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The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham, True Crime, and the Literary Marketplace of the 1580s.

ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM is today typically celebrated for its novelty: it is the first domestic tragedy, the original true crime drama, and the site, perhaps, of some of Shakespeare's earliest playwriting. Attending to it has the exciting potential to disrupt a number of our assumptions about early modern theater--about the meaning of genre in the period, about the imbrication of the domestic and the political, and about our critical approaches to the connections between anonymous works and major playwrights. However, Arden of Faversham is also a product of the literary culture of the long 1580s, in tune with a network of forms, influences, and traditions building in the preceding decades. In this essay, I shift the focus from difference to continuity by examining the play's connections to contemporary print culture through the lens of a single scene set amidst the booksellers of St. Paul's Churchyard. I argue that this scene provokes consideration of the play's connection to narratives of true crime murder in non-dramatic forms, and invites a temporary refocusing of critical attention from Faversham to London, and to the play's engagement with the literary and media institutions of its day. Reading Arden of Faversham in this way, then, points to a way of reconceiving the relationship between theater and print culture in the 1580s, emphasizing their mutual development and interaction.

The details of Arden of Faversham's first performance and composition are unknown, although it is reasonable to speculate on a date in the late 1580s, as it has been plausibly suggested by Martin L. Wine that the play was composed after the second edition of Holinshed's Chronicles in 1587, on the basis that the latter's printed marginal notes seem to inform the play's treatment of the events. This would be compatible with a first performance date several years before the first printed edition in 1592. In addition to Holinshed's Chronicles, the murder is recorded in chronicle histories by John Stow, including A Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles (1565, reprinted many times with slight variations), and The Chronicles of England from Brute vnto this present yeare of Christ 1580 (1580, reprinted in editions from 1592 called The Annals of England). There is also a long undated manuscript account that was found among Stow's papers, entitled The history of a most horrible murder comytyd at ffevershame in Kent. In 1577, Edward White entered A Cruell Murder Donne in Kent into the Stationers' Register, a lost text that may have been a pamphlet on the subject of the crime. There is a ballad written from the perspective of Mistress Arden, the earliest copy of which is dated 1633, but which may have been in circulation at an earlier date. The murder also left traces in administrative records and in the Breviat Chronicle for 1551. In addition, there is evidence that oral transmission of the events persisted for centuries after the crime, as manuscript notes apparently written in the eighteenth century by a Mr. Burton record local people's versions of the story. (1)

Although it is possible to describe Holinshed as the play's source, then, the various narratives surrounding the murder of Arden have multiple potential points of contact, and it is not possible to determine exactly the currents of influence. By situating Arden of Faversham in the context of the long 1580s, a periodization usefully theorized elsewhere in this Forum, however, we can look beyond a single source text to apprehend its generation in a broader and more tangled culture of literature and reporting. In this essay, working out from the analysis of the scene in St. Paul's Churchyard, I suggest that this is a perspective that the play itself seems to invite.

One of the many unsuccessful attempts on Thomas Arden's life in 1551 is said to have taken place while he walked with friends in St. Paul's Churchyard in London. Accounts of Arden's murder in both Holinshed's Chronicles and Stow's manuscript are richly alive to the detail of place that would also be an evocative feature of the play, but they give sparse notice to St. Paul's when compared with the play's treatment of the same incident. They note simply that Arden's disaffected tenant, Greene, identifies his landlord to the hired killer, Black Will, while he walks in St. Paul's, but that Arden ends up being fortuitously protected from harm because there were "so manie gentlemen that accompanied him to dinner." (2) No further elaboration is given on the location; it seems to go without saying for Greene and Black Will that they can count on finding Arden there, and, for the reader, it is evidently deemed to be so familiar that it requires no explanation.

In Arden of Faversham, in contrast, the significance of the setting is enlarged and made to resonate beyond its function as a backdrop. The manner in which the murderers' attempt is frustrated is considerably more detailed in the play than in the description above, and moreover it is detailed in a way that gestures specifically towards the pivotal role that St. Paul's played in England's book trade. This aspect of the location, which crucially underpins the dramatic action of the scene in Arden of Faversham, is absent in other redactions. Rather than a surfeit of dining companions providing an accidental guard, the St. Paul's scene in Arden of Faversham becomes expanded to a darkly comic set piece in which the assassins' murder attempt is foiled when a bookseller's apprentice "lets he down his window, and it breaks Black Will's head," in the words of the stage direction. In the ensuing quarrel, Arden passes by oblivious to the peril that has almost engulfed him.

As the center of the book trade in the second half of the sixteenth century, St. Paul's and its yards were crammed with buildings, many of them multiple stories high, and most of them occupied by stationers, as Peter Blayney has shown. (3) Arden of Faversham takes pains to capture this unique atmosphere and to foreground its central role in the literary marketplace. In doing so, it draws attention to the play's connection to printed accounts of true crime murder, and, more broadly, suggests a perceived continuity between the public spaces of print and theatrical culture in the 1580s. The decision to stage this scene with the addition of a bookseller's apprentice and what he describes as his stall (3.50) necessitates a large, focal stage property; it requires, at the very least, something with a moving part that can be lowered onto Black Will's head. As Shakebag describes it, "Standing against a stall, watching Arden's coming, / a boy let down his shop window and broke his head" (3.79-80). Natasha Korda and Jonathan Gil Harris note that the early modern stage was populated by "eye-catching objects," and a book stall seems as feasible as "a pair of stairs," a "tree of golden apples," or a "great horse with his legs," all of which are mentioned in Henslowe's 1598 inventory. (4) Another item mentioned in the inventory is a "wooden canepie," and something of this nature could perhaps have served for this scene.

