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Arden of Feversham (c. 1591)

Arden of Feversham (c. 1591)

Hundred Word Summary

Arden is awarded the Abbey lands, but it’s controversial.  Meanwhile his wife Alice, in love with Mosbie, is planning her husband’s murder.

Schemes are hatched – but not all are credible.  Black Will and Shakebag are engaged, but their pursuit of Arden to London proves hapless.

Back in Kent, Arden catches Alice canoodling with Mosbie, and stabs his rival. But he’s fooled into thinking he’s mistaken, and apologises.

Playing dice with Mosbie, Arden is attacked and killed.  But the evidence proves hard to erase.

So to the court-room, with death sentences for five conspirators, and three further deaths in the aftermath.


Table of Contents


“Arden of Feversham” was published anonymously in 1592, around the time of Shakespeare’s arrival in London.  Its authorship is disputed – it has been attributed variously to Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Watson – but it seems likely that a number of the scenes at the heart of the play are by Shakespeare, and certainly they bear his imprint.

The play, based on a true story, describes a domestic murder.  Arden is wealthy, and his wealth is increasing with the grant of Abbey lands freed up after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  But his right to these lands is disputed.  Meanwhile his wife is having an affair with one of the men with a claim on the lands.

The play sticks fairly rigidly to the known facts of the case: there is no historical dispute about Arden’s wealth, his wife’s infidelity, her lover’s complicity in the murder and the wealth of evidence convicting the guilty.  At the same time, the play explores a number of related themes, including justice, morality and social class.

Collaboration between playwrights was routine in the Elizabethan theatre, just as it is today in the television and film industries.  The 2016 edition of the Oxford Shakespeare confirms him as one of the play’s authors: the increasing sophistication of computer programmes analysing language choices and patterns may eventually reveal the identity of his collaborators. 

Scene by Scene


Scene One / Act One Scene One

Arden has been granted “the lands of the Abbey of Feversham”, but he still feels “melancholy”.

The reason: his wife is having an affair with Mosbie, exchanging love-letters and even jewellery.

Mosbie, who is Lord Clifford’s steward, has made his way in the world with “flattery and fawning”.

Arden angrily pledges to punish Mosbie, threatening to have “his dissevered joints and sinews torn”.

Franklin suggests Arden join him in London, since women are most reliable when they feel free.

Arden hails his wife and asks her gently to explain why she would “call on Mosbie in thy sleep”.

To Alice’s apparent dismay, Arden reveals he is going to London for a month, and leaves “ere noon”.

In a soliloquy, Alice reveals her delight that Arden is leaving, and wishes he could be lost at sea.

But she reveals that Mosbie “is the man that hath my heart”, and adds: “he shall be mine”.

News comes that Mosbie is back in town, but Alice may not see him – instructions she rejects.

In a second soliloquy, Alice is determined to see Arden dead – and as for Mosbie: “I love only thee”.

Alice reminds Arden’s servant Michael to “keep your oath” to kill Arden within “a week”.

For this he will be rewarded with Mosbie’s sister – though he has heard she is promised elsewhere.

He issues various threats, pledging to murder his own brother so as to gain “the farm of Bolton”.

Mosbie arrives, and dismisses Alice’s amorous greeting, insisting “henceforward know me not”.

Alice reminds Mosbie that she’s “descended of a noble house” while he is of the servant class.

Mosbie claims he was testing her, and they reconcile as Alice reveals that Arden “will to London”.

Mosbie reveals a plan to have a portrait painted that will poison its observer, and show it to Arden.

Clarke the painter arrives, and agrees with Alice and Mosbie that he will have Susan as his payment.

They settle on a plan to poison Arden’s “broth”, and with the appearance of Arden, Clarke leaves.

Mosbie questions Arden about the Abbey lands, but Arden challenges him about his affair with Alice.

Arden grabs Mosbie’s sword and threatens the next time he’s “near my house” he’ll cut his legs off.

Mosbie admits he loved Alice once, but now only comes to the house to see his sister, Alice’s maid.

Arden admits that if Mosbie now avoids his house, this will only lend credibility to the rumours.

Arden tries Alice’s broth but finds it “not wholesome” – whereupon Alice throws it “on the ground”.

Arden is not suspicious of Alice, however, and leaves for London calling Mosbie his “dearest friend”.

