Monday, October 27, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“ARDEN OF FEVERSHAM” An Anonymous Play (first published 1592)
Very occasionally, and especially when the holidays give me time to do so, I like to re-read some of those Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that I studied as a sophomore and then write about them on this “Something Old” spot. [Look up George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois and John Marston’s The Malcontent via the index at right.] Yes, I do take the odd whack at Shakespeare too, but I’d never be so gauche as to give you my thoughts on him, as the internet is already awash with Shakespeariana, exegetes have chewed his plays to death and I probably wouldn’t have much original to say about him anyway. But as for the other playwrights of the era – I regard them as open territory, and am happy to wallow in them.
And Arden of Feversham is especially attractive to me.
To deal with the factual stuff first. It has become the fashion to refer to this anonymous shocker as Arden of Faversham rather than Feversham, because Faversham is, after all, the received spelling of the town in Kent, west-north-west of Canterbury, where some of the action takes place. But I prefer to call it Feversham, as that is the spelling given in all but the most recent printings of the play. Arden of Feversham was first printed in 1592, and had probably first been performed not too long before that. The events of the play are based on a true crime that had taken place about forty years before, in 1551, in the short reign of Edward VI. Even if you didn’t have footnotes to tell you this, you could work it out from the text itself because, in the very first act, we learn that Arden, the play’s murder victim, has recently been granted, by the Lord Protector Lord Somerset, rights to land that used to belong to a recently dissolved abbey. Somerset was the guy who ran England, and vigorously Protestantised the country, when Edward VI was under-age.
Nobody knows who wrote this play, although there have been game academic attempts to examine style and count key words and assign parts of it to Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe or young Shakespeare (who was still a relative beginner when the play appeared and who did do collaborative and patch-up jobs with other people’s texts). But as always, such attempts are inconclusive. And I must admit that I prefer it to be anonymous. It reminds me that this was when the best late Elizabethan drama was just beginning and it makes me indulgent of the play’s flaws. All agree that the play’s key events are based very closely – almost documentary style – on the factual story as told in Holinshed’s Chronicles.
Okay – now for the play. Remember in the earliest phase of book-printing, the titlepage functioned as a “blurb” as much as simple identification of the book, so you know what you’re in for when you read the original title page which, in the original spelling, runs thus:
“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 fithie lust and the shamefull end of all murderers. Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the lyttle North dore cf Paules Church at the signe of the Gun. 1592.”
Got it now? This is a play about lust, murder and retribution, three of the things that make drama worthwhile.
Essentially its plot runs thus: Alice Arden is adulterously in lust with Mosbie, who is clearly of a slightly lower class than the Ardens. At play’s opening Arden is about to go on a business trip to London and is already lamenting to his friend Franklin that his wife Alice is being unfaithful to him with Mosbie, because he heard her utter Mosbie’s name in her sleep. (Franklin has little role in the play other than to converse sympathetically with Arden – a little like Horatio to Hamlet). However, off the two of them go and at once Alice is conspiring with various confederates over how she can have her husband bumped off.
At first she and Mosbie consort with a painter called Clarke who suggests various ingenious poisons. Clarke also has his eye on Mosbie’s sister Susan; and Alice promises him that Susan will be his so long as he helps to murder Arden. Complicating factor is that she makes the same promise to her household servant Michael, who also has his eye on Susan Mosbie. In the event, neither Clarke nor Michael is much help in getting Arden killed, though Michael (who every so often has severe pricks of conscience) does act as what gangster thrillers would later call a “finger man” – the guy who opens the doors and sets up the scene so that hired killers can do their work.
More helpful to Alice and her lover Mosbie is a guy called Greene, who has a grudge against Arden because Arden took over some land Greene laid claim to. Greene hires two cut-throats called Black Will and Shakebag and sends them off to rub out Arden in London.
Interplaying with conversations between Arden and Franklin (when Arden does, and then does not, and then does again, doubt his wife’s fidelity) what follows in the last three acts is grotesque and funny and sad. Repeatedly Black Will and Shakebag try to kill Arden and fail. They try to accost him in his lodgings in London, but instead the waiting Michael has a nightmare and his shoutings wake the house, while one of the cut-throats has a window-sash fall on his dead. Foiled! They try to ambush him on the road back to Feversham, but at the crucial moment Arden is met by a travelling nobleman and his retainers and the ambush has to be called off. Foiled again! Again they try to ambush Arden on a foggy night, but they get lost in the fog and one of the cut-throats falls in a ditch. Foiled yet again! This begins to sound like the Keystone Krims, or Coyote failing to get the Roadrunner. When Arden is at last nearing home, he is attacked but the assailant runs away and his wife Alice is able to soothe him yet again with words about how innocent her relationship with Mosbie is.
