Colgate Hosts Syracuse’s Drama Department: The Second Shepherds’ Play

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A snapshot from the play’s performance by actors in London.

Caylea Barone, Class of 2021

Faculty and students gathered in the Hall of Presidents to enjoy a performance of the medieval production, The Second Shepherds’ Play, performed by the Syracuse University Department of Drama on Saturday, December 2. This is the second year that Colgate has hosted the production, and the event’s organizers felt that the medieval play is unique, interesting and enjoyable to many members of the community. 

Originally written in Middle English, the play has since been translated to modern English and is most often performed in the language today. The Second Shepherds’ Play is a medieval mystery written by the Wakefield Master. The central theme of the play is centered on the idea that Christ, the savior, is coming to Earth to redeem the world from its sins. The content of The Second Shepherds’ Play is mainly serious, however, the play was created with the intenta of including the audience, leading to antics that are humorous in nature. The play mocks the gentry and the lords, and places married men as figures subject to abusive wives. Rife with sexism and biblical references, the play is comical while making a mockery of the mysteries of religion. What is interesting about the play is that the male roles were all performed by women whereas the female roles, such as the Angels and wives, were played by men.

The cast of characters is sparse, adding to the poignancy of the production. Coll, Gyb and Daw are three shepherds who all have their fair share of complaining to do at the start of the play. Coll begins the play with rants about his clothing and makes stabs at the arrogance of gentry in contrast to his state of poverty. Gyb comes onto stage next and begins a tirade of complaints about the plight of married men, offering grave advice to the men of the audience to be wary of wooing and wedding women. The play depicts women of medieval times in a crude manner, often comparing them to loud, heavy-drinking, obnoxious, lazy, pious and obese figures who are good for nothing but complain constantly to their husbands. Finally, Daw, a young and lazy shepherd, arrives to deliver his complaints of hunger, poverty and employers.

Following the three shepherds’ monologues, Mak, a thief, arrives and falsely pretends to be a wandering yeoman sent from a wealthy lord. Mak casts a spell upon the three shepherds to place them in a sleep-like trance. Once all have fallen asleep, Mak sneaks off with Dolly, the sheep, and brings her home to his wife, Gill, who is afraid for them both if they are caught in the act of theft.

Mak and Gill finally agree on a plan to hide the sheep in an empty cradle and pretend that it is their newborn child, as Mak often complains that his wife has too many children. Adding to the comical nature of the play, Mak and Gill agree that Gill will pretend to be in labor and scream loudly of the painful experience so that the shepherds will assume nothing suspicious and drop their search. 

After they have agreed on their plan, Mak sneaks back to the field to “wake up” with the sleeping shepherds; all is going well until the shepherds realize that they are missing one of their prized sheep and they decide to search Mak’s house. Mak and Gill’s plan successfully withstands the initial search, until the three shepherds realize they have forgotten to give any gifts to the newborn “baby” of Mak and Gill. Upon reentering and stripping the newborn of its swaddling clothes, the three shepherds realize the baby is their sheep! Mak and Gill are spared, and things wrap up with the biblical story of the visitation of the shepherds to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. The play ends with singing and rejoicing, which was facilitated by the Syracuse Department of Drama’s vocalists, guitarists, ukulele player and a french horn player.

Contact Caylea Barone at [email protected]