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ABOUT THE PLAY | Arden of Faversham

Red Bull Theater's production of ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre for a limited Off-Broadway engagement, March 6 - April 1, 2023.

About Arden of Faversham | Tanya Pollard


Printed in 1592 with no authorial attribution, Arden of Faversham has long been seen as the most famous anonymous play from the Elizabethan era. In recent years, however, its authorship has become a topic of heated critical debate. Scholars have generally agreed that the play was written collaboratively, as was typical of early modern drama in general and especially at the time of Arden’s composition. New work with computational stylistic analysis has supported a growing consensus that the play was written by two authors: one possibly Thomas Watson, and the other, responsible for many of the play’s middle scenes, William Shakespeare. Drawing on these arguments, the play was included in a 2013 RSC anthology titled William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, and in the 2016 New Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. If Shakespeare contributed to Arden, as seems increasingly likely, it would be one of the earliest plays in which he had a hand – possibly the earliest. As such, it introduces suggestive details about his early artistic development. In particular, its unusually substantial and complex female leading role offers a haunting pre-history for later Shakespearean creations such as Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra. This production compounds the play’s collaborative voices with two newer additions: Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat.


Arden of Faversham (1592) is a domestic tragedy, a popular variation on a genre often identified with the deaths of kings. Based on true events widely known from recent history, the play depicts attempts made against Arden’s life by his adulterous wife Alice and her lover Mosby. The dangers of unfaithful wives feature frequently in the period’s plays, but while Shakespeare’s suspected wives typically prove innocent, Alice Arden is unapologetically lusty and ruthless. She describes her passion for Mosby as uncontrollable, “Gotten by witchcraft and mere sorcery,” and the bonds of matrimony as meaningless: “Love is a god, and marriage is but words.”

While Alice dreams of erotic freedom, Mosby and others want Arden dead for other reasons. Arden has recently been granted lands originally intended for others, and his upward social mobility is especially grating to those whose lower class standing he publicly derides. With so much local hostility to Arden, Alice has no trouble finding willing killers, but like the Road Runner of cartoons, Arden proves surprisingly difficult to destroy. Beginning with attempts by Alice herself, and continuing through multiple ill-starred efforts by the ruffians Black Will and Shakebag, the murder plots repeatedly fail in the face of bad luck and sheer incompetence: as Shakebag irritably observes, “Arden, thou hast wondrous holy luck.”

Domestic tragedy marries the suffering of tragedy with the homely settings of comedy, and despite its melodramatic conflicts, Arden is strikingly funny. Especially in performance, the repeated failed attempts by Black Will and Shakebag, and their blustering recriminations, can verge on vaudevillian. The tension between the play’s black humor and real horror parallels another tension, between supernatural and material explanations for the play’s events. When Greene, irate that Arden has escaped yet another attempt at his life because of a chance encounter with a friend, complains, “The Lord of Heaven hath preserved him,” Black Will disagrees. “The Lord of Heaven a fig!,” he responds; “The Lord Mayor hath preserved him.” Similarly, despite repeated invocations of witchcraft, and proposed quasi-magical murder methods including a poisoned crucifix, the play ultimately takes a turn as simple and homely as its domestic setting.

This production’s lightly modernized adaptation maintains the play’s sensationalism, scandal, and dark comedy, while upping the body count and adding some feminist updating. The script emphasizes the constraints on both Alice Arden and her maid Susan, whom Alice promises to two potential accomplices as a reward. It also adds a third female figure to the cast: Greene, originally a man reduced to poverty after losing his lands to Arden, becomes a widow, whose struggles to feed her children elicit sympathy from Alice. The play’s mixture of melodrama, serendipity, and gritty realism continues to both grip and unsettle. By marrying the lofty genre of tragedy to conflicts within and between ordinary households, Arden of Faversham is both ahead of its time and a window into its own historical moment. TANYA POLLARD | Scholar & Dramaturgical Consultant, Professor of English, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY


TANYA POLLARD is Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and is Chair of the Council of Scholars at Theatre for a New Audience. Her books include Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages (2017), Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (2005), Shakespeare’s Theater (2003), and four co-edited anthologies. She appeared in Shakespeare Uncovered with Ethan Hawke in Macbeth (2013) and with Christopher Plummer in King Lear (2015). Beyond the Red Bull and TFANA, she has spoken with artists and audiences at theaters including the Public, Classic Stage Company, and Roundabout, where she consulted on Kiss Me Kate (2019). A Rhodes Scholar, she has had NEH, Whiting, and Mellon fellowships. Her edition of The Alchemist is forthcoming with Arden Early Modern Drama.

For complete details about Red Bull Theater's production ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM, visit here. This strictly-limited 4-week engagement will run March 6-April 1, 2023 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, NYC.


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