse audience is to introduce humor, something universally understood and appreciated. So while it was the Master’s intention to share the story of Jesus’ birth (not the Gospel; the Gospel is Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins), the addition of humor not only hightened the entertainment value of the play, but it made it more accessible and easily absorbed. We do see some social commentary in the humor as well: “Some men will have two wives and some men three/ In store./ Some are woe that have any;” (85-87). I do not think that it would be fair to say that it was either the Master’s intention to share the story of Christ’s birth OR to make a social commentary – because it was probably both. Why not do both? Social commentary adds even more appeal to the play because it provides the audience with even more of a connection to the ‘now’ (or the ‘then’, in our case today).

  5. Like others have already said, I also believe that the addition of humor in the story is meant to attract the common people in the audience, but also to have them relate to the characters. The shepherds complain about their wives in a very humorous fashion, one even saying she “is as great as a [whale]” (105). They are also duped by Mak when he steals one of their sheep and his wife, Gil, offers to “hide [the sheep] too they be gone, / In [her] cradle abide” (333-334). Everyone in the audience would have related to these feelings of annoyance at their wives/husbands, and they had probably been cheated or duped during lives. These aspects of normal life in the play coupled with the humorous way in which they were presented, would help the audience to connect with the play even more. It’s also possible the the Wakefield Master was trying to make the Nativity seem more accessible, by having these characters travel to meet the newborn Jesus. It’s possible that the Master was making the statement that no matter who you are, you have the right to access Christianity, just as the shepherds did at the Nativity.

  6. At first, “The Second Shepherd’s Play” seemed like it was focused on turning religion into humor by exploiting it in comical ways, but after looking through it again I have changed my mind. I see the exploitations more as a crossing of paths between the religious and secular worlds. The religious world transcends reality, but the shepherds, in a good way, bring it back down to reality. The final scene depicts the shepherds in Bethlehem standing before Mary with their own gifts for Christ: “I have holden my heting – Have a bob of cherries!… Hail! I kneel and I cower. A bird have I brought / To my barn… I bring thee but a ball; / Have and play thee withall, / And go to the tennis.” (727-728, 733-734, 744-746). This comical scene illustrates how the secular world is unable to comprehend the significance of the event completely, but is still able to realize the event has meaning. The gifts also have a practical use for the secular world, unlike gold, frankincense, and myrrh so they aren’t mean to poke fun or exploit religion necessarily, but are meant to show a humorous connection between the secular and religious spheres.

  7. I think it is interesting that you made a distinction of sharing the gospel OR having societal criticism… I think it can be both, definitely. As we know, the laypeople loved hearing saint stories, bibles stories, etc., and I think that this fiction narrative added onto what we know about shepherds and how they act was just an interesting way to share Biblical stories that people loved to read during that time. What better way to recapture the attention who people who were regularly familiar with the Gospel than to add a fictional beginning about shepherds? In the Biblical sense, the fact that the Angel came to some lone shepherds to tell of the the birth of the King is really significant, because shepherds were the lowest of low people and to usher them to the scene of Christ’s birth is counter-cultural. So, to add to their story would be interesting to those who are already familiar to Christ’s birth, and for the audience to see that the bumbling complaining shepherds are ordinary people, just like themselves.

  8. I did not see the humor in “The Second Shepherd’s Play” as something that was mocking the Christian religion or its conventions. I think that one important aspect of humor is finding a subject that most everyone can relate to or understand; only then can humor work. I think that Christianity and the Church was a something that everyone, in that day, participated in and understood. It was a subject that was approachable on all levels. Therefore, when the shepherds make references to the Virgin Mary and the star and to Jesus’ birth, the audience could understand what they were referring to and understand the jokes being made. The tone of this play is not serious at all; it is light-hearted and intended to be funny. When the shepherds are talking about marriage, they even state that they feel back for the rooster, for he too must suffer through marrriage (“Woe to him, out cock, for he is in the shackles” (71-72)). These first few conversations set the tone for the rest of the play. It allows the audience to realize that all of the traditions and conventions of the Christian faith that are being referenced are not meant to be offensive, but simply poke fun at an ideal and part of everyday life that the audience understood. I think it becomes just a farce, not a satirical, political play.

  9. As my peers have reiterated again and again above, the combination of humor and a well-known religious story was an attempt by the Wakefield Master to make it more appealing to the laypeople. Because laypeople were for the most part illiterate it was through these plays that they gained much of their literate knowledge of the world. Through the story the author tries to connect to problems that commoners of this time might have. Such as when the Sheppard’s are saying they are only going to work as hard as they are getting paid for, “But hear my truth, master: for the fare that ye make, I shall do thereafter work as I take;” (166-167). Another example is from the beginning of the story when the First Sheppard is discussing the hardships of marriage and how a man is lucky if he doesn’t have a wife waiting for him back at home. On the whole this play intended for the people of Wakefield was a means to entertain them, but at the same time express a religious story through comedy.

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