Lust, Greed, Roleplaying, and a Bit of Light Bondage in the Privy:

Corruption and Manipulation of Social Turmoil in Arden of Faversham and The Alchemist

Juliana Burkhart


London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was a place of turmoil and unrest. The highly successful reign of Queen Elizabeth would end with her death in 1603 and succession by King James, a Scot. Tensions were still high with Spain even after the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the Black Death would continue to visit the city for the next several decades. Greed and lust breed prolifically during such tumultuous times, when get-rich-quick schemes seem to be the easiest way to fix a problem and sex is the first place to turn when those schemes fail. Lust and greed have starring roles in the anonymous play Arden of Faversham and in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. The characters in both plays form unstable relationships built more on the desire for money and sex than on the values of true partnership. They are all working toward their own personal gain by means of trickery and manipulation of the desires and corruption of other characters. This leads them to play various roles in order to get what they want- when the things they want and the methods they use to obtain them are upsetting to an already unstable society. The main difference between the plays is a tragic versus a happy ending, each brought about by the main intentions, malicious or comparatively benign, behind the motives of the characters.

The relationship between Alice and Mosby in Arden of Faversham is difficult to define, a quality which contributes to its instability. While the clear motive of the couple as a pair is that they want Alice’s husband Arden dead, their motives as individuals are not as simple. Sex is a definite motivator for both of them, with “the insatiable desire of filthy lust” being a major theme in the play, according to the play’s original title page (Bevington, Engle, Maus, and Rasmussen, 427). This alone would make their murder of Arden a completely selfish and ignoble act, yet the couple manages to create some sympathy for themselves by exclaiming that theirs is true love: “Love is a god, but marriage is but words” (I. 101). In the words of Clarke the painter, Alice shows herself to be of “noble mind” (I. 269) in risking death for the one she loves rather than living with one she hates.

This might seem quite genuine, but the audience is never fully convinced that true love really is present in their tumultuous relationship. Mosby has a monetary motive- if Arden dies, Alice inherits his money, and if Mosby and Alice marry, that fortune and the social clout that comes with it becomes his. Alice, having “descended of a noble house” (I. 203) feels justified in verbally abusing Mosby, who is of lower station. If she does love him, her love is not patient or kind. She is fully aware that he has everything to gain by being with her, while he can provide few benefits to her. She makes sure to point this out during their first exchange in the play, when she explains that her noble background and proper marriage are all she needs, while he is just a servant, “And so, farewell” (I. 204). Mosby, realizing that she is right, quickly wins her back by saying he was just testing her by not coming to her. She readily reconciles, and the talk between them at once becomes loving. But the unsteady nature of their relationship does not bind them tightly enough; it leaves room for selfishness and a desire for individual gain.

Alice’s motives are even more complicated than Mosby’s. According to Catherine Belsey’s essay “Alice Arden’s Crime,” the true scandal of this play lies not in the violence of the murder, but in a woman’s challenge to the traditional values of the institution of marriage (Kastan and Stallybrass, 133). Alice’s preference for Mosby over Arden is, as she explains to Mosby, irrational. That she resents her husband is clear; if there was ever love between them (as Alice insists there was in I. 198), it is now gone. She describes a new and more powerful love for Mosby that must be fought for valiantly, even if it means killing an innocent man. However, her resentment toward Mosby remains present in the mind of the audience, causing us to wonder if Alice’s actions are ones of heroism in effort to restore love to its rightful place of honor, or selfish ones motivated by simple lust. Whatever her hidden reasons, she does desire Mosby over Arden.

In a time when “crimes of violence were by no means uncommon,” (Kastan and Stallybrass, 133), it is not simply Alice’s choice to murder a man that is challenging to traditional values. It is also her desire for a man of lower status that challenges what Belsey describes as an institution already “publically in crisis” (133) during this time period. Her personality too is subversive: a woman who was anything other than quiet and complacent was considered improper.  Alice goes beyond mere shrewishness to be aggressively assertive and rebellious against the institution of marriage, not to mention murder. She acts not out of blind rage but in a calm, calculating matter stemming from much premeditation. She becomes an actress, identifying what her “audience” wants, and giving it to them only to further her own efforts. The first role we see her play is that of a loving and devoted wife. She knows that Arden needs her to reassure him that she has never betrayed him, so she gives him such plausible reasons for saying Mosby’s name in her sleep that even the play’s audience might not at first suspect her of having already decided to murder Arden. However, as soon as he leaves the stage, Alice expresses her true desire not only for his death, but also to be untied from the chains of marriage which hold her to him.

