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Symbol and Structure in the Secunda Pastorum Lawrence J. Ross It might appear rather late in the day for a study of the unity of the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Pageant. The Wakefield playwright’s widely anthologized masterpiece, generally regarded as the finest single achievement of the English cycle drama, surely has been the most frequently and intensively studied play of its kind. However, its high repute still depends, to a very considerable extent, on appreciation of the brilliant farcical action, realistic characterization, and pungent social protest of its “ secular” part rather than on judgments of the play as a whole. Such partial critical views, often prejudicially tinged with teleological assumptions about the development of secular drama, may be forcefully represented by A. C. Baugh’s still influential opinion in A Literary History of England: “The length of the Mak episode is hopelessly out of proportion to the proper matter of the play. The Second Shepherds’ Play, as a shepherds’ play, is an artistic absurdity; as a farce of Mak the sheepstealer, it is the masterpiece of English religious drama.” 1 Not many contemporary students can feel such a position entirely comfortable, or sufficient. The difficulty is, neither do they have the critical evidence really to substantiate the unsupported assertion of A. C. Cawley, the Wakefield Pageants’ editor, that “ the comedy is subservient to the sacred theme it so closely parallels,” that in this, as in the Wakefield Master’s other work, “The essential mean­ ing of all these diverse elements, pagan, secular, and divine, is to be found in their author’s fusion of them into a Christian pattern.” 2 It is symptomatic of the state of criticism that a recent study begins by admitting that the play yet “ raises a recurrent interpretive question” of the most fundamental kind: does it “ function as a unified religious statement in a traditional craft cycle, or . . . primarily as a secular farce with a Nativity scene added ?” 3 O f course, such a question (however we may choose to formulate it) can be acute as well as recurrent only because the “secular” and “ religious” parts of the play, so far from being flatly discrepant or simply disjunctive, are recognized to have been elaborately conjoined. Since Homer A. Watt’s study of the play’s unity a quarter century ago, students have become increasingly aware of the detailed con­ nections, the systematic parallels, in structure, theme, action, and 122 language, binding the two contrasting plots, both of which center on a “nativity.” 4 The problem now is whether the ligatures and parallels do anything more than mechanically span the gulf between what is taken to be disproportionately emphasized farce and the seemingly “displaced” Adoration Scene. Merely the range of terms which have been used to describe the parallelism— “foreshadowing,” “false imi­ tation,” “ parody,” “burlesque,” “satire,” “ travesty”— shows how very far critics are from agreement about its nature and significance. Paradoxically, studies of the connections between its parts have exposed much of the intensely managed artistry of the play without convincing us of the essential integrity of its design, a design which really com­ prehends the satire and prophecy, the farce and mystery, the folk comedy and the Christian piety. Two recent studies dealing with the Secunda Pastorum illustrate the need of further study to come to grips with this critical dilemma even as they extend our understanding of the play. William M. Manly questions whether the “ parallels alone . . . do unify the play as felt religious drama” because he supposes that these, “being structurally implicit, require a sophisticated perception of pattern in the whole.” Would not “ a rural audience . . . tend to lose itself in the seven hundred and fifty-four lines of secular farce and . . . recover a sense of the play’s religious purpose only in the final explicit Nativity scene?” He therefore emphasizes the “ overt prophetic suggestion” in the farce scenes— “the forward linking undercurrent of Christian ex­ pletive in the shepherds’ speech, the hints of a dramatically integrated Process prophetarium [m V] in . . . their complaints, and the echoes of Antichrist in Mak” — in order to show that these “ explicitly operate in the midst of the secular scenes to control the play as religious drama...


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pp. 122-149
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