The Second Shepherd’s Play



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The Second Shepherd’s Play Summary

The Second Shepherd’s Play opens with soliloquies from three different shepherds: first Coll, then Gyb, then Daw. Coll feels beaten down by the icy, wet, miserably cold weather that he must endure each night as he watches over the sheep. He’s also beaten down by the wealthy landowners who put him in this position in the first place—when raising sheep became more profitable than farming, the landowners demanded that all their workers become shepherds. The shepherds work long hours in the blistering cold, make very little money, and have no way to stand up to the rich and powerful landowners.

The next shepherd who appears is Gyb. He, too, complains about the bitter cold and the harsh conditions. Besides the weather, Gyb feels oppressed by his marriage and he openly (and aggressively) wishes his wife were dead. He likens her looks to a pig and says he feels imprisoned. Eventually Gyb notices his friend Coll and goes to join him.

The third shepherd—Daw, a young boy who works for Coll and Gyb—enters. He complains, like the others, about the unforgiving weather, noting that this storm must be as powerful as Noah’s flood. He feels oppressed not by the landowners or by marriage, but by his own hunger. He notices Coll and Gyb and goes to join them. The shepherds decide to stop wallowing in their misery and sing a nativity song (“The Holly and the Ivy”) to cheer themselves up.

They notice a man named Mak is approaching. Mak has a reputation as a thief, with a specific penchant for stealing sheep. Pretending to be an important visitor from the south, Mak covers his head with a cloak and puts on a thick, fake accent. The shepherds don’t buy Mak’s disguise, so Mak gives up on that strategy. Instead, he tries to gain their sympathy, complaining that he has too many children at home (his wife has one child every year, sometimes two children). Mak claims that his wife irritates him and drinks all the time, and he has no money or food for the family.

When night falls, all the shepherds must sleep. They force Mak to sleep between them so that the shepherds will sense if Mak gets up during the night to steal one of their sheep. In the middle of the night, Mak gets up and quickly casts a spell over the shepherds to ensure they won’t wake up until long after daybreak. He steals a sheep and brings it home to his wife, Gill, who reminds him that stealing a sheep is punishable by death. However, the family is hungry (and Mak and Gill are both fond of manipulation and trickery), so they devise a plan to be able to keep the stolen sheep: Gill wraps the sheep in swaddling clothes to pass it off as a newborn baby. If the shepherds realize a sheep is missing and come knocking, Gill says she will lie in bed and feign pain, pretending she gave birth in the middle of the night. Mak approves of the plan and returns to the field where the other shepherds are still asleep. He hopes that by repositioning himself between the shepherds, it will look like he slept there the whole night and they won’t suspect him as the thief.

When the shepherds wake up, Daw recounts a nightmare he had in which one of their sheep was stolen. Mak lies and says he, too, had a nightmare, although in his dream his wife gave birth to yet another child. Coll, Gyb, and Daw go to check on the sheep, and Mak returns home. The shepherds realize a ram is missing and immediately suspect Mak. They hurry to his house to confront him.

When the shepherds arrive, Mak and Gill put their plan into action. The sheep is wrapped up tightly in swaddling clothes, and Gill moans loudly about how much pain she is in post-childbirth. The shepherds search the house, but much to their surprise, they don’t find their missing sheep or any lamb meat. In fact, they don’t find any food whatsoever in the house. Sheepishly, they apologize to Mak for blaming him and joke that Mak’s new baby smells as bad as their missing sheep did. To make further amends with Mak, the three shepherds extend to him an offer of friendship. Still trying to get the shepherds to leave, Mak sharply declines the offer, and the shepherds depart. Shortly after they leave Mak’s house, however, the shepherds realize they didn’t leave any sort of gift for the baby. They feel bad for blaming Mak and they’re sorry for him due to his poverty and houseful of children, so the shepherds turn back.

Daw is first to turn up at the door again. Mak and Gill are flustered, thinking that they had already pulled off their trick. They try to shoo Daw out the door once more, but Daw says he wants to peek at the baby. He pulls back the cloth and is startled to see the missing sheep looking up at him. A desperate Mak attempts to think on his feet, exclaiming that their baby was stolen by fairies and then deformed. Once again, the shepherds don’t buy Mak’s story. Although stealing a sheep is punishable by death, Coll decides that simply humiliating Mak will be punishment enough. The three shepherds toss Mak in a blanket and leave with their sheep.

After all of the commotion with Mak—and after carrying a 140-pound-sheep back to the field—Coll, Gyb, and Daw are even more exhausted than they were before. The moment they lie down to rest, they are interrupted by an explosion of light and song. An angel appears before them, singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and exclaiming that Christ has been born. The angel urges the shepherds to go visit the baby boy born in Bethlehem. Stunned, the three shepherds immediately head for Bethlehem. They no longer care that they are cold, wet, tired, and poor—they just want to see Christ as soon as they can and they worry that they may be too late.

When they arrive in Bethlehem, each shepherd presents a gift to the newborn baby—from Coll, a bunch of cherries; from Gyb, a bird; and from Daw, a ball. The shepherds rejoice at meeting baby Jesus and know they are redeemed. Mary tells the shepherds to always remember this day, and as the play closes, the shepherds burst into a joyful song.