I’ve been hearing about various productions of Arden of Faversham over the past year, due largely to its status as a possible Shakespeare play (or collaboration). The American Shakespeare Center included it in their winter season, so I had a chance to check it out (special thanks to Eric Minton who swapped me a ticket for lunch at the Baja).
The premise is basically a comedic take on a true-crime story recorded in Holinshed, about Alice of Faversham, who enlisted the help of her lover to murder her husband, Arden. The script is very accessible; both the language and the plot are straightforward and easy to follow. There isn’t much of a B-plot, it’s not very twisty. Alice enlists various friends, neighbors, and thugs to assist her in ridding herself of her hated husband. These goons are hilarious and hapless, as is the uncanny luck that follows Arden. The joke, over and over, is that Arden is about to get stabbed, but then a fog rolls in and the assassins can’t find him. Or he’s supposed to get killed on the road, but then the local lord shows up. The repetition was so predictable that I was rather surprised when (spoiler) Arden finally gets killed. The end of the play takes a strange turn, as we learn that everyone involved in Arden’s murder was ultimately executed. The last 10 minutes are Not Funny.
The production was a hoot. The goons had hilarious accents that were straight out of a black-and-white gangster movie. The production underscored each of Arden’s near-death-experiences with a bass riff that served to tie them together and felt like it should have been a warning to poor Arden. Abbi Hawk played Alice with gorgeous conviction, and clearly was having a great time.
Hearing the ASC actors apply their mastery of the verse and early modern staging practices to a play that was new to them–and maybe not Shakespeare–was really interesting. I don’t get to see an early modern play that I am entirely unfamiliar with all that often. I enjoyed letting myself be surprised by the action of the play. I also loved that their experience with Shakespeare gave the actors the courage to trust the text and do what it said, including respecting the ambiguity that the playwright built into it. Is Arden a good guy? Probably not (although not deserving of death), and this production let him be kind of in between. Are even the murderers actually all that bad? Maybe?
People keep asking me if I think it’s Shakespeare. Apparently the section that anyone seriously argues is Shakespeare is a chunk of scenes in the middle, where we finally do get some character nuance. In the most Shakespearean one, Alice and her lover, Mosbey, argue about whether she truly loves him or should return to her husband. It’s hard to tell whether she’s messing with him or whether she loves Arden. Abbi chose to play these lines very straight, which I think is an excellent choice–but it does make space for some interesting questions.
I have a few thoughts on this argument that it might be Shakespeare, but basically, I’m not buying it. Or at least, I don’t think the arguments for it being Shakespeare, rather than Marlowe or Kyd, are very strong. Here are my response to various arguments for it (bold) and my own thoughts (not bold).
- There are lots of lines and phrases that are similar to, or directly quote, Shakespeare. Yep. Shakespeare worked from Holinshed kind of a lot, as did the author(s) of Arden. Also, these guys saw each other’s plays, and constantly borrowed good turns of phrase.
- It’s very similar to certain Shakespeare plays, most particularly 2 Henry VI. Didn’t we all agree that Marlowe mostly wrote that play? I’m not 100% sure I buy that theory either, but if you’re going to compare something to Shakespeare, make super sure that what you’re comparing to is Shakespeare.
- The two dumb murderers are very similar to the hapless murderers in Richard III. Nope. They aren’t. Except that there are two of them and they are funny. But that’s an old trope, Shakespeare surely didn’t invent that idea. The murderers in Richard III are funny because they debate a moral crisis. The ones in Arden are just not that good at murdering.
- The two inept murderers are named Shakesbag and Black Will. This is either an argument for or against Shakespeare’s hand being in this script, depending how you read it.
- Marlowe grew up near Faversham, and the play is oddly specific in its geography, including things like where the river has a ferry and the wonderful place name “Rainham Down.” Not saying it’s Marlowe, but…just saying.
- This play is *super misogynist* without any kind of ambiguity or undercutting. Alice is a terrible person, and there are practically no other women in the play, besides her maid, who is basically not a character. Shakespeare’s women are nearly always more interesting and smarter than Alice.
Shakespeare or not, it’s an interesting production and an interesting script. I’m glad I had the chance to see it.