14 ‘Tis Fearful Sleeping in a Serpent’s Bed’: Arden of Faversham and the Threat of the Petty Traitor 340

In: Treason
Dianne Berg
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On Valentine’s Day, 1551, Alice Arden, the wife of a Kentish customs official, conspired with her lover, several servants, and two hired criminals to kill her husband at his own dinner table before disposing of his corpse in a nearby field. The crime—along with details of Alice’s and her co-conspirators’ apprehension and execution for (respectively) petty treason and murder—was documented in official records, popular prose accounts, and historical chronicles including Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577, 1587) and John Stow’s Annals of England (1592).1 The murder also inspired the Elizabethan domestic tragedy Arden of Faversham (1592) and at least one ballad, The Complaint and Lamentation of Mistresse Arden of Feuersham in Kent, Who for the Love of One Mosbie, Hired Certaine Ruffians and Villaines Most Cruelly to Murder her Husband; with the Fatall End of Her and Her Associats (1633), which ventriloquizes the treacherous Alice’s remorse in forty-eight quatrains, just before her spectacular death at the stake. That this middle-class murder continued to stimulate fresh literary interpretations decades after it occurred attests to the crime’s grip on the contemporary imagination, in a period when the analogical framing of the household as “a little commonwealth, by the good government whereof God’s glory may be advanced” made murderous wives agents of profound discord, akin to political dissidents and religious heretics, and in equal need of suppression.2

According to the social paradigm of coverture, married women were “subjects” in the family home, and to kill one’s husband was not merely murder but an act of petit or “petty” treason, a crime against the state made punishable by death in the Treason Act of 1351.3 Upon their marriage, a man and woman became “one legal agent … by means of the husband’s ‘subsumption’ of his wife into himself. In this process, the wife became a femme covert, meaning she was ‘vailed, as it were, clouded and over-shadowed.’”4 In early modern England, where wedlock was the normative condition for adults, the radical female subjectivity of the petty traitor’s coup d’etat was deeply unsettling.5 A man who lost control of his household risked being censured as unfit for the position, and the necessary regulation and “ordinance” of wives was a recurring theme in sermons, conduct literature, and polemical discourse. Beyond the obvious danger to her family’s welfare, the homicidal wife threatened the greater social order, giving her violent rebellion enormous cultural and psychological power, especially as the long reign of an unmarried, childless queen drew to its close with no clear (and optimally male) successor in view.

But masculine anxieties about domestic partners becoming “home-rebels and house-traitors”6 reveal less about the realities of early modern marriage than they do about the family as a microcosmic state, and the associated urge to maintain patriarchal authority, making instances of petty treason disproportionately notorious given their relative rarity. Although there is no evidence for a sudden increase in husband-killing in this period, there are clear indications that some men feared just such a thing. Catherine Belsey observes that, although Essex county records from the latter half of the sixteenth century show no convictions for petty treason, they contain several cases of frightened husbands seeking the protection of the courts and refusing to live with their wives lest they be murdered by them.7 These largely unfounded fears about a mortal enemy lurking within one’s most trusted intimate challenged popular notions of a man’s house as his castle and the figurative concept of the embodied home, in which the husband functioned as the head, and a well-run household was likened to a healthy body. Vigilant governance was necessary to ensure order, since even when contained within her designated sphere a wife might deploy her homely skills to subversive ends. Many accounts of petty treason contain an unsettling theme of emasculation and/or the inversion of sexual roles, especially given the fact that the women involved are often adulterous as well. In these narratives, treacherous wives frequently transform ordinary domestic tasks into occasions of violence by using household implements as weapons and by subverting their “natural” role in the body politic, either by poisoning food or by concealing murderers—sometimes their illicit lovers—who surprise the master in his own home. In a further indignity, some of these women dismember their husband’s corpses and deposit them in spaces associated with household waste disposal, such as privies, dunghills, and kitchen middens.

The urge to neutralize and contain the threat (whether real or imagined) of wifely insubordination made ideal fodder for ephemeral literature: broadsheets, ballads, and prose pamphlets with titles like A Warning for All Desperate Women (1628) and The Adulteress’ Funerall Day in Flaming, Scorching, and Consuming Fire (1635) attest to a fascination with women who rebel against the matrimonial state. In the playhouse, the emerging genre of domestic tragedy appropriated and manipulated cases of petty treason to give audiences a voyeuristic glimpse of spousal insurgency before the guilty women are chastised and chastened in what J.A. Sharpe calls “a theatre of punishment.”8 Many of these narratives also feature scaffold speeches like the one attributed to Alice Arden in The Complaint and Lamentation of Mistresse Arden; as Michel Foucault notes, these final statements are not protestations of innocence, but public declarations of guilt that reaffirm the justice of their punishment. Observing that historical chronicles record many such addresses by the condemned, Foucault questions whether they were actually delivered or “fictional speeches that were later circulated by way of example and exhortation,” and suggests that the latter was more frequently true.9 This drive to defuse the criminal’s perceived menace is apparent in the way plays, ballads, broadsheets, and polemic lay claim to petty treason scandals; through their presentation and manipulation of female crime narratives, these texts attempt to retroactively restrain the women within them. Such accounts bolster patriarchal domestic hegemony by repackaging and reinterpreting female violence to show how a woman who revolts against her state in life becomes a cautionary figure in death.

