The theme of ‘obedience’ in Arden of Faversham

Obedience is a powerful thing. The act of submitting to the wishes and intentions of another person, whether willingly, through persuasion or duress, creates a strong dynamic in the relationship between the individuals involved. As readers of a text, we identify these relationships and pick out the moments and actions which indicate shifts in power and standing, whether it be a defiance of orders or perhaps even going as far as the person doing the obeying becoming the one that is obeyed. All this is captured within the plot of Arden of Faversham, the domestic setting of the play providing the perfect backdrop for a myriad of intertwined relationships where we can analyse just how the theme of obedience manifests itself.

Of all the characters in the play, it is perhaps Alice who is associated with the concept of obedience the most. It is her, after all, that is married to the central character Arden – marriage being a commitment to ‘love, honour and obey’. In many ways, it is due to Alice’s clear flaunting of this commitment that provides the emotional crux to the play and drives both the action and the reader’s investment in the characters. It is with bitter irony that Alice says to Arden “For never woman loved her husband better / Than I do Thee.” The full extent of her lies go unbeknownst to Arden himself but the audience is completely privy to them, adding to the dramatic effect of the play as we see how on one hand she plays the doting, obedient wife, while real she schemes and plots with her lover Mosby.

This paints a picture of Alice as a very negative character with very low morals, who lies frequently and throws aside an oath to obedience made in the eyes of God. But equally, she can be seen as an empowered female, subverting the patriarchy and normal social order of the time. She is actively trying to break out from a situation that she find detrimental to her happiness, seeking to alter her own future and challenge authority to create a ‘better’ life for herself. Indeed, we actually see Alice herself being obeyed by other characters in the play, including the household servant Michael. The act of his following out her orders is the first of many instances where obedience is gained in exchange for some kind of reward, in this case, Mosby’s sister Susan. “On that condition, Michael, here is my hand: / None shall have Mosby’s sister but thyself” says Alice, swiftly offering Susan to Michael in exchange for him killing Arden. Michael is tempted by lust to abandon any sense of duty and obedience he has for his master and exchange it for a new obedience to Alice.

Alice offers this same exchange system later in the play in Scene 14 where she provides Black Will with further incentive to kill Arden, saying “My hands shall play you golden harmony. / How like you this?” Here the exchange is clearly Alice’s offer of sexual favours in exchange for Black Will’s services, highlighting how swiftly Alice is willing to abandon any sense of morals she has in order to see her intentions carried out. It is moments like these that show not only just how powerful a tool obedience is, but also how quickly and easily it can be obtained. It is Alice’s keen sense of how men function and how she can utilise temptation that makes her such a powerful character in the play.

The concept of greed is another powerful motivator, highlighted best in the fact that Black Will and Shakebag have no real reason to kill Arden other than the money Greene is offering them. “I’ll give you twenty angels for your pains” he says, and in an instant, their loyalty and obedience is bought. For the remainder of the play, they then persist to try and kill Arden, encountering considerable hardship and numerous failed attempts in the process, but still continuing due to the lure of money. In respect to both this situation and the methods in which Alice ‘buys’ obedience, is the writer of Arden of Faversham highlighting how easily human nature can give in to temptation, morals thrown out of the window?

As a tale of morals then, how effectively does the play try to educate the audience on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to being obedient? This is best demonstrated in scene 4 where Michael’s loyalties clash as at the last minute he goes back on his plans to assist in Arden’s death, speculating “My master’s kindness pleads to me for life”. This change of heart can be seen as the play’s didactic sense of moral instruction, speaking to the audience and attempting to teach them. In this instance Michael’s actions save Arden’s life but ultimately, this act of conscience does not seem to be enough to redeem him; Michael is executed at the end of the play along with the others. The irony here is that his obedience, to first his master and then to his lust, has brought about his death.

Michael is not the only character that expresses doubts about the ‘rightness’ of what he is doing. Early on in the play Alice speculates on how Mosby has “made shipwreck of mine honour for thy sake”. Here she clearly blames Mosby for tempting her away from her marriage from Arden, spoiling her honour – just like Michael, she has been more obedient to lust than to her morals. But most interestingly, the audience is presented with a situation that highlights how the temptation may not lie with Mosby, but in fact Alice herself. “Henceforward know me not,” proclaims Mosby in scene 1, eager to end the affair, but Alice then proceeds to play the victim, eventually persuading Mosby that they should continue to be together. Here the obedience is Mosby’s submission to Alice, his conscience being overpowered by her mastery over him. Indeed, it is important to remember that it is Alice that first suggests the plot to kill Arden, which the other characters are then drawn into in an intertwined chain of obedience that links them all together.

If obedience is a central theme within the play and Alice a central character used to illustrate that theme, then she is open to the opinions of the audience. And like any opinion, the audience’s perceptions of Alice can be coloured by bias; after all, all we know of Alice comes from the play text. Our judgement is created from what the author gives us and one of the most significant pieces they give us comes in the form of the play’s title page. Here the author proclaims the play is a story of a ‘disloyal and wanton wife… wicked woman’, a scathing depiction of Alice given before the play has even begun. Thus, the audience will already be making assumptions that will automatically influence their opinion of anything she does.

Equally, Arden is given a very favourable introduction; the play is very much his story, a ‘lamentable tragedy’. Alice is clearly ‘his’ wife, a possession that begins to behave beyond its intended function. We as an audience are clearly meant to sympathise for Arden while feeling dislike for Alice. This in turn introduces another kind of obedience, our obedience as the audience to the author’s intentions. They are our master and to a degree we serve them, partaking in the work they have created. We fulfil a profound role for the author, for without an audience, the play would be little more than words on a page. We obey those words when we read the text or hear the words spoken on stage, our minds processing them and following the various plot devices. Of course, just like in the play where the characters break from their obedience, the audience can do so too; shifting away from whatever concepts the author may have intended and formulating their own opinions and ideas on the characters and story.

So what is the ultimate moral of Arden of Faversham? What is the moral it tries to teach? In many ways the play represents a constant battle between obedience and temptation. In clear cut terms, obedience seems to be a force for good and temptation a classic sin. But looking closer, things are not so simple, and there remains a grey area focused mainly around new social ideals of mobility – old class distinctions broken down in the face of emerging cultural changes. Sexual lust and greed for money remain powerful motivators even to this day, and as such, the play remains just as relevant to the audience – asking them to make their own judgement on just what it means to be obedient.


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