After Arden has gone Alice suggests having her husband murdered in London by “alehouse ruffians”.

Dick Greene arrives and enquires about the recent grant of the Feversham Abbey lands to Arden.

Greene believes Arden has taken his land unlawfully, and tells Alice to tell Arden “I’ll be revenged”.

Alice complains her husband beats her, sleeps with prostitutes (“trulls”) and talks about killing her.

Alice gives Greene ten pounds to kill her husband and promises “twenty more” when Arden is dead.

Greene departs for London to commit the murder and Clarke arrives to romance “fair Susan”.

Mosbie rebukes Alice for involving Greene – such openness will “bring myself and thee to ruin …”.

Clarke returns with Susan to announce they’re to be married, but Mosbie requests a quid pro quo.

He asks him to make a crucifix that will make the beholder blind and “die poisoned”, and he agrees.

Clarke agrees, but when he asks who the poisoned crucifix is for, he is told “Leave that to us”.

Scene Two / Act Two Scene One

Shakebag and Black Will are introduced, the latter a villain who “for a crown [will] murder any man”.

Bradshaw and Black Will were once companions, but Bradshaw notes “those days are past with me”.

But he asks Will to help him find the thief who tried to sell stolen property in his jeweller’s shop.

Will identifies the thief, enabling Bradshaw to hurry off to pass the information on to the victim.

Alone with the villains, Greene explains that he has been robbed of “the Abbey land” by Arden.

Black Will and Shakebag agree that for “twenty angels” they will head for London to murder Arden.

Greene pays the villains £10, promising an enthusiastic Black Will “twenty more” on Arden’s demise.

Scene Three / Act Two Scene Two

In London, Arden’s servant Michael reads aloud a letter he has written to Susan back in Feversham.

He’s “lost my master’s pantofles” [shoes], but begs Susan to abandon the painter Clarke for himself.

His reading is overheard by Arden, who rebukes him for romancing a “trull” and pledges to sack her.

Arden departs with Franklin, leaving Greene to brief the two villains on where to locate their prey.

Will explains the plan: as Arden leaves the inn Will stabs him before they head for “water and away”.

Will suffers an accidental blow to the head, allowing Arden – coincidentally present – to get away.

Will grumbles about the payment, while Shakebag explains that “another time we’ll do it, I warrant”.

Will describes his keen determination to murder Arden, promising not to wash till the deed is done.

Michael reappears, described by Greene as willing to kill Arden to advance his romance with Susan.

Michael tells the villains where Arden is sleeping that night, only to be interrogated by Black Will.

He says Michael’s desire to romance Susan, advance Mosbie and “kill your master” is widely known.

But Will adds that Michael’s job is to prepare the ground for the murder, while he will “perform it”.

Michael agrees he has sworn to kill Arden but he will nonetheless “deliver [him] over to your hands”.

Alone, Michael compares Arden’s “harmless” and “gentle” life with his own “fraudful” behaviour.

Scene Four / Act Three Scene One

Arden believes that his wife is “rooted in her wickedness”, leaving him in pain worse than death.

He can’t bear to go home, he says, but remaining in London enables Mosbie to “usurp my room”.

When Arden retires to bed, Franklin reflects sympathetically on the “fretful jealousy” Arden is facing.

Michael is left with a dilemma: Arden’s “kindness” against his own oath to kill his master for Susan.

But Michael is terrified of Will and Shakebag, and his screams bring Arden and Franklin to the rescue.

Arden is horrified to discover the doors “unlocked”, and warns his man against further “pranks”.

Scene Five / Act Three Scene Two

Outside Franklin’s house, Shakebag confidently anticipates “Arden sent to everlasting night”.

Black Will is anxious, but when he’s accused of “fear”, he boasts “I’ll do as much as Shakebag”.

They discover Franklin’s doors locked, triggering murderous thoughts in Will towards Michael.

Shakebag agrees, claiming he’ll cut “the nose off from the coward’s face / And trample on it”.

They agree to find Greene, and to leave Michael’s punishment until tomorrow “At the alehouse”.

Scene Six / Act Three Scene Three

Arden dreamt that, out hunting deer, he was attacked by a “herdman … / With falchion drawn”.

