While true crime shows are a popular staple of modern entertainment, a look at history shows that the genre is nearly as old as publishing. Early pamphlets, broadsides, ballad sheets, and books carried accounts of gruesome crimes to be sold to an avid public. At the birth of the modern English drama in 16th century London, a play stands out as the first based on a real murder. Arden of Feversham, anonymously published in 1592, is probably the work of two writers hired to produce a trashy, money-maker for a local theater. Its principal author is now believed to be none other than William Shakespeare.
On May 30, 1593, London’s most successful young playwright, Christopher Marlowe, a known street brawler with a reputation for blasphemy and debauchery, was drinking with three companions in a dockyard dive. Apparently an argument over the bill escalated into a dagger fight that ended when Marlowe was stabbed in the right eye. The author of Doctor Faustus died instantly.
There’s reason to believe, however, that the notorious playwright was dispatched on orders from the royal court, having crossed one powerful man too many. In fact, the year before, a play anonymously penned by two of his friends, telling the true tale of a wife plotting her husband’s murder, appeared in print. It was a real departure from the classical tradition of plays telling the violent fates of tragic heroes, a new genre of storytelling for a new society – the first true crime drama. In it, the wannabe widow exclaims in verse: “We’ll have him murdered as he walks the streets./In London many alehouse ruffians keep,/Which, as I hear, will murder men for gold.”
In this case, art certainly imitated Marlowe’s violent life, as well as his untimely death.
The True History of True Crime Stories
You might think of true crime entertainment as something relatively new, the product of a harrowing half-century of mass shootings, serial killers, and sensational murders. In fact, it reaches back to a London simmering with brutal crime and often grotesque punishments. When Kit Marlowe was stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances, English drama engaged with the real world in a wholly new – you might say modern – way.
The new media of 1580s London – pamphlets, broadsides, ballad sheets, and books on English life – were filled with tales of murders, ghosts, and robberies. This raw sort of sensational entertainment was eagerly received by an expanding urban population living under changed rules and social norms.
Where once plays were about saints or kings, a new drama as lurid and dynamic as London itself took its cue from the penny press to entertain a paying public. A small group of young writers in the city created a dramatic art of broad farces and violent tragedies featuring devils and men, women and witches, clowns, magicians, killers, and thieves.
Amid London’s Chaos, A Young Shakespeare Seeks His Fortune
One of these writers was an actor in a local company who had a hand in crafting several plays in partnership with others. A case can be made that this writer created the first true crime drama, a play based on a notorious murder, a couple years before he began the work that would secure his everlasting fame. He was none other than the Immortal Bard himself, William Shakespeare.
It’s thought he came to London as early as 1586, at age 22, leaving his wife and three infant children at their home in Stratford, 90 miles away. Considering Shakespeare eventually bought the biggest house in that town, and died its richest man, we might presume he was drawn by the financial opportunities offered by the theater world of England’s capital.
Once mainly a ruling center of palaces, estates, monasteries, and churches, London opened vast tracts of what had been church land to new housing and commercial enterprise during the religious Reformation launched by King Henry VIII. As the city expanded, an entertainment district grew on the south bank of the River Thames, out of reach of London’s authorities.
London in 1616 by Claes van Visscher. The two tall and circular buildings visible on the south bank under THAMESIS are theaters.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Taverns, brothels, and squalid arenas where dogs, bears, and bulls were set fighting for the thrill of gamblers were established there, along with two theaters, and a neighborhood of actors and writers to serve them.
Water was sent through the city in lead pipes, a source of poisoning that has been shown to increase impulsive behavior in young people. Gang fights and riots were regular events. Every man went armed with at least a dagger, and many also with swords. Women carried long needles and slender knives.
London’s population doubled twice between 1520 and 1600. By then, it’s estimated that half the population was under the age of 20, with life expectancy topping out around age 50. True to his times, Shakespeare died at 52.
This lawless atmosphere defined Shakespeare’s London life. We know he responded with thrilling historical dramas (all but inventing that genre), then tragedies filled with betrayals and violence told with a richness of language equal to the deep disruptions he dramatized. His greatest poetry framed the worst of human behavior. The high body counts at the end of Shakespeare’s plays were always redeemed by the grace of his words.
Except, that is, for Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s earliest “official” play. It is a revenge gorefest set in ancient Rome featuring rape, stabbings, hacked limbs, gouged eyeballs, and cannibalism, with no redeeming qualities. Titus is very much part of a theater of violence popular at the time, and it gives an idea of the work some scholars believe Will Shakespeare was turning out in his early 20s.
