Arden of Faversham

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Title page of the first quarto (1592)

Arden of Faversham (original spelling: Arden of Feversham) is an Elizabethan play, entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 3 April 1592, and printed later that same year by Edward White. It depicts the murder of one Thomas Arden by his wife Alice Arden and her lover, and their subsequent discovery and punishment. The play is notable as perhaps the earliest surviving example of domestic tragedy, a form of Renaissance play which dramatized recent and local crimes rather than far-off and historical events.

The author is unknown, and the play has been attributed to Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, solely or collaboratively, forming part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. The use of computerized stylometrics has kindled academic interest in determining the authorship.


Thomas Arden, or Arderne, was a successful businessman in the early Tudor period. Born in 1508, probably in Norwich, Arden took advantage of the tumult of the Reformation to make his fortune, trading in the former monastic properties dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. In fact, the house in which he was murdered (which is still standing in Faversham) was a former guest house of Faversham Abbey, the Benedictine abbey near the town. His wife Alice had taken a lover, a man of low status named Mosby; together, they plotted to murder her husband. After several bungled attempts on his life, two ex-soldiers from the former English dominion of Calais known as Black Will and Loosebag (called Shakebag, or Shakebags, in the play) were hired and continued to make botched attempts. Arden was finally killed in his own home on 14 February 1551, and his body was left out in a field during a snowstorm, hoping that the blame would fall on someone who had come to Faversham for the St Valentine's Day fair. The snowfall stopped, however, before the killers' tracks were covered, and the tracks were followed back to the house. Bloodstained swabs and rushes were found, and the killers quickly confessed. Alice and Mosby were put on trial and convicted of the crime; he was hanged and she burnt at the stake in 1551. Black Will may also have been burnt at the stake after he had fled to Flanders: the English records state he was executed in Flanders, while the Flemish records state he was extradited to England. Loosebag escaped and was never heard of again. Other conspirators were hanged in chains. One—George Bradshaw, who was convicted by an obscure passage in a sealed letter he had delivered—was wrongly convicted and posthumously acquitted.

The story would most likely have been known to Elizabethan readers through the account in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, although the murder was so recent, and so memorable, that it is also likely that it was in the living memory of some of the anonymous playwright's acquaintances.

Both the play and the story in Holinshed's Chronicles were later adapted into a broadside ballad, "The complaint and lamentation of Mistresse Arden of Feversham in Kent".[1]

Main characters[edit]

  • Thomas Arden: Thomas Arden was a self-made man, he was formerly the mayor of Faversham and was appointed as the king's controller of imports and exports. Arden made his will in the December before his death
  • Alice Arden: Wife of Thomas Arden, Alice plots with her lover Mosby to kill Arden. Alice is shown to believe love transcends social class
  • Mosby: Alice's lover and brother of Susan, Alice's maid
  • Black Will and Shakebag: Hired murderers. In the play the pair fail a number of times to carry out the murder of Arden. Shakebag is shown to be the more evil of the two. It is possible the names are a satirical reference to William Shakespeare.

Text, history and authorship[edit]

The play was printed anonymously in three quarto editions during the period, in 1592 (Q1), 1599 (Q2), and 1633 (Q3). The last publication occurred in the same year as a broadsheet ballad written from Alice's point of view. The title pages do not indicate performance or company. However, the play was never fully forgotten. For most of three centuries, it was performed in George Lillo's adaptation; the original was brought back to the stage in 1921, and has received intermittent revivals since. It was adapted into a ballet at Sadler's Wells in 1799, and into an opera, Arden Must Die, by Alexander Goehr, in 1967.

In 1656 it appeared in a catalogue (An Exact and perfect Catalogue of all Plaies that were ever printed) unlikely assigned to be an interlude by Richard Bernard, while on the line above it the comedy The Arraignment of Paris, performed in 1581, was similarly unlikely a tragedy assigned to Shakespeare. It has been argued that the attributions were shifted up one line, and that Shakespeare was the intended claimed author of Arden.[2]

The question of the text's authorship has been analyzed at length, but with no decisive conclusions. Claims that Shakespeare wrote the play were first made in 1770 by the Faversham antiquarian Edward Jacob. Others have also claimed for Shakespeare, for instance Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Saintsbury, and the nineteenth-century critics Charles Knight and Nicolaus Delius. These claims may be rejected as impressionistic, although it is not inconceivable that Shakespeare had a hand in certain scenes.

