ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Human Side of God III / Liturgical Drama I: 
Mystery Plays

[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012; for page numbers in 8th ed., 2006, click HERE]


Reread general background information on the Fifteenth Century, NA 17-19, paying close attention to the paragraph beginning "Social, economic and literary life. . . " (NA 18). Read carefully the headnote concerning the York Play of the Crucifixion (NA 439 -- but no need to read the play itself) and on mystery plays (NA 447-49), as well as the headnote to the Second Shepherds' Play (NA 449).  Know the theatrical meaning of the term "mystery" or "mystery play"; what a typical cycle of mysteries consisted of; what a guild was (and its relevance to medieval theater); and the dual function or purpose of the mystery plays, which were written and performed to teach and to entertain (cf. Aristotle's description of the function of poetry as "To teach and to delight," or the criteria Harry Bailey establishes for judging the best tale in the Canterbury Tales: the one which contains "best sentence and most solas," GP 800). Know approximate dates when Mystery cycles were performed (NA 447-49) and what is meant by the "Wakefield Master" (NA 449).  Note that the Wakefield Master was active ca. 1475, the approximate date we will use for the Second Shepherds' Play.  (This "ca. [around] 1475" splits the difference between two different date ranges assigned to the play in the NA, where it is dated "ca.1450-1475" on the timeline at NA 28, and "last quarter of the fifteenth century" in the headnote, NA 449).  Know correct term for and be able to describe the stanzaic form of the Second Shepherds' Play (NA 449): "thirteeners" are 13-line rhyming stanzas with the rhyme scheme ABAB ABAB CDDDC, in which the first "C" rhyme line is frequently shorter than the other lines (similar to the "bob" in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). 
as the Norton Anthology points out, "thirteeners" can also be printed as a nine-line stanza by combining each subsequent pair of "A" and "B" rhyme lines into a single longer line; this nine-line stanza  consists of a quatrain of long lines with both interior rhyme (the "A" in thirteeners) and rhyme at the end of each line (the "B" in thirteeners), followed by the same CDDDC stanza found in "thirteeneers."  But as printed in our textbook, the stanzas are rendered as "thirteeners."

MYSTERY PLAYS: Some Background Information

"Mystery Plays" are dramatized scripture. They were used to teach salvation history to the illiterate masses who did not understand Latin, the language of the Church, and could not have read scripture for themselves even if it were available in vernacular translations. (Recall that even the literate in a pre-print, manuscript culture did not have the easy access to books which we do today. Manuscripts were expensive and relatively scarce. Most lay people, even those who knew Latin, did not have copies of scripture to read and study on their own.) Unlike the theater of later periods, medieval Mystery Plays were NOT primarily presented as entertainment -- they were pedagogical tools not unlike sermons. But the effectiveness of a sermon depends in large part on the ability of the preacher to engage the interest of his audience. Dramatizations have the advantage of being lively and engaging. Since Mystery Plays were performed in the streets by ordinary citizens (the Guilds, trade groups something like a modern trade union crossed with a civic organization like the Rotary Club).  Since the actors were the audience-members' neighbors and friends, not professional actors or priests, it can be assumed that mystery plays doubly engaged their audience: those who performed in them must have felt a part of the stories they were enacting, while the audience witnessed biblical narratives "coming to life" with a very familiar and human face. While Mystery Plays were undoubtedly fun to watch, the underlying purpose was serious: to engage the interest and understanding of the audience in order to help them be better Christians. Medieval theater is thus very different in its purpose from the theater of the Renaissance (and beyond), when plays were performed by troupes of professional actors whose primary goal was to support themselves by ENTERTAINING ticket-buyers.

Mystery plays came in CYCLES: a series of plays which together were meant to present ALL OF SACRED HISTORY, from the Creation of the world through the End of Time (the Last Judgment), with particular emphasis on human history: the Fall of mankind (Adam and Eve eat the apple in the Garden of Eden) and the consequences of that Fall (other Old Testament stories illustrating man's sin or prefiguring redemption; ex: Noah's Ark); the way Original Sin was redeemed through the Nativity, Incarnation and Passion of Christ (source: New Testament and apocrypha for, e.g., the Harrowing of Hell); finally, the end of the world, when humanity rises from the dead to face the Last Judgment

Our first primary reading is the dramatization of the Creation of the World and Fall of Man from the mystery cycle known as the N-Town Plays (.PDF file, 5 pp., on e-reserve in Polylearn); on the N-Town plays, see NA 18 and 447. 

Our second primary reading, the The Second Shepherds' Play (NA 450-77), offers an unconventional dramatization of the Nativity of Christ -- a New Testament event that dovetails nicely with the special reverence for Mary which we have noted in other works of the Middle English period (in particular, the Marian lyrics, but also e.g. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).

