'Arden winketh at his wife's lewdness, & why!': A Patrilineal Crisis in Arden of Faversham

Randall Martin

Abstract


This paper explores a cluster of critical and performance problems in Arden of Faversham: Arden's apparent unwillingness to end his wife and Mosby's affair; his permissive attitude towards the lovers' meetings in his house; and his paradoxical outbursts of violence and friendship towards Mosby. The playwright ignored explanations offered by historical sources for Thomas Arden's complacency as the overweening desire for material gain or social influence. Instead he interprets Arden's motives differently, although these are not stated directly (and perhaps could not be, given Arden's goals) and they are left implied by comparison with the wider social context and with other characters' ambitions for property, status, and lineage. In a situation recalling that of his historical benefactor, Henry VIII, Arden's urgent need is for a male heir to inherit his new wealth, and to establish his still-contingent gentle status. He therefore connives at his wife's adultery in the hope that it will produce the heir he desires. At the same time, Arden publicly condemns Alice and Mosby so that a son will be regarded as legitimate. He must therefore perform in several opportunistic roles: 'winking' at, and thus passively enabling, the affair; melancholy and enraged by sexual jealousy. Arden's dynastic ambitions, whose origins lie in the political ideology of primogeniture and the culture of early modern masculinity, blind him to his wife's plans. They also lead to a deeply divided and improvised subjectivity, as he responds tactically to the threat of patrilineal extinction.

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