Mystery plays

29 Apr

Noah's sacrifice

Image via Wikipedia

So, I’ve read a couple of “mystery plays,” or medieval dramatizations of biblical events. The ones I read were Noah’s Flood and The Second Shepherds’ Play. Mystery plays were played out for the whole town, in what sounds like a parade format. Some were reenactments of bible stories, and others were fiction with Old or New Testament scenes or lessons in them.

In Noah’s Flood, it’s pretty close to how you would actually imagine that Noah and the ark played out. God told him to build the ark, gather his family and the animals, get on the boat and wait 40 days before they got off. Some comedy was added in, with Noah’s wife backtalking Noah and saying she’s not getting on that boat without her friends.

But I have my gossips every one
One foot further I will not gone.
They shall not drown, by Saint John,
And I may save their life.
They loved me full well, by Christ.
But thou wilt let them into thy chist,
Else row forth, Noah, when thee list
And get thee a new wife.

Noah convinces his sons to physically drag her onto the ark, then she slaps him. And that’s the last we hear from her. From then on, they sail around, send the birds out looking for dry land, get off the boat and then — weird — they sacrifice some of the animals they had saved by putting them on the boat!

The Second Shepherds’ Play was two stories mixed together, a comic subplot about Mak and Gill, a couple who steal a sheep, and a story about some shepherds going to visit Christ right after he was born. I say the stories were mixed together but, really, one stops and in the next line, the other starts, with no acknowledgement thereafter of the previous story. I thought it was very abrupt.

The comedy was that Mak stole a sheep, but to hide it from the other shepherds, he pretends that it’s the baby his wife just gave birth to. One of the shepherds finally sees the new “baby”:

What the devil is this?
He has a long snout!

Will you see how they swaddle
His four feet in the middle?
Saw I never in the cradle
A horned lad ere now.

The shepherds plan to kill Mak for this offense, but instead they toss him in a blanket. Next, the shepherds are in the field listening to an angel who tells them to go see the new Lord in a crib. The rest is them going to Bethlehem — again, no reference whatsoever throughout the rest of the play to the former plot (which took up 75% of the story).

The notes to this play explain the parallelism of Mak having a stolen sheep in the cradle to the real Lamb of God lying in a manger. Also, the notes say that the shepherds, by not killing Mak, were rewarded by the invitation to meet the Christ child. When they sit with Mary, she speaks only this one stanza:

The Father of heaven,
God omnipotent,
That set all on seven,
His Son has he sent.
My name could he neven,
And light ere he went.
I conceived him full even
Through might as he meant.
And how is he born.
He keep you from woe!
I shall pray him so.
Tell forth as ye go,
And min on this morn.

Next, I’ll be reading Sir Thomas Malory‘s Morte Darthur.


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