The first exchange between Alice and Mosby, as discussed above, indicates the unstable nature of their relationship and arouses many questions about Alice’s true nature. Does she play a role for Mosby like she does for Arden, or is she showing him her true motives? Is she really ready to abandon Mosby if he will not show her the complete devotion she desires, or is she merely trying to frighten him into staying with her? It is difficult to tell where Alice the actress ends and the real Alice begins, but since she is so adept at discerning what Arden desires from her, it is difficult to trust her when it comes to Mosby. At times she shows love for Mosby, but does not seem to be fully devoted to him given her willingness to shun and turn on him. Her real devotion is to the plot to kill her husband. She spends much more energy plotting to kill Arden than she does showing love to Mosby. While she is certainly attracted to Mosby in some way, it seems that his more important role to her is that of a pawn in her plan for independence from the bonds of marriage. The best conclusion is that she is simply reminding Mosby that she has chosen him to help her, though she does not require him and she can leave him whenever she chooses.

While Alice’s true feelings are complicated, the fact that she needs or wants Mosby to help her execute her plot (and her husband) is clear. She understands that he wants her to be a faithful lover and wants for her to need him as badly as he needs her in order to achieve social gain. She fulfils this desire of his in her speech by placing herself in a needy and pathetic position: “Have I for this given thee so many favors,/ Incurred my husband’s hate, and-out, alas!-/ made shipwreck of mine honor for thy sake?/ And dost thou say, ‘Henceforth, know me not’?” (I. 188-191). Whatever her true reasons, the effect is that Mosby stays with her until the end, and eventually dies with her for their actions.

Clever Alice goes on to use her talent for manipulation to figure out what other characters want and use that knowledge for her own gain. She knows that Greene feels that his land has been unfairly taken from him by Arden, so she offers to give it back to him if he helps her kill her husband. She knows that Greene’s hirees Black Will and Shakebag are motivated by pure greed, so she increases her pay to them as she gets more desperate knowing that the higher the reward, the faster they will do their job. She also knows that Michael and Clarke are motivated by their lust for Mosby’s sister Susan, so she tells each of them that Susan is theirs if they help her kill Arden.

In contrast to Alice, Susan Mosby is a depiction of a proper woman during this time period. She is quiet and obedient to her brother, and complacently becomes an accessory to murder in order to do his will. Her quiet willingness even to clean Arden’s blood off the floor stands in sharp difference to the highly verbal and rebellious Alice who holds more control over the men in her life than they do over her. This contrast with Susan stands as one more indication of Alice’s socially subversive and malicious desires and actions, which lead to the eventual death of nearly every character. It is Alice and possibly Mosby who hold the most potential to be truly corrupt, and they spread that corruption to characters who otherwise have no malicious intentions. The main sin of Greene, Clarke, Black Will, and Shakebag is that they are too pliant and too easily swayed to do harm when offered what they want most. Of course they later destroy any chances they might have had for redemption by involving themselves in the actual murder, and end up either dead or having to flee to save their own lives. This pattern of corruption is continued in Jonson’s The Alchemist, but with a different and infinitely cheerier ending characteristic of a dramatic comedy.

Unlike Arden of Faversham, Jonson’s play contains no truly malicious characters. The scheming “Venture Tripartite” of Face, Subtle, and Doll Common are at worst witty swindlers, but one would never describe them as evil. Like Alice, they discover what their victims want and then trick them into thinking it’s being given to them. Where Alice’s own desires are complicated but her method and objective brutally simple, the desire of the Venture Tripartite is simple while their methods of obtaining it complicated, clever, and tricky. Being of much lower class than Alice (Face is a butler to a man in probably the same class as Alice, Doll is a prostitute, and Subtle is described only as “a cheater” in line 4 of The Argument of the play), the Tripartite sets up a base of operations in the house of Face’s master, Lovewitt, to fulfil their one desire to make some money.

Social unrest is the main reason they are able to do this, as Lovewitt has left the house and Face in charge of it in order to flee to the countryside during a panicky outbreak of the plague.  The Tripartite unites to make a pact that loosely binds them together as con-artists, each playing several roles depending on the person they intent to gull. Ben Jonson chose an appropriate place for them to subvert traditional economic values. The house is in Blackfriars, the London district where Jonson himself lived and playhouses stood beside brothels, taverns, and other “houses of bad repute.” Lovewitt’s house in effect becomes all of these things as the con-artists deliberately take advantage of the pre-existing social unrest that might cause would-be gulls to come to their house to satisfy their greed or lust.

