The play is a mystery play dated a.1500. It is the work of the anonymous Wakefield Master, the genius of medieval comic drama. The play is the 13th in the Towneley cycle of guild plays performed in Wakefield during the 15th century.
These plays were generally composed in England in cycles (some with up to 48 plays in a cycle). Typically these cycles would begin with plays of Creation, continue with Fall of man, and proceed through the most important events of the Old Testament (such as the Flood), to the New Testament with plays depicting the Nativity, events of Christ’s life, the crucifixion, harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement. Guilds performed these plays often on wagons that served as a stage, moving from one town to the next or sometimes a platform was erected in the city square. They were performed every year, usually at one of two great summer festivals: Whitsuntide-a week following the 7th Sunday after Easter or Corpus Christi-which was a week later. These plays served as both religious instruction and entertainment. They served a wide audience, from craftsmen, to educated lay people and clerics. The plays cited out traditional interpretations of scripture in an effort to bring religion(usually Roman Catholic Christianity) to the people, especially the illiterate. Mass was in Latin so the plays served almost as a layman’a mass. The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play is the second of two Nativity plays that are part of the cycle believed to have been performed at Wakefield in Yorkshire. About the author of the play, little is know about the Wakefield Master other than that he was probably a person who revised older, more traditional plays sometime during the last quarter of the 15th century. He is most probably a highly educated cleric situated near Wakefield, or perhaps a friar of a nearby priory. He had, however, adistinctive and brilliant skill at combining comedy (including boisterous farce)with theology in a way that made them enhance one another. As the time of the play, in a time of war, plague and poverty , this play would have appealed to audience because of its high-heartedness and high humor and references to exploited laborers, and husbands and wives. The comedy is at its most bold in its parody of a religious scene-perhaps hinting to the ignorance of laymen of the Latin mass, and therefore, their need for the message in a more basic form such like this. The Second Shepherds’ play has a very bleak beginning but is balanced out by the optimistic ending. The author’s opening has the shepherds addressing the dismal climate, their provery and their oppressive treatment by the gentry. Perhaps the author intended to raise the morale of the general medieval population who was in the midst of a dark age complete with war, disease and famine. The obvious intention is to teach the story of Christ’s birth, and give out a clear message of hope, but the author is smart in his technique. He draws the regular medieval layman in by addressing obvious contemporary problems. He then introduces a stock comic figure, Mak, to bring comic relief. By parodizing the Christian story of the Nativity with the ridiculous scheme of the stolen lamb in the cradle, the author is able to slidein a Christian message that everybody could understand. The parallel of the stolen sheep (disguised as Mak’s latest heir) lying in a cradle, and the real lamb of God born in a stable among beasts is clear. In a sense, the fact that the author describes the Nativity in the farcial scheme with a common thief and his alcoholic wife suggests the Christian notion that Christianity is for everybody, especially the lowly. One of the main points however, is the charity twice shown by the shepherds: first, to the supposed son of Mak, and second, to Mak and Gill when they decide to let them off with only the mildest punishments. Their acts of charity and forgiveness are awarded when they are invited to visit the Christ child, the embodiment of charity.