The Elizabethan play Arden of Faversham explores the relationship between private and public in several ways. First, the play's very existence highlights the tension between private and public, for it presents a private murder, the killing of a man in his own home, in a highly public fashion, on stage. In fact, Arden of Faversham is one of several “domestic tragedy” plays written and performed during the Elizabethan era for audiences who took great interest in such scandals.
The play further deals with the public knowledge of private matters insomuch as almost all the characters know exactly what is happening between Arden and his wife, Alice, and between Alice and her lover, Mosbie. What's more, nearly all the major characters (except Arden and Franklin, of course) are in on the plot to murder Arden. There is no real secrecy. Everyone from the servants to the neighbors to the hired thugs knows that Alice hates her husband, wants to be free to carry on with Mosbie, and is willing to go to any lengths to get her way.
Within the action of the play, the scene frequently shifts between public and private places. Act I takes place at Arden's house, yet even this home is not completely private, at least not after Arden and Franklin leave. The innkeeper Adam wanders in with news. Mosbie arrives. Clarke the painter comes in to talk about the plot to kill Arden with poison. A while later, the angry Greene shows up and, with Alice, plans Arden's murder in yet another way. The private has become quite public even in the midst of “secret” scheming.
In act II, the scene shifts to the countryside between Faversham and London where Greene and Bradshaw meet with the scoundrels Black Will and Shakebag. The two experienced criminals vow to kill Arden on a public street in London, but they fail due to interference. They then plot with Arden's servant Michael to carry out the murder at Franklin's private home. Michael is to keep the doors unlocked, but even that plan goes awry when Michael loses his nerve and cries out. Arden locks the doors, keeping the private safe, at least for the moment.
More public attempts fail as the play progresses and Black Will and Shakebag meet with difficulty after difficulty in accomplishing this murder. Everything from the fog to the arrival of Lord Cheiny gets in their way. Finally, Alice and Mosbie, plotting with Black Will, Shakebag, Greene, and Michael decide to once more make murder a private affair and kill Arden in his own house. This time they succeed, and Arden dies in private. Yet, of course, murder will never remain private. The mayor and the watch soon arrive, tipped off that Black Will (who is wanted for several crimes) may be at the Arden home. They search inside and out and find Arden's body. In the end, the murderers are quite publicly punished by hanging and burning in a spectacle watched with great interest by the crowds.