Friday, December 10, 2010

The Second Shepherds' Play in Poetic Context

The Second Shepherds' Play is quasi-anonymous. We don't know the name of the writer, but we can make a few educated guesses about him. First of all, it was probably a him. While there were some female writers in the medieval period (you've probably heard of Hildegard of Bingen), the monasteries tended to be the primary centers of learning, with the first universities being established to train clergymen. Sorry, no women allowed in those days. Something else we know about the Wakefield Master: his five original works were not his only contribution to the Wakefield Cycle.

The Wakefield Master wrote verse in a signature form aaaabcccb, with an internal line about halfway through each a-rhyme line, the c-rhyme lines being roughly half the length of an a-rhyme line, and a b-rhyme line being half the length of a c-rhyme line. Confused? Let's take a look at some of his text. Through the miracle of the internet, I will color code the rhyming words for you:

Lord what these weders are cold : and I am yll happyd
I am nere hand dold : so long haue I nappyd
My legys thay fold : my fyngers ar chappyd 
It is not as I wold : for I am al lappyd
----------In sorow In stormes and tempest
Now in the eest now in the west
Wo is hym has neuer rest
----------Myd day nor morow

Red text is the a-rhyme, green the b-rhyme, purple the c-rhyme, and orange the internal rhyme. Make sense? The plays of the Wakefield Master was written exclusively in this verse pattern, which is how we are able to identify these plays as being the work of a different dramatist than other plays in the cycle. That said, the Wakefield Master's plays are not the only one's that demonstrate this signature. Here's a link to the full text of The Second Shepherds' Play in middle English, for your reading pleasure.

The last play of the cycle, The Last Judgment, plods along a fairly regular and comparatively unimaginative rhythm for several stanzas before the First Demon speaks (sorry, can't find an e-text of this one, so we'll have to go with Martial Rose's translation):

Out, harrow, out, out! Hearken to this lord,
I was never in doubt ere now at this morn;
So sturdy a shout, since that I was born
Heard I never hereabout in earnest nor scorn;
  A wonder!
I was bound full fast
In irons for to last,
My bonds broke with that blast
  And shook all in sunder.
Look familiar. I take some issue with Rose's translation of the text, but he does fairly faithfully re-create the Wakefield Master's verse pattern. The demons continue to talk in this signature verse for several stanzas before the verse of the play changes back to it's previous pattern. Care to take a guess when it does?

If you said "when the demons stop speaking," you're right! Care to guess what happens when the demons start speaking again?

1st Demon
Do now forth go, bustle and rush again!
Unto endless woe, everlasting pain;
Nay tarry not so, not here is our domain

2nd Demon
Hie hitherward, ho, hurry this mob amain!
  Look out!
Nibble the alto shall ye,
Then the treble falls to me,
Now to the devil go we,
  With this whole rout.
Speech prefixes (here in bold) don't count as lines of verse, for the uninitiated among you. That's right! When the demons start talking, we see the Wakefield Master's verse pattern again. They'll continue on through the close of the play. Traces of the Wakefield Master's work permeate the whole cycle, and scholars will note that they seem especially likely to appear when comic villains enter the scene. From this, it might be fair to postulate that, in the 1400s, the good citizens of Wakefield started finding their old cycle plays a little too preachy, and so they turned to the most logical person possible to spice them up a bit: the Wakefield Master.

Anything else about this master playwright would be mere supposition, but his distinctive verse pattern alone adds spice to an otherwise extremely regular rhythmic structure. He may not have authored as many plays as Shakespeare, but he certainly knew how to make an existing play more interesting in much the same way that the later playwright did.

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