This mystery play is a part of the Wakefield cycle, the second Nativity play within the cycle. These CYCLES ran from Creation to Revelation. They were created to teach, in a lively and realistic fashion, to largely illiterate peasant audiences, the Mysteries of the Christian faith. Descended from the liturgical Tropes that were spontaneously, and later deliberately, added to the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass on various feast days throughout the year, which depicted events from the Bible and even, occasionally, Saints'' Lives, as celebrated by the Church. They encouraged saintliness in even the rudest companions of Christ''s Faith and eventually blossomed into the Morality Plays (of which EVERYMAN is such a blessed, and germinal, example). As the play opens, a shepherd is bemoaning his situation, and the social situation he sees as its cause--the lords take everything and the poor must suffer it. A second shepherd comes in and bemoans the state of marriage as a gift of misery for life. Then they see and greet each other, and a third shepherd joins them, who bemoans the floods and weather. They talk of food and sheep, and MAK appears. He is a thief, and the shepherds needing to sleep, but fearing he will despoil their flocks, make him to lie down among them. While they are sleeping, he gets up, cast spells of sleep and blindness on them, and steals a sheep. Then home he goes. His wife is afraid he''ll hang, but she comes up with the idea of putting the sheep in a cradle, pretending it''s a newborn child she''s just delivered. Mak goes back and slips in among the others, and pretends to be just waking up. They have dreams of him stealing; he provides a false dream, gets up and goes home. They follow when they find one of their sheep missing, and Mak''s little scheme falls apart when the shepherds go to look at the baby and find their ewe lamb. They take him out and bounce him up and down, screaming, between two pieces of canvas (instead of hanging him, as the first shepherd would''ve done), before they let him go.
When the three shepherds return to the moors, the Angel appears to tell them of Jesus''s birth in Bethlehem. They try to sing the song the angel sang, but cannot get it right. They argue back and forth for a few minutes, and then go to see the newborn Divine Child--shown first to lonely and lowly men like themselves, as the prophets had foretold. They joyfully give the tiny one little gifts, as they have, and go singing joyfully into the night. The more one reads this play, the deeper and more complicated it appears to be. There is a tremendous amount of social contemporaneous commentary. The spiritual level deepens also, as the shepherds show mercy and so are shown the coming of the Christ Child, after an angelic apearance (which arouses in them a desire to sing, a desire fulfilled only after they have seen THE CHILD. This is symbolic of the desire for heavenly experience, and their salvation, after encountering Jesus and his mother.) It is interesting that the scene at Mak''s house is both a false birthing and a foreshadowing--a foreshadowing, since Jesus is called the Lamb of God--as even in their evildoing and unknowing, they point forward to Christ and his birth in Bethlehem. It is also sad, but intriguing, that Mak''s evildoing deprived him of the right to see Jesus, as would have happened had he stayed faithful and not stolen the sheep.