What's To Like About … (3) Mucedorus
(This is the third in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)
Mucedorus has had something of a tough rap. Its unprecedented number of early editions (seventeen known) makes it, on paper, the single most popular play of the Renaissance stage, yet this popularity has been largely attributed to provincial touring, entertainment over art, expedience and sensation - the chance to make use of a live bear. More recently, though, a revived interest in the influence of the romance genre on the early modern theatre - inevitably, primarily on Shakespeare - perhaps gives us a better route into understanding and appreciating a play that, while flawed, is thoroughly entertaining.
1) In terms of genre, it's fascinating. A framing device between Comedy and Envy makes the conflict of tone explicit; and there are two onstage deaths amid the clowning. This is no mongrel conflation of styles, though, but a comic romance in the old vein that deliberately articulates the negotiation of mood it enacts. For a modern audience, there's the genuine possibility for surprise.
2) It begins - in the original text at least, following the induction - with a bear chase! There are few more exciting starting points in the early modern drama.
3) It's ahead of its time. Part of my thesis argument points out that the additions made to the third quarto conceal the fact that, in the original version, we don't find out Mucedorus's true identity and rank until the final scene of the play. These "surprise endings" were far more common in the 1610s, but relatively rare in the 1580s/90s.
4) It's amusing. Mouse, the deaf and greedy clown-servant, is relentless in his banter, and provides a great opportunity for a capable comic actor. His banter with the dastardly Segasto provides good value too.
5) Bremo is a fascinating figure, the wild and cannibalistic king of the woods, who is animalistic in his actions but all too human in his assumption of power within his own realm. Prefiguring Caliban by some twenty years, he is softened by the presence of a woman, and creates a perverted mirror-court reflecting civilised society. He's a disturbing and threatening presence within the play.
6) The semi-magical wood, ruled over by an otherly force and into which characters disappear on their flight from society, is a recurring motif throughout the drama of the period - see Two Gentlemen, Dream, Philaster and others. Mucedorus is only one influence, but its apparent popularity reminds us that it's no doubt an important one.
7) It's an interesting play in terms of class conflict and prejudice. The battle for the hand of the princess between a rich suitor (made rich by his father's usury) and an heroic shepherd (even if, by 1610, we know he's really a prince) allows for a great deal of debate about the worth of a human being, and Amadine's choice to live wild with a shepherd and disown both father and society is a powerful one.
8) For a comedy written of as simple and uninteresting, it has some surprising moments of poetic interest. Mucedorus's comparison of himself to Orpheus in Scene xv stands out, and Bremo's introductory soliloquy of Scene vii is an assertive and disquieting moment.
9) It even comes with its own doubling chart, ready for performance!
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The recent work focussing on Shakespeare's "late" plays, both in terms of genre and in the retrospective mood of the 1610s, has brought Mucedorus back to the fore, with critics accepting the influence of this popular play on the new, more sophisticated takes on romance in Italianate tragicomedy. It'd be fascinating to see the play treated again on the stage - a double-bill with Winter's Tale or Cymbeline would be especially welcome.