new school, research statement notes, Second Shepherds’ Play, a bit of whinging

August 30, 2007 at 1:42 pm (grad school, wakefield master)

I’ve now relocated to my new graduate program and classes begin tomorrow. I’m absolutely intimidated by the first-year courseload, but I keep telling myself it will be ok since I won’t have all those composition papers to grade that filled every waking moment of my final semester in my MA program. (I assigned six papers to my comp classes last term. Never, ever again.)

I’m working on a research statement for an application I need to finish by Tuesday so I can go to a workshop in December. I’ve never written one of these before, and I find it easiest to begin any project in an unfamiliar genre by treating the first draft as a blog post. (I don’t know how I ever got anything written before wordpress and livejournal, really I don’t.)

So here’s my draft, to an imaginary audience unfamiliar with the “The Second Shepherds’ Play” (this will change).

One of the things that strikes me is that the overwhelming majority of the play is meant to be amusing to the unwashed. There is absolutely nothing religious about it, though the playwright includes lots of social commentary via the shepherd’s complaining about their lot in the feudal economy and the fancy lord swishing through to collect his rents, thus depriving the shepherd of the mutton chop he’s raised from a tender little veal cutlet. After the trickster Mak steals one of the sheep, he has to hide it in his house to escape detection; he has his wife wrap it up in swaddling clothes and lay it in the cradle, then take to her bed as if she had just given birth. Then, very abruptly, after Mak is busted and “cast … in canvas,” an angel appears and we are suddenly transported to Christmas pageant land. The shepherds are ordered to “Bedlam” to see the infant Jesus who lies “ in a crib full poorly, / Betwixt two beasts,” and the tenor of the play changes completely for the next 120 lines, until it ends.

The puns here are delicious, if “pun” is the word I’m looking for. A stinking, mewling sheep is disguised as a human baby, wrapped up and kept in a cradle in a human home. As the shepherds search the home, Mak’s wife, Gill, protests, “I pray to God so mild, / If ever I you beguiled, / That I eat this child / That lies in this cradle.” This is funny, of course, because the horror of cannibalism and infanticide that she invokes as a token of her sincerity masks (poorly) her real desire. She has every intention of eating that “child.”

Suddenly, though, we are transported to Bethlehem where a newly born infant God lies in a feed trough in a dwelling of animals. Nobody dreams of eating this baby, despite its proximity to sheep, hay, and the bunch of cherries one of the shepherds brings as a gift (what’s up with that, anyway?). Yet when this infant deity grows up, the “lamb of God” will encourage his own consumption at the hands of his followers. The reversal is deeply amusing and the parallels satisfying.

The statement of research I have to write is supposed to include some discussion of how my current research engages issues of domain of study, continuity and parallels between early and early modern drama, and early drama studies’ turn toward the body and issues of performativity. Well, I don’t know anything about medieval or early modern drama, but I know I have an obsession with embodiment, the limits of the human, and cannibalism, and I’ve let that obsession shape my research in Anglo-Saxon poetry. The patient folks at SEMA last year heard me argue that the Anglo-Saxon treatment of bodies, body parts, consumption, and cannibalism in Beowulf reveals tensions in a gift-exchange economy as it responds to the demands of hospitality and the dangers of monstrous consumption. The patient folks at SAMLA this year will hear me beat a dead horse argue for the presence of a mutable heroic body in the Anglo-Saxon imaginative landscape, a body that pushes at the limits of the human; the heroic corpus, larger than life, literally swells with battle rage. The hero shares space on the human family tree with monsters sprung from the race of Cain, but his genealogy also links him to pre-Christian deities. He is human, but his is a humanity in constant flux, constantly negotiated, as his spirit as well as his flesh are shaped by competing desires and teleologies. And in the future, I hope to pursue in greater depth the influences of Biblical and patristic writings on the medieval understanding of embodiment and human relationships with other bodies – sacred bodies, animal bodies, and human bodies. Like Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who chewed the reliquary bones of Mary Magdalene, I return to search the marrow of the question of medieval embodiment and what I have come to think of as a performativity of human-ness. (This is all to say that I am a Jeffrey Jerome Cohen groupie.)

The Second Shepherds’ Play, concerned as it is with orality, literacy, performance, the implications of the Incarnation, and a symbolic exchange economy linking the worlds of the human, the divine, and the animal, strikes me as full of potential links with my previous research.
Having never ventured into formal study of 15th century English drama, I approach the xxx workshop with more questions than answers. I hope to learn about current issues in drama studies that speak to questions of the cultural work such drama performed and can continue to perform, and how authenticity in production and the deployment of visual and verbal identity markers translates on a 21st century stage for an audience occupying, much like Mak and the shepherds, at least two times and spaces at once. If I tried, I might be able to say something about languages, literacy, the vernacular, and the way the shepherds butcher ecclesiastical Latin in their conversations amongst themselves. Or I might just stop now and go have some breakfast.



  1. Heo Cwaeth said,

    Great Post! I love the 2nd Shepherd’s Play, especially that fun business about getting caught in all sorts of symbolism that ought not to be. When I’m confused, I’m happy.

  2. J J Cohen said,

    Nice post. Hope you get into the seminar. I’m moderating a session and it’d be great to meet you.

  3. Karma said,

    Thanks. Good thing I did another couple of drafts of that research statement, then, huh >:-o

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