When he awoke, he felt as if he’d seen “a lion foraging about”, and couldn’t recover his courage.

Arden claims his dreams often come true, but Franklin is dismissive: “’tis but a mockery”, he says.

They agree to dine together at St Paul’s, then catch the flood tide taking them back to Feversham.

Scene Seven / Act Three Scene Four

Michael explains to the “ruffians” he left the doors unlocked as agreed, but Franklin locked them.

But he adds that Arden and Franklin are heading for the river and may be confronted at Rainham.

Scene Eight / Act Three Scene Five

Mosbie reflects that his “troubled mind is stuffed with discontent” – the result of “excess of drink”.

He used to sleep well, he says, but the higher he climbs, the more he “dread[s] my downfall”.

He reflects that Arden has many enemies, some of whom may one day enquire into his death.

He means to set them against one another – and though he doesn’t trust Alice, he’ll dispose of her.

Alice tells Mosbie she was “bewitched” by him, and now wants to return “to my former happy life”.

But he claims he gave up “the marriage of an honest maid” for Alice, and he too was “bewitched”.

Now he sees “how foul thou art” where once he “thought thee fair”, deriding her as “counterfeit”.

When Alice retracts, Mosbie sarcastically reveals his resentment that he is too lower-class for her.

Alice blames herself (she has been “too blind”), and accepts that Mosbie “is as gentle as a king”.

The jeweller Bradshaw appears, delivering a letter from Greene promising to complete the murder.

Scene Nine / Act Three Scene Six

An argument between Black Will and Shakebag over various “terms of manhood” ends in a scuffle.

Greene departs, advising them to “brawl not” in his absence, and to be ready to despatch Arden.

Arden and Franklin appear, along with Michael, who excuses himself so as to avoid the “massacre”.

Franklin is suddenly anxious, but Arden dismisses his complaint and asks him to finish his story.

Apparently a wife has been on trial and has much to regret, but Franklin is unable to continue.

As Will and Shakebag prepare to attack, Lord Cheiny appears, and invites Arden to dine with him.

But Arden has “an honest friend” he is due to meet, and arranges to dine with Cheiny the next day.

Cheiny greets Black Will cheerfully, but warns him that even a “penny-matter” will see him hang.

Shakebag acknowledges that Arden has “wondrous holy luck”, and pledges to shoot him tomorrow.

Scene Ten / Act Four Scene One

Arden is preparing to leave his home, accompanied by Franklin, to go to dinner with Lord Cheiny.

Alice grumbles about Arden leaving home, but rejects his offer when invited to join them.

Arden loves her “dearer than my life”, he says – a claim she will test “by your quick return”.

Michael, claiming he has lost his purse, stays behind to look for it and to predict their demise.

Clarke the painter, Michael’s rival for Susan’s hand, argues with Michael and “breaks [his] head”.

Clarke gives Alice the poisoned crucifix, designed to “make him wise in death that lived a fool”.

Mosbie waxes idealistic about love while Greene suggests they go and check up on the murderers.

Scene Eleven / Act Four Scene Two

Arden locates the ferryman, and they head off to cross the river in dense mist, discussing their wives.

Scene Twelve / Act Four Scene Three

Black Will and Shakebag suspect that horses racing past them in the mist are their quarry.

Shakebag is rescued from a ditch by the ferryman, who confirms the identity of his passengers.

Mosbie arrives and asks “is the deed done?” The villains promise to wait for Arden when he returns.

Alice gives them money to adjourn to the Flower-de-luce in Feversham to “rest yourselves”.

Mosbie wants to abort the murder, but is persuaded to go on when shown Alice’s poisoned crucifix.

Scene Thirteen / Act Four Scene Four

Dick Reede, a sailor “now bound to the sea”, challenges Arden about a disputed “plat / Of ground”.

The land would help to sustain his “Needy” wife and children: “for Christ’s sake, let them have it!”

Arden claims the land was “bought of him”, and threatens him with jail if he continues the dispute.

Reede curses him, wishing him “butchered by thy dearest friends” and asking God for “Vengeance”.

Arden tells Franklin his wife “is grown passing kind of late” in contrast to her previous behaviour.

But when he comes across her, she is arm in arm with Mosbie, swords are drawn and a fight erupts.

