Arden of Faversham

April 22, 2020

Arden of Faversham
Anonymous
(Methuen, 2014) [c.1592]
160 p.

Arden of Faversham is, to borrow an apt phrase, a “shabby little shocker”. It came to the English stage in the early 1590s, and told the more-or-less true story of how Alice Arden and her lover plotted to murder her husband, Thomas Arden, events which had occurred about 40 years earlier, and about which tongues still wagged. It belongs to a genre I’ve not encountered before in Elizabethan drama: the “true crime” tale.

I was prepared, therefore, for it to be bloody, but I did not expect it to be so funny. Thomas Arden is a marked man, surrounded on all sides — though he knows it not — by people determined to see him dead. Yet much of the action of the play dramatizes thwarted attempts on his life, as he guilelessly avoids the knife time and again — until he doesn’t. But the effect on stage would, I think, be quite comical, with an undercurrent of violence ready to burst forth. The play is something like an Elizabethan Fargo.

*

Written mostly in blank iambic pentameter, the verse of the play is often excellent. Consider this passage, from Act III, in which Arden meditates on the bad character of his wife, whom he knows to be an adulteress:

If love of me or care of womanhood,
If fear of God or common speech of men,
Who mangle credit with their wounding words,
And couch dishonour as dishonour buds,
Might join repentance in her wanton thoughts,
No question then but she would turn the leaf
And sorrow for her dissolution;
But she is rooted in her wickedness,
Perverse and stubborn, not to be reclaimed;
Good counsel is to her as rain to weeds,
And reprehension makes her vice to grow
As Hydra’s head that plenished by decay.
Her faults, methink, are painted in my face,
For every searching eye to overread.

Or consider this passage, in which Alice’s lover, in a moment of moral clarity, considers how his scheming to murder and supplant Arden has destroyed his own happiness:

My golden time was when I had no gold;
Though then I wanted, yet I slept secure;
My daily toil begat me night’s repose,
My night’s repose made daylight fresh to me.
But since I climbed the top-bough of the tree
And sought to build my nest among the clouds,
Each gentle stirry gale doth shake my bed,
And makes me dread my downfall to the earth.
But whither doth contemplation carry me?
The way I seek to find, where pleasure dwells,
Is hedged behind me that I cannot back,
But needs must on, although to danger’s gate.
Then, Arden, perish thou by that decree.

This is a fine reflection on how it might feel to be trapped by and soured upon one’s own ambition.

*

The characters in the play are, in a certain sense, stock characters: the unfaithful wife, the jealous lover, the jilted husband, the crafty servant, the hired gun. But there are numerous touches here and there that render them more interesting. The relationship between Alice and her lover, for instance, is a passionate one, but also one prone to lurking suspicions and violent eruptions of bitterness. Though the characters seek happiness together, for the audience there is no expectation that they will find it.

And in the final act, when once the deed has been done, the playwright very deftly shows us Alice cracking under the strain: feigning ignorance of Arden’s whereabouts (for he actually lies in a side room, “smeared in blood and filthy gore”), she repeatedly asks aloud where he might be, awkwardly invites her lover to sit in her husband’s chair at the table, and starts at every mention of his name. It is a quite masterful portrait of a guilty conscience.

*

One wonders how a play as good as this can be anonymous. It seems an injustice. I am told that over the years it has been attributed to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, among others. The 2016 edition of The Oxford Shakespeare actually attributes it partly to young William himself, who was just launching his playwrighting at about this time, and actually I find this attribution, while not obviously right, at least not obviously wrong, for the use of asides and monologues reminded me frequently of Shakespeare, and, as I’ve already said, the verse is often very good. In any case, whoever it was wrote the thing did a fine job, and the play is an entertaining read. I would jump at the chance to see it on stage.

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