Throughout most of The Second Shepherd’s Play, the three shepherd protagonists—Coll, Gyb, and Daw—are repeatedly beaten down by bad weather, exhaustion, hunger, and other people. Even though this oppression seems crippling and constant, the play suggests that Christ’s redemption and forgiveness have the power to relieve earthly suffering. The shepherds prove themselves to be worthy of this redemption by forgiving Mak for his thievery and manipulation. In this way, the play suggests that Christ redeems the suffering of those who show mercy themselves, while leaving those who are wicked and unmerciful—like Mak—in their oppressive earthly conditions.
The Second Shepherd’s Play opens with long soliloquies from Coll, Gyb, and Daw, who each complain about the oppression they face. Coll says he is cold and sleep-deprived, and feels oppressed by the wealthy landowners who force him to work long hours for very little pay. Like Coll, Gyb feels beaten down by the freezing cold, but he also feels oppressed by his nagging wife, who makes him feel imprisoned by marriage. Daw thinks this storm is as powerful as Noah’s flood and thinks about how the weather affects everyone. He also feels oppressed by hunger. The shepherds’ complaints are lengthy and impassioned, highlighting the extent of the pain and hardship that they endure and setting the stage for Christ to relieve them of their suffering.
Though the shepherds are clearly miserable, when they experience yet another setback—Mak’s theft of one of their sheep—they find themselves able to forgive him. The shepherds find the stolen sheep wrapped in swaddling clothes at Mak’s house, proving Mak’s guilt and making him eligible for the death penalty. However, after seeing the poverty and misery in which Mak and his family live, the shepherds decide to punish him through humiliation (tossing him in a blanket), rather than calling for his death. This is an act of mercy that saves Mak and shows the goodness of the shepherds, who are able to forgive someone who has made their already difficult lives even harder. This foreshadows the play’s major instance of redemption—the nativity—which is still to come.
In fact, the play shows how the shepherds’ earthly suffering melts away through the power of the nativity. Early in the play, after giving their soliloquies about the hardships they face, the shepherds are deeply miserable, and they decide to sing “The Holly and the Ivy”—a song about the nativity—to cheer themselves up. In the context of the play, the nativity hasn’t happened yet, so it seems that the shepherds are singing of the promise of the nativity. Once they finish the song, the shepherds’ initial complaints about the weather, landowners, hunger, and wives cease. This shows the power of the nativity: the mere promise of Christ’s birth has the power to eradicate the shepherds’ present suffering. Similarly, when the Angel appears to the shepherds announcing that Christ has just been born, they realize that their cold and tired state no longer matters as much. They note that “If we be wet and weary / Still, we’ll find the child and lady.” This comment demonstrates that, even though the weather is still brutally cold and the shepherds are exhausted from carrying the 140-pound stolen sheep back to the fields, they were chosen to see Christ, and they’ve been redeemed. In light of this, all that matters is getting to Bethlehem immediately to see Christ. Earlier in the play, thoughts of the nativity that is to come help the shepherds forget about and cope with their suffering. The actual nativity erases their suffering in a more substantial way, as the shepherds realize that Christ can save—not just distract—them from their suffering. When the shepherds present their gifts to Christ in Bethlehem, Mary notes that the men are redeemed. She says Jesus was born “To keep you from woe,” highlighting that the oppression the shepherds face is blotted out by Christ. Daw says, “I pray thee be near when I have need,” showing that Christ will remain with the shepherds on a spiritual level and will intervene in times of trouble. Coll notes that Christ has cursed and beaten Satan: “Thou hast cowed at last the devil so wild / The false beguiler now goes beguiled.” This phrase also points back to Mak, who is also a “false beguiler,” highlighting that Christ has the power to save the shepherds from earthly oppressors, as well.
Although the birth of Christ traditionally means redemption from mankind’s sins rather than relief from mankind’s suffering, the play emphasizes redemption from suffering rather than sin. This would have been a deeply alluring promise to the play’s Medieval audience since, as the shepherds’ soliloquies point out, Medieval Europe was a tumultuous time rife with poverty, starvation, tyrannical landowners, and fierce weather. By suggesting that belief in the power of Christ can save people from the hardships that permeate their everyday life, the play lures its lay audience towards spirituality and good behavior. Since the shepherds’ act of forgiveness toward Mak leads them to be forgiven (in the religious sense of the word), the play encourages the audience to practice forgiveness amongst themselves by promising them relief from their difficult lives in return.
Suffering and Redemption ThemeTracker
Suffering and Redemption Quotes in The Second Shepherd’s Play
We are so hammed, / Over-taxed and rammed, / We are made hand-tammed / By these gentlemen.
There was never since Noah’s flood such weather seen. / …How these snows all drown / The fields and the town / And bear all down, / ‘Tis a wonder!
Ere we go now, I would someone gave us a song.
So I thought, as I stood, to beguile us along.
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?
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.