Bodies in The Second Shepherds’ Play


So, the social world echoed the cosmic world echoed the domestic world echoed the internal world of the individual. This is an example of what can be called allegorical or analogical reasoning.


The medieval and early modern periods understood the world (and of course this is a generalization but it is a justifiable one) in terms of analogy.  The best minds of the day understood the world not necessarily in terms of discrete bits of matter and/or energy interacting but as composed of mutually sympathetic materials that echoed each others states.  That is, if you are a Scorpio, like me, and Mars (which rules Scorpio) is in the House of Cancer (which is a domestic sign, but also a water sign), then today might be a good idea to take on some plumbing tasks around the house.  The sympathy between my birth sign, the element of water, the association of domesticity all come together to create an auspicious relation for the early modern mind.  Because they understood the world in terms of analogy, relations between the cosmos and the individual, the astronomical and the microscopic, the domestic and the international were fundamentally aligned in ways that we might not recognize today.


In this play, the representation of the body, and in particular of Mak’s body, is informed by an interpretive system that saw any particular body as being an analogy to the cosmic or transcendent body of Christ. That is, given the immense importance of the body of Christ within medieval culture and within the Feast of Corpus Christi specifically, we really have to pay attention to how bodies are shown in this play. What happens to them? What can bodies do? How do bodies act?


When we ask these questions, we start to see how Mak/Mak’s body as the representation of all that is wrong with the fallen world,  and the body of the sheep, as symbolic of Christ as sacrificial figure, are almost grotesque or cartoonish figures of the need for redemption in the world.


How to read Mak’s body is put front and centre in the play when he arrives on the scene as Mak initially tries to pass himself off as one of the functionaries of a landowner or yeoman of the kind that the first shepherd talked about in his opening monologue. Mak speaks with a “southren tooth” (215); that is, at this time in England the accent in the south, around London, used “ich” for “I” and used “-eth” endings for what are now “-es” endings. When Mak appears around line 200, he is misrepresenting himself as a southerner.


What! Ich be a yeoman, I tell you, of the king;

That self and the some, sent from a great lording,

Und sich,

Fie on you! Goeth hence!

Out of My presence!

I must have reverence.

Why, who be Ich? (201-207)


The shepherds are immediately able to read Mak’s body and identify him as the local ne’er-do-well, Mak, but that sequence centres our attention on bodies and how they signify in this play. Mak, rather than being a rich southerner, is in fact a poor man. The fact that the shepherds share a meal immediately before Mak’s entrance suggests that Mak, perhaps, is unable to afford to join them in their meal. That is, Mak is hungry and poor, yet tries to present himself as a nobleman. He tries to make his body signify in ways contrary to its “natural” signification, though the shepherds see through his subterfuge.


Later, when Mak has stolen the sheep and Gill is pretending it is their child, the shepherds still see through Mak and Gill’s attempt to re-coordinate the signification of the body of the sheep. The implicit comparison between Mak and Gill’s sheep-baby is with the reality of the coming Christ within the Nativity sequence, of which this scene was a part. The sheep Mak stole is a stand in or an uncanny double of the coming Christ, who was called the Lamb of God. Both the stolen sheep and the newborn Jesus in the play are called “little day-star” (577 and  727). Even the suggestion Gill makes about eating the sheep-child is an oblique reference to the ceremony of the Eucharist where Christians were expected to eat the literal body of their saviour.


In other words, the body of the sheep, like the body of Mak, is presented as a complex signifier. Whereas Mak’s body is subject to punishment (like Jesus), this is a world where the punishment doesn’t take the form of crucifixion, but tossing Mak around in a blanket, like a carnival game. Whereas the sheep is explicitly and implicitly compared to Jesus as the Lamb of God, in this world, the sin of the theft of the sheep is righted by the coming presence of God. The presence of God, which could be felt for every Christian in the Eucharistic wafer that was at the heart of the Corpus Christi feast.


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