English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




***   11. Biblical Drama   ***



Mysteries and Miracles
Vol. 1A, pages 531-559 from the Longman 3rd ed.
"Medieval Biblical Drama"

Internet texts of "The Second Shepherd's Play" can be found at Virginia Library and University of Calgary and Bibliotheca Augustana

You Tube performance

An internet text of the "York Crucifixion" can be found at University of Michigan


This lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

How is the medieval mystery play unlike modern drama or film?

To what extent are these plays scriptural, and to what extent are they non-scriptural? Are they faithful to the Bible or not?

The Roman Catholic church sponsored the medieval mystery plays, but the protestant churches of the reformation banned almost all of them. Is this drama good or bad for Christian believers to see?


These notes are adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch,
et al.,
Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003).

 Christianity lends itself to art, as we saw in the case of Margery Kempe. It may be said to be a performing art, in that its followers are expected to act "Christ-like" or "saintly," imitating models provided in Christian literature, painting and sculpture. In this positive use of art, Christianity in most of its forms differs from those forms of Judaism and Islam that prohibit or severely restrict the use of religious images.

Christian drama, especially Biblical re-enactment, was extremely popular throughout medieval Europe. In Britain only a few of the old plays survive in the literary record because in the 16th century, after the Church of England was formed, the traditional religious theater was suppressed as a relic of outlawed Roman Catholic culture. (This censorship of religious plays had the unintended effect of boosting the development of the secular drama of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and a host of Tudor and Stuart playwrights in the Golden Age of British theater.)

The book burners largely did succeed in destroying books, but they missed a handful of the old texts out in the countryside. The  Second Shepherds' Play from Wakefield, and the Crucifixion Play from York, were performed in the East Midlands and north of England, rural areas that enriched powerful nobles in the 14th and 15th centuries by trade in wool with the Netherlands and Flanders. These plays were staged by guilds of various crafts and trades, so they they were known as
"mystery plays" a title derived Latin mysterium, referring to the trades or crafts organized in guilds. They were sometimes performed in big outdoor theaters, but often they were enacted as pageant parades in processions that moved from the local cathedral on carts through the public streets. These mysteries generally were performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi, sixty days after Easter, and so this drama was also called the Corpus Christi play.

The scripts may have been written by church officials, but the guilds directly supplied the staging and some or all of the actors. Thus the working man and perhaps his good wife could gain local recognition as star performers, perhaps by taking liberties with the text. Absolon in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" is one such who thinks he has perfected Herod, a popular role of ranting, raving and strutting the stage in a ludicrous show of vain self-importance. Creative improvisation clearly was appreciated by many of the spectators, though this extra-Biblical activity eventually became a ground for censorship of the mysteries.




Left: God comes out of York Cathedral to create the world, in a modern reenactment of the York mystery plays. In our day, the York plays are performed every other year.






















Giotto nativity appears dramatic with scenery

Left: Religious art of the later Middle Ages often looks like drama with painted background scenery. Works by Giotto and others are now recognized as paintings of miracle plays and mystery plays.

The Second Play of the Shepherds
Imaginative elaboration on the Bible is illustrated in "The Second Play of the Shepherds." Rather than strictly adhering to the nativity story in Luke's gospel, this play focuses on the professional pride and discontent of contemporary English shepherds. The poet uses a challenging 9-line stanza, but manages to create complex characters using colloquial dialogue and interesting stage action. The scenes flow together coherently with help from repeated motifs such as song, sleep, challenges at doorways, disguise and recognition.

The grumbling of the shepherds as the play opens, and Mak’s complaints about hunger later on, are similar to some of the laborers’ grievances in the Peasants' Rebellion of 1381. The shepherds lament the bondage of servile tenure, marriage, taxes, and oppression by “gentlery men,” yet Shepherds I and II, for all their complaining about oppression, abuse their own servant Daw. Hunger is constantly recognized throughout the play. The shepherds' “moan,” however, disappears with the nativity of Jesus, and hostilities are replaced by charity. Mak and Gill's "baby" is forgotten with the arrival of the Lamb of God.

Mak is eloquent about his plight as “a man that walks on the moor, / And has not all his will” (lines 196–97), but he is also devilish. He is the deceiver pretending to be a yeoman of the king, feigning a southern London accent, and claiming his monstrous “child” in Gill's cradle is bewitched, or a changeling switched by elves. He is a comic antithesis to God as "Sir Guile,” the father of a “horned lad,” the creator of lies.

Time collapses in anachronisms. The shepherds and Mak call on Mary and the Passion and the martyred saints before they even witness the Nativity (e.g. “By him that died for us all”). The play invokes a related overlap of places, Bethlehem and Britain are blended in the first shepherd’s dream—“I thought we had laid us full near England.” The birth of Jesus is happening right here and now to the players and their audience.


Mak and Jill at Carnegie Mellon (2010)

The York Play of the Crucifixion
Imagine staging the crucifixion of Jesus with soldiers who are either contemporary Muslim fundamentalists or else US soldiers, and you have some idea of the explosive force of the crucifixion play from York which brings Christ's torturers to life, much as the Wakefield play enlivens the shepherds. In both plays, the spectators are forced to confront the Bible story in contemporary terms. The York torturers are knights oblivious to their grotesque brutality, relishing their jobs as psychologically they must in order to do the horrific day-to-day work of a terrorist state. They call the king of kings a traitor to their boss.


The suffering of Christ in this play, so masculine and heroic, falls in the tradition of the Germanic warrior giving his life for his people, as in the Old English "Dream of the Rood."
The play belongs to the alliterative style of heroic tradition, with Beowulf and  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

It may be helpful to see visual depictions of the crucifixion, starting in our anthology with the passion scenes from the Winchester Psalter (color plate 5), and the image taken from “On the Passion of our Lord” (p. 515). The double image of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Nativity from the Holkham Bible Picture Book (color plate 7) can similarly serve to illustrate the Second Play of the Shepherds.



Left: from a performance of the York Crucifixion in 1998.In recent times, the York plays have been staged at York every other year.





Medieval drama: an introduction

Medieval drama resources: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~schreyer/MEDLinks.html

Middle English Plays: the texts

Text of the York Plays

York Mystery Plays:

Official Website of the York Mystery Plays:

The History of York:



If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess