As Arden of Faversham opens the audience is aware that the crime dramatised is a fait accompli; thus the bulk of the play is suspended between the perspicacity of Arden’s murder and its inevitable realization. Several failed attempts are made to murder Arden and again in Scene xiii Arden escapes injury during his clash with Mosby. This extended deferment is crucial to the objectives of the play, permitting an exploration of both motives and character; exploring tensions surrounding the essence of marriage and Renaissance social structure, it demonstrates Alice as challenging the conventions of Elizabethan society through her standpoint on marriage and religion; and points to Arden as contradicting perceived male roles.
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Alice begins her seduction employing the language of lovers: “thou” and “thee” emphasis the intimacy of marriage in Alice’s first question: “Couldst thou not see us friendly smile on thee?” The adjective, simultaneously, an ironic clue to Alice and Mosby’s true intentions. Continuing with her strategy of interrogation; Alice poses several rhetorical questions, diverting attention from her own indiscretion, to accuse Arden of imprudence and mistrust: “Hast thou not lately found me over-kind? / Didst thou not hear me cry they murder thee? / Called I not help to set my husband free?” The manipulation of sentence structure is reflective of Alice’s intensions; the pleonasm “over-kind” testament to Alice’s efforts to appease Arden whilst at the same time suggestive of the charade she is playing. The culminating rhyming couplet lays emphasis to both her attempt to engender Arden’s trust and the link between her lack of sexual freedom and Arden. Confirming her disloyal nature, Alice is willing to allow Arden to see Mosby, Shakebag and BlackWill as treacherous whilst she protests her innocence. The power dynamic at play here is reminiscent of the exchange between Alice and Mosby in Scene 1 Line 175 – 225; Alice cunning and manipulative works to dominate.
Alice’s duplicity, both chilling and enthralling at the same time, is further enhanced by the fact that Alice’s role would have been played by a boy on the Elizabethan stage – a reflection on how women were often presented by playwrights’ of the time. Lines 108 -111, heavily accented through antithesis and anaphora, too emphasise this duplicity:
“If I be merry, thou straightways thinks me light;
If sad, thou sayest the sullens trouble me;
If well attrired, thou thinks I will be gadding;
If homely, I seem sluttish in thine eye.”
The parallel juxtaposition in each line allows Alice to present herself in a positive light as “merry”; “sad”; “well attired” and “homely” and then counter each declaration with an accusation that Arden regards her as “light”; “sullen”; “gadding” and “sluttish”. These are not accusations Arden has voiced against Alice but accusations Alice is charging him with making. The anaphoric repetition of the conjunctive marks the irony inherent in Alice’s presentation of these two versions of herself; antithesis emphasising the disparity between these two versions. Claiming that there is nothing she can do to change Arden’s unjust opinion of her, Alice quick to play the victim, equates her life to a living death, heavily emphasised through rhyme and synecdoche: “…I seem sluttish in thine eye / Thus am I still, and shall be while I die, / Poor wench abused by thy misgovernment”. Accusation Arden of treating her as if she were of a lower social standing, Alice claims she is ill-treated and poorly presided over; ending the line with the word she most wants to stress –her misgovernment; alluding to Arden’s lack of authority as head of the household and, read in a boarder context, her thoughts on marriage.
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“Love is God and marriage is but words,” Alice’s words in Scene 1 Line 101-102 confirm that she believes love to be of greater significance than marriage; reinforced when she claims: “Oaths are words, and words is wind.” One of the principally explored themes in Arden of Faversham is the Renaissance perception of marriage. Alice likens her role as wife to that of slave: “Henceforth I’ll be thy slave, no more thy wife.” Syntactic placement and rhythm lay further emphasis on the metaphor. The rhetoric of slavery is further expounded in line 105; the Paronomasia emphasising the imagery of a chain and Alice as enslaved by Arden. Alice’s exclamation here marks a tonal shift, her strategy changes from persuading Arden to doubt himself to a dramatic passionate outburst when she exclaims “No, ears and all were ‘witched. Ah me accursed, / To link in liking with a frantic man!” Alice’s protestations are further embellished with an analogy to witchcraft, the syntax — “accursed” at the end of the line — emphasising Alice’s claim that she is cursed and chained, alliteration laying focus on her enslavement to a “frantic” man who’s senses (ears) are bewitched. As Alice becomes more passionate so Arden becomes more compliant. Alliteration and rhythm stress the irony in line 107: “For with that name I never shall content thee”. On the one hand Alice claims Arden will never be content with her as a wife because what he really wants is a slave, but Alice too will never be content as long as she shares Arden’s name.