A "stall" usually referred to the external wooden counter, described by Blayney as the distinguishing feature of an early modern bookshop. As well as fixed shops with a stall-board fitted to the front and some sort of roof above, which might have been possible to fold back when the shop was closed, there were likely moveable stalls earlier in the sixteenth century and up to the 1570s, according to Blayney. (5) In any case, the facade of a moveable stall would have been similar in appearance to that of a fixed structure, both containing a hinged window like the one the apprentice drops on Black Will's head. The stage property in Arden of Faversham, then, would have been readily recognizable as an icon of the book trade. The fact that moveable stalls seem to have died out by the 1580s and 1590s raises the intriguing possibility that the staging of this scene had the potential to conjure up an image of the recent past rather than--or, perhaps, as well as--the exactly contemporary book trade.

As Black Will is shooed away by the feisty bookseller's apprentice, the criminal threatens to tear down the bookseller's signs, implying that these are displayed on stage, as perhaps are examples of title pages or broadsides which might be pasted to the bookseller's shop as advertisements for the wares. Tom Lockwood makes the important observation that there is a broad pattern in Arden of Faversham of the play "materially placing itself in the same locations that it also fictionally represents," observing insightfully that this scene involves a "metatheatrical transgression between the represented and the representing world" as the play connects "the location that produced the material play text, and the immaterial, fictional world produced by the play text in performance." (6) Lockwood is alluding to the quarto playbook of Arden of Faversham, "imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the lyttle North dore of Paules Church at the signe of the Gun" in 1592, but the lost 1577 publication presumably based on a true murder, A Cruell Murder Donne in Kent, was also sold by Edward White and would have been for sale at this site.

This scene, then, equally opens a window onto the representing world of printed prose murder narratives and broadside ballads, relatively established forms which had been developing since at least the 1570s and potential antecedents to the play's dramatic invention. It also places these literary forms within a wider communicative framework, as it more broadly draws narrative energy from St. Paul's status as a hub of information exchange, news, and social activity. A hectic, bustling space is dramatically evoked in the stage movement of this scene, which is characterized by long exits, and by the presence of characters who remain visible while the focus of attention and center of dialogue is concentrated elsewhere on stage. This ambience is also insisted on in the scene's verbal descriptions of "the press" (crowd, with perhaps a punning slippage of meaning in this context) (3.51), the "troublesome fray or mutiny" (3.55), the "brabbling, paltry fray" (brabbling glossed as noisy, wrangling) (3.56), "the throng" (3.57), and "the tumult" (3.81).

At the same time, it is no accident that Michael's literary and sentimental aspirations are parodied in his bathetic letter to Susan, which is read aloud in the moments directly preceding this scene, in a way that suggests that he has been inspired by his time spent wandering among the booksellers at St. Paul's:
   This is to certify you that, as the turtle true, when she hath lost
   her mate, sitteth alone, so I, mourning for your absence, do walk
   up and down Paul's till one day I fell asleep and lost my master's
   pantofles [galoshes]. (3.5-8)

The letter is immediately confiscated and ridiculed by Arden, and the action swiftly proceeds to St. Paul's and the encounter with the bookseller's apprentice. The ensuing focus on St. Paul's as a literary marketplace is thus obliquely anticipated by Michael's letter, which is also emblematic of the play's self-consciousness about its own literary mediation of the events it treats.

Arden of Faversham, and subsequent early modern plays depicting real murders--A Warning for Fair Women (printed in 1599), Two Lamentable Tragedies (printed in 1601), and A Yorkshire Tragedy (printed in 1608)--have, of course, been previously connected to accounts of murder in pamphlet, ballad, and chronicle form. However, the scene in St. Paul's seems to invite a methodological approach that understands Arden of Faversham as part of a "communicative landscape," (7) in Joad Raymond's phrase, comprehending oral, literate, informal and formal, performed and printed modes of communication. As I have argued, it is difficult to establish a linear model of influence among the various texts in which the Arden story surfaces (before and after the play), and even more difficult to distinguish the truth of "what really happened" from how this was later embellished. This alternative method helps to bring into focus a lateral connection between true crime accounts in different modes and genres, and makes visible the extent to which Arden of Faversham seems to be concerned with the mediated nature of accounts of true crime murder.

