Comedy and Humility, Dinner and “The Second Shepherd’s Play”

Completed barely a year before his death, Caravaggio’s 1609 Adorazione dei pastori (The Adoration of the Shepherds) is an important example of the brutal realism of his religious subjects that made the famed painter both innovative and contestatory. Commissioned for the Capuchin Franciscans, he represents divine figures as people of the times, barefoot as they are with ordinary robes and Joseph’s carpentry toolbox barely visible. By seating the Virgin on the ground, Caravaggio implies that she is not a heavenly queen, but rather a simple young mother. The shepherds admire rather than venerate, conveying their worth and that of the parents as commoners. There is no holy light emanating mysteriously from the barn, no ornate halos topping the figures. The chiaroscuro, tranquility, and naturalism of the scene suggests that there was nothing overtly marvelous about the birth of Christ except as an occasion for humility.

Written down in the fifteenth century was The Second Shepherd’s Play, one in a cycle of thirty-two stories from the Towneley Manuscript depicting Biblical events from Creation through Doomsday. In the program to their translation and dinner theatre performance, Dr. Ann Hubert and Stephanie Svarz contend that by recreating the original practice of performing the play in the great hall of a lord during dinner, it “showcases the ways in which medieval drama integrates humor and piety to guide its audience towards a greater understanding of divine mysteries.” The particular episode performed in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illini Union re-interprets the annunciation of the shepherds by asking the question: what was going on in the life of these herders the day before they were visited by angels. Like Caravaggio, the anonymous Wakefield Master humanized the shepherds and stressed the quotidian in order to contemplate the relationship between poverty and humility.

The three shepherds greet Mary with humble gifts and adoration.

The production was immersive insofar as it was organized ‘in the round,’ spectators sat at round tables in large groups, and it was largely an interlude between courses in a communal setting. Several sheep were played by students in simple white shirts and brown leggings, and they occasionally nabbed a piece of garlic bread or cannoli from playgoers’ plates. The thieving did not stop there, but was thematized by the main action of the plot. Three shepherds complain about hunger and poor sleeping conditions when they are met by a fellow shepherd with a history of thievery. After some debate, they allow him to join their fire for the night. As expected, he nabs a lamb while they are asleep, takes it back to his wife to disguise as a baby, and then returns before his fellows awake. The next day, his yawns give him away and the three shepherds visit his home to eventually discover the disguised lamb. (That the wife is also played by a male actor cross-dressed was a clever meta-theatric touch.) While the shepherds admonish their peer, they find it in their hearts to share some of their meager rations with his hungry wife. Thus, the play associates humility with husbandry and self-governance. The constant discussion of general hunger and menial living underscored the sumptuousness of the buffet meal we as playgoers consumed all the while, cultivating a gradual sense of self-awareness and thanks appropriate for the week before the Thanksgiving break.

Despite the seeming seriousness of the plot and dramaturgical elements, the dialogue was anything but. The swearing, banter, and complaint by the shepherds as an ensemble both psychologized and particularized the shepherds at the nativity. The explicative of choice was the very English-sounding, “By the rood!” (“rood” referring to the tree/cross on which Jesus was hung). When remarking on the singing of his fellows, one shepherd exclaimed “Take out that English tooth and put it in a turd!” Eventually, when they met Mary and her newborn at the end of the play, one cried out affectionately “Hail little tiny moppet!” while another reflected on the babe’s “poor clothes with no pennies” to furnish him. The gifts they brought were equally comic and ordinary, including a neon yellow tennis ball, again suggesting the dearth of the circumstances of all the characters involved. In addition to the Biblical allusiveness, shepherds provide an interesting ecological lens through which to consider temptation: living in the presence of edible sheep every day, they must consider the long-term implications and sustainable income of keeping them alive for wool rather than simply eating them for immediate gratification. Performed during a national discussion on closing our homes and borders to refugees from Syria and the Middle East (one that happens to be taking place during the Judeo-Christian holiday season), this performance of The Second Shepherd’s Play was a timely meditation on both the power and the utterly ordinary necessity for humility.


  • This production was sponsored by the Program in Medieval Studies and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
  • For my Shakespeare Bulletin review of the first of these “original practices” performances at the University of Illinois, Mankindclick here.

Provosts and prohibitions in WYW’s “Measure for Measure”

the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur
— Claudio, Measure for Measure I.ii

Angela Nostwick’s staging of Measure for Measure takes place during the Prohibition era of 1920s America. This maps nicely will the opening conflict of the play, wherein brothels, having expanded beyond the Viennese Duke’s (Monty Joyce) willingness to entertain them, will “all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down.” Rather than downplaying the initial political problem of the play, as is the norm for stagings of Measure, the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) puts it front and center. By choosing to transgender Pompey (Samantha Fuchs), this adaptation gives us two models of femininity, to poles of female sexuality between which the play vacillates. The first are the two bawds, Mistress Overdone (Katherine Quinn) and Pompey (sometimes Thomas the Tapster), and then the two virgins, Isabella (Emaline Johnson) and Mariana (Maggie Wolfe)—and both rendered to equal extremes.

