Murder most foul

Studying early modern drama is like looking into a cracked mirror: so much is alien and yet so much familiar. Here are three plays, for example, that deal with such enduring themes as household politics, privacy, gender, religion, love and murder; but each play also comes to us with certain mysteries and questions surrounding authorship, dating or genre. Catherine Richardson’s edition of Arden of Faversham, for the Arden Shakespeare’s Early Modern Drama series, illuminates the most well known of the three. The other two are both for Manchester University Press’s series The Revels Plays: Sophie Tomlinson edits Lording Barry’s comedy The Family of Loveand José A. Pérez Díez takes on John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s tragicomedy Love’s Cure, or The Martial Maid.

Up-to-date scholarly editions of non-canonical early modern plays are always valuable, not only for students and academics, but also for theater-makers and curious readers; all three editors seek to make their projects as useful as possible for each audience. Each book comes with a readable introduction, thorough but unobtrusive notes to each page of play text and supplementary appendices concerning sources, marginal annotations and alternative theories. Although the lovers of Shakespeare may be most tempted to start with Arden of Faversham, given the theories of his involvement, they will find all three editions lure them out from under the shadow of Bardolatry to discover the rich profusion that flourished elsewhere.

Richardson begins her introduction to Arden of Faversham by describing the play as “one of the most powerful and quietly covered texts emanating from the late-sixteenth-century theater.” It offers, she points out, a series of literary firsts: it is the first extant domestic tragedy, the first true crime play and detective story, the first play with a woman’s part that exceeds the men’s in size and importance. It is also now thought to be the first Shakespeare collaboration – current theories propose that he wrote one or more of the middle scenes of the play, while contenders for the remaining authorship include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and Thomas Watson. The drama takes place in and around the town of Faversham, Kent, where Alice Arden gathers a motley crew of incompetent criminals and interested local parties to kill her husband. Her motivation is love for another man.

The murder case was an enduring news story, and the playwrights render it with combined horror and humour. The genre most commonly ascribed to the play – “domestic tragedy” – testifies to the centrality of the household in its plot, mood and stagecraft. Richardson points out the ways in which the long indoor scenes build a sense of claustrophobia, and the ways in which homely props are brought forward for attention. The play capitalizes on the fear and fascination with which early moderns regard a topsy-turvy household, a household gone wrong – the husband is not only cuckolded in his own dominion, but murdered there. Arden of Faversham is not a straightforward tract against adultery, however. Nor does it canonize the husband: Alice is spirited and compelling, while Arden frequently fails to fill the role of hero. There is no overriding argument to Richardson’s introduction, but perhaps the theme that comes out most strongly in her treatment is the importance of place: “Arden’s story has always teetered on the balance between local trash and national importance”. Just as the private becomes political, so the “household” of Faversham is thrown open for scrutiny, with its land disputes, class structures and divided loyalties.

The Family of Love also considers the household and those who infiltrate it by stealth – but its angle is bawdy rather than sinister. Perhaps setting is important to this: this play’s action happens in the city, not the town. Gallants pursue flirtations, wives gull their husbands, husbands take their creative revenges, and all ends happily in the law courts (or a version of them). Sexual innuendo and toilet humour have free rein throughout. Tomlinson delves further into her playwright’s language and style than do the other two editors, and this benefits a play that makes such obsessive use of punning and extended metaphor. The comedy’s frivolous levity and its wordy jokes are to be expected in a piece written for and performed by a boys’ company: irrepressible puerility is its best and most memorable feature.

Thanks to its sheer silliness, The Family of Love is perhaps the easiest reading of these three dramas; it also might be the one, however, that most urgently demands scholarly paratexts in order to be understood. The Family of Love (or the Familists) were a religious separatist group started in Germany, who were falsely conflated with Puritanism and falsely associated with libertinism by many at the time the play was written. Understanding this is important to the play, which uses the Familists as a motif throughout for hypocrisy, secretiveness and sexual immorality. Mistress Purge is a member of the sect, and she takes her mandate to love all mankind literally. Her husband eventually succeeds in infiltrating the Familist meetings in order to sleep with his own wife under the guise of a stranger. Other kinds of families are, meanwhile, in the making: Gerardine enters the Glister household hidden in a trunk and impregnates Maria.

Tomlinson’s is the first edition to attribute the play to Lording Barry, London impresario (and sometime pirate) and joint owner of the boys’ company that performed it. The work was formerly ascribed to Thomas Middleton. Barry is known for only one other play, Ram Alley, and this is therefore an important contribution. Potentially doubling an author’s canon naturally doubles the extent to which we can understand his style and his place in London theatre.

Love’s Cure, like both the other plays, has claimed its fair share of authorship debate. Pérez Díez, in the first fully annotated critical edition ever published, presents the play as potentially “the first full-scale collaboration in Fletcher and Massinger’s long and fruitful writing partnership”. The story takes place in Seville and involves mortal enmity, dashing swordsmanship, corrupt officials, love and, most interestingly, an exploration of gender behavior as conditioned rather than biologically innate. Clara, brought up as a man, is a brash warrior, while her brother Lucio, raised as a woman, is characterized by femininity. Clara falls in love with her father’s enemy and eventually excuses his womanizing tendencies: boys will be boys, after all. Or will they? Although the heteropatriarchal order reigns supreme by the end, its values ​​and assumptions have been questioned. We learn from the introduction that John Fletcher is the English dramatist of the period who features the most “cross-dressing” in his work. Fletcher’s evident interest in the theme prompts the editor to speculate that the play’s more subversive elements come from him, while Philip Massinger sought to contain and straighten them out.

Perhaps the play leaves something to be desired on the page. But one of Pérez Díez’s primary aims is to see it used again in performance: he describes it as “an engaging and superbly performable play that has remained unjustly neglected by the professional stage for four centuries”. Detailed research into the play’s theater history – its probable casting, for example – enriches the introduction, and the editor makes excellent use of his work with the Shakespeare Institute. Seeing the play on stage would certainly illuminate it, and this edition would offer a helpful guide.

Pérez Díez also uses his knowledge of Spanish, sometimes offering his own translations in the notes or consulting early modern Spanish texts in the original. Editing can be a personal investment in a work of literature: editors bring their own passions, skills and specialisms to bear in showcasing their play of choice. It is similarly worth noting that Catherine Richardson lives in Faversham and used local records in her work on Arden. All three editors combine personal enthusiasm for the plays and their worlds with scholarly rigour, and the result is three useful and enjoyable insights into early modern drama.

Molly Clark is a postgraduate student at Merton College, Oxford, working on rhyme in Shakespeare’s theater

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