Early Editions. On 3rd April, 1592, ‘The Tragedie of Arden of Feversham and Blackwall’[A] was entered on the Stationers’ Registers to Edward White. In the same year appeared, ‘The lamentable and true Tragedie of M. Arden of Feversham in Kent. Who was most wickedlye murdered, by the meanes of his disloyall and wanton wyfe, who for the love she bare to one Mosbie, hyred two desperat ruffins, Blackwill and Shakbag, to kill him. Wherin is shewed the great mallice and discimulation of a wicked woman, the unsatiable desire of filthie lust and the shamefull end of all murderers. Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the lyttle North dore of Paules Church at the signe of the Gun. 1592.’ A second Quarto, with the same title, was printed in 1599. A third, ‘by Eliz. Allde dwelling neere Christs Church,’ appeared in 1633. The second and third Quartos are founded textually upon the first, and their variations are of no value. The text of the first Quarto is unusually good even when prose and verse are mixed together, although the printer has apparently no scientific knowledge of the nature of metre.
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[A]A misprint for Blackwill.
Place of the Play in the Elizabethan Drama. Arden of Faversham is the finest extant specimen of a kind of play which[vi] has been classified as Domestic Tragedy. A picturesque or sensational murder in the sixteenth century was given to the public first in popular ballads or pamphlets, and afterwards, if sufficiently notable, in the more serious Chronicle. From the popular pamphlet, or from the Chronicle, or from both together, it found its way on to the stage. Four of these ‘murder-plays’ have come down to us, and the titles of many others. They form a minor section of the Chronicle plays or Histories. They did not attain any very striking literary development, owing perhaps to the necessary bondage of the poet to his facts. Arden of Faversham is a remarkable instance of the possibilities of this class of play, but it is to be noted that the poet used the narrative of a Chronicler who wrote twenty-seven years after the date of the murder. A Warning for Fair Women and Yarington’s Two Tragedies in One are both inferior to Arden, though influenced by it. The fourth ‘murder-play’—The Yorkshire Tragedy—is distinct from the other three in style and method. Several famous dramatists produced ‘domestic’ tragedies, but none have survived. A Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother, in which Ford and Webster collaborated, must have been a notable piece of work.
Source of the Play. On Sunday, 15th February 1550-1, Thomas Ardern of Faversham, gentleman, ‘was heynously murdered in his own parlour, about seven of the clock in the night, by one Thomas Morsby, a taylor of London, late servant to sir Edward North, knight, chancellor of the augmentations, father-in-law unto Alice Ardern, wife of the said Thomas Ardern.’ Thomas Ardern was Mayor of Faversham in 1548, and his murder made such a stir that in 1577 the first edition[vii] of Holinshed’s Chronicle devotes five pages (pp. 1703-8) to an elaborate account of it. The chronicler begins thus:—‘About this time there was at Faversham in Kent a Gentleman named Arden most cruelly murthered and slain by the procurement of his own wife. The which murder for the horribleness thereof, although otherwise it may seem to be but a private matter, and therefore as it were impertinent to this History, I have thought good to set it forth somewhat at large, having the instructions delivered to me by them that have used some diligence to gather the true understanding of the circumstances.’ Our first quotation was from theWardmote Book of Faversham, and proves that Holinshed’s narrative is not minutely accurate. The Wardmote Book gives a curt account of the actual murder on the Sunday evening with the names and fate of the culprits. It tells us nothing of the previous failures of these culprits which give to Holinshed’s tale such a terrible and dramatic interest. We need not speculate on Holinshed’s sources. No doubt there were many contemporary pamphlets and ballads which recounted the murder. We know only of The Complaint ... of Mistress Arden of Feversham, preserved among the Roxburghe Ballads, and reprinted by Evans and in Miss De Vaynes’Kentish Garland. But this is dated by Mr. Bullen about 1633, when the third Quarto of the play appeared, and was probably occasioned by that re-issue. The important point to bear in mind is the excellence of Holinshed’s narrative. To praise it adequately we must say that it is worthy of the fine play founded upon it, which probably had no other source. The play agrees always with Holinshed when Holinshed differs from the Wardmote Book. When the play differs from Holinshed it differs also from the Wardmote Book. To the dramatic[viii] instinct of the poet we must ascribe his suppression of the fact that Arden winked at his wife’s infidelity. Holinshed and the Wardmote Book both explicitly assert this. Franklin, Arden’s friend, is also an invention of the dramatist.
