April 4th, 1st and 2nd Shepherds Play

In both of these plays, the characters either interact with or refer to different animals (sheep, cow, etc). Look at one of these sections. How does each play make use of the  animal in these instances? How do these plays use the same animal (especially the sheep) differently?

5 thoughts on “April 4th, 1st and 2nd Shepherds Play

  1. Amen to that word! Sing we thereto
    On height:
    To joy all same
    With mirth and game,
    To the laud° of this lamb praise
    Sing we in sight. (505) This passage at the end of the First Shepherds Play is sung by the shepherds to the baby Jesus. Here the passage uses the traditional and biblical reference to the sacrificial lamb the Bible utilizes repeatedly. The reference is often used as foreshadowing to Jesus’ sacrificial death for humanity later on in his short life. People of the Jewish faith would recognize this reference because in order to be forgiven of their sins they would have to provide a sacrifice of livestock, often a spotless lamb to the priest and the lamb would be slaughtered to atone for the sins of the person. Portraying the baby Jesus as a lamb would mean that he was small, helpless and blameless before others, and intended for the sacrifice of many, as the Christian faith portrays in the crucifixion story.

  2. It’s not surprising that two plays both about shepherds should each feature sheep so prominently. One thing I was reminded of as I read them was an observation C.S. Lewis once made, that in the Middle Ages sheep were a symbol of wandering and straying (ie, independence) while today they are a symbol of conformity. I think that’s interesting.

    In the first play, sheep are basically a way of describing wealth and material comfort. The one shepherd daydreams about sheep he doesn’t have, in a comical scene that basically embodies the proverb “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”. Another shepherd, chiding him, refers to a story of a milkmaid who dreams of all the things she can acquire through selling her milk, and sheep are apparently one of the things she would want. I was also struck by the repeated mentions of eating sheep that have died of sheep-rot. To me, this sounds a little disgusting, even if sheep-rot is just a disease and not literally sheep rotting. But I guess the point is that diseased sheep will die soon, so it’s not a great loss if they slaughter and eat them? I’m probably wrong about that, but it’s the best guess I can make.

    In the second play, sheep also play the role of valued possessions, in that Mak, the thief, goes after one of the shepherds’ flock, and the shepherds go after him in order to get it back. I personally found this second play a lot more interesting, in that it had a lot of things going on that maybe weren’t immediately apparent, though I suspect they’d be more apparent to medieval audiences watching the play. The stolen sheep plot thread seems highly likely to be a reference to the biblical parable which Jesus tells about a shepherd who values his sheep so highly he would go into the wilderness just to find and bring back a single one who was lost. And the entire structure of Mak and Gill’s elaborate plot — a sheep in what I assume is a baby’s crib — bizarrely mirrors the spectacle of Jesus himself — a human child in a manger. That being said, the oddball comedy of Mak’s scheme feels, to me, so jarring when placed against the angel’s announcement and all that follows. Maybe that was the playwright’s point (that Jesus is the hinge upon which everything dramatically turns and changes), but it definitely felt surreal when that shift occured.

  3. The First and the Second Shepherd’s plays make sheep plot devices, representing their desires or needs based on the sheep’s uses.The First Shepherd’s Play uses the sheep as a “currency”, noting its uses for wool, meat and making more sheep. To have more sheep is to have more wealth, and to use the sheep well is the equivalent of “penny pinching”. In the Second Shepherd’s Play, the sheep are also a “currency”, but more than anything, used as stolen and returnable objects. In the First Play, the lack of them highlights poverty, and the additive solves ones poverty-based problems. In the Second Play, the missing sheep represent goods taken from one to add to another. The ability of the sheep is not highlighted as much as the meaning of it: to steal is bad, so those that steal the sheep deserve punishment. As a plot device, it’s meant more to highlight the predicament than the use, unlike the First Play.

  4. While in both plays the sheep are considered property, the first shepherd’s play highlights their instrumental uses as food and wool while the second play does not go into as much detail on the practical uses of the sheep. In both, the sheep are desirable objects with a connotation of wealth. The first shepherd’s play seems to utilize the sheep with this connotation to show the shepherd’s apparent lack of wealth in a literal sense. The second shepherd’s play uses the sheep in a more metaphorical sense, where Mak is punished for stealing the lamb, making the clear message of the tale ‘thou shall not steal.’

  5. Sheep were considered part of status because of their multitude of uses. Sheep could provide warmth in the form of clothes being made from wool, it could provide food if the sheep needed to be killed for food, or it could be sold to acquire any of the above. They were considered property that kept on giving because of how sheep never stopped giving wool, unless killed of course, and they were highly valuable as a form of money. The first play uses the sheep as property and a sign of wealth for the owner, while the second play does still focus on the sheep being a possession, it also brings in a bit of morality when the sheep is stolen.

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