‘Smeared in blood and filthy gore’: Arden of Faversham, Halloween & a Pledge

Yesterday evening I decided to set myself a challenge to read a play before dinner. I’d been in the library most of the day at work and decided I could take a couple of hours light relief. I thought I might even take a break from Shakespeare, just for a bit. But then I remembered I’d taken out Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays so a Shakespeare free spell was not to be. It’s a chunky volume but I decided (several pages into the first play) to read a play a day, for the next 10 days – that’ll be the whole book. I’ll be checking in here each day with news of each play so I, if no-one else, can track my progress and bring to light some less well known plays that Shakespeare may have had a hand in. And now I’ve put this online I’m held to my word more than ever, that is until someone requests the book from the library. It’s dangerously on Short Loan which essentially means I have to remember to renew it every day or I get a rather nasty fine, but with a play-a-day attitude that should hardly be an issue.

But back to yesterday evening and play number one, in the spirit of The Sound of Music I thought I’d start at the very beginning. That’s Arden of Faversham and is one of the few titles in the volume I’ve heard of, thanks to the RSC’s revival of the play this year. Which, having read the play, I’m now gutted I missed. And only by a month, I knew I should have read faster. You can catch the trailer for the RSC’s version here.

I should clarify to read a play in an evening wasn’t so much as forced you cannot move before you’ve finished kind of exercise. What I mean is it wasn’t a painful experience by any means. I enjoy plays, though in many cases I’d rather see them as well as reading but there’s not always that kind of luxury.

But back the play in question. It’s a fast-paced plot featuring murder, comic failed attempts to murder, love, adultery, power struggles and a female lead (well she has the most lines if nothing else at 25% of the play). Sounds a bit like an intense episode of Desperate Housewives or How to get Away with Murder. Definitely themes that resonate with modern society. Presumably one of the main reasons the RSC dug it out for their Roaring Girl season or the “one where the woman wears the pants (mostly)”. But the murder and blood and guts and gore made it very appropriate reading for a weekend which had kicked off with Halloween, though all I’d really seen of the festivities was a small boy dressed  as  a pumpkin, something like this:

The only trick-or-treater who braved the stairs up to my flat, and I also caught Ghostbusters (for the first time I hasten to add) on the TV later that evening.

But back to renaissance horror and The Arden of Faversham. The full title gives away pretty much the whole plot – in fact spoiler alert should be stamped all over the title page. It reads:

THE LAMENTABLE AND TRUE TRAGEDY OF MASTER ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM IN KENT. Who was Most Wickedly Murdered, by the Means of His Disloyal and Wanton Wife, Who for the Love She Bare to One Mosby, Hired Two Desperate Ruffians, Black Will and Shakebag, to Kill Him. Wherein is Showed the Great Malice and Dissimulation of a Wicked Woman, the Insatiable Desire of Filthy Lust and the Shameful End of All Murderers

No need for Sparknotes on this one. Part warning part synopsis this title is all revealing, that is all except how the murder takes place. Which is the central crux of the plot. Also, like the terrible student that I am I must admit I only skimmed the title and got stuck in straight away to the play, my spoilers had already come as I read the introduction which gives a gloss of the play and its critical reception and potential author.

Before I wrap up and get back to reading, here’s my take on Arden of Faversham in a nut shell.

When the play kicks off we learn that Alice, married to the eponymous Arden has been speaking in her sleep and it’s not good news. She let slip the name of her lover (Mosby) and has to quickly cover her tracks to convince her doubtful husband that this is nothing. Mere moments later we learn that Alice is of course in love with Mosby. Arden again suspects when he discovers Mosby lurking in his house (can you blame him – I mean really Mosby, have some subtly!), but Mosby and Alice deny any such suggestion and Arden trusting leaves for London. But in this time murder attempt #1 has taken place – unsuccessfully of course. Alice and Mosby attempt to poison Arden with a liquid stirred into his broth but he tastes something peculiar and refuses to finish his breakfast. So off he trots to London, his trustworthy nature which they manipulate can perhaps be seen as the germ of a later tragic figure, besotted with jealousy: Othello.

