Coll, Gyb, and Daw arrive outside of Mak’s shack and are startled by the din Mak and Gill are making: Gill groans, while Mak sings abrasively and out of tune. The shepherds shout for Mak, who immediately admonishes the shepherds for speaking so loudly. He tells them they must whisper, as his wife is in severe pain having just given birth. Gill complains that even the sound of the shepherds’ footsteps is too loud.
Although this could be a serious, even violent, encounter—the shepherds are angry at the loss of their sheep, and theft is a crime punishable by death—Mak’s lullaby infuses the whole scene with lighthearted comedy. Lullabies are meant to be soft and soothing, but Mak’s lullaby is off key, abrasive, and loud. Yet, Mak and Gill still insist the shepherds speak quietly and tip toe, adding to the scene’s absurdity and humor.
Mak tells the shepherds that his dream about Gill giving birth in the night actually came true. The shepherds ignore his comment and tell him that one of their sheep has gone missing. Brazenly, Mak declares that had he witnessed the theft, he would have beaten up the culprit. Coll, Gyb, and Daw remark that they have reason to believe Mak is the thief.
Mak again tries to act superior, falsely putting himself above the other shepherds by claiming that only he would be able to stop the theft. Mak’s deception and scheming seems to know no bounds, and he betrays no signs of shame.
Mak claims he is innocent and tells the shepherds to search his house. As the shepherds begin their search, Gill turns hysterical, claiming the shepherds are here to rob them and must leave at once. She says if she and Mak are lying about the sheep, then she “will eat this child / That doth in cradle lie.”
Gill claims that if she has ever tricked the shepherds, she will go so far as to eat her newborn baby in the cradle—which, of course, is the sheep that she has every intention of eating later. Gill’s comment is an example of the crude, slapstick humor that characterizes the first part of the play.
The shepherds fail to find their sheep, dead or alive, in Mak’s shack, let alone any food whatsoever. Trying to ease the tension, Coll jokes that Mak and Gill’s newborn baby smells as bad as their sheep did. The shepherds apologize to Mak for blaming him for the crime and encroaching on his space. They extend to him an offer of friendship, which Mak huffily rejects, insisting they leave at once.
The shepherds and the reader gain empathy for Mak in this encounter, as the shepherds see Mak’s poverty firsthand while they search for their sheep. Not only do the shepherds not find the sheep—they don’t find any meat or food whatsoever in Mak’s home. The shepherds’ newfound empathy is what leads them to extend to Mak an offer of friendship. Coll’s joke about Mak’s newborn smelling as foul as the missing sheep is another instance of the crude humor peppered throughout the first part of the play—one of the elements that sets the earthly first part of the play apart from the spiritual second part.
Not long after the shepherds depart, they realize that they failed to leave a gift for the baby. Daw runs back ahead of the others to present Mak with a sixpence. Meanwhile, thinking he had finally gotten away with his trick, Mak is startled to see Daw at his door once again and tries to send him away.
Even though Mak has just rudely rejected their offer of friendship, the shepherds still prioritize bringing Mak a gift for his newborn. They don’t stop to discuss whether or not Mak is worthy of a gift, which reveals the shepherds’ commitment to acting charitably even in difficult situations. Daw is the first to volunteer to run back to Mak’s shack to bring a gift, showing his compassion and warmth.
Daw insists upon at least seeing the baby to give him a kiss. He pulls the cloth back and reveals—to his surprise and Mak’s horror—the stolen sheep. Coll and Gyb finally catch up to Daw and see the sheep lying exposed in the cradle.
This is the first instance of the shepherds being rewarded for their charity. It is the shepherds’ good intentions—bringing Mak a gift to relieve his poverty even after he rejected their offer of friendship—that leads them to uncover their stolen sheep. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and visited by three shepherds bearing gifts, the sheep represents the Christ child in the classic nativity story.
Coll and Gyb are amused by the cleverness of Mak and Gill’s trick, but Daw is infuriated, demanding Mak and Gill be hanged for their crime. Desperately, Mak and Gill claim that their child has a broken nose, so that’s why he looks strange. Gill also claims their child was stolen by a fairy and deformed.
Daw’s violent outburst—right after his warmhearted plea to kiss Mak’s newborn baby and leave him with a gift—reminds us that Daw is the youngest of the three shepherds and is easily swept up by his emotions. Daw’s violent declaration that Mak and Gill must be put to death contrasts with Coll and Gyb’s simultaneous amusement and annoyance. Meanwhile, Mak and Gill’s increasingly absurd explanations for their baby’s sheep-like appearance are reflective of the mystery play’s purpose: to entertain and engage an audience while teaching religious lessons (the latter of which will appear later in the play).
Daw is adamant that Mak and Gill face the death penalty, but Coll compassionately spares Mak and Gill from being hanged. He convinces the other shepherds to “…neither curse nor fight / Nor dispute our right.” Coll says humiliating Mak will be punishment enough, so all they need to do is toss him in a sheet, reclaim their sheep, and leave.
Coll reveals himself to be the most compassionate of the three shepherds, urging the others to forgive Mak for his wrongs and spare him and his wife from the death penalty. By letting Mak off with an easy punishment, the shepherds show their willingness to forgive someone who made their difficult lives even harder. Unbeknownst to the shepherds, they will be significantly rewarded for this act of charity.
That night, the shepherds return to the fields more exhausted than before, having carried their 140-pound sheep back with them. The shepherds collapse onto the grass to sleep when suddenly the skies explode with light and sound. An Angel appears, singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” The Angel urges the shepherds to go to Bethlehem, where the Christ child has been born “to rend the fiend that Adam had lorn.”
The appearance of the Angel seems startlingly out of sync with the tone and content of the play so far, and the Angel’s song shifts the play from crude and comical to solemn and religious. Notably, it is the shepherds—not Mak and Gill—who are chosen to see the Christ child, suggesting that the shepherds’ consistent acts of unreciprocated charity have made them worthy of seeing Christ. It’s also important to note that the angel is an anachronism—since the shepherds are in Medieval England and have been singing nativity carols for the duration of the play, it is jarring that the nativity is only just now unfolding.
The Angel vanishes as suddenly as it appeared, leaving Coll, Gyb, and Daw to marvel at what they’ve just witnessed. Jokingly, Coll and Gyb try to imitate the Angel’s ethereal song, but Daw scolds them. Despite their bickering, all three shepherds know they must immediately depart for Bethlehem to see the Christ child.
Coll and Gyb’s joking imitation of the Angel’s impressive song temporarily shifts the tone of the scene away from spiritual territory and toward a lighthearted brand of humor that feels familiar from the first part of the play. This brief moment of comedy reveals how the Angel’s song acts as a hinge between the two parts of the play: the funny, worldly plotline about the stolen sheep and the serious, religious plotline about the nativity.
Daw declares that it no longer matters that they’re cold, wet, and tired—all that matters now is getting to Bethlehem as soon as possible to see Christ. The three shepherds sing another carol as they embark for Bethlehem.
Daw implies that the mere promise of seeing Christ has the power to melt away the earthly struggles that have been weighing on them throughout the play—an idea that will gain weight by the end of the play. Once more, the shepherds sing, moving the play from one scene to the next and transforming the setting from England to Bethlehem.