The mystery play called The Second Shepherd’s Play, written around 1425, serves as an educational model in fictive and mythological form to the members of the Christian faith. It is broken into two distinct parts, each with its own storyline. The true lesson for Christians comes from the interrelation of these two parts with an emphasis on thematic connections. Before delving into the connections between each part, however, it is necessary to elaborate on the contents of the sections.
The first section runs from line 1 to line 628. This part gives the details of the theft of a ram from three shepherds’ fold. The three: Coll, Daw, and Gib—suspect an acquaintance of theirs named Mak of the crime, even though the man professes his innocence, “proving” it by the fact that he is sleeping when the three awaken from a night’s slumber. In actuality, however, after he had lulled the shepherds into trusting him to guard the flock, he made off in the night with a fine ram. He took the beast to his wife, and together they plotted a means to cover their deed: hiding the ram in a crib and pretending it is their newborn son. Unfortunately, the suspecting shepherds visit Mak’s domicile, and there, after initially falling for the “false wark,” they find the ram, bleating, in the crib. (p.333 l.614) Surprisingly, however, they forgo any punishment for Mak, despite their anger, and return to the moor at which they had left their sheep.
It is at the 629th line that the second part of The Second Shepherd’s Play begins. An angel appears to Coll, Daw, and Gib on the moor and bids them to travel to Bedlem or Bethlehem to view he “that shall take fro the fiend that Adam had lorn.” (p.334 l.639) The shepherds, moved by the vision, set off for the stable in which the newborn lies. Once there, each praises the “young child… sovereign Savior… full of Godhead.” (p.336 ll.710-28) The Virgin Mary then blesses them and they depart, singing, as the curtain falls.
Now, there are several parallels between these two parts, and these parallels serve to bind the sections into a unified piece. The first parallel is the one between the ram in the crib and Christ in the crib. Though they seem similar by circumstance, in actuality their parallel lies in their contrast. The ram is in the crib by deceitful means: Mak’s theft and his and Gill’s scheming. Conversely, the Christ child lies in his crib through the purest of means: virgin conception from God. In a similar vein, a second, further contrast is made between Gill and Mary. Gill is shown to be a nagging, conniving, hateful woman while Mary, as per popular myth, is a spiritual, concerned, honest woman. Gill, on the one hand, creates an elaborate plot to hide the ram from its rightful owners and curses them when they seek merely to view the baby she claims it to be. Diametrically opposed is the Virgin, who praises God along with the shepherds and who blesses them for their gifts and homage. Clearly, these parallels are there to maintain a flow from section to section and to establish an artistic consistency.
More importantly, however, is the thematic connection between the two parts that can be derived from the above similarities and contrasts. The forgiveness that the shepherds show for Mak is obviously allegorical for Christ’s impending sacrifice on the cross for mankind. In fact, the reader is even lead to believe, by the quick transition from their reprieve to the angel’s entrance, that they have been given the right to view the child because of their sacrifice to, and for, the sinful Mak and Gill.
Therefore, though the two parts seem to be unrelated, in fact, the second part would be nothing more than rehashed mythology were it standing alone. Only with the first story as a foil of the second does the overall theme of sacrifice and forgiveness become clear. Christians, seeing the shepherds’ kindness, would make this connection to Christ’s kindness and further would realize the importance of similar attitudes in their lives because of the blessings that the shepherds receive. Thus does this mystery play serve to further spread the Word and prove to the believers the validity of their faith; thus does it educate them.
October 2, 1989