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Arden of Faversham

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1592

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Summary and Study Guide


Arden of Faversham is an Elizabethan play originally performed in 1592. The play’s authorship is disputed. While potential authors include Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Watson, computer stylometric analyses attribute probable authorship to William Shakespeare. The Oxford Shakespeare attributes the play to Shakespeare and an anonymous collaborator, potentially Watson.

The play is the first extant example of English domestic tragedy, which would subsequently flourish throughout Elizabeth and Jamesian drama and be rekindled in the 1700s. It is based on the real-life murder of Thomas Arden by his wife, Alice, and her lover Richard Mosby. The account of the crime was preserved in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which Elizabethan audiences were well acquainted with, and which served as a frequent reference for early modern dramatists.

Other notable adaptations of Arden’s murder include the 17th-century English broadside ballad “The complaint and lamentation of Mistresse Arden of Feversham in Kent,” a 1799 ballet at London’s Sadler Wells Theatre, and a 1967 opera by Alexander Goehr entitled Arden Must Die.

This study guide refers to the Oxford University Press 2008 Oxford World’s Classics edition of A Woman Killed with Kindness and Other Domestic Plays.

Content Warning: The source material features the on-stage portrayal of spousal murder.

Plot Summary

Thomas Arden, a wealthy man who has just come into possession of the lands of Faversham Abbey, is distressed about the infidelity of his wife, Alice. Though Alice denies it, she is indeed carrying on an affair with Mosby, a former tailor risen to service in a nobleman’s house. Though Alice wants to be with Mosby, her marriage vows prevent it as there was no avenue to divorce in early modern England for a consummated marriage. Alice and Mosby thus decide to kill Arden. Alice recruits Michael, her servant, by promising him that he can marry Mosby’s sister Susan. Mosby recruits his neighbor, a painter named Clarke, with the same reward. Clarke gives Mosby and Alice poison to put in Arden’s breakfast, but Arden tastes something strange and does not finish it.

Alice then recruits Greene, a man who was previously promised ownership of the abbey and thus bears a grudge toward Arden. She gives him money to hire murderers. He selects Black Will and Shakebag, two men who are infamous throughout York for their crimes. Greene, Will, and Shakebag plan to murder Arden in the evening near some shop stalls. However, a closing shop window hits Will on the head and his cries incite a scuffle among the tradesmen. Thinking that the brawl is meant as a distraction to enable pickpockets, Arden and his friend Franklin flee; this is the second failed murder attempt. Greene, Will, and Shakebag rope Michael into cooperating with them.

Now working with a team of criminals, Michael finds himself conflicted about his actions. He does not want to sell out Arden, but he has promised to help Alice, wants to win Susan’s hand, and is afraid of Will and Shakebag. He is supposed to leave the door unlocked for the criminals, but instead, he wakes up Arden and Franklin and lies about having had a dream that the house was broken into. Arden locks the doors, thwarting Will and Shakebag’s attempts to break in; this is the third failed murder attempt.

Mosby is growing increasingly paranoid. Now that he has accumulated some wealth and social power, he fears losing what he gained. He plans to kill all his co-conspirators before they can betray him. Meanwhile, Greene, Will, and Shakebag catch Arden on the road as he returns to Faversham. They get in position to attack but are diverted by Arden’s friend Lord Cheyne; this is the fourth failed murder attempt.

The criminals resolve to kill Arden the next day on his way to dinner at Lord Cheyne’s, but a heavy mist prevents this; this is the fifth failed attempt. Meanwhile, Arden is confronted by Dick Reede, the previous owner of the abbey. Arden reacts cruelly to Reede, and Reede curses him to die on the land Arden holds from him. Alice arranges for Arden to catch her with Mosby, which will enrage him and let the others sneak up and attack him, but her plan goes awry; this is the sixth failed attempt.

Finally, all the conspirators position themselves in Arden’s home. Mosby and Arden play tables, and when Mosby gives the word, everyone falls on Arden and stabs him to death. Together, they hide his body, with Susan helping to clean the bloodstains. Alice is immediately repentant and continuously breaks down in tears at the subsequent dinner party, stoking Franklin’s suspicions. Franklin finds Arden’s body, as well as the murder tools, which condemn Alice and her conspirators. Alice, Mosby, Michael, Susan, and Greene are all sentenced to execution, while Will is killed for other crimes and Shakebag is murdered.