Alice exclaims ambiguously “they murder my husband” as Mosbie is wounded by an enraged Arden.

Shakebag appears and is wounded, leading Mosbie to flee along with the two would-be murderers.

Alone with Franklin and her husband, Alice claims her kissing Mosbie was a “sport” to tease Arden.

She berates her husband, describing herself as a “Poor wench abused”, always judged negatively.

Arden is mortified and apologises, admitting he has “wronged my friend” and asking her to mediate.

Franklin is appalled at Arden’s capitulation, questioning why Mosbie taunted him as a cuckold.

But Arden asks Franklin to “hold thy peace”, because “I know my wife counsels me for the best”.

Alone, Franklin sympathises with Arden as one “bewitched”, but accepts he cannot interfere.

Scene Fourteen / Act Five Scene One

Greene believes they should abandon the murder, while Will boasts about his fearless exploits.

Will accepts the murder should have been done by now, and believes Arden “preserved by miracle”.

Michael tells Alice that Arden paid compensation to Mosbie for stabbing him in last night’s brawl.

Alice tells Michael to encourage Mosbie to “steal from him” before they complete his murder later.

Alice asks the villains why they failed to kill Arden the night before: first Franklin stabbed Shakebag.

Then Arden stabbed Mosbie through the shoulder, both villains “so amazed, I could not strike”.

Will reassures Alice they’ll follow Arden to the fair and “stab him in the crowd, and steal away”.

The injured Mosbie arrives and demands of the villains a promise to carry out the murder that night.

They will be locked in “the counting-house” and will attack Arden when they hear the signal.

Will tells Alice he will approach Arden from behind, stab him and leave his body “behind the Abbey”.

Alice promises him £60 and horses to make good his escape, and Will promises imminent results.

In a soliloquy, Alice derides Arden as “a silly man” and looks forward to lying in Mosbie’s embrace.

Arden appears with Mosbie, to be rebuked by Alice for bringing home a friend of Will and Shakebag.

She explains that Mosbie has “purchased me ill friends” – triggering Mosbie’s admiration for her lies.

Mosbie affects to be offended that she is not more welcoming, but she tells him “you may be gone”.

Arden admits that guilt at injuring Mosbie “without cause” is his motive for befriending him now.

While Arden and Mosbie enjoy a game of backgammon, Black Will hides behind the servant Michael.

Mosbie gives the watchword “Now I take you”, and Arden is stabbed by Mosbie, Shakebag and Alice.

Michael panics, Arden is laid in the counting-house, and Shakebag and Will make plans to escape.

Susan announces “the guests are at the doors” before she joins Alice in clearing up Arden’s blood.

When Mosbie returns to be blamed by Alice for the murder, he tells her to “think no more of him”.

The landlord and the jeweller appear, while Greene tells Alice he saw Arden “behind the Abbey”.

Franklin arrives, to admit – truthfully enough no doubt – that he has not seen Arden since morning.

The guests sit, Mosbie in Arden’s chair, while Michael reveals plans to permanently silence Alice.

Mosbie raises his glass to Arden, while Alice bursts into tears apparently anxious about her husband.

She resists her guests’ reassurances, and despatches Franklin to “find him [and] send him home”.

After the guests depart, Alice and Susan open the counting-house door to look at Arden’s body.

Mosbie reveals that Franklin is suspicious, while Michael announces the approach of the Mayor.

Mosbie and Greene agree to remove the body “to the fields” encouraging Alice to “confess nothing”.

Susan reports that the villains’ footsteps will be visible in the snow, but Alice dismisses her fears.

The Mayor arrives, keen to arrest Black Will, before Franklin arrives to announce that Arden is dead.

A bloody towel and a knife have been found – evidence Michael was supposed to have disposed of.

The Mayor accuses Alice of his murder, and Franklin reports suspicious footsteps in the snow.

Franklin finds blood in the house and rushes on Arden’s shoes – “he was murdered in this room”.

Warning they’ll regret Arden’s murder, Franklin orders that Alice and “her ‘complices” are arrested.

Scene Fifteen / Act Five Scene Two

Shakebag admits he has killed “The widow Chambly”, with whom he had intended to seek refuge.

Scene Sixteen / Act Five Scene Three

At Arden’s house, Alice confesses to the murder, and accepts her forthcoming punishment.

