The authorship of Arden of Feversham has been a source of much conjecture. In 1770 Edward Jacob reprinted the play with a brief preface in which, without advancing any evidence of value, he attributed it to Shakespeare. In spite of much able criticism written in support of Shakespearean authorship in the last century, this view is now discredited. Boas, as editor of Kyd's works, holds that the author was an imitator of Kyd, rather than Kyd himself, as Fleay had argued many years earlier. Kyd's claim is supported, however, by Charles Crawford in his Collectanea and by H. Dugdale Sykes in his Sidelights on Shakespeare. Sykes gives the following recapitulation of his evidence: "The play echoes the phrasing not only of Kyd's earlier dramas, but of his later work as well. It uses his vocabulary and exhibits the characteristic features of his diction even to the least conspicuous of his mannerisms. It was written by a dramatist, who like Kyd, had a technical knowledge of legal documents and legal procedure. It deals with just such a crime as he had chosen for the subject of a prose tract [The Murder of John Brewen]. Like Soliman and Perseda it borrows from Marlowe's Edward II. Like The Spanish Tragedy and Soliman and Perseda it shows the influence of Seneca and of Garnier. Like them it was published anonymously by Edward White. It is with some confidence that I submit that there is here conclusive proof that it is Kyd's play." Though able scholars have accepted this argument, the case for Kyd is very doubtful. Sykes's impressionistic method of determining authorship has been shown to be fallacious in similar cases. Here the argument from diction is especially questionable, first, because he does not confine himself to Kyd's one authentic original play, The Spanish Tragedy, for comparison, but speaks of Arden of Feversham as echoing Kyd's "earlier dramas " and " later work"; and, second, because there was extensive borrowing of effective phrases and devices in plays around 1590.
The play is founded on an actual murder committed in 1551, a murder so notorious that Holinshed almost a generation later gave a lengthy account of it in his Chronicles. The dramatist apparently used the chronicle, but he may have been acquainted with other accounts or even with local legends. Significant variations from Holinshed are the addition of the confidant Franklin, the omission of Arden's winking at his wife's infidelity, and the use of a fog to frustrate the plans of Shakebag and Will. The free use of chronicle material around 1592, especially for tragedy, may have influenced the selection of this story for dramatization. The author handles it realistically, presenting, as he claims in the epilogue, "a naked tragedy" without embellishments of style. Perhaps the fact that the story deals with characters of the middle and lower classes, rather than with kings and nobles common in tragedy drawn from romance and history, led the author to avoid the pomp and rhetoric prevailing in the tragedy of the period. Arden of Feversham is the first extant example of the domestic tragedy, and one of the best. The success of the play, with its dramatic force and its vivid impressions of moods and places, probably had much to do with the vogue of the type. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on April 3, 1592, and was printed anonymously for Edward White later in the same year. Other editions appeared in 1599 and 1633.
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