Essays and Criticism
Why the Arden of Faversham was Possibly Written by William Shakespeare
Although lovers of Elizabethan drama might be able to locate and attend one of the infrequent productions of Arden of Faversham, it is more likely that they will be compelled to study this fascinating play at home or in a library. Perhaps with some help from reviews of past productions, readers will have to imagine for themselves how the callous landowner Arden, his adulterous wife Alice, the social climber Mosby, and the villains Shakebag and Black Will might be effectively presented on a modern stage. But given the structure of the plot, this may be no easy task. In Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, no less an authority than M. C. Bradbrook, a renowned scholar of Elizabethan drama, put on record her own reaction to the play. She notes that there are six unsuccessful attempts on the life of Arden “until the spectator feels positively irritated that she [Alice] should not succeed.” Bradbrook also points out, however, that in repeatedly postponing the fatal moment, the author of Arden of Faversham was making use of a popular device in Elizabethan drama, the “cumulative plot,” in which “the same type of incident was repeated again and again, in a crescendo and with quickening tempo, up to the catastrophe.” Bradbrook notes that Marlowe, in Tamburlaine the Great, uses a similar device, although she makes no mention of any play by Shakespeare, the greatest Elizabethan dramatist of them all, that employs it.
Shakespeare’s name has often been mentioned in connection with the anonymous Arden of Faversham, and indeed, for many readers, part of the interest the play holds lies in the possibility that it might just be a work by Shakespeare. It seems highly likely that Shakespeare would have known the story of the murder at Faversham, since it appears in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), which was Shakespeare’s source for his history plays. Shakespeare knew Holinshed’s work well.
In 1940, Marion Bodwell Smith, in Marlowe’s Imagery and the Marlowe Canon, made the intriguing argument that the imagery in Arden of Faversham calls to mind the imagery used by Shakespeare in his early plays, especially the histories. According to the classification made by Smith, over one-third of the images in Arden of Faversham are drawn from daily life, especially the “daily occupations and trades, from sports, and from war.” The sports images are taken from archery, riding, and the hunting of birds. Smith notes that, similarly, many of Shakespeare’s images from daily life are drawn from sport. She highlights several images of bird hunting. Greene’s comment to Black Will, for example, “Lime your twigs to catch this weary bird” is an image that occurs frequently in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy. Smith also argues that the images of the unweeded or untended garden in Arden of Faversham recall the frequent use of similar images in Shakespeare’s histories from the Henry VI trilogy to Richard II. Smith claims that not only single images but whole passages in Arden of Faversham are reminiscent of the early Shakespeare. As an example, she cites Arden’s dream and compares it to Clarence’s dream in act 1, scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Some may find this evidence by itself to be less than convincing—the unweeded garden as an image of a misgoverned society was a commonplace during the period—and Smith herself did not claim to have proved that Shakespeare wrote Arden of Faversham, only that the imagery “point[s] in his direction.”
However, the case for Shakespearean authorship has been argued from other aspects of the play. The characterization has been widely admired, and some scholars believe that such an achievement would have been beyond the capabilities of any other dramatist of the period. The inner conflicts of the characters are laid bare, and they emerge as multi-dimensional figures rather than simple portraits of people in the grip of evil passions. Even the servant Michael, a comparatively minor character, is presented in scene 4 as being torn by his conscience over his betrayal of his...
(The entire section is 1711 words.)