Standing alone in an open field in the middle of a raging storm, a man named Coll complains about the hardships he faces as a shepherd. He feels beaten down by the brutally cold weather, his lack of sleep because of constant work, and his crushing poverty. Most of all, he feels beaten down by the wealthy landowners who forced him into this line of work. He hopes to run into his fellow shepherds soon, since they can at least empathize with his struggles.
The play begins with a series of complaints, revealing that suffering will be a key idea. Furthermore, Coll’s complaints are largely political, which is reflective of broad discontent among Medieval England’s lower classes with the feudal system. Coll’s complaints would be familiar to the Medieval lay audience, who would likely empathize with Coll’s poverty and long work hours at the hands of tyrannical landowners.
Another shepherd, Gyb, enters. Thinking he is alone, Gyb grumbles to himself about the bitter cold and his terrible marriage. He likens his wife to a hen for her henpecking tendencies, to a pig for her looks, and to a whale for her size. Gyb feels imprisoned by his marriage to her and wishes he could escape. His increasingly aggressive soliloquy is interrupted when Coll calls out to get his attention. Gyb greets Coll with playful mock-contempt and asks if Coll has seen Daw.
Gyb’s complaints are less political than Coll’s, centering instead on his nagging wife. While Coll feels imprisoned by the wealthy landowners, Gyb feels imprisoned by his marriage—a struggle that the lay audience could also likely relate to.
Daw, a young shepherd boy who serves Coll and Gyb, enters. Not yet noticing the other shepherds, Daw remarks to himself about the raging storm, likening it to Noah’s flood and recognizing the way powerful storms affect everyone in the vicinity, regardless of whether they are rich city-dwellers or poor shepherds in the fields. He notices his masters, Coll and Gyb, in the distance and joins them, complaining to them about his gnawing hunger. Coll and Gyb scoff at Daw, telling him that because he was late in meeting up with them, they ate his portion of the evening meal.
By likening the storm to Noah’s flood, Daw reveals the subtle religious texture of the first part of the play. His remark about the storm’s ability to affect all people—regardless of wealth or status—is indicative of Medieval England’s stratified social climate. He suggests that it takes something natural and powerful to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. When Coll and Gyb admit to (and even boast about) eating Daw’s share of the meal, we are reminded that the protagonists are not just innocent victims—they, too, have the capacity to be unjust and unkind.
Daw mutters about how poorly he is treated, and Coll and Gyb scold him for complaining (despite the both of them having just indulged in long, sorrowful soliloquies at the opening of the play). Daw proposes they sing to pass the time, and Gyb agrees that a song would help lift their spirits, so the three men sing the nativity carol “The Holly and the Ivy.” After completing their song, the shepherds’ complaints cease. Their attention is quickly turned to Mak, a well-known thief, whom they see approaching.
This is the first appearance of song in the play, and song is shown to have a transformative quality, shifting the play’s tone away from serious, socially critical territory into the comedic plotline. Singing also momentarily transforms the shepherds’ moods by distracting them from their misery. The song, “The Holly and the Ivy,” is a nativity song. According to the play’s anachronistic timeline, the nativity hasn’t actually happened yet, so the shepherds are singing here of the mere promise of the nativity, which is enough to quiet their complaints for now.
Although the shepherds recognize Mak immediately, Mak pretends to be an important visitor from the south of England, claiming with a thick, phony southern accent to be a “yeoman of the king” and “a messenger from a great lordling” and demanding the shepherds show him “reverence.” When Mak’s trick fails, eliciting nothing but laughter and snide remarks from the shepherds, he ditches his disguise and instead tries to earn the shepherds’ pity by complaining about his difficult life.
Mak is immediately shown to be a trickster. He tries one thing after another to manipulate the shepherds, including disguising himself as an important southerner. With his thick, fake southern accent (in the Middle English version of the play, he speaks in a southern dialect) and his demand that the shepherds show him respect, Mak tries to falsely put himself above the other shepherds and seem superior.
Mak whines that he is hungry, tired, and sick, and has a house full of children that he is responsible for feeding. His gluttonous wife, Gill, does nothing but eat and drink, save for giving birth to one or two more children each year. Wishing her dead, Mak says that he longs to go to mass to “offer / Her burying-penny.”
Like the shepherds, Mak’s life is saturated with hardship. However, while most of the shepherds’ complaints were voiced during soliloquies—when each shepherd thought he was alone—Mak complains about his suffering directly to the shepherds in order to gain their sympathy. Like Gyb, Mak is unhappy with his marriage. However, while Gyb wishes he could lose his wife, Mak implies that he wishes his wife were dead—he wants to go mass the following day to pay for her burial. Mak also blames his wife for having one or two more children each year, but he avoids taking his share of responsibility for those births. Throughout this entire interaction, Mak paints himself as the victim.
The “weary,” “worn,” and “forlorn,” shepherds give into their exhaustion and lie down to rest. Nervous about Mak stealing one of their sheep while they sleep, they force Mak to spend the night between them so that they will sense if he gets up during the night. Mak complies with the sleeping arrangements, but once the shepherds fall asleep, he casts a spell on them to ensure they don’t wake up till morning. Pledging his allegiance to Pontius Pilate by reciting “Manus tuas commendo / Pontio Pilato,” Mak snatches the fattest sheep.
Before stealing a sheep, Mak utters, “Manus tuas commendo / Pontio Pilato,” a parody of Luke 23:26, when Jesus, dying on the cross, calls out to God, “into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Mak aligns himself with Pontius Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus to be crucified, making it clear that he acts not according to God’s will, but according to his own. The reference to Pontius Pilate also points to the subtle religious underpinnings in the first part of the play that will be fully apparent by the second part.