Black Will & Shakebag

"The Lamentable and Trve Tragedie of M. Arden of Feuersham in Kent. Who was most wickedlye murdered, by the meanes of his disloyall and wanton wyfe, who for the loue she bare to one Mosbie, hyred two desparat ruffins Blackwill and Shakbag, to kill him. Wherin is shewed the great mallice discimulation of a wicked woman, the vnsatiable desire of filthie lust and the shameful end of all murderers."

This compelling argument is from the title page of the play Arden of Feversham, published anonymously in 1592. A fascinating play - on several levels.

What strikes me most is how remarkably fresh the play is even today. The best way to describe it is as a solid mix of true crime, hard boiled crime story and pulp. There's no poetry for the sake of poetry in this play. It's all muscular prose and meaty realism. The wife plays around. She and her fancy man hatch a plan. Who needs hubby? Get shot of him and collect the dough. So they hire two pros to do the honours. They snuff him, then it all goes Pete Tong and the accusations fly. Unhappy ends all round. Crime don't pay.

Classic noir. Could have been written in 1952 instead of 1592. And it's based on a true murder case, one that occurred in 1551 and even got a mention in Holinshed's Chronicles.

Another thing that makes a great impression is how the plot and the murder are described. First she tries poison. The victim gets away. Then they hire two murderers. The murderers get a bit iffy but the money's good, too good not to do it. They try a hit. It's a miss. Another attempt. No go. More tension. Third try. Still he lives. Everybody getting seriously jittery. Fourth attempt. Still no joy.

And all the time Arden knows his wife is two timing him. But he has no idea she's trying to off him.

Everybody has complex and conflicting motives. Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all. Arden's wife, however, has paid or bribed Arden's whole household and others with gold and silvery tongued promises. It really is in no one's interest to let the man live. So they don't and at last the victim is almost ripped to shreds - as by Eumenides in a Greek tragedy. It's all a dirty, messy, brutal and vicious business. Like slaughtering a pig. Then there's all the blood, so much blood to get rid of. And it never goes away. That's how they get caught - bloody footsteps leading away from the house, traces of blood inside the house.

The messiness and the viciousness make the play all the stronger and more convincing. Plans are laid. They go awry. Things happen. There are unforeseen consequences. Nothing quite goes how it's supposed to go. Nobody quite acts like they're supposed to act. People have second thoughts. It's all good and well to wish murder, talk murder, plot murder. But a very different thing to actually commit it. In cold blood.

That's one of the things that stand out in the play - the sound psychological characterization of even minor characters.

So, who wrote it?

Kyd? He's a popular candidate. In my opinion no, wasn't Kyd. Too streamlined for him, too straightforward, too - well - lucid. Who? Shakespeare? Would have been pretty early for Shakespeare but not entirely impossible. Though, to be honest, nobody really knows when it was written or first performed. We only know when it was published. The Oxfordians credit it, no surprises there, to the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who apparently wrote virtually every play in the Elizabethan era. Marlowe? Perhaps the best candidate. He's vicious enough, doesn't go in for useless poetic nonsense and knows how to tell a story to the best effect.

SHAKEBAG: Black night hath hid the pleasures of the day,
And sheeting darkness overhangs the earth,
And with the black fold of her cloudy robe
Obscures us from the eyesight of the world,
In which sweet silence such as we triumph.
The lazy minutes linger on their time,
Loth to give due audit to the hour,
Till in the watch our purpose be complete
And Arden sent to everlasting night.
Greene, get you gone, and linger here about,
And at some hour hence come to us again,
Where we will give you instance of his death.

There definitely does, whoever wrote it, seem to be a strong and somewhat cryptic Shakespearean connection.

Arden. The name of the victim. Arden is one of England's oldest noble families, one of only three (I think) that can trace their noble lineage on the male side to the Saxon days before the Norman conquest. Shakespeare's mother was an Arden. Possibly related to the high and mighty one's, though nobody's ever been able to prove that. On the other hand nobody's ever proved that she definitely wasn't. We just can't say. Still, Arden was her name and her family.

What really gets me, every time, are the names of the murderers. Black Will and Shakebag. Will and Shake? Can this be mere coincidence? Will and Shake murdering an Arden? This, surely, can be no mere accident or happenstance? It beggars disbelief.

Surely the author is having a go at Shakespeare? And if the author is none else than Kit Marlowe that would seem the most natural thing in the world. The experienced veteran Marlowe slipping the loudmouth upstart Shakespeare a juicy one in the seat, as it were.

Maybe Shakespeare even, when he was a young actor, performed the role of Shakebag, as has been speculated. Now there's a happy thought. Maybe that is precisely why Shakebag is called Shakebag (originally he was called Loosebag) - because Will played him. Of course there is not even the slightest evidence for this.

Of course, if it's true that the names of the actual killers, given by Holinshed in his book, were in fact Black Will and Shakebag (as is also claimed; not having read Holinshed I really wouldn't know one way or the other), then that would pretty much ruin my lovely theory.

Still, bit of a coincidence that. A bit thick.

Anyway, Arden of Feversham is one of the best crime stories ever. Is my humble opinion. Whoever wrote it. (And my belated thanks to the very erudite Mr. Dyer, in whose library first I came across and read the play all those years ago.)

1 comment:

PS said...

Had a bottle of Shepherd Neame's Christmas Ale and noticed that Sheperd Neame brew their most excellent beers in Faversham, Kent. Never knew that even though their Spitfire and Bishop's Finger are among my absolute favourites. And Feversham ought to be Faversham, by the way. Same place. Don't know why Arden of Feversham isn't Arden of Faversham as would be right and proper. Oh well, Elizabethan spelling I suppose. They never was that particular in them days . . .