Stuart A. Kane describes literary representations of petty traitors as “the interiorized voice of state regulation speaking … through the body of the condemned … [to] carefully display the legal discourses, court apparatus, and punitive technologies which formulated, maintained, and ultimately claimed a prerogative to disrupt that subject.”10 Indeed, the women in these texts are contained by and even within men: the ventriloquizing authors of ephemeral prison confessions and scaffold speeches, the narrators of ballads, the playwrights who put words into the women’s mouths, and the cross-dressed actors who portrayed them on stage all participated in a concerted, public effort to contain the perfidious female. If the petty traitor attempts to subvert or escape the highly gendered systems that enclose her, these accounts are at pains to demonstrate that such defiance is both wicked and ultimately futile.

Given that narratives of petty treason typically feature a subtext of sexual insecurity on the husband’s part, the impulse to suppress the unruly woman is often a retrospective one. Many of the disobedient wives who gained infamy for killing their husbands were “dishonest” before becoming violent, making their stories even more salacious. As Subha Mukherji observes, “both murder and sexual immorality were highly marketable subjects. When the two combined, there could be no better”; moreover, “penalties for sexual sins are often discussed in terms identical with the punishment for homicide,” and it was thought to be a slippery slope from adultery to murder.11 Arthur Golding illustrates the link between the two in the popular imagination in A Brief Discourse of the Murther of Master George Sanders, a worshipful citizen of London, his prose account of the 1573 killing depicted in the domestic tragedy A Warning for Fair Women, which cautions that “the steps of a harlot leade downe unto death.”12 A married woman’s infidelity was a much more serious matter than her husband’s, and brought harsher legal consequences. This double standard has deep historical and cultural roots,13 but it acquired more official, institutional power in 1650, when an Act of Parliament made female adultery a capital offense on par with murder and political treason. This “Adultery Act” was the culmination of numerous prior attempts to employ the apparatus of the state to enforce women’s chastity; bills for punishing adultery (along with incest and “repeated fornication”) were put forward in 1576 and 1604, with similar acts proposed in 1626, 1628, and 1629, and at every session between 1644 and 1650, when it finally passed.14 That official governmental restraints upon women’s sexual behavior were deemed not merely reasonable but necessary (and debated on so regular a basis) attests to the discomfort that female sexuality aroused, and the strength of the masculine imperative to curb it.

One prominent feature of the Elizabethan state was surveillance, which included an elaborate network of “watchers” on the lookout for potential traitors. Members of the nation’s little, household “commonwealths” were also subject to scrutiny; since proper regulation was vital to preserving domestic order, women were accountable to their husbands (or fathers, brothers, or other male relatives if unmarried) for their public and private activities. They were also open to scrutiny by the greater community, and observation and interference by what the character of Alice Arden calls “narrow-prying neighbors” was a commonplace in this period (Arden of Faversham, 1.135).15 Private relationships were matters of general curiosity, particularly in regard to matters of love and marriage, and this interest took negative as well as positive forms. In addition to the religious and family festivities surrounding their nuptials, early modern couples could be subjected to elaborate shaming rituals that crossed the line from community surveillance to outright harassment. Many of these customs, such as the charivari and the Skimmington, stressed the omnipresent threat of infidelity and the need to keep close watch on married women. The charivari, enacted on a couple’s wedding night, was an all-male “parodic doubling” of the marriage feast, featuring “a carnivalesque wardrobe corresponding to a triad of domestic agents—the clown (who represents the bridegroom), the transvestite (who represents the bride), and the ‘scourge of marriage,’ often assigned a suit of black (who represents the community of unattached young men)” with whom the bride might betray her new husband.16 The Skimmington was a satirical representation of marriages in which the wife was seen as an insubordinate, emasculating scold or “brawler,” and it occasionally ended in violence, as when Agnes Mills, the “shrewish” wife of a Wiltshire cutler, was assaulted by a group of costumed men armed with stones and ram’s horns, the traditional symbol of cuckoldry.17 These formalized enactments of feminine betrayal and masculine humiliation functioned as an instrument of social, moral, and (by extension) state control, and illustrated the degree to which the threat of wifely rebellion informed contemporary ideas about the husband-wife relationship.

