The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play

Another mystery play in the NAEL selection is the Second Shepherds’ Play from the Wakefield cycle, connected with the Yorkshire town of this name. (It is also sometimes known as the Towneley cycle, because the manuscript was in possession of this Catholic family.) Some of the plays were at some point written or rewritten by an anonymous poet, called the Wakefield Master – they are similar stylistically, they use the same 13 (or, in earlier editions 9) line stanza and they show the same sense of humour. From the introduction to the play I’ve learnt something I never knew before – I’ve always read the version that mystery plays are called so because they are about the mysteries of faith. The editors of the NAEL explain that the guilds were called “mysteries”, which is a corrupt version of the Latin word “ministerium”, i.e. service. The guilds were responsible for staging the plays, hence the name “mystery”.

The play takes place undoubtedly in medieval England, not in ancient Palestine: the shepherds have English names and talk about local issues. The first one, Coll, complains about cold, the oppression of landlords and especially their officials, and high taxes. He is glad he can relieve his worries at least by complaining and goes to the place where the shepherds sleep to get some company.

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