Throughout the play, the “Wakefield Master” uses many anachronisms, or attributes belonging to a period other than that in which it is currently being employed. For example, the second shepherd refers to “him that died for us all,” and the first shepherd makes note of “the rood” (107, 185). What is the purpose of making these conspicuous references? How do they relate to the contrast between the absurdly comedic beginning of the story versus the traditional, biblical ending of the play describing when they first see Christ?
The various anachronisms make the problems that the characters face seem timeless and allow contemporary viewers to connect with the characters. For instance, the First Shepherd complains about a famine. He says, “No wonder, as it stands, if we be poor, / For the tilth of our lands lies fallow as the floor” (12-13). A footnote in our book tells us that this is referring to an agricultural practice from the fifteenth century. The modern allusions help engage the viewers.
The biblical allusions also remind me of the idea that we discussed with Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe that certain religious moments were thought of as always happening. People viewing this play would constantly be aware of the birth of Jesus. The event itself is perceived as timeless.
These references support the play’s role as a biblical pageant play. As stated in the introductory material, the play was intended to give an illiterate audience a greater knowledge of biblical truth. The reference to Christ’s sacrifice interspersed in a comedic play is supposed to point people to the real heart of the matter; the gospel. I would compare it to a parent handing a vegetable wrapped in chocolate to a child. The parent really wants the child to eat the vegetable, but also knows that the child will not take in the vegetable unless it is delivered via chocolate. Thus the comedic play surrounding these biblical truths is the metaphorical chocolate wrapped around the vegetable. The conclusion of the play demonstrates fully its role as the first shepherd proclaims, “What grace we have fun” (762). Though the play has a comedic outer shell, the focus of the play is its message on biblical grace as referenced throughout and brought to the forefront in the conclusion.
I suppose these references are to make their audience feel comfortable and to use little phrases familiar to the time. Lines 266-67 “Pontio Pilate!/ Christ’s cross me speed!” (408) as well as line 352’s mentioning of Judas also employ the use of anachronisms. However, it completely messes up the order of things as they are already using Jesus references before he is born (in the play), but also adds to the comedy because of this, and ultimately foreshadows the end of the play, and the switch to a more serious tone about Christ at the end.
I find the anachronisms to serve as the devices that propagate the underlying pious morals. As mentioned in class certain sects of Christian faith teach that Jesus’ trials and tribulations as an ongoing act of suffering which as a believer, you are expected emphasize with. Even if the audience did not receive the immediate messages of the three shepherds being linked to the three wise men out on a journey to Bethlehem, the addition of these timeless anachronisms would drive in the religious undertone while the plot maintained a silly overtone. I would like to further point out that these anachronisms are juxtaposed by the asides that at various times characters such as Mak employ to convey to the audience a reflective sense of understanding. When Mak says, “Yet is he in state to dine, if he had it.”(154-155), this breach of the fourth wall serves to relate to the audience the conditions to which his character is exposed to in order to survive. This would too serve to serve the message of how individual strife should never as the church sees it be reason to abandon the teachings of Jesus and the like.
In addition to allowing for the timelessness of the play, I believe these anachronisms also allowed audiences in the Middle Ages to better follow and understand the biblical messages. This play is categorized as a biblical pageant play, however it is interesting to note that very little of the play is actually rooted in historic biblical tradition. A large portion of the 17th century audience would have been illiterate at the time, so the plays must have been heard orally and remembered. Often times it is easier to remember a story as opposed to straight scripture, but when the stories are peppered with small portions of biblical history the audience can latch on to those familiar symbols to further their understanding of the play. For example, the third shepherd complains they “eat [their] bread full dry,” which can be seen as a reference to the sacrament of communion (158). This allows the audience to start thinking of the play in a biblical context. Although these anachronisms deviate from the play’s chronology, they serve as clues and reminders to the viewers to think of the play biblically.
I agree that these references not only add to the comedic nature of the story, but add an element of familiarity as well. While this story was being performed, there was much controversy surrounding the distribution of biblical text in the vernacular versus in Latin. The Latin bible could be read by even less, as not all literate people spoke Latin, so this play was filled with biblical references from throughout the Bible in an attempt to include as much information for the public as possible.
I agree with what other people are saying that the Biblical allusions in The Second Shepard’s Play are there to relate to the audience of the time. I think it’s also worth noting that this is undeniably a Biblical play, despite the comedy that’s present throughout most of it. Something had to be incorporated to keep the play consistently Biblical, otherwise the messages and setting would have gotten lost in The Three Stooges antics that make up a lot of the narrative. Those anachronisms keep the reader/audience invested in the fact that this is ultimately a story about the birth of Christ.
Also, just in my personal opinion, I think that there isn’t too huge of a contrast between the beginning and end of the play. And I think the religious anachronisms help with that. While the beginning is more absurd, there is some lightheartedness at the end when they encounter and Mary and the baby Jesus. When we think of the people who came to see Jesus in the manger, we typically don’t think of them saying things like “Lo, he laughs, my sweeting” (line 725) or calling him a “tiny mop” (734). They’re struck not only by the baby’s holiness but also by how cute he is. The play keeps its light, comedic tone even into the traditional ending, and I think that the anachronisms help to set up that ending. They keep the comedy from distracting from what we can assume the play’s really about while still taking a lighthearted approach to the story of Jesus’ birth.
As this is a very early example of theater in medieval England the use of both comedy and biblical relevance seems not just appropriate but essential to functional theater in the society at the time. As we discussed in class this was a time when wearing christianity on one’s sleeve was not just encouraged but expected. However, it was also not a time of widespread literacy. So the goofy comedy was indeed an attempt of the playwright to make the content relatable. I was reminded somewhat of Chaucer’s humor in the nature of the sneaky antics, particularly Mak and Gil. I found particularly humorous the punishment of Mak, tossing him around in a canvas sack. The play seems to take the morals, context, and subject matter that would be approved by the clergy, and write it in to a narrative to entertain the people.
I would agree that the play seems to straddle Biblical morality and the commoner’s sense of humor. Given the era, it would obviously be inappropriate for a playwright to directly poke fun at Christianity, so he skirts the edges of indecency, only drawing humor from what he can get away with. Of course, the play’s more serious religious ending certainly made the play redeemable in the eyes of the clergy. The humor seems a vehicle to make sure the audience is attentive until the Bible lesson at the end.
I agree that the anachronisms and humor serve as a vessel of sorts to deliver the ultimately Biblical message of the play. It reminds me in a way of Veggie Tales, which blankets a story that conveys a Christian message with silly humor and songs, like how the Shepherds “gave us a song,” around line 187. Like many children’s shows, The Second Shepherd’s Play engages its audience through entertainment laced with demonstrations of a particular value or moral, then reveals the grand moral at the end. This paradigm functions in both contexts because its audience is mostly illiterate, and the entertainment makes the moral lesson taste sweeter.