For a married woman, even speaking with a man to whom she was unrelated could prove problematic, and to permit access beyond the appropriate exchange of civilities risked compromising her “honest” reputation. Peter Stallybrass writes that in the conceptual relationship between female verbal and sexual (in)continence “silence, the closed mouth is made a sign of chastity. And silence and chastity are, in turn, homologous to women’s enclosure within the house.”18 Expanding on this connection, he notes how closely the woman’s mouth was aligned with the integrity of the female body as a whole, and the house that confined that body within its circumscribed limits: “The surveillance of women concentrated on three specific areas: the mouth, chastity, and the threshold of the house. These three areas were frequently collapsed into each other.”19 The quotidian reality of such ongoing scrutiny is reflected in dramas based on household crimes, lending an additional voyeuristic thrill to their presentation of real life characters engaged in forbidden and treacherous activities. Domestic tragedies often take place in urban or suburban surroundings, in which the action is informed by the communal nature of daily life, and liminal zones such as marketplaces, streets, doorways, thresholds, and windows, existing at the intersection of public and private, expose female characters to a range of gazes, from friends and neighbors to casual passers-by.

More insidiously, the porous nature of such spaces allows the disruption of social constraints by making women, proverbially weaker vessels, vulnerable to contamination by outside forces. The subversive possibilities lurking at domestic boundaries are explored and exploited in Arden of Faversham, along with the vexing realities of constant observation. In her first speech, Alice complains that her lover “dares not come / Because my husband is so jealous,” while Arden laments that “Love letters pass betwixt Mosby and my wife,” and the pair’s “privy meetings in the town” make their affair “common table-talk” (Arden, 1.133–34; 1.15–16; 344). Undeterred by spousal edicts or social convention, Alice arranges for Mosby to “come this morning but along my door / And as a stranger but salute me there / This may he do without suspect or fear” (Arden, 1.128–30). By creating this breach in the household perimeter, Alice flouts her husband’s authority and sets personal desire above marital fealty and public opinion. Affairs that occur “within doors” are ostensibly private, but as marginal spaces that provide access to the outside world, doors, windows, and thresholds are an objective representation of the permeability of such boundaries, blurring the lines between inside and outside, public and private, family and state. Because she is so keenly aware of her neighbors’ watchful eyes and listening ears, Alice Arden’s treason is conducted under the pretext of a friendly evening’s entertainment, with guests expected and a pre-dinner game of backgammon in progress when the hired killers burst forth from their hiding-place. After Arden is dead, Holinshed reports how, “the doubly wicked Alice and her companions danced, and played on the virginals, and were merrie,” lest people living in neighboring houses should think anything amiss.20 Unfortunately for the conspirators, these efforts prove futile; Arden’s corpse is dragged out a back door as “all the watch … with glaives and bills” comes in at the front, but his freshly shed blood “cleaveth to the ground and will not out,” and so Alice’s crime is discovered, her treachery exposed, and her public reckoning assured (Arden, 14.337–39; 252).

An adulterous, insubordinate wife chipped away at the very foundations of the domestic economy: emasculating her husband, undermining his authority, exposing him to public scorn, and potentially disrupting the chain of patrilineal inheritance by placing the orderly transfer of property from father to son in doubt. Sandra Clark observes that “crime is not just an act in itself, but a consequence of the application of rules and sanctions to behavior so as to classify some forms of it as deviant,” and a woman who invited an outsider into the marital bed transgressed in multivalent and pernicious ways.21 The social, economic, and personal ramifications of cuckoldry are a recurring theme in early modern drama, with betrayed husbands running the gamut from Thomas Middleton’s complaisant Allwit in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside—a wittol who wears his horns cheerfully, acting in loco parentis for a houseful of bastards while his wife’s lover pays the bills—to Shakespeare’s Othello, whose “soul and body” are “ensnared” by doubts about his wife’s virtue (Othello 5.2.299). The hoodwinked or jealous husband was also a stock character in comedy; in his diatribe against “the hell of having a false woman,” The Merry Wives of Windsor’s Master Ford provides a fine example of the figure’s portrayal on stage: “My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at … Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name!” (The Merry Wives of Windsor 2.2.276–78; 283–85). The experience was less amusing in practice since a man who failed to control his own household might well be judged incompetent elsewhere, making an unfaithful wife a major liability for his emotional wellbeing, his professional prospects, his standing in the community, and his perceived ability to govern his affairs responsibly.