Alice’s challenge to marriage can be expounded to include Elizabethan ideology, a world view suspended from a strict social structure — monarch as head of state; husband as head of the household. In Elizabethan England, to kill ones husband was a political crime; it struck to heart of Renaissance Ideology and questioned the Elizabethan patriarchal dominant configuration. Alice’s appeal to a need for sexual freedom is central to her motivation as upheld by her words in Scene 1 Line 274-276: “But Mosby’s love. / Might I without control / Enjoy thee still, then Arden should not die.” On some level Alice holds not only Arden but Elizabethan society at large responsible for her transgressions; if she were not bound by a loveless marriage she would not be false, manipulative and murderous. In some respects this two reflects the idea that Arden is in some sense to blame for his own death.
Alice’s response to Arden in line 116: “The heavens can witness of our harmless thoughts” would have been considered blasphemous by an Elizabethan audience. Again alliteration draws attention to Alice’s reference to heaven, and since the audience is aware of her falsehood also to her lack of reverence for all that the concept signifies; challenging ideas of providence.
Challenges to the existing social order recur as a predominant thread throughout the play. An Elizabethan man’s social standing could be influenced by his wife’s chastity and sexual integrity; in light of this Arden would have been viewed as a Cuckold; implying public scandal and raising disquieting social and political intimation. Arden appears to be a fundamentally conflicted character as on the one hand he appears to be a naive cuckold, whilst on the other he is described as a man of affairs, worldly and proficient. Unremittingly ambitious, Arden is arrogant and regards his social standing above Mosby as proof that he is the better man. It is Mosby’s taunting of Arden’s horns which sparks the violent altercation immediately preceding this extract. Arden’s motives speak to his true feelings for Alice; Arden does not fight Mosby to retain Alice, but rather to protect his social standing; lending justification to Alice’s notion of a loveless marriage. In this light Arden is show as both victim and villain. Arden’s response to Alice’s accusations is as Alice intended it to be, he doubts himself: “But is it for truth that neither thou nor he / Intendedst malice in your misdemeanour?” Alliteration highlights the contrast between malice and misdemeanour – again there is the sense of weighing up the situation. Arden is convinced by Alice’s ploy; thereby confirming his Cuckoldry and apparent gullibility in the face of his wife’s affair with Mosby. Arden would be seen by an Elizabethan viewer as relinquishing appropriate control of his household thereby committing a disloyalty to the conventional notion of masculine status and undermining social parameters. Arden’s complacence raises questions as to his motives for assuaging Alice, appeasing her for the sake of her social standing and wealth, a consequence of his ambition and materialism. Alice describes Arden as “frantic” – a man distracted by emotion — might Alice here be referring not only to Arden’s suspicions but also to his pursuit of materialism?
Arden’s situation is summed up in more ways than one in lines 117 -120. He implores Alice to pardon him and, stressed by alliteration, to forgive and forget his fault. Ironically his fault is not in accusing Alice but in forgiving her. He goes even further to suggest that Alice “Impose [me] penance, and I will perform it,” once more highlighted through alliteration; Alice plans to extract the ultimate penance from Arden, the irony further developed in lines 120-122, accentuated through the triplex: “For in thy discontent I find a death, / A death tormenting more than death itself.” It is precisely Arden’s complacence and Alice’s discontent and that will lead to his death.
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