The Second Shepherds' Play

Note that the Second Shepherds' Play is not the play of the "Second Shepherd" (i.e. Gib); rather, it is the second of two "Shepherds' Plays," the first being a conventional retelling of Christ's Nativity and the adoration of the Shepherds. Given that the scriptural account of the Nativity is already covered by the first "Shepherds' Play," why might the Wakefield Master see fit to include this second "Shepherds' Play" in his mystery cycle?

If the Second Shepherds' Play (= 2ShP) occupies a slot in the Mystery Cycle reserved for an account of the Nativity of Christ, it accords surprisingly little attention to the role of the Virgin Mary in that birth. Given the importance of Mary in medieval piety (previously noted in readings such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Marian lyrics, as well as in the images viewed in class and on the Getty museum website), this lack of emphasis on Mary is surprising, especially considering that the birth of Christ is the single event in Sacred History in which She plays the most central role, and that it is from her role as Mother of Christ that her significance for human salvation derives.  Recall that Mary's role as an all-forgiving, loving mother and "co-savior" with Christ was a first part of what we have called the gradual "humanization" of God. As you read, look for ways in which the Second Shepherds' Play represents another more radical stage in the "humanization of God" (a characteristic in which it resembles the "affective piety" of the women mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe; see NA 396, 412-13, 424-5).

What aspect of God is emphasized in this play? Compare with other works read this term (The Dream of the Rood; Hali Meidhad; The Pearl; Piers Plowman; Ancrene Wisse; the women mystics). What effect might this depiction of God have on the audience? In what mood might a 15th-century spectator leave a performance of this play? Compare/contrast with the effect produced by: 1) the other works mentioned above; 2) Everyman; 3) other plays in the Mystery Cycle.

What view of history and man's relationship to time underlies the 2ShP? Note the references to Old Testament and New Testament figures and events. An "anachronism" is a violation of chronology by which something not belonging to a given historical moment (i.e. something from an earlier or later time) occurs. What anachronistic elements appear in the play? Besides contributing to the humor, what thematic or other function do they serve? As you read through the play, try to imagine its effect on the spectators. Does anachronism affect the audience's response to or understanding of the material?

Note the structure of the 2ShP: introduction of three shepherds, arrival of Mak, alternation of scenes with shepherds and scenes with Mak and Gill, return to the moor, arrival of angel and events of the Nativity of Christ. How does structure contribute to the unity of the play? Contrast the initial scene with the three shepherds to their short scene before the arrival of the angel. Has their situation changed? What is similar or different? Note the use of song in the play. How many songs are there, who sings them, and when do they occur? Is there a connection between the songs and the events depicted? Is there a progression in the moods/messages communicated in the series of songs?

What does each shepherd complain about in his opening speeches? What about Mak and Gill? How realistic would their concerns be to a late-medieval audience? Why might the author include these complaints? How is the home life of Mak and Gill depicted? Why might these scenes be included? Note the use of proverbs, oaths, and colloquial patterns of speech. Why might the author choose to use this sort of language in his play?

Characterize Mak and Gill. Are they well suited to one another? How is their marriage depicted? What seems to be the author's attitude toward women? (Consider also in this regard the minimal role played by the Virgin Mary.) Contrast the depiction of women with that in other works we have read. Which other works and authors have similar viewpoints? Where do the differences lie? Does genre (Mystery play) affect the depiction of women?

What is the purpose of the scenes with Mak and Gill? (There may be more than one.) Are they there only for comic relief? What serious purposes can comedy serve? What is the connection between their scenes and the serious intent of the play as a whole? (How does their ruse prefigure the end of the play? How about the shepherd's visit to them?) Is the comedy here mean-spirited? Are we meant to feel indignation at Mak and Gill's dishonesty? Or at Mak's disparaging comments about his wife? How does Mak justify his theft? What is the shepherd's initial attitude toward Mak and Gill? How do the shepherds treat the guilty couple when they learn of their crime? Is this the only example of Christian charity (a.k.a. caritas, or Divine Love) in the play?

What does the use of anachronism, psychologically realistic (and medieval-seeming) characters, etc. tell us about the Wakefield Master's intentions? Are these devices effective ways of achieving his goals? Is there a connection between these techniques and the Wife of Bath's emphasis on the importance of individual human experience as a source of "authority" as important as scripture? How about with the "affective piety" of the women mystics? (see NA 356, 371, 383).

What is the interrelationship of the play's comic and serious nativity stories? To what extent does the account of Mak and Gill's "little lamb" foreshadow the other birth in the play, that of the "Lamb of God"? What gifts do the shepherds give each baby? What might these gifts symbolize? Traditionally, three kings (not shepherds) bring the Christ child gifts. What is the effect of this switch? How might it be related to the Wakefield Master's intent in writing this second "Shepherds' Play"?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2015

Click here for Ancrene Wisse Study Questions

Click here for Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe Study Questions

Click here for Medieval Lyrics Study Questions

Click here for Everyman Study Questions

Click here for Introduction to Medieval Allegory

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