If the treacherous woman who passed off another man’s child as her husband’s legitimate heir compounded her moral crime by threatening the family’s material fortunes, the wife who ended her marriage through violence undermined the stability of a well-ordered, godly nation. Given her inferior rank within the conjugal body politic, a wife’s failure to exhibit the deference appropriate to her station constituted a betrayal—domestically treacherous, if not legally treasonous—of personal, social, and legal contracts. Moreover, in an era when society was seen as being comprised of households rather than individuals, wifely disobedience and its resulting domestic turmoil were an affront to the nation and the Almighty since every family was meant to be a model Christian state in miniature. In an ideal marriage like that extolled in John Dod and Robert Cleaver’s A Godly Form of Household Government (1603), the wife should exhibit “constant obedience and subjection”:

For the husband is the wife’s head, even as Christ is the head of the church. And even as the church must fear Christ Jesus, so must the wives also fear their husbands. And this inward fear must be shewed by an outward meekness and lowliness in her speeches and carriage to her husband. … But contrarily, if she behave herself rudely and unmannerly in her husband’s sight, to grieve him and offend him, she faileth in the first and main duty of a good wife, and so far shall surely come short of all the rest of the duties that God requireth of her. For if there be not fear and reverence in the inferior, there can be no sound and constant honor yielded to the superior.22

But while women were subject to their husbands within the home, the joint marital persona implied by coverture made the homicidal wife particularly problematic since coverture rendered a woman and her husband “one flesh,” a single corporate unit in which the woman’s subjectivity was conceptually merged with her husband’s. Consequently, she could not do violence to her “other half” and escape harm; in practical, spiritual, and rhetorical terms, a woman who killed her husband effectively killed herself. Ironically, this suicide mission was among a married woman’s few available routes to legal as well as personal independence since one of the rare exceptions to the period’s monolithic conception of conjugal identity occurred in cases where the woman committed a crime. As Belsey points out, “in criminal or capital matters wives were required to answer without their husbands. … Thus, while men became legally both capable and accountable when they reached the age of majority, and stayed that way, women became capable while and only while they had no husbands, but were always accountable. Their relationship to the law … was paradoxical at best, and unfixed in that it was dependent on their relationship to men.”23 A virtuous, obedient wife had no individual rights or status under the law,24 nor could she bring suit against another person or seek redress for grievances on her own, but a wife who broke the law bore sole responsibility. Moreover, murderous wives merited more serious consequences than their male counterparts: men who killed their spouses were hanged as murderers, while women who committed the same crime were sentenced to be burnt alive.

The worrisome spectacle of female agency run amok also posed a troubling challenge to the sixteenth century Protestant ideal of companionate marriage, in which couples should “apply their minds in most earnest wise to concord, and must crave continually of God … that they be not dissevered by any division of discord.”25 Given the amount of attention given to marriage and the family in religious and secular rhetoric, the need to avoid such “division of discord” was clearly a matter of concern, and many petty treason narratives portray love—or at least marriage—as a sort of domestic battlefield.26 Frances Dolan draws attention to the ways these texts “construct both marriage and the household as arenas of contest and striving, but refuse the concept of shared heroism that Protestant discourses of marriage attempt to idealize and disseminate, suggesting instead that there will be only one winner—indeed, only one survivor.”27 The petty traitor’s frequent appearances in contemporary literature indicate that the pyrrhic nature of her “victory” failed to diminish her psychological power. Even more unsettling, the legal subjectivity to which her crime and conviction restored such women constituted a loophole in the ostensibly shared identity implied by early modern marriage: a space through which the femme covert might escape, however briefly.

Given the anxiety it aroused, wifely insubordination made a titillating subject for the playhouse, and Arden of Faversham is the earliest extant English example of an actual crime inspiring what would eventually be labeled “domestic tragedy” (although the titles of lost plays like The History of Murderous Michael and The History of the Cruelty of a Stepmother hint at similar themes). The Arden scandal also established the precedent for featuring protagonists of middling social stature in household drama, although the story of an adulterous woman doing away with her spouse had parallels higher up the social scale, including Mary Stuart’s implication in the 1567 assassination of her second husband, Lord Henry Darnley.28 Considering that more glamorous, cosmopolitan versions of the same story were available, the comparatively humble Faversham tragedy had greater staying power in the popular imagination than the superficial facts might seem to merit. This enduring interest in a local, relatively small-time murder is made more legible by the ways it coincided with broader English concerns about post-Reformation religious identity, the redistribution of monastic lands following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541, and the uncertain dynastic future posed by an unmarried, childless female ruler. Catering to the public interest in otherwise “ordinary” wives who subvert domestic power paradigms, Arden of Faversham situates familiar dramatic themes of personal ambition and desire among the middle class, framing broader social concerns through prevailing rhetoric about the role of married women outside the elite aristocratic group. As Lena Cowen Orlin observes, such narratives “played out some of the most bitter contestations of Elizabethan private life … the nature of authority in the household and its uncertain gendering, and transgressions against social order and community responsibility … may have been at least as compelling to the playgoing audience as was true crime.”29 With its heady mix of illicit desire, vexed gender relations, social and economic anxiety, private familial violence, and public reckoning, the Arden murder provided excellent raw material for addressing complex and multivalent issues within the controlled setting of the playhouse.