There are two circumstantial connections with Shakespeare that hint at his involvement either as an actor or a writer. First, the Lord Chamberlain's players, the company with whom Shakespeare performed, staged the play at least once[citation needed]. It has been speculated[who?] that Shakespeare might have taken the part of Shakebags, who, atypically for a ruffian, often speaks in verse rather than prose. Second, the play's publisher, Edward White, also published an edition of Titus Andronicus. However, it has also been jokingly suggested that as the two murderers are called Black Will and Shakebag it is more likely to have been written by some enemy of Shakespeare's. Shakebags is only named briefly in the immediate source of the tale, Raphael Holinshed's 1577 account of the real-life crime of 1551, and it seems that the name of the original counterpart, taken from the Faversham court records, was actually "Loosebag". According to Penny McCarthy, researcher of literary patronage, it was Holinshed who transformed the story to include allusions to Shakespeare, as a gesture to his patron, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Dudley was also patron to the actor, Shakespeare. Holinshed selected the case, from the many murders available as subject matter, because the name of the victim was Arden and Shakespeare's mother's family name was Arden; the change of name from "Loosebag" To "Shakebags" was a more overt reference. However it was the anonymous playwright who gave Shakebags the bombastic verse to speak and arranged for his flight to Southwark, London's theatrical district.[3]

Christopher Marlowe has also been advanced; the strong emotions of the characters and the lack of a strongly marked virtuous hero are certainly in line with Marlowe's practice. Moreover, Marlowe was raised in nearby Canterbury and is likely to have had the knowledge of the area evinced by the play. Another candidate, favored by critics F. G. Fleay, Charles Crawford and H. Dugdale Sykes, is Thomas Kyd, who at one time shared rooms with Marlowe. However, without more knowledge of the text's history than is possessed at present, all ascriptions are bound to be speculative in nature.

In 2006, a new computer analysis of the play and comparison with the Shakespeare corpus by Arthur Kinney, of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States, and Hugh Craig, director of the Centre for Linguistic Stylistics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, found that word frequency and other vocabulary choices were consistent with the middle portion of the play having been written by Shakespeare.[4] However, in 2008, Brian Vickers reported in the Times Literary Supplement that his own computer analysis, based on recurring collocations, indicates Thomas Kyd as the likely author.[5]

In 2013 the RSC published an edition attributing the play, in part, to William Shakespeare.

Modern performance[edit]


  1. ^ Facsimiles and recordings of the ballad can be found on the English Broadside Ballad Archive.
  2. ^ L. Kirschenbaum, Shakespeare and Arden of Feversham, The Review of English Studies, 1945, os-XXI(82):134-136.
  3. ^ McCarthy, Penny (2006). "Further supposes". Pseudonymous Shakespeare. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. pp. 130–1. ISBN 0-7546-5508-3. Of all the farces that should have been recognized as guying Shakespeare Arden of Faversham (published in 1592) stands out… 
  4. ^ Craig H., Kinney, A., Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp.78-99.
  5. ^ Brian Vickers, "Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer," Times Literary Supplement, 18 April 2008, pp. 13-15.
  6. ^ Bly, Mary. "Reviews - The Lamentable and True Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham". Metropolitan Playhouse. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Hill, Heather. "Theatre Review: ‘Arden of Faversham’ by Brave Spirits Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center". Maryland Theater Guide. 
  9. ^ "Shakespeare's 'The Murder of Thomas Arden of Faversham' coming to Kenilworth Library, July 20". Suburban News. 


  • Arden of Feversham: a study of the Play first published in 1592 (1970) written and illustrated by Anita Holt
  • C. F. Tucker Brooke, ed., The Shakespeare Apocrypha, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1908.
  • Max Bluestone, "The Imagery of Tragic Melodrama in Arden of Faversham," in Bluestone and Rabkin (eds.), Shakespeare's Contemporaries, 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall, 1970.
  • Catherine Belsey. "Alice Arden's Crime." Staging the Renaissance. Ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Lena Cowen Orlin. Private Matter and Public Culture in Post Reformation England (especially Chapter One). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

External links[edit]