February 18: The Second Shepherds’ Play

In lines 540-544, the wife talks about “eating the child that lies in the cradle.” Why is this statement comedic/ironic? How does this proposed “eating of the child” relate to transubstantiation in the tradition of communion in church (with the “child” in the cradle in Mak and Gill’s house, in a rather comedic manner, symbolizing Jesus)?

10 thoughts on “February 18: The Second Shepherds’ Play

  1. The wife, Gill, makes a statement about “eating the child that lies in the cradle” if the shepards can prove that she’s done them wrong. Not only is it comedic because she is completely guilty to what they’re accusing her and Mak of, stealing their sheep, but the baby in question is actually the sheep their looking for dressed up and put in a cradle. It’s ironic because that’s exactly what Gill and Mak plan to do with the sheep as soon as the shepards are away. They stole it to get a nice meal, and by saying that she’ll eat it if the shepards can prove she’s guilty, she’s creating a scenario in which she’ll have the sheep for dinner whether her ruse is successful or not. On top of that, the imagery in the scene, the baby in the cradle and the three shepards coming to visit it, emotes the nativity story and the birth of Christ. This adds one more layer onto the wife’s jab about eating the baby, as the Christian practice of communion entails the consumption of wine and bread, which is meant to symbolize the blood and body of Jesus himself. The wife is playing between the concepts of eating the child, eating the sheep she has stolen, and the practice of communion.

    • The irony is that Gill and Mak intend to eat the sheep regardless and that the shepherd’s don’t know that they have the sheep. The irony of her actions is the comedic aspect, along with the ridiculous nature of her ruse. The comparison to Christ is multifaceted; the scene, with the shepherd’s coming to see the baby, the notion that she will eat the child as in the practice of communion, and the representation of Christ as a lamb. There is great irony in the resemblance to the nativity story; instead of honest people, they are thieves, instead of a virgin, she is the natural mother many children. The interpretation of the lamb as Christ, literally, is in keeping with the literal Catholic interpretation of the communion; the bread and water literally become Christ when they are given in communion. This adds to the irony and comedic value of Gill’s claim that she will eat the baby in the cradle.

  2. Gill’s statement about “eating the child that lies in the cradle” is both comedic, and satirical, when read in two separate contexts. The line is comedic in that the three “wise” men are being played as fools by Mak and Gill. Furthermore, it’s funny when Mak says to them, “Ye do wrong, I you warn, that thus comes before / To a woman that has farne – but I say no more!” (ll. 538-9). Mak chastises the three “wise” men for disturbing a “baby” that he and his wife plan to eat. Gill’s statement is satirical given either a (very subtle) non-Christian interpretation of the story, or a(n) (overt) Christian interpretation. The non-Christian interpretation would imply that the stark comparisons between Mak and Gill’s “baby” and Mary’s baby, Jesus, serve to paint Jesus as a “sheeple”; however, this interpretation is highly unlikely. The sheep may also serve to reveal who the three wise men should truly follow: Jesus. Mak says to the three wise men, “Hear ye not how she groans? / Your hearts should melt” (ll. 534-5). As their hearts should, but for Jesus, the one they should truly follow, not a sheep. This “eating the child that lies in the cradle” heavily relates to the concept of transubstantiation, in that Mak and Gill are inherently bad for consuming a sheep, implying that they’re blind followers, yet the three wise men choose, rather, to “consume” the ideals of Christ, making them truly, inherently good, worthy Christians.

  3. The wife’s comment is ironic because she literally does intend to the the “child” (sheep) later on alongside her husband, Mak. While she intends for the three shepherd’s to understand her comment as proof of her honesty and willingness to defend her claims, it is comedic because of its double meaning. As far as the comment’s connection to transubstantiation, I don’t think that the wife intended to portray the “baby” as baby Jesus in any way, but I do think the author intended for it. The way that there are three shepherds coming to the place of a newborn baby to pay their respects and bring it gifts resembles what is now known as the nativity story, in which three kings bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh to newborn baby Jesus to pay respect to him.

    • I agree with you, Choral. It is comical because Mak and his wife literally intend to eat the “baby” and she is simply being sly and ironic in her response for the fun of it. But I also think the author intended to at least allude to the the birth of baby Jesus with that scene, especially because they make a big deal out of it being a boy, or a “knave” (560), and also they remark that the “baby” smells really bad: “None, as I have bliss, as loud as he smiled” (555), possibly alluding to the place of baby Jesus’ birth in a stable.

  4. The wife’s statements are ironic because she is actually proposing to the shepherds that she eat the stolen lamb, which she already intends on doing. On top of this irony, she is also alluding to the birth of Christ later in the story, although previously alluded to when mentioning the rood. During communion, wine and bread are meant to represent the blood and body of Christ, so her statements about eating the child may definitely be attributed to the act of communion.

  5. As stated above with everyone else’s responses I have to agree that the comment about the wife ” eating the child that lies in the cradle,” to be comedic because there is no child, it ended up being the stolen sheep that Mak took and the wife dressed it up and wrapped it as a child, so when the three Shepherds came to search the house for the missing animal they thought it was just a baby in the cradle. This proposed “eating of the child” relates to transubstantiation in the tradition of communion in church because, it relates on a deeper level. The sheep is a symbol of baby Jesus. So when the wife jokes about eating it, it is like the bread in church transforming into the body of Christ.

  6. The underlying implications and the symbolism of the child in the cradle are what make the wife’s statement so amusing. The wife of Mak says “If ever I you beguiled,/ That I eat this child,/ That lies in this cradle” (line 542-544). What she’s meaning is that if she tricks the shepherds, then she’ll eat the child, a common saying even today (something akin to “If I am lying, I’ll eat my words”). But what she’s implying underneath her words is that she’s actually going to eat the child, since it’s actually a baby goat. This juxtaposition of her lie and the truth is what makes her words so amusing.
    But the baby in a manger, with three shepherds looking into the cradle and a “mother” looking on is the author using symbolism and a “visual gag” to alert the audience to another layer of humor. To also juxtapose these visuals with the silliness of the situation takes the expectations of a Christian audience watching a type of nativity play and subverting those expectations. This creates the second layer of humor that we, the readers, can imagine seeing.

  7. The wife speaks of “eating the child that lies in the cradle” is comedic because what lies in the cradle is not a child but a sheep which she fully intends to eat later on. There is no child but a sheep dressed as a newborn and placed in the cradle to give the illusion that it is in fact a baby. In the rituals of the catholic church, when one would go up and take the body and blood of Christ. The “child” in the cradle could symbolize the future baby Jesus and an interplay in the acts of practicing communion and the sin of stealing a sheep. The three shepherds also relate to the birth of Jesus and that it reflects the nativity. The shepherds brought gifts to see the “baby” and in the classical nativity story, they bare gifts of gold and myrrh to baby Jesus.

  8. I agree with what everyone has stated previously about the reason as to why the quote about eating the “baby” is comical, but I would also like to delve into irony of this part of the play. In the Bible, Jesus is often referred to as the Lamb of God. Other times, it is a lamb that is chosen to be a sacrifice to honor God. These events all happen before Jesus is born, since the angle comes at the end to announce His arrival. When Mak and Gill claim the sheep to be a baby, they are foreshadowing the birth of THE Lamb of God. Even the statement that Gill makes about eating the sheep is symbolic of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In a way, these shepherds are seeing a short rendition of the future death of Christ.

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