When Alice Arden—“descended of a noble house, / And matched already with a gentleman”—opted to replace her husband with Mosby, a “cheating steward and base-minded peasant,” she went far beyond simply rejecting her role as femme covert (Arden, 1.202–03). By enlisting her husband’s servants (and her daughter, in the historical record) to bring about Arden’s overthrow and paying killers with his own money to “have [her] will,” she fomented a domestic revolution and set a dangerous precedent for other headstrong wives (Arden, 1.22–23). Alice Arden was simultaneously the stuff of feminine fantasy and masculine nightmare, setting personal desire above wifely duty, her household’s welfare, and the moral standards of her community, and risking her own life to pursue that desire. In the play, her character repeatedly scorns the fealty putatively owed her husband in terms both treasonous and heretical, declaring that “marriage is but words” and “Oaths are words, and words is wind, / And wind is mutable; then, I conclude, / ‘Tis childishness to stand upon an oath” (Arden,1.101; 436–8).

Jennifer Jones notes that such openly seditious mockery was an extremely “dangerous notion for a society that relied on the power of words, particularly those of the Bible, to enforce the control of masters over servants and husbands over wives,” frequently invoking Eve’s culpability in the Fall as the exegetical reason for women’s subordinate legal, spiritual, and political status.30 By dismissing her marriage vows as so much empty rhetoric, Alice Arden flouts the laws of personal loyalty, social and cultural convention, the state, and God himself. In an even more disturbing speech, following a brief attack of conscience in which she accuses Mosby of enchanting her with “spells and exorcisms,” Alice commits blasphemy by way of reconciliation:

I will do penance for offending thee.
And burn this prayer-book, where I here use
The holy word that had converted me.
See, Mosbie, I will tear away the leaves,
And all the leaves, and in this golden cover
Shall thy sweet phrases and thy letters dwell
And thereon will I chiefly meditate.
And hold no other sect but such devotion. (Arden, 8.94–95;115–22)

Alice’s cavalier disdain for sacred oaths, religious norms, and her own marital status would have been recognizably treasonous to a 1590s audience; Arden of Faversham grants its mercurial protagonist a remarkable degree of behavioral and rhetorical license, allowing Alice to display, enact, and embody the most terrifying qualities of a “disloyall and wanton wife” before bringing her into line via the retributive trifecta of exposure, repentance, and punishment outlined on the play’s title page. In addition to Alice’s disregard for conventional morality, there are worrisome class issues in evidence, which threaten to destabilize established social hierarchies. The play’s gentry-class matron enlists a servant, Michael, in the murder plot, making him a petty traitor in his own right for participating in his master’s overthrow. Michael agrees to the conspiracy in exchange for the hand of Mosby’s sister Susan in marriage; Alice hopes to marry Mosby when Arden is dead, so according to this arrangement, her former servant would become her brother-in-law should their plan succeed. Worse yet, Alice’s assertion that “Sweet Mosby is as gentle as a king,” in combination with the latter’s declared intention to “play [her] husband’s part” and “sit in Arden’s seat” suggest a subversive degree of socio-economic self-fashioning in the play’s class-conscious world (Arden, 8.140; 1.638; 7.31). Most troubling of all is Alice’s remark to Mosby that “my saving husband hoards up bags of gold / To make our children rich, and now is he / Gone to unload the goods shall be thine,” which raises the unwelcome specter of bastardy and usurped inheritance (Arden, 1.220–22, my emphasis).