Also, it’s worth noting that Arden is a landowner, and not liked by his old tenants, all in all he’s proving more unpopular by the second. Cue Greene, Richard Greene. He’s a tenant who’s had his land taken by Arden and as you can imagine he’s not a happy bunny. Hoping to find Arden to give him what for, Greene stumbles upon Alice instead. She tells of her unhappiness and how ill-treated she is by Arden (or so she claims) and within a few lines Greene has vowed to do away with Arden so that Alice and he can be free, in return he is to receive money and land. In a play laden with comedy, black humour but comedy nonetheless, it seems appropriate that his name is Dick. As he, another man, fulfils the murder that really, if Mosby truly loved and wanted Alice surely he would do? Instead he hires first Alice (inadvertently) and then a man whose very name suggests manliness. This further strips Mosby of his manhood, and Greene’s phallic name seems deliberate pointer to Mosby’s weakness to have any physical hand in the murdering of Arden. Clearly he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.

The best part is, when Alice reveals that Greene has got Arden’s murder covered Mosby chides her for spilling the beans to every Tom, Dick and Harry. But he’s determined to have a back-up suggesting his lack of faith in Alice’s scheme. He contacts his poisoner friend again (remember him from murder attempt #1?) he’s a painter-cum-poisoner who also happens to be in love with Mosby’s sister Susan, obviously. Mosby says that he can marry on one condition; he crafts a crucifix that kills whoever touches it. He agrees and there’s the second poisonous plot all in the first act. Three murder plots and counting.

Mosby and Alice head back to Arden’s place and get cosy; I mean check out these seductive words of Alice:

You know who’s master of my head

He well may be the master of the house

Meanwhile Greene heads to London to track down Arden but of course he’s not likely to do the dirty deed himself either, thanks to his friend Bradshaw he lands upon two blokes who’d be more than happy to oblige – Black Will and Shakebag (which I’d like to think are both names Shakespeare adopts on a day when he’s feeling more Austin Powers Dr Evil than Mr Nice-Guy).

Bradshaw says of Black Will, “for a crown he’ll murder any man” – perfect since that’s just what Greene wanted.

Bradshaw’s parting line “to the Isle of Sheppey with speed” made me laugh when I first read it, as that’s surely the only time ever to be documented that someone has gone to Sheppey with speed, especially as at that point there was no bridge, ferry was the way forward. The only occasions I’ve visited the island speed has been far from the thoughts of the train driver.

“murder would grow an occupation” – is a central theme of the play as many try in vain to do away with Arden, Black Will has the most attempts.

Attempt #1 at Paul’s: Fails. Black Will manages to get his head broken as a boy lets down a shop window where Will and Shakebag lie hidden. Arden gets away.

Remain resolute: “Arden needs must die”

Attempt #2: Michael (Arden’s manservant) betrays where his master is staying, Will and Shakebag plot ambush. Michael freaks out, screams out in nightmare and Arden discovers doors unlocked. When Will and Shakebag approach at night find doors locked. Fails.

Michael makes his excuses the next morning and they buy it.

Flash back to Mosby and Alice who are quarrelling, Mosby thinks it was better when he had nothing, as then there was nothing to worry about. He doubts Alice with a “once a cheater always a cheater” attitude. Alice too doubts viability of relationship with Mosby concerned it will only bear weeds, sounds like Hamlet’s roots to me and Claudius’s permeating poison. Alice vows to go back to loving Arden. Mosby claims he’s been duped magically (Othello anyone?) – sounds like a regular episode of Eastenders to me. Especially Mosby’s classic words “I am too good to be thy favourite” – cor he has a high opinion of himself. She thinks he’s in it for the money she brings to the table. But to cut a long story short they make up thanks to the sickly sweet words of Alice (clearly she wears the pants). They’re both excited for happy hour, and not Pizza Hut’s but the happy hour of death. Cheery (and of course murderous) stuff.

Cut back to Black Will and Shakebag who are arguing over who is the best thief, a bit like the boys in Oliver Twist. I love Greene’s summary of their discussion as “striving on these terms of manhood”. Talk of manhood by Dick who hires two ruffians to murder his ex-landlord so he pleases Alice. Rich words indeed!

