The Second Shepherd’s Play centers on Christian charity, or caritas. In this case, charity doesn’t exclusively mean giving to the poor, but rather showing love to others in the same way that God loves mankind. Furthermore, the play argues that charity is a choice. Over the course of the play, the shepherds (Coll, Gyb, and Daw) gradually learn to show Christian charity by extending friendship, giving gifts even though they have very little to offer, and most importantly—in the deepest form of charity—by offering forgiveness. This demonstrates that charity must be much more than loving God—people should always choose to love their neighbors, even when that neighbor seems undeserving. The shepherds’ acts of charity lead to their redemption, revealing that by showing genuine charity to others, God will show charity in return.
Mak is much like the typical Medieval European audience member, as he is not inherently good, nor is his life extraordinary. However, the author uses Mak as the example of how not to behave, since Mak neither practices nor accepts acts of charity. Mak says God’s will doesn’t include him: “By thy will with me, more than I can tell, / Lord, lack I.” Mak acts according to his own will. Right before he steals the shepherds’ sheep, Mak says, “Manus tuas commendo / Pontio Pilato,” which means “into thy hands I commend to Pontius Pilate.” This is a parody of Luke 23:46, when Jesus calls out to God, “into thy hands I commend my spirit,” before dying on the cross. Mak also tries to put himself above the other shepherds by initially pretending to be an important southerner: “…I’m a yeoman of the king / And a messenger from a great lordling / …I must have reverence! / Dare you ask, who am I?” Representing the social ills of the rich dominating the poor that the author wishes to critique, Mak consistently chooses to act selfishly and deceitfully
In a similar way, the author uses the shepherds as the “everyman” figures who are not inherently good and whose lives (at least for most of the play) are not extraordinary in any way. In contrast with Mak, however, the shepherds choose to act charitably even in difficult situations. Their acts of charity towards Mak show the importance of behaving charitably, even when that charity is not reciprocated. Each act of charity that the shepherds perform leads them to another act of charity. When the shepherds offer Mak their friendship, he rejects them. This leads the shepherds to try to present Mak with a gift to relieve his poverty, which he also rejects. The gift leads the shepherds to discover that Mak’s newborn baby is, in fact, the stolen sheep. Despite Mak’s continuous rejection of their charity (not to mention his original theft of their sheep and his lies to cover his tracks), the shepherds still offer Mak forgiveness. With the shepherds as the exemplar for choosing to act charitably, the author encourages the audience to practice charity in a time and place rampant with social ills, suggesting that acts of charity may heal society.
The shepherds’ relentless commitment to unreciprocated charity results in their spiritual salvation, which suggests that by showing genuine charity to others, a person invites God’s charity towards them. Neither Mak nor the shepherds are inherently good, but they both have the potential to be redeemed by Christ, and their differing fates at the end of the play give the audience a stark portrait of how their actions might invite consequences or rewards. After being tossed in a blanket as punishment for his misbehavior, Mak is not invited to return to the fields with the other shepherds. Consequently, Mak does not hear the Angel and is not invited to Bethlehem to see Christ. This cause-and-effect pattern shows that Mak’s consistent selfishness and deception prevent him from being redeemed. The shepherds, by contrast, are rewarded for their consistent charity towards Mak by being called to meet the Christ child, a journey which results in God forgiving them for their sins. It is the shepherds’ choice to consistently choose charity throughout the course of the play that deems them worthy of the ultimate act of charity: seeing Christ and being redeemed. In contrast, Mak’s unwillingness to accept or show charity leaves him unworthy to go to Bethlehem and be redeemed
In The Second Shepherd’s Play, the author highlights that caritas, or Christian charity, extends beyond loving God to loving one’s neighbor. The play teaches charity by showing the audience the divergent fates of a character who refuses charity while actively harming others and characters who demonstrate charity in the face of insult and misbehavior. Like the audience, all of these characters are imperfect and all have the potential to be redeemed by Christ, but only the charitable characters are rewarded with salvation. This shows that charity—in the form of friendship, material gifts, and forgiveness—reaps its own spiritual rewards, even if it is unrewarded on earth.
Christian Charity ThemeTracker
Christian Charity Quotes in The Second Shepherd’s Play
Let be! I’m a yeoman of the king / And a messenger from a great lordling / …I must have reverence! / Dare you ask, who am I?
Oh, my belly! I die! / I vow to God so mild / If ever I you beguiled / Then I will eat this child / That doth in cradle lie!
Sirs, for this deed, take my advice instead / For this trespass. / We will neither curse not fight / Nor dispute our right / We’ll tie him up tight / And toss him in canvas.
Rise, herdsmen, rise, for Christ is born / To rend that fiend that Adam had lorn / The Saviour of all, this night is he born. / His behests / To Bethlehem go see / Where lies this baby / In a crib full poorly / Betwixt two beasts.
Thou hast cowed at last the devil so wild / The false beguiler now goes beguiled.