Elizabethan London was an open-air true crime drama, with almost daily public executions – hangings, and burnings – with the heads and limbs of the worst offenders displayed on spikes in public places as a warning to traitors and criminals.
Shakespeare’s modern biographer Peter Ackroyd proposes he spent a couple seasons collaborating with established writers like Marlowe on cheap theatricals meant to make some fast cash. The titles of dramas of this type – A Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother, A Warning for Fair Women, and The Seven Deadly Sins – give an idea of their quality.
A New Kind of Drama Appears on the London Stage
One play from this period, Arden of Feversham, was unprecedented in that it dramatized a true crime. Published anonymously in 1592, it tells the story of the murder-for-hire of one Thomas Arden by his wife Alice and her lover. Arden is very possibly the first of its kind: a domestic murder drama.
The scene of the crime today: the Arden house in Faversham, Kent (Credit: Marathon, via Wikimedia Commons)
The facts of the case were these: a prosperous landowner, and mayor of Faversham, Kent, Arden was murdered in his home on February 14 (Valentine’s Day!), 1551, by two men hired by his wife. His body was dumped that snowy night in a field nearby.
Unfortunately for the killers, the snowstorm ended before their tracks were covered. Investigators followed the trail back to the scene, where they discovered bloodstains. Arden’s wife and her lover confessed. The two henchmen escaped, but Alice and her lover, along with two other associates, were executed. The men were hanged. Mrs. Arden, given a preview of the hell awaiting her for the crime, was burnt at the stake.
Thomas Arden had been a member of a new landowning class, a commoner who grew rich after buying ex-church property. His murder, and the capture of his killers, was significant enough to be told in five pages of 1557’s Hollingshead’s Chronicles, the central work of English history that Shakespeare mined thoroughly to write such plays as Henry IV parts I and II, Henry V, and Richard III.
Clues and Patterns That Point to Shakespeare’s Authorship
Did Arden of Feversham come from his pen? Though it lacks the character richness and intricate plotting of Shakespeare’s known works, long sections have a poetic lilt and rhythm that seem very much his own.
Alice: Ere noon he means to take horse and away!
Sweet news is this. O that some airy spirit
Would in the shape and likeness of a horse
Gallop with Arden ’cross the Ocean,
And throw him from his back into the waves! …
Love is a God, and marriage is but words.
Though not equal to even Shakespeare’s minor plays, Arden of Feversham has several intriguing character highlights. Alice Arden is shown torn between love for her husband and lust for her lover, wracked by shame for her crime. Arden himself, though upright, is a stern landlord, and two of his tenants connive in his death. Then there’s the pair of darkly comic hired killers – bragging, bumbling goons who ridiculously miss their mark several times on the road before successfully stabbing Arden in his home.
Interestingly, the killers’ names, inventions of the playwright, are Black Will and Shakebag. (Clearly, someone in London’s small Elizabethan theater community had fun writing this.) And, more significantly, at the play’s end, a woman overwhelmed with guilt for a murder she planned tries to clear away bloodstains that won’t disappear, a situation replayed with greater depth and intensity 14 years later by Lady Macbeth.
Likely because of its “B-movie” quality, Arden remained a popular draw, with multiple performances, and three printed editions in 40 years. Critics since the late 18th century have suspected Shakespeare’s authorship. Marlowe and Thomas Kyd have also been suggested as possible writers or contributors.
In 2006, a stylometric study of Arden’s text used software to chart word use and rhetorical patterns to compare with Shakespeare’s known plays. It determined that Arden was mainly the Bard’s work, with sections contributed by another, now thought to be Thomas Watson, who may have included incidents from his friend Christopher Marlowe’s life. A similar analysis in 2015 was good enough for the Oxford Shakespeare collection, which now includes Arden of Feversham in the canon.
One mark of Shakespeare’s work is how it still speaks to audiences. In early 2020, a small theater company in Austin, Texas, presented Arden of Feversham. The show’s director noted the similarities she felt it has with the rest of Shakespeare’s work: “He’s the funniest early modern playwright that I know. It has his sense of humor stamped all over it.” Referring to Black Will and Shakebag, she said, “It feels very much [as if he] had written Fargo.”
Title Image: The Droeshout Portrait of William Shakespeare (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.