I wonder if more broadly speaking “striving on terms of manhood” is an adequate summary of much of the play – manhood and murder seem to be intrinsically linked, and Alice adopts masculine traits as she becomes further involved in the doing away with her husband. While Mosby emerges somewhat more feminine..

Anyway back to the story at hand. And attempt #3 at Rainham Down plotted by Black Will, Shakebag and Michael. Foiled by the emtru pf Lord Cheyne and his men who spy Black Will.

This scene highlights the wealth of references to death and killing that permeate the play and Black Will displays his manana manana attitude with:

Cut him off tomorrow

A bullet in his breast tomorrow

We begin to wonder if tomorrow is ever going to come.

Arden returns home tells Alice he’ll have to dash to Sheppey to dine with Lord Cheyne she begs to go with him but when he relents she claims she couldn’t possibly because, quel horreur, the house might run away if she leaves it unattended. To the modern reader this seems like a classic undercutting of the woman-at-home image. Comedy meets reality in this ironic statement of this lying housewife.

Remember the poisoned crucifix from before? Well that’s finished now – so the backup murder plan is in place. Meanwhile Black Will and SHakebag have been dispatched to murder again. Attempt #4 and counting.. This time they’re foiled by the fog at the dock (for the ferry to Sheppey). This misted vision is very similar to the employment of fog and poorly lit streets in Dickens which is linked to corruption and death as it is here.

Back on the land Alice kisses Mosby in front of Arden with no shame, and shows that she’s in a position where she can’t win in terms of her wardrobe:

If well-attired, thou thinks I will be gadding

If homely, I seem sluttish in thy eye

She’s not happy with her husband, there follows a big scuffle where no-one dies but Mosby is injured by Alice (another image of the power she wields over him).

Back at the house Alice worries she’s going mad (which is very like the madness found in Macbeth)

This night I rose and walked about the chamber

And twice or thrice I thought to have murdered him

The real murder still hasn’t happened of course, (I mean they did hire the two worst murderers imagainable) though there’s grisly reminders of the impending act, as characters look forward to killing, to “stab him till he flesh be as a sieve”. But it’s time for dinner. On Alice’s suggestion and in an attempt to reconcile Arden invites Mosby for a meal. They play cards as pre-dinner entertainment and Black Will swoops in with a towel and kills Arden. Finally!

They stick his body in the counting house (where contrary to Sing a Song of Sixpence the queen is thankfully not counting out her money today..) but the blood won’t disappear. “The more [they] strive the more the blood appears” as the floor is caked, like the consciences of all present, in blood. Lady Macbeth and her OCD hand washing comes to mind..

They toss Arden’s body in a field and Mosby flees from the scene. But they Mayor and a search party (led by Franklin) arrive at Alice’s door and acquit her and Mosby of the murder. Their snowy footsteps have betrayed them and the bloody mess inside.

The legacy of Arden’s death like it’s manner is grisly. Punishment awaits all those involved in the crime. Mosby is executed in Smithfield, Alice burnt at Canterbury, Michael and Bradshaw to die in Faversham, Black Will burnt in Flushing and Shakebag murdered in Southwark. Retribution and repentance for the crimes is of course a necessity in a renaissance revenge tragedy. The legacy continues with Arden’s grave, or where he body was chucked initially, which becomes a living monument for,

In the grass his body’s print was seen

Two years and more after the deed was done

Halloween and horror lovers eat your heart out. And there endeth the play, in all its “naked tragedy”. The Lamentable and True Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham although part of me wonders whether it might be better named The Lamentable and True Tragedy of Mistress Arden of Faversham.. Or at least place both names in the already lengthy title. Surely her deeds are also tragic.. Furthermore although this is a tale “smeared in blood and filthy gore” below the failed attempts at murder lie discussions of gender, manhood, female empowerment (which is often seen as a threat *cough* Lady Macbeth *cough* – the empowered woman is distanced through her villainy as something other), masters and slaves and of course much more.

This domestic tragedy is well worth a read, and speaking of reading I’d better get back to today’s play, Locrine. Check in tomorrow to hear all about it.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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8 Responses to ‘Smeared in blood and filthy gore’: Arden of Faversham, Halloween & a Pledge

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