The fact that the Tripartite is only loosely bound is an important one. The instability of a relationship with no obvious leader is made clear when the play opens upon a colorful argument between Subtle and Face, with a protesting Doll in the background. It is not until the argument takes a particularly dangerous turn (Face threatens to turn Subtle in to the authorities for sorcery) that Doll becomes tired of trying to reason with the pair and resorts to violence herself, attacking Face with such force that Subtle must pull her off of him. This scene makes it clear that each much “sustain their parts” (I.i. 145) within the trio, or it will fall to ruin. Doll is able to bring the argument to an end, but then needs to be controlled in turn. Despite their differences, the three are able to work together quite effectively for most of the play.

Like in Arden of Faversham, the main characters of The Alchemist incite bad behavior in other characters. In the words of Peggy Knapp in “Ben Jonson’s Comedies,” “our three ventures first become corrupt and then study how to corrupt others” (Kastan and Stallybrass, 174). For Dapper, who comes to the house looking only for modest luck in gambling, Subtle takes on the role of a “cunning man” (I.ii. 8), who can see the unseen (and therefore the unprovable). Dapper is told that he deserves better than the small familiar spirit for which he asks, that he is in fact the nephew of the Faerie Queen (later played by Doll), and is worthy of a better class of gambling. By sending Dapper to better gaming, the Tripartite sends him to higher winnings, therefore yielding a higher cut of his winnings for themselves. Sir Epicure Mammon is enticed by alchemy itself, and Subtle’s promise to discover the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. In order to impress Mammon and make the act seem real, Face and Subtle feign discourse on alchemy, using plenty of jargon which the average reader may need footnotes to understand. As his name suggests, Epicure Mammon is a pleasure-seeking individual. He is interested in Doll when she is briefly seen, or rather shown to him. Mammon is told that she is a learned but mad lady, the sister of a lord sent to Subtle to be cured (II.iii. 210). Intrigued, Mammon asks if there is a way he could have “a taste of her-wit-/or so” (II.iii. 259-260). He is later allowed to spend time around Doll, who in her most impressive show of roleplaying spills words out of her mouth in a “fit of talking” (IV.v. S.D.) that makes her sound educated, even though it is really gibberish.

Doll is a no better picture of womanly perfection than Alice Arden. She speaks and fights like a man but uses her feminine qualities to make a living. Like Alice is contrasted to Susan, Doll is contrasted to Dame Pliant, who is just as desirable to the men in this play as Susan, and just as complacent and willing to be married off by her brother. The difference between Pliant and Susan is that Pliant is a rich young widow, and a lady by marriage. Doll makes a pretend transition through the play that contrasts with Pliant’s legitimate ladyship and begins with Doll as a whore, escalates her to the position of lady, and is finalized when she becomes the Faerie Queen for Dapper. Yet just as a mockery is made of each of the gulls as they are repeatedly swindled out of their money, Doll is nothing like Spenser’s regal portrayal of the Faerie Queen. She is a bawdy bastardization created for Dapper only after the trio remembers remember that he has been locked in a privy for much of the play, waiting for his “aunt.” They proceed to have quite a bit of fun with Dapper, requiring that he “kiss her departing part” (V.iv. 56), making the audience wonder if their singular desire for cash might not be accompanied by another desire to entertain themselves. If all they wanted in this scheme was money, they had a willing prostitute at their disposal. But instead they choose strange and amusing ways to milk their gulls for all they are worth, seemingly just for the fun of it.

The anticipated happy ending occurs for these characters because, unlike Alice Arden, they have no dark and evil intent behind their actions, and all three go unpunished. The intent behind motives and actions is the main difference between these two plays, which both feature unstable relationships focused on greed and lust, and clever role-playing used to corrupt the foolish. The characters in both plays manipulate weaknesses in society for their own gain, to infiltrate the minds and discover the desires of others so that they may use it to their advantage. In the end, Alice’s cruel selfishness brings her and her companions to ruin, while the witty thievery of the Venture Tripartite leads to their freedom, conveying a skewed but consistent moralism that those who are evil are punished, while those who make us laugh with their bawdiness are rewarded.