Finally, in a scene that was often reproduced in a crude woodcut in early editionsof the play, Arden is murdered in his own home. While Arden is playing a game of backgammon, the cut-throats (who have been concealed by Alice in a closet) rush out and restrain his arms with a cord. Then Mosbie and Alice and the cut-throats stab Arden to death. Retribution comes quickly, however, for in attempting to leave the corpse in an outdoors spot (to pretend that somebody had mugged Arden to death), they neglect to note that their footprints in the snow lead to and from the house where they have murdered Arden.
In no time they are arrested and hanged, to the great satisfaction of the Elizabethan audience and of this reader.
There are some side-issues worth noting in this play. One is that there are scuffles between Michael and Clarke (over their rival claims to Susan Mobie) as an occasional subplot. Another is that there is a scene where Black Will and Shakebag fall out and start brawling, and have to be steeled to their task by Greene. [By the way, in Holinshed’s original account, Shakebag was called something else, and there has been the claim that, what with one of the crims being called Will, the other was re-named Shakebag as a crack at this young Will Shakespeare fellow.] There is also a scene with a low comic character, the Ferryman who transports Arden and Franklin on the foggy night when Arden once again fails to be murdered. A bit like the gravedigger in Hamlet this Ferryman comments on the thick fog thus:
I think 'tis like to a curst wife in a little house, that never leaves her husband till she have driven him out at doors with a wet pair of eyes ; then looks he as if his house were a-fire, or some of his friends dead. (Act 4 Scene 2)
“A curst wife in a little house”? I know the Ferryman is making a (typical male chauvinist!) crack at whining women, but this phrase does neatly link back to Alice Arden.
Speaking of whom, the play basically sees Alice as a wicked, conniving woman who foresakes her sacred marriage vows and plans the murder of her own husband. She soliloquizes:
Sweet Mosbie is the man that hath my heart
And he [Arden] usurps it, having nought but this:
That I am tied to him by marriage.
Love is a God, and marriage is but words;
And therefore Mosbie's title is the best.
(early in Act One)
Later, she persuades Mosbie of her love thus:
What? shall an oath make thee forsake my love?
As if I have not sworn as much myself
And given my hand unto him in the church!
Tush, Mosbie ; oaths are words, and words is wind,
And wind is mutable : then, I conclude,
'Tis childishness to stand upon an oath.
(later in Act One)
For aught I know, there may be some academic bore somewhere who sees this as a woman asserting her independence and sexual freedom, but I am sure that is not how the playwright sees it. The play’s morality is quite conventional – and yet of course, like juicy tabloid journalism, it revels in the vice it exposes.
Arden’s outrage is the righteous outrage of a wronged husband, as when he declaims to Franklin at the beginning of Act 3:
No, Franklin,no: if fear or stormy threats,
If love of me or care of womanhood,
If fear of God or common speech of men,
Who mangle credit with their wounding words,
And couch dishonour as dishonour buds,
Might join repentance in her wanton thoughts,
No question then but she would turn the leaf
And sorrow for her dissolution;
But she is rooted in her wickedness.
Perverse and stubborn, not to be reclaimed;
Good counsel is to her as rain to weeds,
And reprehension makes her vice to grow
As Hydra's head that plenished by decay.
Her faults, methink, are painted in my face,
For every searching eye to overread;
And Mosbie's name, a scandal unto mine,
Is deeply trenched in my blushing brow.
Ah, Franklin, Franklin, when I think on this,
My heart's grief rends my other powers
Worse than the conflict at the hour of death.
And yet there is something slightly off with this outburst. Arden is as much outraged by the damage to his public reputation (“her faults are painted in my face”; “a scandal unto mine”) as he is by the violation of his marriage bed. The fact is, while the play sympathises with Arden’s position and condemns his murder, it does not really present Arden as a very sympathetic character. Note he has clearly swindled Greene out of some land (giving Greene at least a motive to hate him) and later in the play (Act 4) he is accosted by a sailor called Reede, who complains that Arden has swindled him out of land too and left his family to starve. (The play’s epilogue confirms that Reede is telling the truth). So Arden was apparently some aggressive property-developing sharper of the mid-16th century.
