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Tidbits on the Wakefield Master

The Wakefield Master was an anonymous playwright who wrote in the fifteenth century. Early scholars suggested that a man by the name of Gilbert Pilkington was the author, but this idea has been disproved by Craig and others. The epithet "Wakefield Master" was first applied to this individual by the literary historian Gayley. The Wakefield Master gets his name from the geographic location where he lived, the market-town of Wakefield in Yorkshire. He may have been a highly educated cleric there, or possibly a friar from a nearby monastery at Woodkirk, four miles north of Wakefield. This anonymous author wrote a series of 32 plays (each averaging about 384 lines) called the Towneley Cycle. A cycle is a series of mystery plays performed during the Corpus Christi festival. These works appear in a single manuscript, which was kept for a number of years in Towneley Hall of the Towneley family. Thus the plays are called the Towneley Cycle. The manuscript is currently found in the Huntington Library of California. It shows signs of Protestant editing--references to the Pope and the sacraments are crossed out, for instance. Likewise, twelve manuscript leaves were ripped out between the two final plays because of Catholic references. This evidence strongly suggests the play was still being read and performed as late as 1520, perhaps as late in Renaissance as the final years of King Henry VIII's reign. This fact says something about the power and influence of the medieval mystery play--the genre was still popular when Shakespeare was a small boy, and he might very well have grown up watching such plays before writing his own.

The original plays in the Towneley cycle seem to have been performed sometime between 1400 and 1450. Sometime around 1460-1475 or so, the Wakefield Master obtained them and began revising them. Two unique plays, Caesar Augustus and The Talents appear in the final version, and five other completely new plays were added by the Wakefield Master, including Noah, the First Shepherds' Play, The Second Shepherds' Play, Herod the Great, and The Buffeting of Christ. These last five plays are all written in a vigorous nine-line stanza characteristic of the Wakefield Master. The Wakefield Master also revised the Killing of Abel and made other small adjustments to the plays he did not write--always improving them. The other plays in the cycle are similar to older ones in the York Cycle of mystery plays, which date back at least as far as 1376 from the oldest records.

Out of the entire cycle, the most famous work in this cycle is probably the Secunda Pagina Pastorum, known in English as the Second Shepherds' Play.

[Image from Huntingdon Library MS HM1, fol. 38r, first lines of the Second Shepherds' Play.]

The play is wildly experimental. Unlike every other mystery cycle, which procedes chronologically from the plays dealing with creation, to plays dealing with Adam and Eve, to Christ, and so on up to the final play of the Last Judgment, the Wakefield Master includes two versions of the Angel's announcement to the shepherds. Various theories have been proposed for this choice. One theory is that alternate plays would be performed each year. Thus, the First Shepherds' Play might be performed one year, and the Second Shepherds' Play the next. I dismiss this argument because line 815 and other locations in the Second Shepherds' Play refer clearly to Perkin, Gibbon, and Gentle John Horne--characters from the First Shepherds' Play. These lines would make no sense to the audience unless they had seen the First Shepherds' Play shortly before the Second Shepherds' Play. Clearly, the author intended for them to be viewed in sequence.

My own favorite theory is that, given the audience's familiarity with the genre of mystery cycles, the playwright intentionally defamiliarized his subject-matter by inserting a second play about the shepherds where the viewers expect to find the flight into Egypt. By doing so, the Wakefield Master can insert contemporary shepherds from the Yorkshire region into the narrative. When the audience sees these men (whom they know) up on stage complaining about taxation, the weather, and political problems, it sounds like a critique of the modern world. Mak's appearance seems like normal regional slander against the Scottish and thieves of livestock generally. Then, when the angelic message comes, and Mak attempts to steal the sheep, they are suddenly shocked into the realization that the biblical figures of the shepherds are people akin to those they know, and they are surprised to discover that the lamb is actually Christ. This surprise and sudden realization in the audience mimics the sudden revelation facing the biblical shepherds.


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