The historical Arden and his character within the play share a profound interest in obtaining land, property, and status. Master Arden received his lucrative appointment as a customs official through his wife’s influential family connections, and his acquisitive zeal apparently extended to a complaisant view of her extra-marital activities, an attitude that is conspicuously absent from the play.31 The Wardmote Book of Faversham relates how “Alyce the said Morsby did not onely Carnally kepe in her owne house here in this towne Butt also fedd [him] with dilicate meats and sumptuous app[ar]ell All which things the said Thomas Ardern did well know and willfully did [permytt] and suffred the same.”32 Holinshed likewise mentions that Arden knew of Alice and Mosby’s ongoing affair, but cast a blind eye on his wife’s “filthie disorder” because it was in his best financial interests to do so.33 This spousal sangfroid is a far cry from the stage Arden’s cry, “Can any grief be half so great as this?” (Arden, 1.19). But if the play’s cuckold is not prepared to wink at his wife’s treacherous behavior, neither is he prepared to assert his domestic sovereignty and put a stop to it. While the historical murder victim seems to have been an archetypal wittol, the play puts Alice’s “filthie lust” center stage and makes her insubordination a source of suffering to an Arden unable (or unwilling) to regain control of his household. By downplaying Arden’s economic motivation for ignoring Alice’s affair and replacing it with an emotional vulnerability missing from the prose accounts, Arden of Faversham renders a petty treason narrative rooted in finance-driven Realpolitik comprehensible according to familiar dramatic tropes: the complaisant Arden becomes an abused, feckless Everyman, rather than a cynical arriviste with an eye for the main chance, more complicit in his cuckoldry than a victim of it.34 The play performs a similar maneuver by making Alice’s adulterous relationship a passionate affair, as opposed to the tawdry fling the chronicles describe. Alice’s overwhelming desire for Mosby drives her to assume control of the action, and the conjunction of her unchecked will and Arden’s morally weak and ineffectual leadership lead inevitably to tragedy.

Domestic tragedies often manipulate their source material to reinforce the conventional roles of “wronged husband,” “adulterous wife,” and “unworthy lover” via an emerging theatrical mode that catered to the contemporary taste for plays based on true crime narratives, while gesturing backwards to earlier dramatic forms such as the medieval morality play tradition that privileged broad moral strokes with minimal individuation. This crossbreeding is symptomatic of a larger dramaturgical shift in the latter half of the sixteenth century, as English plays gradually transitioned from an older, metaphorical approach to the more naturalistic style found on Elizabethan and Jacobean stages. Household dramas synthesize emerging and more traditional modes, rendering sensational crimes comprehensible within a set of established thea­trical conventions while delivering a message about contemporary social ­issues.35 While the ostensible goal of chronicle histories was to provide a fact-based “true relation” of important events, the plays they inspired serve a more diverse, if related, agenda. Martin White notes that domestic tragedies are largely “concerned with precisely the same issues of rule, legitimacy, and national identity as that other great genre of the 1590s, the English chronicle history play.”36 Both dramatic forms re-enact and interpret significant and/or troubling events in the real world via the public spectacle of the stage; given its concern with private affairs influenced by the period of socioeconomic flux surrounding the Dissolution, Arden of Faversham arguably has a foot in each camp since it shares the history play’s objective—as characterized by Thomas Nashe—to “show the ill success of treason, the fall of hasty climbers, the wretched end of usurpers, the misery of dissension, and how just God is evermore in punishing of murther,” albeit in a more homespun or “middling” context.37

But where histories treat exalted subjects as examples for what Nashe termed “these degenerate effeminate days of ours,” domestic tragedies re-animate subversive characters from the more recent past to serve as cautionary figures for an equally domestic audience, portraying bourgeois English crimes that might not rate inclusion in a “real” history play devoted to the trials and triumphs of kings and emperors.38 Applying the conventions of the playhouse to “home-borne” subjects, domestic tragedies represent ordinary households plunged into rebellion and chaos, and offer a compelling spectacle in which characters onstage suffer the same weaknesses and temptations as their audiences, accompanied by the comforting certainty that order will be safely restored before the Epilogue. This complex didactic agenda is readily apparent in Arden: for all the verbal bravado, radical notions of self-determination, and personal, emotional, and sexual agency with which she is invested, Alice Arden remains a subordinate subject in the eyes of the law and the broader contemporary English worldview. In the end, her domestic mutiny is suppressed: the petty traitor is neutralized, restored to her proper place, and ultimately reduced to the stock character of sinful but repentant woman. In the final scene, Alice retains none of her former revolutionary swagger; with no further interest in “worldly things,” her only remaining desire is to “meditate upon my saviour Christ” and “Let my death make amends for all my sins” (Arden, 18.9–10.33). Thus, Arden of Faversham performs a recreational, admonitory, and recuperative function in its depiction of unregulated feminine will, its consequences, and its ultimate futility, even in a nation ruled by a woman who eschewed matrimony. For the Arden playwright and his audience, female sovereignty must remain conceptually “repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and … the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice” despite—or because of—the realities of the state.39