Franklin observes that Mosbie has been caught red-handed with Arden’s “purse and girdle”.

Mosbie incriminates Black Will and Shakebag, as Franklin pledges to “apprehend them”.

Scene Seventeen / Act Five Scene Four

Black Will on the run recalls some close encounters with the law, and means to head for Flushing.

Scene Eighteen / Act Five Scene Five

On trial, Bradshaw calls on Alice to agree that he was innocent of Arden’s murder – which she does.

She is focused on her fate, though Mosbie regrets he was ever involved with “that strumpet”.

Susan protests her innocence while Michael blames Mosbie and Alice for giving his consent.

Alice repents, Mosbie rages, Susan regrets, Michael accepts and Bradshaw craves revenge.

But the Mayor pronounces the death sentence on them: “To speedy execution with them all!”

Scene Nineteen / Act Five Scene Six

Franklin delivers further news on the fate of Shakebag (murdered) and Black Will (burned).

Furthermore, Greene was hanged and Clarke the painter “fled” – no more of him is known.

Franklin adds that Arden stole the disputed Abbey land from Reede “by force and violence”.

He closes by arguing that “simple truth” is “enough” for recounting “this naked tragedy”.


Thinking Aloud

Alice’s first soliloquy gives the playwright the chance to show the audience that she is not to be trusted.  When Arden reveals (line 81) that he’s “to London presently”, Alice looks heart-broken: “Sweet Arden”, she begs him, “come again / Within a day or two, or else I die”.  His response is practical as he heads off “unto the quay”.  As soon as he has left, however, Alice reveals her true feelings: her husband’s trip to London is “Sweet news” – she only wishes he could be lost at sea.  Moreover, “marriage is but words” and her true love is Mosbie.  So like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, the audience learns to distrust the leading female character from the start.

When in the opening scene Arden tells Mosbie “you may not wear a sword”, he is referring to a Sumptuary Statute passed in 1562 limiting the size of swords and daggers allowed in public.  In general, Sumptuary Laws governed (among other things) dress codes permitted to each class in society.  That this particular society is especially class-conscious may be imagined from the reminder Alice gives to Mosbie (line 202) when he first appears: she is descended from aristocrats, she tells him, and you’re a servant. Here Arden merely reminds Mosbie that he’s a former “botcher” (or tailor), and tells him to forget about his sword and “use your bodkin” (or needle). Later he calls him a “base-minded peasant”.  Some of these anxieties re-emerge in 3.5, when Mosbie reflects on the price of ambition.

The grant of the lands of Feversham Abbey is a recurring theme in the opening act of the play.  The grant of these lands to Arden is the first piece of information we are given as the play begins.  When Mosbie appears, he asks Arden about the grant, suggesting that he has a claim of his own.  Arden dismisses any such idea.  Next, Greene, an accomplice of Alice, appears (line 459), asking about the grant, arguing that he has been deprived of his lands.  The issue arises because following the Dissolution of the Monasteries at the Reformation, Henry VIII suddenly had land and buildings to dispose of. 

The appearance of Black Will and Shakebag, two pantomime villains, may serve as a reminder that when Shakespeare first came to London in the late 1580s, he was probably employed as an actor.  The background to this play – its author, its actors, the theatre in which it was first performed – must be speculation, but it seems reasonable to imagine a certain native of Stratford amusing himself as co-author as well as actor at this point.  Shakebag’s contribution at 2 / 2 / 110 is especially striking: “I cannot paint my valour out with words”, he claims.  In reality, it appears the villain’s name was George Loosebagg.

If the villains Black Will and Shakebag anticipate the various rogues and criminals who crop up in Shakespeare’s plays (the murderers of Clarence in “Richard III” for example, or the murderers in “Macbeth”), Michael’s struggles with his conscience at the end of Act Two may well evoke comparisons with Macbeth himself, committed to murdering Duncan but whole-heartedly reluctant to proceed.  Like Macbeth, Michael simply has no answer to his own anxieties, and no option but to go through with the crime: “Let pity lodge where feeble women lie”, he concludes.  “I am resolved, and Arden needs must die”.  It could be Macbeth speaking.

