The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.
§ 3. Arden of Feversham: deliberate bluntness of the story and unattractiveness of the hero
Arden of Feversham, apparently the earliest, and, beyond all question, the highest, achievement of the Elizabethan age in the field of domestic tragedy, was first claimed for Shakespeare by Edward Jacob, a Faversham antiquary, who re-edited the play in 1770. Since then, it has passed through numerous editions, and, engaging the notice of almost every Shakespearean critic, it has called forth the most divergent views as to its authorship. The play was entered on the Stationers’ register as early as 3 April, 1592, and was published anonymously in the same year with the title, The Lamentable and True Tragedie of M. Arden of Feversham in Kent; later quarto editions, also anonymous, appeared in 1599 and 1633. The tragic incident upon which the drama is based took place in 1551, and left so lasting a mark upon the minds of men, that Raphael Holinshed, in the publication of his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, twenty-six years later, devoted five pages to the story and recorded the details with considerable dramatic power. The dramatist, although he makes a few slight alterations and adds the character of Franklin, follows Holinshed’s narrative in all its essential aspects with scrupulous fidelity. Writing, too, at a time when the exuberant style of Marlowe and Kyd was in the ascendant, he exercises a marked self-restraint. Here and there, the spirit of the age lifts him off his feet—as, for instance, where he makes the ruffian Shakebag discourse in superb poetry; but, for the most part, he preserves that austerity of manner which, he felt, the sordid theme demanded.
The exercise of this self-restraint, which often amounts to a cynical indifference to the principles of art, pertains to much besides diction. The plot of the play, judged by the standard of Shakespearean tragedy, is singularly devoid of constructive art; it advances not by growth from within but by accretion from without. One murderous plot against Arden’s life follows another in quick succession, and, as we see each attempt baffled in turn, our sense of terror is changed to callousness, and the tragic effect of the actual murder is, thereby, blunted. The repeated attempts at murder, again, are merely so many episodes, and, as the drama proceeds, we are not made to feel that the meshes of the conspirators’ net are closing upon their prey. Except for the exigencies of a five-act play, and the author’s determination to abridge none of the details of Holinshed’s story, the murder of Arden might very well have occurred at the end of the first act. If our sense of terror is blunted by the measure of the plot, so, also, is our pity for the victim. By reason of his stupidity and insensate credulity, his avarice and his cruelty to Bradshaw and Reede, Thomas Arden fails altogether to win our sympathy. The dramatist, it is true, leaves unnoticed some of the charges brought against him by Holinshed; but he makes no attempt whatever to render him attractive, or to awaken our pity at his death. In all this, we recognise the contrast to the manner of Shakespeare as displayed, for example, in Macbeth. Holinshed’s Duncan arouses as little sympathy as Holinshed’s Arden, but Shakespeare, in his regard for tragic pity, has made of Macbeth’s victim a hero and a saint. Apart from the work of mere journeymen play-wrights, there is no play in the whole range of Elizabethan dramatic literature which disregards tragic katharsis, alike in its terror and its pity, so completely as Arden of Feversham.
But are we to ascribe this neglect of tragic katharsis to obtuseness of dramatic vision? The marvellous power which the playwright reveals in the handling of certain situations and the deftness with which he introduces, now a touch of grim humour and now a gleam of tragic irony, are sufficient indications that his treatment of the story was deliberate. And, if any doubt remains in our minds, we have only to turn to the closing words of the play, in which the author defends his craftmanship against all attack:
The author of Arden of Feversham is not only the creator of English domestic tragedy; he is, also, the first English dramatic realist, and the first who refused to make nature bend beneath the yoke of art. Delighting in the “simple truth” of Holinshed’s narrative, he refused to alter it—refused to reduce the number of attempts on Arden’s life or to make the victim of the tragedy a martyr. And, in all this, he stands as a man apart, neither owning allegiance to the recognised masters of English tragedy, Kyd and Marlowe, nor claiming fellowship with the rising genius of Shakespeare. It is impossible to believe that the author of Arden is the author of Romeo and Juliet. True, there are lines, sometimes whole speeches, in the play which have something very like the Shakespearean ring in them; and it is also true that the play reveals, especially in the famous quarrel scene between Alice Arden and Mosbie, a knowledge of the human heart which the Shakespeare of 1592 might well have envied. But, in 1592, the temper of Shakespeare was not that of the austere realist: he was ardent and romantic, a lover of rime and of “taffeta phrases,” a poet still in his pupilage, well content to follow in the steps of his masters; and, in each of these respects, he differes widely from the creator of Arden. Nor, finally, was it the principle of Shakespeare, either in 1592 or at any other period of his life, to place the record of history above art in the way that the Arden dramatist has done. There is no rigidity in the materials out of which Shakespeare has fashioned his plays; to him, all things were ductile, and capable of being moulded into whatever shape the abiding principles of the playwright’s craft demanded.