“What, groans thou? Nay then, give me the weapon. Take this for hind’ring Mosby’s love and mine.” (Arden of Faversham, xiv, 237-238)
Arden of Faversham is a strange title for a play. It doesn’t give you much of an idea of what the play is about; you might expect a comedy of manners, perhaps, or a dull play about Kentish town life.
But, in fact, Arden of Faversham is a play about crime and murder with mystery even in its own origins and authorship, and it is a valuable means of learning about crime and punishment in Elizabethan England.
The RSC is currently performing Arden of Faversham in Stratford, and I went to see it last weekend – on a whim, fancying a night out at one of my local theatres.
I had never heard of it and the title didn’t sound particularly attractive. But it had, in its favour, the fact that it was part of the RSC’s Roaring Girl season (I’m going to see The Roaring Girl itself in the summer, and can’t wait), and it wasn’t Shakespeare.
I’m a great fan of the non-Shakespearean work the RSC puts on, but not a great fan of Shakespeare himself, having studied him almost to death at school and university.
It was the best play-on-a-whim I have seen for a long time. It revolves around Alice Arden, unhappily married to Thomas, an entrepreneur of his time (the mid-16th century) who is also somewhat obsessed with his business, to the detriment of his marriage. Alice finds comfort elsewhere, in the arms of Thomas Mosby, but resents having to keep this liaison secret. She and Mosby plot to kill Thomas Arden of Faversham.
The play is a dark comedy, with Alice and Mosby recruiting assassins who fail – due to fights, fog and incompetence – to carry out the murder.
I won’t give the exact method away, but eventually, Arden is killed, his wife proving herself to be a better murderer than the paid ‘professionals’.
The most fascinating part of the play is the fact that it is based on a real event, and, despite the contemporary setting that the RSC’s production is given, the audience can get an insight into the gendered nature of punishment in Elizabethan England.
Thomas Mosby was hanged in London for his part in Arden’s death; but Alice, convicted of petty treason (the murder of a husband by a wife being regarded as a more heinous offence than that of a wife by a husband), was burned at the stake in Canterbury. Her fate was decided by the Privy Council – of which her stepfather was a member.
Alice Arden, as she is portrayed by Sharon Small in the RSC production, is a feisty, independent woman, who refuses to accept life in an unhappy marriage. She is not a submissive female; she plots and schemes and proves herself to be a stronger individual than those men who are supposed to be able to kill her husband.When they fail, she steps in and succeeds.
Arden of Faversham has farcical elements – but it is the men who provide much of the farce. They are weak, dithering creatures.
It is Alice who is the brains, and she inveigles those around her to march to her tune. She is just one of the women in history who have killed; but she kills because she cannot see any other way to be with a man who is more ‘her’ than the socially acceptable husband she married.
The depiction of the sexes in this play – whose authorship is not known, although there are apparent digs or at least nods towards Shakespeare in it – turns the kind of history I was taught in school on its head.
It is not a feeble romance, or an idealised portrait of life in Elizabethan England. It is a tale of love, crime and punishment – full of strained emotions and mess, thus reflected the realities of life in a broken marriage, where divorce is not possible.
The RSC’s production reflects the gap between ‘normal’ life – the conveyor belt mundanity of working life experienced by Arden’s employees (churning out ‘lucky cats’ by the cattery-full and going mad in their few minutes’ break) – and the mounting hysteria of Alice’s double life, by setting the play in a recognisably ordinary present day whilst maintaining the 16th century style of dialogue.
It doesn’t jar; it simply reflects that this is reality, claustrophobic and boring, yet also strange – full of plots and secrets.
Arden of Faversham continues at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until 2 October.
For a good discussion of the play, see Frances E Dolan’s Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (Cornell, 1994) Photos by Manuel Harlan, and reproduced with permission courtesy of the RSC.