Second Shepherd’s Play (SSP)
This book is also called the Second Sheppard’s Pageant, a sort of mystery book.
It was a dramatic work, meant to be performed in front of an audience
o You could also think of Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales as dramatic, since they
are recited by a poet in front of an audience, but SSP is meant to be acted and
experienced in the communal way.
o There is a ritual element – something the audience brings to the performance, a
sort of atonement. People bring themselves to the performances to talk about life.
o These performances are a very complex social activity – a sort of cash grab – a
manipulation of the guild system. The performances were an expression of pride
that the guild members have.
o A guild is an association of people from the same trade, including:
o Firstly, you became an apprentice under a master, and after some training, you
became qualified to trade, if you learned enough
o Guild’s are social organizations, and when they gather, they talk about stuff
o Different members in the play are assigned different roles in Christianity, and
these plays advertise for the guild
o Again, this is a complex social event – many guilds and interest groups come out
to perform these plays
The study of medieval drama focused on Christianity and religious values until recently,
when scholars started to look more into the theater
The genre of the SSP is such that it is only 1 part of a larger play
This performance is known by at least 3 names:
o “Cycle” Plays
The name refers to the structure of the play itself. It is often called a
The performances move around a certain area, but the audience stays put
at once place
The stories performed are all about the world
This is a way the community can hear about their religion and learning in
These performances are sort of like a parade, and each guild might offer 6-
7 performances a day
o “Mystery” Plays
The “mystery” is actually what you learn from the play about the guild,
and its secrets
These tricks of the trade are not known to the public
The trade of the people in the SSP are chandlers, people who make
candles and wax, in general During the annunciation, the thing that guided the shepherds to the place
where Christ was born was a star – and so Chandlers, people who made
light through candles, were responsible for guiding them
o “Corpus Christi” Plays
Stands for body of Christs
When you are in communion, you are supposed to eat bread, which is
from the body of Christ
The play is part of a larger festivication
There is a large socioeconomic aspect to each play
The SSP play takes place in Wakefield, a town
To most people, the event, the birth of Christ, that is being performed is the most
important event in history
This event is called the enunciation
The fluidity of the drama has some weird elements
The Play contains three parts:
o Firstly they start by complaining
o The second part is about Mak, and his stealing of the sheep
o The third part is when the angel comes down and they go to see the new born
The play refers to the book of Luke
The play starts with them complaining:
o There are three shepherds, two older, and one younger one
Page 409, line 14-39
“But we sely husbands
That walks on the moor,
In faith we are nearhands (nearly)
Out of the door. (homeless)
No wonder, as it stands
If we be poor,
For the tilth of our lands
Lies fallow as the floor
As ye ken (know)
We are so hammed,
Fortaxes, and rammed,
We are made hand-tamed
With these gentlery-men
Thus they reave (rob) us our rest-
Our lady them wary (curse)!
These men that are lord-fest (attached to lords)
They cause the plow tarry (hold up the plow).
That, men say, is for the best-
We find it contrary.
Thus are husbands oppressed In point to miscarry.
On live (in life).
Thus they hold us under,
Thus they bring us in blunder (trouble)
It were a great wonder
And (if) ever should we thrive.”
There is political content to this complaint
They say the gentry does not give them enough space and do not give them enough food
This is characteristic of the time of the play.
However, note that this play is taking place in Wakefield, not Bethlehem
He complains about weather, taxation, poverty, and their mistreatment
If you are gentle, it means that you don’t have to work for a living, usually because you
own land – and this guy is complaining about these people.
And people realize that this is going on.