The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham was first published in London in 1592, although it may have been written and performed several years earlier than that. The play appeared during the golden age of English drama that occurred toward the end of the Elizabethan Age, which refers to the reign of Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1603. The play appears to have been popular during its time, being reprinted in 1599 and again in 1633, and it has been revived on many occasions in modern times.
The play, which is classified as a domestic tragedy, is based on a sensational crime that took place in the small town of Faversham in the county of Kent, England, in 1551. The most prominent Faversham citizen, the wealthy landowner Thomas Arden, was murdered by two men hired by Arden’s wife, Alice, who wanted to get rid of her husband because she was having an affair with a man named Mosby.
In this study guide, all quotations are from the edition of Arden of Faversham edited by M. L. Wine, in the Revels Plays series published by Methuen. In some sources, the name Faversham is spelled Feversham.
About the Author
The author of Arden of Faversham is unknown. The play was first published in London in 1592, although it may have been both written and performed several years earlier. Various theories have been advanced over the years regarding its author’s identity. Minor Elizabethan dramatists, such as Robert Greene and George Peele, have been mentioned, but because of the high quality of the play, scholars have often investigated the possibility that it was written by one of the three most accomplished dramatists of the era: Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, or William Shakespeare.
Thomas Kyd (1558–1594) is known in the early 2000s for his play, The Spanish Tragedy. But few other plays can be confidently ascribed to him. The case for his authorship of Arden of Faversham once rested on a belief that Kyd wrote the play Soliman and Perseda and a pamphlet, The Murder of John Brewen. There are, it is alleged, parallels between the two works and Arden of Faversham. However, modern scholarship in general regards Kyd’s authorship of Soliman and Perseda as doubtful and has discredited the notion that Kyd wrote The Murder of John Brewen. There is no other evidence, either internal (the themes and language of the play) or external (contemporary documents), that would link Kyd to Arden of Faversham.
Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was the author of six plays, including Tamburlaine the Great (1587), The Jew of Malta (first performed in 1592), and Dr. Faustus (first published 1604). Marlowe is usually proposed as a collaborator on Arden of Faversham rather than as its sole author. Some scholars have noted similarities in the imagery used in Arden of Faversham and in Marlowe’s plays. It is also pointed out that Marlowe came from Kent, and there are many references to places in Kent in the play. However, as with Kyd, there is no external evidence linking Marlowe to Arden of Faversham, and few if any scholars in the early 2000s would be prepared to argue the case for his authorship of this play.
Claims have been made that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was the author in whole or part of Arden of Faversham. However, as with the other candidates, there is no external evidence to support such a claim. None of the early editions of Shakespeare’s work included Arden of Faversham, which until 1770 was never linked to any particular author, either in published editions or play catalogues (with the one exception of a list of plays published in 1656, since discredited, which attributed it to Shakespeare).
Some critics argue that Arden of Faversham bears no relation to Shakespeare’s plays in style or theme. Others have found similarities between Arden of Faversham and Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy (1590–1592) and Richard III (1592–1593). In Marlowe’s Imagery and the Marlowe Canon, Marion Bodwell Smith found close parallels between Shakespeare’s imagery in the early plays and the histories and the imagery in Arden of Faversham. She also found parallels with Marlowe’s imagery and raised the possibility of collaboration between Marlowe and Shakespeare on Arden of Faversham. M. L. Wine, an editor of Arden of Faversham (1973), argues that although nothing could be known for certain about the authorship of the play, Shakespeare was the strongest candidate: “characterization, structure, underlying theme, and appropriateness of language figure more prominently and more suggestively with him than they do with any other writer proposed.” However, the conclusion of Martin White, who has also edited an edition of the play, was that “the undoubted strengths of the play . . . demonstrate that the author was a master playwright, but one whose identity must remain (at least on present evidence), tantalizingly unknown.”
As Arden of Faversham begins, Thomas Arden is talking with his friend, Franklin. Franklin tells him that the Lord of Somerset has given Arden all the lands that were formerly owned by the Abbey of Faversham. But this does not lift Arden’s melancholy mood. He is grief-stricken because his wife is having an affair with Mosby, whom he contemptuously refers to as a “botcher,” a tailor who does repairs. Arden is jealous and vows that Mosby must die. Franklin advises him to treat his wife gently and suggests that Arden and he spend some time in London.
When Arden’s wife enters, Arden tells her he heard her speak Mosby’s name in her sleep. Alice makes light of it, saying that was probably because they had been talking about Mosby the previous evening. When Arden says he is going to London for a month, Alice pretends to be distressed, saying she cannot live unless he returns within a day or two. After Arden and Franklin exit, Alice soliloquizes that she is glad her husband is going to London, because she is in love with Mosby.
Adam from the Flower-de-Luce inn enters and tells Alice that Mosby is in town, but she may not visit him. Alice wants to know if Mosby is angry with her. She gives Adam a pair of silver dice to give to Mosby with the message that he should come to her door that morning and greet her as a stranger, so as to avoid suspicion. After Adam exits, Alice says she knows Mosby loves her, but he is afraid of her husband. She says she hates her husband and vows that he must die.