In their theatrical depictions of historical petty treason scandals and their aftermaths, domestic tragedies demonstrate how a rebellious wife—by seizing control of the household, supplanting its rightful sovereign, conspiring with outsiders, and otherwise subverting the “natural” order—condemns not only herself but also those foolish enough to follow her. For all Alice Arden’s force of will and desire for agency, her attempted coup fails in all of its objectives except Arden’s death (which she claims to regret), and ends in disaster for everyone concerned. If we accept Dolan’s assertion that such plays “[hold] the husband accountable for his wife’s adultery and insubordination,” then the women’s crimes would simply caution male playgoers to mistrust, fear, and silence their wives since “the wife’s enlargement into volition, speech, and action necessarily implicates, diminishes, and even eliminates the husband.”40 But plays like Arden of Faversham do more than this. In their appropriations of petty treason scandals, domestic tragedies contain and confront uncomfortable contemporary concerns about the slippages between sexuality, obedience, sovereignty, the family as a microcosm of the state, and the fragile nature of the state itself, all within the relatively safe context of a playhouse entertainment. By warning their female audience to abjure the petty traitor’s path and escape her fate, and their husbands to maintain strict control of their domestic subjects lest their power be usurped, these plays (acted and almost certainly authored by men) seek to demonstrate not only the wages of wifely insurrection and uncontrolled female sexuality but also the essentially dysfunctional nature of women’s power at an historically paradoxical moment when the realm’s future stability seemed deeply uncertain, towards the end of a long and successful period of feminine rule.

Raphael Holinshed devotes five quarto pages to the Arden murder, describing it as a crime “impertinent to this historie” if not for “the horribleness thereof.” Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison et al., Chronicles of England, Ireland, Scotland, and France (London: 1587). Tufts University Libraries, Early English Books Online: <http://eebo.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/home> (accessed June 7, 2016).

John Dod and Robert Cleaver, “A Godly Form of Household Government: For the Ordering of Private Families According to the Direction of God’s Word,” in The Taming of the Shrew: Texts and Contexts, ed. Frances E. Dolan, 204–206 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 204.

coverture, n. “The condition or position of a woman during her married life, when she is by law under the authority and protection of her husband; “petit or petty treason, n. treason against a subject; spec. the murder of one to whom the murderer owes allegiance, as of a master by his servant, a husband by his wife, etc.” Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series, 1997. Oxford English Dictionary Online: <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/advancedsearch> (accessed June 10, 2016).

Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550–1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 27.

David Cressy notes that “[m]ore than 90 per cent of those reaching adulthood in the sixteenth century would marry, and more than 80 per cent in the seventeenth century.” Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 285.

Frances Dolan, “Home-Rebels and House-Traitors: Murderous Wives in Early Modern England,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 4.1 (1992): 1–31.

See: Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Routledge, 1985), 135. Belsey recounts how in 1574, “a Barnston man complained that he …‘stand in great fear’” of his wife and two suspected accomplices, and that in 1590, “a man called Philpott complained that John Chandler, then living with Philpott’s wife, had given his consent to Philpott’s death, and Rowland Griffith deposed that he had been hired to carry out the murder” (135).

J.A. Sharpe, “‘Last dying speeches’: Religion, Ideology, and Public Execution in Seventeenth Century England,” Past and Present 107 (1985): 144–167 at 148.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 65. Foucault cites the case of the eighteenth-century female bandit Marion Le Goff, who was “supposed to have cried out from the scaffold: ‘Fathers and mothers who hear me now, watch over your children and teach them well; in my childhood I was a liar and good-for-nothing; I began by stealing a small six-liard knife. … Then I robbed pedlars and cattle dealers; finally, I led a robber band and that is why I am here. Tell all this to your children and let it be an example to them.’ … Such a speech is too close, even in its turn of phrase, to the morality traditionally to be found in the broadsheets and pamphlets for it not to be apocryphal. But the existence of the ‘last words of a condemned man’ genre is in itself significant. The law required that its victim should authenticate in some sense the tortures that he had undergone. The criminal was asked to consecrate his own punishment by proclaiming the blackness of his crimes” (65).

Stuart A. Kane, “Wives with Knives: Early Modern Murder Ballads and the Transgressive Commodity,” Criticism 38.2 (Spring 1996): 219–237 at 219–20.

Subha Mukherji. Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 102.

Arthur Golding, A Brief Discourse of the Murther of Master George Sanders, a worshipful citizen of London (London: H. Binneman, 1573;1577), Tufts University Libraries, Early ­English Books Online: <http://eebo.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/home> (accessed June 8, 2016).

On the question of medieval adultery in this volume, see: Tina Boyer, “Legal Ramifications of Ordeals and Treason in Morant und Galie”; Albrecht Classen, “Treason and Deception in Late Medieval German Romances and Novels Königin Sibille, Melusine, and Malagis”; Inna Matyushina, “Treacherous Women at King Arthur’s Court: Punishment and Shame”; Melissa Ridley Elmes, “Treason and the Feast in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur”; and Larissa Tracy, “The Shame Game, from Guinevere to Cersei: Adultery, Treason, and Betrayal.”

See: Keith Thomas, “The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered,” in Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-Century History Presented to Christopher Hill, ed. Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 257.