In the same vein, Franklin’s soliloquy in Scene Four / 3.1, in which he laments the pain caused by jealousy, triggers comparisons with “Othello”.  Indeed, Arden’s plight throughout this play evokes parallels with that text. But a quite different text, Sonnet 29, might be in the author’s (authors’?) mind here.  Both texts speak of “sullen earth”: in Franklin’s view, the victim of jealousy will “fix his sad eyes on the sullen earth”, whereas in the sonnet, the poet’s mood will occasionally take flight “From sullen earth”.   Moreover, the jealous man in his grief will (in Franklin’s account) “cast his eyes up towards the heavens” just as the speaker of the sonnet will “trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries”.  A 2006 computer analysis of the play suggests that Scenes 4 to 9 may have been written by Shakespeare.

Arden sleeps badly after his narrow escape in the opening scenes of Act Three.  He dreams that a deer hunt in which he was participating suddenly turned its weapons on himself: “God grant this vision bedeem me any good”, he says, adding uneasily that “oftentimes my dreams presage too true”.  Franklin believes dreams tell us nothing: “use it not”, he tells his friend, “’tis but a mockery”.  Thus begins a debate about the reliability of dreams that will run through Shakespeare’s drama – taking in characters like Romeo (who dreams of his own death), through Caesar’s wife (who predicts her husband’s murder) and on to Lady Macbeth (who cannot forget what happened to Duncan). 

Mosbie’s soliloquy in 3.5 is notable for the numerous ways in which it anticipates Shakespeare’s mature works.  In particular it triggers thoughts of two characters, Richard III and Iago, who use soliloquy to take the audience into their confidence.  Here Mosbie explains that though he doesn’t trust Alice, she can’t testify against him once they are married, and anyway, he intends to “rid my hands of her” when the chance comes. Then when she appears at the door, he changes his tune – “I must flatter her” – with such shameless candour that the audience is mesmerised as well as horrified.  Shakespeare may have discovered here that theatre audiences find evil characters irresistible.

Tensions between Mosbie and Alice evidently originate in social factors: Mosbie admits in his soliloquy that he has a “troubled mind” and notes that he was happiest when he had nothing: “My golden time was when I had no gold”, he observes.  Now, though, he has “climbed the top-bower of the tree” and fears “my downfall to the earth”.  These insights are put to bed when Alice appears, but revived when they discuss their relationship: Mosbie resents the idea that “My wings are feathered for a lowly flight”, and adds sarcastically that “We beggars must not breathe where gentles are”.  The upper-class Alice is quick to reassure him: “Sweet Mosbie is as gentle as a king”, she breathes.

With the assassins in place and a complex murder plot unfolding, the author interrupts the action to bring his audience a scene laced with double-entendres presumably designed to amuse the groundlings.  The ferryman equates his wife with the moon, triggering Arden to speculate that “by this reckoning you sometimes play the man in the moon” – what we might nowadays describe as schoolboy humour.  The ferryman replies that she were best left alone “lest I scratch you by the face with my bramble-bush” – presumably a reference to his private parts.  A scene very like this appears in “Macbeth” (1606), involving not a ferryman but a porter and (again) two upper class men on an important mission.

As momentum gathers towards the murder, Alice is revealed as a master of dissembling, brilliant at persuading her husband that his own eyes are deceiving him. When she is caught arm in arm with Mosbie in Scene Thirteen, for example, she passes off her intimacies as “intended sport”, a “jest” designed “to try thy patience”, and she describes the treacherous Mosbie as “free from harm”.  She has previously derided him as a fool, and now he proves her right by accepting her version of events and begging her forgiveness.  Franklin’s role is to speak for the audience in challenging this account –  and to be ignored.

Shakespearean audiences who enjoy a dramatic trial may feel that Scene Eighteen (Act Five Scene Five) is something of an anti-climax.  In “The Merchant of Venice” the intervention of Portia as Balthazar changes the course of the trial, with her insight that a pound of flesh is not a pint of blood; in “The Winter’s Tale”, confirmation of Hermione’s faithfulness to her husband comes from the Oracle at Delphos to abruptly undermine his suspicions and end her trial; and in “Henry VIII” the refusal of Queen Katherine to stand trial in 2.4 anticipates her sudden walk-out.  Here, by contrast, we are offered something of a fait accompli, as various criminals are left to come to terms with their fate.

