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INSIGHTS | 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.

Insights | Arden of Faversham by Brandi K. Adams

An anonymous play first written around 1588, Arden of Faversham is not only the earliest but also one of the most striking examples of an English domestic tragedy—a dramatic genre in which everyday characters experience or initiate a tragic event within the space of a household. The play dramatizes a true event that took place nearly forty years prior in which a member of the gentry, Alice Arden, conspired to end her marriage with Thomas Arden. The surrounding events so gripped English local and national communities in 1551 that they were dutifully recorded in great detail in early diaries and other texts before eventually being included in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), an early comprehensive history focusing on major historical figures of England, Scotland, and Ireland, that also has been identified as an important source for plays by Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

As long as scholars have been studying the play, they have attempted to identify possible authors for Arden of Faversham. At least one part of the play has been attributed to William Shakespeare, and the character names Black Will and Shakebag make for a fun but completely imaginative speculation about his connection to the play. Another part of the play has been attributed to Christopher Marlowe, the writer of plays including Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta. As recently as October of 2022, the entire play has been attributed to early modern English playwright Thomas Kyd, perhaps most well-known for authoring The Spanish Tragedy, which was a popular written in the 1580s, roughly at the same time as Arden.

The tragedy begins by outlining the demise of the Ardens’ marriage, which includes Alice’s very public infidelity in full sight of her “marrow-prying neighbors,” and her desire to replace her marriage of ‘words’ to a ‘title’ of love with her lover Mosby. Simultaneously, the play quietly highlights unanticipated problems that accompany a deed of land that Arden receives from the crown by way of the Duke of Somerset. As the new, sole owner of the “lands of the Abbey of Faversham,” Arden’s claim supersedes any previous ones and cancels all other interests or livings drawn from the property. Arden’s gain comes at the economic ruin of others and his seeming indifference to their suffering creates additional tension and conflict of which Alice readily takes advantage.

The problems of titles, both in marriage and with land ownership, provide Alice with the impetus to end her marriage in a bold way. She colludes to end her marriage with the assistance of a mélange of characters including Black Will, Shakebag, and Widow Greene, a victim of Arden’s land acquisition, who seeks revenge for the loss of income garnered from the property.

This play revels in the shocking nature of Alice’s affair and the ways in which the domestic sphere can be violated from parties residing both within and outside of the space. It also establishes the economic, social, political, and sexual power that women such as Alice can wield when presented with an opportunity. Through its moving among genres—from tragedy to macabre comedy—the play captures the sentiments of those wronging Arden and wronged by him as it troubles the definition of tragedy, examines the state of early modern English marriages, and explores the circumstances and thrills associated with early modern English “true life” drama. Jeffrey Hatcher’s and Kathryn Walat’s dynamic and suspenseful adaptation of Arden of Faversham captures both its whimsy and seriousness and ultimately celebrates the power and strange familiarity that audiences can have with everyday early modern English historical figures and representations of their lives as theater.

BRANDI K. ADAMS | Assistant Professor, Arizona State University


BRANDI K. ADAMS is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University and member of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her interests include book history, history of reading, early modern English drama, and premodern critical race and gender studies. Having formerly served as an undergraduate program manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she also researches the early history of artificial intelligence, early modern automata and how studying literature can have a significant and positive impact on computing.

For complete details about Red Bull Theater's ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM, visit here.


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