Shakespeare Quarterly 57.3 (2006) 249-293
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Shakespeare and the Quarrel Scene in Arden of Faversham
MacDonald P. Jackson
Keith sturgess, having directed a production of Arden of Faversham and having also edited it, makes the following declaration: "I find it difficult to imagine that the intense scene 8, entirely independent of Holinshed, was not written by Shakespeare."1 He is referring to the famous quarrel scene between Alice Arden and her lover Mosby. In early Elizabethan drama, outside the Shakespeare canon, only the final scene of Doctor Faustus matches it for its combination of sheer theatrical effectiveness, poetic merit, psychological depth, and emotional power; and, while it is characteristic of Marlowe that his scene requires a solo performance by the hero who so dominates his play, the author of Arden of Faversham places his two chief characters in an intensely dramatic conflict that anatomizes the volatile relationship between them.
Scene 8 begins with a soliloquy in which Mosby expresses the anxieties that plague his social climbing and his schemes to rise higher by murdering Alice's husband. He concludes that even Alice herself jeopardizes his security and must be eliminated. She enters holding a prayer book and avowing repentance for her adulterous affair and for conspiring to kill her husband. A bitter quarrel ensues in which the lovers trade insults until Alice capitulates, pleading for Mosby's forgiveness. Eventually, they kiss and make up. The scene ends as Alice says, "Come, [End Page 249] let us in to shun suspicion" and Mosby replies, "Ay, to the gates of death to follow thee" (8.166–67).2 The episode is superbly shaped, mounting to a climax of acrimony, and then, when Alice can no longer endure Mosby's abuse, subsiding toward reconciliation.
The range of tones is extraordinary. Mosby's opening monologue, which has a two-part structure, foreshadows the trajectory of the scene as a whole. At the midpoint of his speech, nostalgia for a "golden time" (l. 11) when he "slept secure" (l. 12) gives way to the recognition that he "cannot back / But needs must on although to danger's gate" (ll. 21–22) and to his determination that Arden must die. Like Richard of Gloucester and Macbeth, Mosby schemes to neutralize the threats to his safety posed by witnesses and accomplices.3 He has undergone a form of marriage with Alice, but since she has been unfaithful to Arden for Mosby's sake, she may, he argues, tire of him and cannot be trusted: "'Tis fearful sleeping in a serpent's bed, / And I will cleanly rid my hands of her" (ll. 42–43). But seeing her approach, he resolves to "flatter her" (l. 44). Alice's contrite sighs prompt feigned solicitude. With typical egotism, he accuses her of adopting "distressful looks" (l. 56) in order to "wound a breast / Where lies a heart that dies when thou art sad" (ll. 56–57):
mosby . . . It is not love that loves to anger love.
alice It is not love that loves to murder love.
mosby How mean you that?
alice Thou knowest how dearly Arden lovèd me.
mosby And then?
alice And then—conceal the rest, for 'tis too bad, Lest that my words be carried with the wind And published in the world to both our shames. I pray thee, Mosby, let our springtime wither; Our harvest else will yield but loathsome weeds. Forget, I pray thee, what hath passed betwixt us, For now I blush and tremble at the thoughts.
Mosby's first speech here means, "If you truly loved me you would not vex me by looking miserable." The conscience-stricken Alice varies his wordplay to encapsulate [End Page 250] the paradox that has been troubling her. Her "It is not love that loves to murder love" concedes the inherent contradictoriness of killing, for love's sake, a loving husband. But Mosby's guilt at his own musings causes him, momentarily and irrationally, to misinterpret her riposte as "If you loved me you would not wish to...