Author of the Play. The three Quartos are all anonymous. We know of no other edition till 1770, when Edward Jacob, a Faversham antiquary, edited the first Quarto, and boldly claimed the play for Shakespeare. Ludwig Tieck published in 1823 an excellent German translation, accompanied by a discriminating statement of the case for the Shakesperean authorship. Delius, editing the play in 1855, agreed with Tieck, and was followed by the French translator, François Victor Hugo, and more recently by Professor Mézières. Owing to the supposed Shakespearean authorship there have been at least three translations into German, one into French, and one into Dutch. In England opinion has been more divided. Henry Tyrrell,[B] Charles Knight, and Mr. Swinburne[C] have supported the Shakespearean authorship. Professor Ward[D] and J. A. Symonds incline to reject it. Professor Saintsbury considers that ‘the only possible hypothesis on which it could be admitted as Shakespeare’s would be that of an early experiment thrown off while he was seeking his way in a direction where he found no thoroughfare.’[E] Mr. Bullen, who edited a careful reprint of the first Quarto in 1887, suspects ‘that Arden in its present state has been retouched here and there by the master’s hand.’[ix] The latest German editors, Warnke and Proescholt (1888), ‘are of opinion that Shakespeare had nothing to do with Arden of Faversham.’
[B]Doubtful Plays of Shakespeare.
[C]Study of Shakespeare.
[D]History of English Dramatic Literature.
[E]History of Elizabethan Literature.
The Question of Shakespeare’s Authorship. The only reason for ascribing the play to Shakespeare is its merit. It seems incredible that a drama so mature in its art should have been written in 1592 by a writer otherwise unknown to us. In three directions the art of the writer is mature. First, the character of the base coward Mosbie, and of the ‘bourgeois Clytemnestra,’ Alice Arden, are drawn with an insight, delicacy, and sustained power new to English literature in 1592, and not excelled till Shakespeare excelled them. The picture of Arden, as a man fascinated and bewitched by his wife and by his fate, might match that of Mosbie and Alice if the artist had not blurred his conception by the introduction of the jarring motives of avarice and sacrilege. But the poet’s aim is clear; it is his own, and it almost succeeds. Second, the picturesque ferocity and grim humour of Black Will and Shakebag are described with a firmness and ease and restraint of style which critics have not sufficiently noted. I can compare it only with the Jack Cade scenes of the Contention (and 2 Henry VI.). The prose of our poet is excellent. His humour has a clearly defined character and style of its own. The character of Michael, so admired by Mr. Swinburne, is as subtle and well-sustained as Mosbie’s or Alice Arden’s, and it exhibits our poet’s special humorous gift. This gift, excellent as it is, seems to me very definitely not Shakespearean. But thirdly, the terrifying use of signs and omens and of an almost[x] Shakespearean irony—e.g. Arden’s words, ‘I am almost stifled with this fog!’—combine to produce as the play proceeds an impressive sense of ‘the slow unerring tread of assassination, balked but persevering, marching like a fate to its accomplishment.’ But the special excellencies of the play are all against Shakespeare having written it by 1592. As Mr. Bullen insists, the weak point in Mr. Swinburne’s criticism is the phrase ‘a young man’s work.’ This play is not ‘a young man’s work.’ The copiousness of the young man Shakespeare’s work is the exact contrary of the deliberate anxious effort which marks the style of Arden of Faversham except in the prose scenes. In none of Shakespeare’s plays can it be perceived that the poet has taken such pains as the poet of Arden takes. Unless Shakespeare wrote this play as soon as he reached London, and then for a year or two wrote nothing else, it is impossible to fit it into his work. And if he wrote the play as soon as he reached London and then took up the studies which resulted in Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, would he have written Love’s Labour’s Lost and Comedy of Errors on his way back to work like Arden? If Shakespeare wrote Arden it is the most interesting fact in his literary development. To suggest that Shakespeare revised the play is to shirk the question. Its excellence is in its warp and woof, not in its ornaments.
Literature. Mr. Bullen’s Introduction is the best monograph on the play. Warnke and Proescholt’s Introduction should be consulted, but lacks the distinction of style and the critical insight of Mr. Bullen’s essay. Excellent analyses and criticisms of the play are in Charles Knight’s Doubtful Plays[xi] (‘Pictorial Shakespere’); J. A. Symonds’ Shakspere’s Predecessors; Alfred Mézières’ Prédécesseurs et Contemporains de Shakspeare. Mr. Fleay in his Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama (1891) has suggested Kyd as the author of Arden.