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  • Mucedorus:From Revision to Nostalgia
  • Leslie Thomson (bio)

Mucedorus, written and first performed in london in the early 1590s, is a play about a prince who adopts a disguise and undertakes a journey to see if a princess is as beautiful as he has heard. Along the way he eliminates threats to himself and her, finally revealing his identity and proposing marriage. The result is the union of two kingdoms in an emphatically comic conclusion that playgoers would have found it easy to enjoy. But this simple play has an intriguing history that invites investigation. There are essentially two versions of Mucedorus, one printed in the first quarto of 1598 (hereafter Q1) and again in 1606 (Q2), and the other in the third quarto of 1610 (Q3) and a remarkable fifteen subsequent editions up to 1668. The differences between the two versions are the result of 215 lines, almost certainly not by the original author, added to the earlier version to create the version printed in Q3, which is advertised on its title page as "amplified with new additions" (A1r). Q3 has a prologue not found in Q1, and the induction and epilogue are lengthened, but the principal effect of the additions is a significant change in the narrative. In the first two quartos Mucedorus is in disguise as a shepherd from his first appearance until late in the play, but in the third and subsequent editions he initially appears as the prince that he really is before donning his shepherd disguise. The result is a fundamentally different play. In what follows I summarize the treatment of Mucedorus's disguise in each version, discuss the effects of the additions, and suggest some topical reasons for them; I then consider how these reasons might be relevant to the play's longevity. [End Page 140]


In not revealing Mucedorus's shepherd disguise until late in the action, the original playwright's use of the device might seem to be innovative.1 Certainly no other extant play of the late 1580s or early 1590s withholds a disguise-discovery this way, and not until the next century would other playwrights again occasionally decide to keep a disguise secret from playgoers in such plays as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's Philaster, Ben Jonson's Epicoene, William Rowley's A Match at Midnight, Jasper Mayne's The City Match, and James Shirley's The Sisters. Alternatively, one might say that the original treatment of Mucedorus's disguise is primitive, and only hindsight makes it seem trailblazing. Around 1590 when he was writing, the anonymous playwright could not have known how the disguise convention would develop over the next fifty years; presumably he delayed discovery of the disguise because doing so served his purposes, whatever they were. Moreover, in the late 1580s to early 1590s shepherds were not common on the stages of London, and princes disguised as shepherds even rarer. Mucedorus, in fact, is the only extant example. The protagonist of the roughly contemporary Tamburlaine is a shepherd who becomes a prince of sorts; crucially, however, he is not disguised but misperceived by his opponents. It seems very unlikely that the author of Mucedorus had Marlowe's protagonist in mind.

On the face of it, the original play seems to encourage playgoers to accept Mucedorus as a simple (albeit heroic) shepherd rather than to suggest that he is not what he appears; but there are also reasons to think that the playwright wanted to have it both ways. The generally agreed upon date of composition is 1590–1 (Wiggins 82), largely because the playwright's source for his disguised shepherd was Philip Sidney's Arcadia, in which a prince named Musidorus disguises himself to woo a princess (Evans 10–13, Jupin 19–20). The first version of that work (the Old Arcadia) had circulated in manuscript from the early 1580s, and once The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia was printed in 1590 its disguised prince would have become more widely known. Certainly by naming the protagonist Mucedorus, the original playwright seems to have intended at least some playgoers to know or suspect the truth.

The 1598 title page of Mucedorus says that it...


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