Anonymous, Arden of Faversham, ed. Martin White, 2nd ed. (London: New Mermaids, 1997). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

Michael D. Bristol, “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello,” in Materialist Shakespeare: A History, ed. Ivo Kamps, 142–156 (London: Verso, 1995), 145.

E.P. Thompson, “Rough Music Reconsidered,” Folklore 103.1 (1992): 3–26 at 5.

Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, 123–144 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986), 123.

Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories,” 126.

Holinshed, Chronicles, Tufts University Libraries, Early English Books Online: <http://eebo.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/home> (accessed June 11, 2016).

Sandra Clark, Women and Crime in the Street Literature of Early Modern England (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 34.

Dod and Cleaver, “A Godly Form of Household Government,” 206.

Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, 153.

Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, 153. Belsey notes that except “in the exceptional case of a woman as sovereign of the realm, women exercised no legal rights as members of the social body,” and quotes from the 1632 handbook “Woman’s Lawyer” by T.E., which asserts that “‘Women have no voyse in Parliament, they make no laws, they consent to none, they abrogate none. All of them are understood either married or to be married.’ (T.E. 1632:6)” (153).

“A Homily of the State of Matrimony,” in The Second Tome of Homilies (London: 1623). Tufts University Libraries, Early English Books Online: <http://eebo.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/home> (accessed June 10, 2016).

S.D. Amussen writes that, “The familial metaphor in political writings, and the political metaphor in familial writings was a commonplace in the manuals and treatises which poured forth from the presses of Elizabethan and early Stuart England,” and the analogical framing of the household was propagated not only in polemical literature, but by the church: “The Elizabethan homilies on obedience, marriage, and brawling echoed conventional conceptions of social relations. The homilies reflected official—and widely shared—assumptions about the need for obedience, deference, and submission. Sermons reinforced the messages of the homilies. Even sermons which disagreed with government policy projected a conception of government, law, and order that was unifying rather than divisive.” “Gender, Family, and the Social Order,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson, 196–217 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 204–205.

Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, 31.

There are also later examples such as the 1585 Italian case involving Vittoria Accoramboni and Francesco Peretti, on which John Webster based The White Devil (1612), and the 1613 Jacobean court scandal surrounding Lady Frances Howard and her lover, the Earl of Somerset, among others.

Lena Cowen Orlin, “Domestic Tragedy: Private Life on the Public Stage,” in A Companion to Renaissance Drama, ed. Arthur F. Kinney, 367–383 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004), 368.

Jennifer Jones, Medea’s Daughters: Forming and Performing the Woman Who Kills (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003), 8.

Alice Arden’s stepfather, Sir Edward North, was appointed by Henry VIII to the Court of Augmentations, an administrative body established in the late 1530s to redistribute Church property confiscated during the Dissolution. Through his marriage, Thomas Arden’s gained preferment, land belonging to the former Faversham Abbey, and a large, well-appointed house. See: M.L. Wine, ed., introduction to Arden of Faversham (London: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973), xxxv.

“The Wardmote Book of Faversham,” in Arden of Faversham, ed. M.L. Wine, 161.

“Arden perceiued right well their mutuall familiaritie to be much greater than their honestie, yet because he would not offend hir, and so loose the benefit which he hoped to gaine at some of hir freends hands in bearing with hir lewdnesse, which he might have lost if he should have fallen out with hir: he was contented to winke at her filthie disorder, and both permitted, and also inuited Mosbie verie often to lodge in his house.” Holinshed, Chronicles, Tufts University Libraries, Early English Books Online: <http://eebo.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/home> (accessed June 7, 2016).

Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, 36.

This generic hybridity is even more apparent in A Warning for Fair Women, a play that dramatizes a well-known case of petty treason by alternating “realistic” scenes of the historical crime with elements of the morality tradition, including an Induction by the figures of History, Comedy, and Tragedy, dumb shows featuring Lust, Chastity, and Murder, and an Epilogue in which Tragedy praises “the lances that have sluiced forth sin, / And ripped the venomed ulcer of foul lust” in the foregoing “true and home-born tragedy.” Anonymous, A Warning for Fair Women (Classic Reprint), ed. A.F. Hopkinson (Hong Kong: Forgotten Books, 2012), Epilogue, 1–2, 12.

Introduction to Arden of Faversham, ed. Martin White, xv.

Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil (London: Abell Jesses, 1592): <http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/nashe1.html> (accessed June 10, 2016).

Nashe, Pierce Penniless.

John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (London: 1558), Tufts University Libraries, Early English Books Online: <http://eebo.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/home> (accessed June 10, 2016).

Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, 36.

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Medieval and Early Modern Adultery, Betrayal, and Shame

Series:  Explorations in Medieval Culture, Volume: 10


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