Franklin’s closing remarks in Act Five Scene Six offer three significant codas to the account of “this naked tragedy”.  First he reflects on the fate of the principals – Shakebag was murdered, Will burned, Greene hanged – bringing the body count (including Arden) to nine.  Second, he gratuitously notes that Reede the sailor (met in Scene Thirteen, Act Four Scene Four) was indeed deceived by Arden, who took his land “by force and violence”. Finally, he suggests that the story is best told plainly: the “simple truth” is “enough”, he says, and there is no need for “glosing stuff” or verbosity.  Our job (he might almost be saying) is simply to hold a mirror up to nature.

Quick Quiz

  1. What is Mosbie’s employment?
  2. Which three male characters compete for the hand of Susan?
  3. What role is Michael to play in Will’s murder of Arden in London?
  4. Who brings Greene’s letter to Mosbie, promising to dispose of Arden?
  5. What is the name of the sailor who disputes Arden’s title to the Abbey lands?
  6. What does Alice promise to pay Will to murder Arden in 5.1?
  7. What is Arden doing when he is attacked?
  8. Where in the house is his body hidden after his murder?
  9. Which two pieces of evidence was Michael supposed to dispose of?
  10. Which two pieces of Arden’s property are found on Mosbie after the murder?
  1. Steward to Lord Clifford
  2. Michael the Ardens’ servant, Clarke and Greene
  3. To make sure the doors are unlocked
  4. Bradshaw
  5. Dick Reede
  6. Sixty pounds and horses to escape.
  7. Playing backgammon with mosbie
  8. In the counting-house
  9. A towel and a knife
  10. A purse and a girdle


Arden: a contradictory character, quick to anger (witness his threats to Mosbie in the opening scene, and his stabbing of the same character in Act Four) – but also quick to repent and beg forgiveness.  Not the sharpest of men, his friend Franklin recognises the real state of his relationship and explains it to him, but he rejects his advice, on the inaccurate grounds that he understands his own wife. Rich and apparently keen to get richer, his treatment of Reede in Act Four does him no credit, and he is condemned by his own friend Franklin in the final scene, when we learn he “held” the property from Reede “by force and violence”.  So he is more (or less) than just a victim.

Alice: our first encounter with Alice reveals a comically dishonest woman, and nothing that happens thereafter alters that impression – until the penultimate scene, in which she is shown making her peace with her fate.  Mosbie, who knows her best, condemns her at one point as a “counterfeit”, and that seems a concise summary.

Mosbie: uneasy about his social background among the higher classes whose company he keeps these days, he reveals in one illuminating passage that he felt happier when he had nothing.  Given to a kind of self-serving nostalgia, he claims (in conversation with Alice) that he could have married better years ago.  But he is drawn to Arden’s wealth – he’s caught with his purse after the murder – and no doubt he also derives some pleasure from taunting him with a horn, a symbol of cuckoldry, before he is stabbed. At his trial he denounces Alice as “that strumpet”.

Last Word

“Arden of Feversham” is regarded as the first English drama to focus on a domestic dispute.  It may also be the first detective story.  All the elements are in place, including the victim, the motive, the detective and a cast of culprits reminiscent of Agatha Christie: Mosbie, Alice, Michael, Susan, Greene, Black Will and Shakebag ensure that whoever lands the final blow, Arden’s days are numbered.

Evidence plays a prominent part at the climax of the play.  The spilled blood is cleaned up or obscured by rushes, but not very well: rushes are found on the victim’s shoes, and blood has to be passed off unconvincingly as wine.  A hand towel and a knife, meant to have been disposed of by Michael, will be of interest to the prosecution, and the foot-steps in the snow will catch the eye of the jury.  Remnants of the broth, poisoned and dismissed as “not wholesome” by Arden, may even be discovered by an eagle-eyed detective.

Like all good detective stories, “Arden of Feversham” is ultimately a morality tale: the crime is solved, evil is vanquished, the guilty are punished, equilibrium is restored.  The quarto published in 1592 proclaims a play “Wherin is shewed the great malice and dissimulation of a wicked woman, the unsatiable desire of filthie lust and the shamefull end of all murderers”.  A distinctly contemporary concoction – but then Shakespeare, as Ben Jonson observed, was not of an age but for all time.

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