Arden’s servant, Michael, enters. At Alice’s request, he has sworn to kill Arden within a week. In exchange, Alice has promised him the hand of Susan, Mosby’s sister. Michael says he has heard that Susan has been promised to a painter, Clarke, but Alice tells him this is not so.
Mosby enters and Michael exits. He speaks roughly to Alice, and she tells him to go away. He complains about the fickleness of women, but they are soon reconciled. Mosby tells her he knows a painter who can paint a picture with poisoned oils that will kill anyone who looks at it.
The painter, Clarke, enters, and says he will paint such a picture in exchange for Susan’s hand in marriage. Mosby agrees. After Mosby tells Clarke that he and Alice do not like the idea of the poisoned picture, Clarke gives them a poison to put in Arden’s drink.
Arden and Franklin enter, and Arden asks Mosby why he is in his wife’s company. He insults him and plucks Mosby’s sword away from him, saying that only gentlemen are allowed to wear one. Mosby asks to be judged by what he is now rather than what he formerly was. Mosby admits he once loved Alice but no longer does. He comes to the house only because his sister is Alice’s maid. Arden accepts this explanation and offers his friendship. Franklin suggests that Mosby should stay away from Arden’s house, but Arden says that he should come more often so that everyone may see that he trusts his wife.
Alice enters with breakfast, but Arden thinks there is something wrong with the broth. Alice throws the broth to the ground and laments that nothing she does pleases him. Arden tries to appease her; she protests that she loves him. They appear to be reconciled. Alice demands that he write to her every day from London or she will die of sorrow.
After Arden exits, Alice and Mosby complain about the ineffective poison. Mosby says he cannot continue to love her, since he made an oath to Arden that he would not. Alice protests, but Mosby insists that as long as Arden lives, he will not break his oath. Alice says they will have her husband murdered in the streets of London.
Greene enters and Mosby leaves. Greene is angry that his land has been transferred to Arden. He claims Arden has wronged him and vows revenge. Alice pretends to him that Arden is a bad husband, and she lives in fear of him. Greene takes the bait and is even angrier at Arden. Alice gives him ten pounds to hire someone to kill her husband, promising twenty more when Arden is dead. Greene says he will go immediately to London to arrange for Arden’s murder.
After Greene exits, Mosby and Clarke enter. Alice encourages Clarke to woo Susan, telling him that she no longer thinks about Michael. Alice then tells Mosby about what happened in her encounter with Greene. Mosby is concerned that Alice is telling too many people about their plans. Clarke returns, and Mosby asks one favor before he will consent to allowing his sister to marry Clarke. He asks the painter to produce a poisoned crucifix. Clarke agrees to do so within ten days.
On the way to London, Bradshaw, a goldsmith, meets Black Will, with whom he served in the army at Boulogne, on the English Channel. Bradshaw tells Will he is facing trial for handling at his pawnshop a stolen plate belonging to a nobleman, Lord Cheyne. Bradshaw is going to London to find the thief. He describes a man, and Black Will recognizes him as Jack Fitten, who is in prison awaiting trial on other charges. Bradshaw is relieved and resolves to inform Lord Cheyne. Greene gives Bradshaw a letter from Alice and hires Will and his companion Shakebag to murder Arden.
Michael reads a letter he has written to Susan, urging her to return his affection. Arden and Franklin overhear him. Arden is angry that Michael wants to marry Mosby’s sister and says he will dismiss her from his service when he returns home.
Greene points out Arden to the hired murderers but tells them to spare Michael. An apprentice at a bookstall shuts the stall and accidentally hits Black Will on the head with the window. In the confusion that follows, Arden escapes, unaware of the plot on his life.
Greene returns and wants to know why Arden has not been killed. Will and Shakebag explain what happened and vow to find another opportunity to carry out the murder.
Michael enters and admits to Black Will he has vowed to kill his master to please Mosby and win Susan’s hand in marriage. But Will says that he, Will, is the man who will do the deed. Michael promises to leave the doors of Arden’s house in Aldersgate unlocked, but after the others leave, he reveals how troubled he is about betraying his master. But he knows that if he should default on his promise, Will and Shakebag will kill him.
Arden pours out his grief about his unfaithful wife to Franklin, and Franklin tries to comfort him. After Arden and Franklin go to bed, Michael gives expression to his conflicting emotions. He cries out, and Franklin and Arden, roused by the noise, come to see what is wrong. Michael explains he was having a nightmare. Arden discovers the unlocked doors and rebukes Michael for his negligence.
Black Will and Shakebag arrive at Arden’s house, only to find the doors locked. They presume Michael has betrayed them and vow to punish him for it. They will watch for him in the morning and carry out their revenge.
Arden tells Franklin that he had a dream in which he was hunted like a deer. He woke up trembling. Franklin tries to reassure him that he was picking up on Michael’s fear, but Arden replies that often his dreams come true. They agree to dine together then return to Faversham that evening.
Shakebag and Black Will confront Michael, who swears he left the...
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