The play Arden of Faversham was first published in 1592 and is credited to “anonymous,” though many scholars and Shakespeare aficionados believe it was written (or at least co-written) by the bard himself. That includes Beth Burns, the artistic director of The Hidden Room Theatre and a veteran director of Shakespeare’s work.
“Scholars first thought it might be Shakespeare in the 1700s just because it’s really good,” Burns says. “But now that we have stylometric tests, we’re finding it’s probably more and more likely that a young Shakespeare did indeed have a hand in writing it. I tend to think that it’s Shakespeare just because, after 10 years of directing Shakespeare, it sounds like him. He’s the funniest early modern playwright that I know. It has his sense of humor stamped all over it [and] it has themes that’ll come back in all of his plays moving forward. It has a lot of Shakespeare in it.”
Shakespeare or not, Arden of Faversham seems remarkably modern for a 428 year old play.
“It feels very much like if Shakespeare had written Fargo,” Burns says.
The plot revolves around a wealthy landowner who manages to enrage everyone in his town – including his wife and her lover – so much that they hire multiple inept murderers to do him in. That’s a plot that certainly could’ve been a Coen brothers movie, and it’s also based on a true story that happened years before the play was written.
“Yeah, it’s the first true crime play and certainly the first true crime comedy,” Burns says.
The themes at work — greed, envy, class, romantic jealousy — are just as topical now as they were when the play was written.
“We are just as fascinated with stupid criminality as we were in the 1500s,” Burns says with a laugh. “And the cool thing about this is this was one of those crimes that rocked the nation, and everybody was talking about it. So much so that decades later a play about it was written.”
While this is Hidden Room’s first full staging of Arden of Faversham, they did a staged reading of the play a few years ago, and it’s become a favorite of Burns’.
“You know, when people like to ask me, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?’ I have to say, if this is Shakespeare, it’s definitely up there now for me. And I’m not exactly sure why more people don’t do it,” she says. “Plays tend to come in and out of fashion. And this is a play that just not a lot of people are knowing about. But I suspect the more people that know about it, the more people will do it, because it’s so much fun.”