Arden of Faversham

Arden of Faversham

"Arden of Faversham" (original spelling: "Arden of Feversham") is an Elizabethan play, entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on April 3, 1592, and printed later that same year by Edward White. It depicts the murder of one Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover, and their subsequent discovery and punishment. The play is notable as perhaps the earliest surviving example of domestic tragedy, a form of Renaissance play which dramatized recent and local crimes rather than far-off and historical events. The author is unknown; some have claimed, on slender evidence, that it was William Shakespeare.


Thomas Arden, or Arderne, was a successful businessman in the early Tudor period. Born in 1508, probably in Norwich, Arden took advantage of the tumult of the Reformation to make his fortune, trading in the former monastic properties dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. In fact, the house in which he was murdered (which is still standing in Faversham) was a former guest house of Faversham Abbey, the Benedictine abbey near the town. His wife Alice had taken a lover, a man of low status named Mosby; together, they plotted to murder her husband. After several bungled attempts on his life, two ex-soldiers from the former English dominion of Calais known as Black Will and Loosebag (called Shakebag in the play) were hired and continued to make botched attempts. Arden was finally killed in his own home on February 14, 1551, and his body was left out in a field during a snowstorm, hoping that the blame would fall on someone who had come to Faversham for the St Valentine's Day fair. The snowfall stopped, however, before the killers' tracks were covered, and the tracks were followed back to the house. Bloodstained swabs and rushes were found, and the killers quickly confessed. Alice and Mosby were put on trial and convicted of the crime; he was hanged and she burnt at the stake in 1551. Black Will may also have been burnt at the stake after he had fled to Flanders: the English records state he was executed in Flanders, while the Flemish records state he was extradited to England. Loosebag escaped and was never heard of again. Other conspirators were hanged in chains. One - George Bradshaw, who was convicted by an obscure passage in a sealed letter he had delivered - was wrongly convicted and posthumously acquitted.

The story would most likely have been known to Elizabethan readers through the account in Holinshed's Chronicles, although the murder was so recent, and so memorable, that it is also likely that it was in the living memory of some of the anonymous playwright's acquaintances.

The Play

The playwright followed the account in Holinshed's chronicle fairly closely, not only in the sequence of events leading to the murder and trial, but also in the unusually complex thematics of the event. From the first scene, Arden is a markedly ambiguous character; he is shown to be intemperate, domineering, and deceitful, having just in essence stolen a piece of land from a fellow townsman named Greene. These touches of characterization do not, of course, alter the play's basic intent, announced on the title page, to show "the great malice and dissimulation of a wicked woman, the insatiable desire of filthy lust, and the shameful end of all murderers"; they do, however, reveal an ability to create complex characters decidedly above the norm for anonymous Elizabethan playwrights. A similar complexity is found in the murder scenes, which combine genuine tension, for instance in the assassins' attempts to find Arden on a foggy night, with almost bathetic humor, in their incompetent attempts on the man's life.

Main characters

ArdenThomas Arden was a self-made man, he was formally the mayor of Faversham and was appointed as the king's controller of imports and exports. Arden made his will in the December before his death.

AliceWife of Thomas Arden, Alice plots with her lover Mosby to kill Arden. Alice is shown to believe love transends social class.

MosbyAlice's lover and brother of Susan, Alice's maid.

Black Will and ShakebagHired murderers. In the play the pair fail a number of times to carry out the murder of Arden. Shakebag is shown to be the more evil of the two.

Text, history and authorship

The play was printed anonymously in three quarto editions during the period, in 1592 (Q1), 1599 (Q2), and 1633 (Q3). The last publication occurred in the same year as a broadsheet ballad written from Alice's point of view. The title pages do not indicate performance or company; while this absence is not unheard of, it does suggest that the play may have been written outside the mainstream of the Elizabethan theater. However, the play was never fully forgotten. For most of three centuries, it was performed in George Lillo's adaptation; the original was brought back to the stage in 1921, and has received intermittent revivals since. It was adapted into a ballet at Sadler's Wells in 1799, and into an opera, "Arden Must Die", by Alexander Goehr, in 1967.

The question of the text's authorship has been analyzed at length, but with no decisive conclusions. Claims that Shakespeare wrote the play were first made in 1770 by the Faversham antiquarian Edward Jacob. Others have also claimed for Shakespeare, for instance Algernon Swinburne, George Saintsbury, and the nineteenth-century critics Charles Knight and Nicolaus Delius. These claims may be rejected as impressionistic, although it is not inconceivable that Shakespeare had a hand in certain scenes.

There are two circumstantial connections with Shakespeare that hint at his involvement either as an actor or a writer. First, the Lord Chamberlain's players, the company with whom Shakespeare performed, staged the play at least once. It has been speculated that Shakespeare might have taken the part of Shakebag, who, atypically for a ruffian, often speaks in verse rather than prose. Second, the play's publisher, Edward White, also published an edition of "Titus Andronicus".

There is some evidence that, as a young man, Shakespeare was a member of a troupe of touring players that performed in Faversham; if so, he almost certainly would have learnt about this murder from the locals. There is also the coincidence that Shakespeare's mother was named Mary Arden; although not related to the murdered Arden, this commonality may have attracted Shakespeare to the story. (Just as he chose to set "As You Like It" in the Forest of Arden.)

Marlowe has also been advanced; the strong emotions of the characters and the lack of a strongly marked virtuous hero are certainly in line with Marlowe's practice. Moreover, Marlowe was raised in nearby Canterbury and is likely to have had the knowledge of the area evinced by the play. Another candidate, favored by critics F. G. Fleay and Charles Crawford, is Thomas Kyd, who at one time shared rooms with Marlowe. However, without more knowledge of the text's history than is possessed at present, all ascriptions are bound to be speculative in nature.

In 2006, a new computer analysis of the play and comparison with the Shakespeare corpus by Arthur Kinney, of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at the University of Massachusetts in the United States, and Hugh Craig, director of the Centre for Linguistic Stylistics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, found that word frequency and other vocabulary choices were consistent with this play being written by Shakespeare. []

However, in 2008, Brian Vickers reported in the "Times Literary Supplement" that his own computer analysis, based on recurring collocations, indicates Thomas Kyd as the likely author. [Brian Vickers, "Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer," "Times Literary Supplement", April 18, 2008, pp. 13-15.]

Modern performance

*The play was performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Paris International Festival of Theatre, in 1955, as the English entry.
*In the summer of 2001 in Faversham, the play was performed for a season in the garden of Arden's house, the scene of the murder.


* Arden of Feversham: a study of the Play first published in 1592 (1970) written and illustrated by Anita Holt
* C. F. Tucker Brooke, ed., "The Shakespeare Apocrypha", Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1908.
* Max Bluestone, "The Imagery of Tragic Melodrama in Arden of Faversham," in Bluestone and Rabkin (eds.), "Shakespeare's Contemporaries", 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall, 1970.

External links

* [,M1 Edition of the play] in Brooke's "Shakespeare Apocrypha"
* [ Abridged modernized online text of the play] (William Harris, Middlebury College)
* [ The RSC Shakespeare] - "The text of Shakespeare's possible scene, a plot summary for the whole play and a brief introduction by Jonathan Bate."
* [ Account of the execution of the murderers] in The Newgate Calendar.

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