Tidbits on the Wakefield Master
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'
[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