By the time that the play is performed (possibly) in the late 1580s, it is characteristic of printed murder narratives to associate their publications with the righteous and didactic exposure of sin in a providential scheme. The subject of murder thus becomes a mechanism for justifying the power and usefulness of the form. However, such confident assertions are equally characteristically undercut by uneasiness that the narrative is not a privileged and superseding account, and that its authority needs to be constructed. Similarly, while Arden of Faversham claims to have offered "simple truth" in its epilogue, the play actually subjects the conventional narrative of discovery to scrutiny and complicates it. Instead of dwelling on the revelation of the crime, as other prose and dramatic accounts do, Arden of Faversham is built on a series of delays, as murder attempt after murder attempt fails, in a variety of colorful and surprising ways. From the outset, when Arden confides in his friend of illicit meetings between his wife and her lover, and the deep shame he feels, the play's characters inhabit a self-conscious and claustrophobic world of surveillance and deception. This has metatheatrical resonances as the play itself is a further mechanism of exposure, supposedly revealing the truth, but potentially confusing the facts further. Arden of Faversham ends with a series of executions, but the homiletic closure of the ending is unsettled by some of the guilty parties escaping punishment, on the one hand, and two innocents going to their deaths, on the other, as well as by the final surprising condemnation of Arden as an immoral landlord.

Instead of attempting to distance itself from the unruly energy of the print marketplace summoned in the scene in St. Paul's, the play's staging seems rather to draw attention to the affinities between the different modes. This has a bearing on how we understand the generic innovation offered by the play, and in turn, on our interpretation of the development of tragedy in the period. Although the play is usually referred to as a "domestic tragedy" in modern criticism, this is almost as frequently accompanied by an acknowledgment of the problematic nature of that label, which is a retrospective invention first applied by John Payne Collier in 1831. The term gives expression to our sense of the play's exciting novelty but it also risks artificially separating Arden of Faversham from other types of tragedy, and this in turn casts a shadow on the continuities that exist between murder pamphlets and tragic plays, and more generally on the contiguity between popular print and the popular stage that the scene in St. Paul's foregrounds.

On the title page of the printed playbook, Arden of Faversham is described as "a lamentable and true tragedy," and, as we have seen, in representing a real and relatively recent English murder, the play engages with the tradition of true crime representation that had been developing since the 1570s. However, the critical significance of these kinds of texts is sometimes obscured by their low survival rates. Arden of Faversham is the earliest extant theatrical example, but it has been speculated that the anonymous lost plays The Cruelty of a Stepmother and Murderous Michael, both performed by Sussex's Company in the late 1570s, might represent prior instantiations. Fewer than ten murder pamphlets survive from the 1570s and 1580s, and the corpus of broadside ballads dealing with real murders in this period is even more severely restricted, with only three texts extant from the sixteenth century, all on the subject of the murder of Master Page of Plymouth and probably dating from 1591. In contrast, Adam Fox calculates that every year between 1576 and 1640 there was probably an average of 300,000 texts printed, assuming print runs of about 1,000 copies per title, and that "three or four million broadside ballads were printed in the second half of the sixteenth century alone." (8)

In addition to the distorting effect of the paucity of surviving texts, the tendency to focus on the 1590s has meant that Arden of Faversham is typically conceptualized as coming at the start of an era, prompting us to look forward to later in the century and beyond, rather than backwards or sideways. Although it constitutes a brief section of the play as a whole, attending to the staging of the scene in St. Paul's instead invites consideration of Arden of Faversham as a product of the literary culture of the 1580s, in particular in the context of the development of the true crime murder pamphlet. In so doing, it has the potential to challenge our understanding of early modern tragedy and to reveal continuities rather than differences between supposedly "high" and "low" kinds of literature. It might also help us to understand the literary culture of the 1580s in terms of cooperation across different developing forms, encouraging a methodological approach that insists on regarding printed and performed texts as part of a broad continuous ecology, bringing into view the transactions between theatrical and print culture, and illuminating the critical reflexivity of these forms in this period.


(1.) See Martin L. Wine, Introduction to The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham, ed. Martin L. Wine (London: Methuen, 1973), xxxv-xliii; Lena Cowen Orlin, Private Matters and Public Culture in Post-Reformation England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 64-65n.106. On Mr. Burton, see Patricia Hyde, Thomas Arden in Faversham: The Man Behind the Myth (Faversham: The Faversham Society, 1996), 5.

(2.) Transcription of Holinshed in appendix 2 of The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham, ed. Wine, 151. The same words are used in Stow's manuscript. References to the play are to this edition and will be given in parenthesis in the body of the text.

(3.) Peter W. M. Blayney, The Bookshops in Paul's Cross Churchyard (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1990); Blayney, "John Day and the Bookshop That Never Was," in Material London, ca. 1600, ed. Lena Cowen Orlin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 328.

(4.) Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda, eds., Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3.

(5.) Blayney, The Bookshops in Paul's Cross Churchyard, 11; Blayney, "John Day and the Bookshop That Never Was," 322-43.

(6.) Tom Lockwood, Introduction to Arden of Faversham, ed. Martin White (London: A & C Black, 2007), xvii.

(7.) Joad Raymond, "Introduction: The Origins of Popular Print Culture," in Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660, ed. Joad Raymond, vol. 1 of The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 10."

(8.) Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 14, 15.
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Title Annotation:FORUM: Drama of the 1580s
Author:O'Brien, Emily
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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