I feel that Prohibition is a productive framing period when you want to underscore the institutionalized mechanisms for policing social norms. To make this point, WYW has added an extra dance scene—well, strip tease really—by Mistress Overdone and Pompey, who get down to their skivvies (and nearly lose it all) before being arrested by Elbow (Celia Mueller). While it certainly does the work of making explicit the interest in policing of both female sexuality and homosexuality, this scene and the costuming felt to me walking that line between useful and exhibitionistic for exhibition sake. Had the costumes been of the period, something gesturing at the flapper dress that asked us to recalibrate our sense of scanty and decorous in the way that the play suggests, their sexuality and playfulness would have had more resonance. Certainly it wouldn’t have been dependent on 2015 standards of indecency, but grounded in the period it would have highlighted the fact that these norms slide and evolve over time, with time. That throughout the play Pompey and Mistress Overdone strain against various captors in order to return to one another gives the couple a sense of tenderness, but (at least for me) it was not enough to balance the skin factor.

Volts’ “Ladies on a terrasse.” Paris, 1920s.

What does help is the fact that women are constantly under assault by the male gaze and male advances throughout the play to differing degrees—the theme is constant. Lucio (Ashish Valentine) is made a more aggressive prowler than many productions I have seen are willing to commit to, perhaps confused by his description as “a fantastic.” Comparatively, Angelo (Ninos Baba) is actually the least aggressive male in the play. He is also doing the most acting, using the phrases and emphases embedded in the figures of speech to frame his delivery. In it we can hear the gradual evolution of his logic with a pace and realistic gestures to match. I commend anyone who takes on Angelo: like Antony, he is a character that if not dealt with subtlety, if not given gradual degrees to progress to an extremity of emotion or evil, he can feel either (a) very flat, reaching a fever pitch too soon in the action, or (b) go from considered counsellor to a rapacious politician with no sense given to that evolution. In either case, he can come off as illogical when in fact Angelo is a very considered and rationale figure. For example:

Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor. (II.ii)

It’s what makes him so dangerous, what makes our skin crawl when he doesn’t have to act with any force to push Isabella up against a railing or desk; what is terrifying is not the intensity, but the casualness, the sense that it takes no effort to remove agency from her. This Isabella makes a good rebuff to both his physical advances and his logic. The instinct is to react with violence and extremity, to roll around on the prop desk, to smash and clash in a fevered pitch of wit we want from a Beatrice and Benedict. To resist this mirroring and the romantic dovetailing the stichomythia of their shared scenes, is to push back against audiences’ natural inclinations for a comedy, for the union of the couple, for this play to end in marriage. The play does end in at least one marriage, but certainly not one that gives us any of the satisfaction of say Twelfth Night.

Speaking of endings, it must be said that while the troupe had one more dress rehearsal between when I say the production and their opening this Friday, there were several rough patches. For one, the pace is very slow in part I think because of a Duke, in playing two roles, is uncertain of what motivation lies at the center of his part. (And that is certainly a fair question one could ask of the play in general.) While some planned and excessively hard ass-slapping made me cringe, the final fight scene choreography seemed grossly unplanned and haphazard. These technical elements are things easily smoothed by opening night. The challenge seems to be to focus on the issue at hand, the critique of governments and institutions policing sexualities of varrying kinds, rather than the mere exhibition of those sexualities.

In this light it is crucial that the play ends on the threshold of Vienna, at the city gates, on the fringes between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Certainly these staging choices reflect the new awareness of the micro-agressions of cat-calling, and looks directly to our Indiana neighbors and their new discriminatory legislation against the LGBTQ community. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the two pairs of female sexual identity that brought this to mind for me as a playgoer, but in the subtle coupling of the Provost (Delilah Hansen) and Escalus (Kat Fuenty), men in power but in the closet. They hold hands twice in the course of the play, when everyone else has exited, a silent insertion gesturing to the variety of sexualities in Vienna right under the nose of the Duke and Angelo. Throughout the play they exchange worried, knowing glances as the violence and policing escalate. You realize their lines are the only ones that care about the outcomes of Isabella, Claudio (Jeri Murphy), and even Barnardine (Matthew Freeman) as real people (in the play world at least) rather than their occupations or subject positions. The Provost and Escalus for me represented those good people on the edges and caught in the middle of a debate they don’t want to fight, but have to, because their legislators won’t do it on their behalf. And certainly that is reason enough to spend some of this weekend with Shakespeare and WYW.