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.”