The Second Shepherd’s Play shows that worldly situations—no matter how banal or absurd—are always imbued with the sacred. The play’s very structure embodies this idea. The first part of the play—the plotline in which Mak steals a sheep from the shepherds (Coll, Gyb, and Daw)—seems wholly devoid of spirituality, focusing instead on problems that belong solely to the earthly realm. The second part of the play, however, which is the story of the shepherds visiting Christ after his birth, is a religious rehashing of the original plotline. The parallels between the two parts of the play suggest that spiritual life is inseparable from earthly life, even if the spiritual aspect of life on earth isn’t immediately apparent.
Most of The Second Shepherd’s Play feels devoid of spirituality. It takes place in Medieval England, which is also when the play was first written and staged. The shepherds complain about things of this world: the weather, oppressive landowners, nagging wives, thievery, and hunger. Save for the occasional hymn or mention of the Church, the content feels largely of this world and separate from spiritual life. The crude humor also seems to set the first half of the story in a secular world. For example, when Mak initially fools the shepherds into thinking that the stolen lamb is actually his newborn baby, the shepherds apologize and joke that Mak’s baby smells as bad as their sheep did.
The second part of the play, which is openly spiritual, seems at first glance to be utterly disconnected from the first part. The second part of the play departs from the earthly first part through a character swap. Mak, Gill, and the lamb are replaced by a deeply religious trio—the Angel, Mary, and Christ—highlighting that the second part of the play centers on spirituality. The play underscores the difference between its two parts with a rupture in geography and chronology. Though the first part of the play is set during the Middle Ages in England, the shepherds hear of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and journey to see the baby. The nativity would have taken place several hundred years prior to the Medieval Period, so this is an enormous anachronism. Additionally, the swift shift from the shepherds lying in the fields of England to the shepherds presenting gifts to Christ in Bethlehem suggests that the journey was short, which has no basis in geographic reality. Though the trip to Bethlehem on foot should take weeks or months, when the shepherds arrive, the baby Jesus is still an infant in the stable. The anachronism and geographic impossibility of the second part of the play would have been obvious to its audience, which suggests that its strangeness is deliberate. Perhaps the discontinuity in time and geography is meant to suggest that the sacred is not bound by the realities of earth, and that spirituality is relevant to and accessible from all times and places on earth.
Although the material world from the beginning of the play and the spiritual world from the end of the play seem to stand apart from one another, the earthly and spiritual are actually closely knit together. Parallels run between the two stories, highlighting their similarities. In addition, the inclusion of religious hymns throughout the play links earthly life to spiritual life. The Christian hymns sung throughout both the earthly and spiritual parts of the play are the clearest continuity between the two halves, suggesting that the spiritual interpretation of the play is more important than seeing it as simply a comedy. Both the earthly and spiritual plotlines are set in motion by a hymn. The shepherds burst into song several times, each time singing a religious hymn. At the beginning of The Second Shepherd’s Play, they sing “The Holly and the Ivy,” a song about the nativity and redemption. The song details the events of the nativity even though, according to the play’s timeline, the nativity hasn’t happened yet. The hymn further weaves the two timelines together, underscoring the connection between spirituality and worldly life. In addition, several moments of plot and symbolic parallelism link the two halves, ultimately underscoring the spiritual message hidden within the earthly first part of the play. While a stolen lamb wrapped in swaddling clothes appears to be the comical result of a clever trick, it actually parallels the Lamb of God wrapped in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem. In both plotlines, the shepherds embark on a journey to present a baby with a gift. When the shepherds see the lamb wrapped in swaddling clothes, they forgive Mak for his sins. When the shepherds see the Lamb of God wrapped in swaddling clothes, they know that they are forgiven, referring to him as their “sovereign saviour.”
While the striking shift in tone from the play’s first half to its second might seem inelegant, it makes more sense when understood in the context in which the play was originally performed. As a “mystery play,” The Second Shepherd’s Play was meant to teach biblical lessons to illiterate laypeople. The first part of the play—with its crude humor, familiar struggles, and relatable characters—seems meant to draw the audience in. The audience is able to see themselves as Coll, Gyb, and Daw (or maybe even as Mak and Gill), which makes the play’s earthly events and lessons more resonant. Furthermore, by carrying the shepherds over from the comic plotline to the religious plotline, perhaps the play meant to make religion seem more relevant and accessible to a lay Medieval audience. The parallelism between the nativity story in Bethlehem and the story of the stolen sheep in Medieval England underscores the timelessness of the nativity, emphasizing that the nativity is important throughout all times and places. Ultimately, the play suggests that if the audience looks closely enough, they can see the miracle of the nativity playing out alongside their everyday lives, just as the Nativity in Bethlehem plays out alongside the daily lives of the shepherds.
Earthly vs. Spiritual ThemeTracker
Earthly vs. Spiritual Quotes in The Second Shepherd’s Play
We are so hammed, / Over-taxed and rammed, / We are made hand-tammed / By these gentlemen.
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.