One can speculate that this true story could have been told in ways that would not make Arden look so innocent.
So to the question: Why do I like this grotesque and funny and tragic old play? Partly because I like the very excesses of it, which sometimes strike gold in terms of imagery. Take the early moment where Mosbie reports that the painter Clarke can kill somebody with the absurd device of a painting giving off toxic fumes:
I happened on a painter yesternight,
The only cunning man of Christendom;
For he can temper poison with his oil,
That whoso looks upon the work he draws
Shall, with the beams that issue from his sight,
Suck venom to his breast and slay himself.
Sweet Alice, he shall draw thy counterfeit,
That Arden may, by gazing on it, perish.
This is supremely silly as a means of murder, and yet the idea of looking on and admiring the image of a loved one, when it is in fact lethal, is a nice metaphor for Arden’s trusting relationship with his murderous wife. Later, there is talk of a similarly toxic crucifix, which could be seen as a metaphor for religious duties (the sacrament of marriage) gone badly wrong.
Even more attractive to me, however, is how this tale of murder really does read so much like the old films noirs. The adulterous lovers planning to bump off the husband? Yep – Fred MacMurray and Barabara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. When you get to Act 3, Scene 5 of Arden of Feversham, you have the inevitable scene where the adulterous couple doubt each other and each begins to wonder if the other will rat on him/her once the murder is done, like the way Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor don’t trust each other in The Maltese Falcon. There are moments when the weak and conscience-stricken Michael, set up and threatened by the other conspirators, looks like the patsy Elisha Cook Jr. role. Then there’s the wicked femme fatale who sweet talks the poor male sap into doing what she wants, like Jane Greer leading Robert Mitchum along by the nose (before he wises up) in Out of the Past. “Ah, how you women can insinuate/ And clear a trespass with your sweet-set tongue!” exclaims Mosbie to Alice in Act 3, Scene 5.
The scene where Alice suckers Greene into helping her is a model of this sort of thing. She tells him that her husband is slapping her around and cheating on her and planning to have her killed and is generally a filthy brute. I’m sure she has most appealing tears threatening her eyes as she says so:
Ah, Master Greene, be it spoken in secret here,
I never live good day with him alone:
When he 's at home, then have I froward looks,
Hard words and blows to mend the match withal;
And though I might content as good a man,
Yet doth he keep in every corner trulls;
And when he's weary with his trugs at home.
Then rides he straight to London ; there, forsooth,
He revels it among such filthy ones
As counsels him to make away his wife.
Thus live I daily in continual fear,
In sorrow ; so despairing of redress
As every day I wish with hearty prayer
That he or I were taken forth the world.
(late in Act One)
Now I grant you that this play does not have a well-wrought plot. There is no carefully staged climax. Instead there are all those messy attempts at murder until we come to the bloody outburst of the last act. This has usually been explained on the grounds that it is, after all, chronicling a real case from a (sort of) factual source, and hence it is intent on not leaving any of the details out. The play’s epilogue is spoken by Arden’s friend Franklin and goes thus:
Thus have you seen the truth of Arden's death.
As for the ruffians, Shakebag and Black Will,
The one took sanctuary, and, being sent for out,
Was murdered in Southwark as he passed
To Greenwich, where the Lord Protector lay.
Black Will was burned in Flushing on a stage;
Greene was hanged at Osbridge in Kent;
The painter fled and how he died we know not.
But this above the rest is to be noted:
Arden lay murdered in that plot of ground
Which he by force and violence held from Reede;
And in the grass his body's print was seen
Two years and more after the deed was done.
Gentlemen, we hope you'll pardon this naked tragedy,
Wherein no fil’d points are foisted in
To make it gracious to the ear or eye;
For simple truth is gracious enough,
And needs no other points of glosing stuff.
You’ll note how this neatly ties up all the loose ends. It’s like one of those running titles at the end of a crime reconstruction that hastily tells us what happened after the dramatised part. This makes me wonder if Arden of Feversham isn’t the ancestor of docu-dramas as well as of film noir. As for the last five lines, they are really pleading “We’re giving you the facts, Ma’am, nohing but the facts”. But delightfully, this is not the case, for most of Arden of Feversham jogs by on most acceptable blank verse.
I’d certainly rather read this than the convolutions of poor George Chapman.