THE MYSTERY PLAY
The mystery play was a fourteenth century innovation of the Catholic Church that, for the first time, made Old and New Testament stories available to a mostly illiterate audience. Each mystery play was originally part of a cycle of plays which, together, dramatized the Church's version of human history, from Creation to Doomsday. The cycles appeared in conjunction with the feast day of Corpus Christi - a celebration of redemption through the sacraments of bread and wine (the body and blood of Christ). The union of humanity to the divine, which these sacraments symbolize, was the "mystery" that gave life its meaning.
The Church had used liturgical dramas to illustrate scripture as early as the tenth century. The performances were a part of the church service, with clergy and choirboys speaking or singing the lines in Latin, which, to a medieval English peasant, was a foreign tongue. The advent of the mystery play shifted the focus away from the liturgy. They were financed by the community, performed outdoors, written in the vernacular language of the region, and acted by laymen. Because they were developed by the trade guilds of the community, these plays reflected the marriage of the religious and secular - matters of the spirit being made flesh.
THE SECOND SHEPHERD'S PLAY
The authors of the mystery plays remain anonymous. Scholars credit The Second Shepherds' Play to a writer called the Wakefield Master, after the town which developed and produced it. The town of Wakefield's cycle of mystery plays was called The Wakefield Cycle, and each year texts were selected from this body of work for production. The title The Second Shepherds' Play refers not to the second in a sequence of shepherds, but to the second in a series of plays depicting the revelation of Christ's Nativity to the "shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night," mentioned in The Gospel of Luke.
In keeping with the marriage of the religious and secular in the conception of mystery plays, the Wakefield Master combines the shepherds' story with the comic plot of Mak, a sheep stealer, and his wife, Gil. Modern audiences may find it strange to encounter farcical elements in a play about the birth of Christ. During the Middle Ages, however, the Church permitted many satirical elements in its festivals. The Feast of Fools, for example, was a New Year's celebration during which the minor clergy ridiculed the Mass and their superiors. In the mystery plays, however, comic elements were usually restricted to scenes about devils, amoral or evil persons, or lower class characters.
The Second Shepherds' Play opens by introducing the shepherds one by one. Each enters and delivers a soliloquy focusing on his own trials and tribulations. As they begin to converse together, they are interrupted by the trickster, Mak. They convince him to lie down to sleep with them in hopes that this will prevent him from causing mischief. But Mak casts a spell upon them and steals one of their sheep, which he brings home to his wife.
Together, Mak and Gil devise a plot to disguise the stolen sheep as a newborn baby. When the shepherds wake and discover their sheep missing, they directly to Mak's house in search of it. Mak and Gil work to uphold their treachery, but the shepherds finally discover the "newborn" to be their sheep and punish Mak for his crime.
The plot then leaves the trickster and his wife behind and introduces the events of the Biblical Nativity. An angel appears to the shepherds, announcing the Christ Child's birth. The shepherds then travel to Bethlehem, and each gives the Messiah a gift. They are visited by the Virgin Mary, who instructs them to spread the news that Jesus is born. She and the child then disappear, and the shepherds are left alone once again, "watching their flocks by night."