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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 April 2012


Although the long-awaited murder of Arden in the anonymous Arden of Faversham (ca. 1592) takes place during a game of tables, or what we call backgammon,1 critics have been quick to overlook the choice of game in this climactic scene, underestimating its importance to the play's central concerns and even mistakenly calling it a game of dice or cards.2 These games do share some common features—backgammon, for instance, involves the use of dice—but the distinctions among them are significant, especially for the play's often-observed interests in geography and place. In attending to the intersection between games and theatre, I participate in a long tradition of performance studies scholarship. But in contrast to much of this scholarship, I emphasize the formal qualities of particular games—which vary widely from one game to another—arguing that different games call for unique competencies in players and in spectators of games.3Arden of Faversham reflects on spatial relations in the early modern theatre by staging and enacting the ludic competencies peculiar to backgammon.

Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2012

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1. For the sake of simplicity and clarity for modern readers, I refer to “tables” as “backgammon” throughout this essay. Although modern backgammon derives originally from ancient Roman and Islamic “race games” and was an adaptation of various forms of the game played throughout Europe and England (as todad tablas in Spain, toutes tables in France, tavole reale in Italy, and as Irish in England), it came to England at the turn of the seventeenth century. See Murray, H. J. R., A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), esp. chap. 6Google Scholar. We cannot know for sure what form of tables is being played in Arden, but if backgammon was just coming into vogue, we may surmise that the theatre would have capitalized on the freshest game fashions.

2. In Household Business”: Domestic Plays of Early Modern England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 87Google Scholar, Viviana Comensoli mistakes this as a game of cards. Sources that refer to this as a dice game include Whigham, Frank, Seizures of the Will in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lockwood, Tom, “Introduction,” in Arden of Faversham, ed. White, Martin (London: A & C Black, 2007)Google Scholar, ix. Future citations from the play will be drawn from White's edition.

3. Much performance studies scholarship on games and theatre, perhaps because of a reliance on theories of play developed by social scientists Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, approaches games and/or play as broad categories instead of looking at specific kinds of games in relation to theatre. This approach risks flattening important differences between games. Huizinga, Johan, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950)Google Scholar; and Caillois, Roger, Man, Play and Games, trans. Barash, Meyer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

4. The term “sitting house-pastimes” is used in King James I, Basilikon Doron; or, His Majesties Instructions to His Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince (London: Felix Kingston, for John Norton, 1603)Google Scholar.

5. A useful primary source for the early modern rules of backgammon and other table games is Cram, David, Forgeng, Jeffrey L., and Johnston, Dorothy, eds., Francis Willughby's Book of Games: A Seventeenth-Century Treatise on Sports, Games, and Pastimes (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003)Google Scholar. See also Murray.

6. Salen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003)Google Scholar. On cards, see Partlett, David, A Dictionary of Card Games (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

7. The term “amphitheatre” has been widely used by theatre historians to refer to outdoor playing venues that tend to be circular in shape and have tiered seating. The precise performance history of Arden is unknown, but if, as has come to be accepted, the play was owned by Pembroke's Men in the early 1590s, it would have been performed in the amphitheatres that were the prime venue for professional theatre at that time, possibly in the Rose.

8. de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Rendall, Steven (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 106Google Scholar. See Dawson's, Anthony chapter “The Distracted Globe” in Dawson, Anthony B. and Yachnin, Paul, The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare's England: A Collaborative Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 88107Google Scholar. Dawson does not address the physical space of the theatre in the way I do here, but his conception of scopic dominance is very useful. Whereas Dawson examines how actors wrested “scopic control” (96) from their visually distracted audiences, I am interested in how the theatre attempted to problematize scopic management entirely.

9. Quoted in Gurr, Andrew, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 245, no. 141Google Scholar.

10. Ibid., 214, no. 6.

11. For discussion of these terms in the context of theatre proxemics, see Elam, Keir, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), esp. 58Google Scholar.

12. Bristol, Michael D., “Theater and Popular Culture,” in A New History of Early English Drama, ed. Cox, John D. and Kastan, David Scott (New York: Columbia, 1997), 231–48Google Scholar, at 248.

13. Such structures of sociospatial difference may have been more advertising than actuality. Dekker's Lanthorne and Candlelight mocks gentlemen theatergoers who presume the galleries were socially exclusive: “Pay thy two-pence to a Player, in his gallerie maist thou sitte by a harlot.” Quoted in Gurr, Andrew and Szatek, Karoline, “Women and Crowds at the Theater,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 21 (2008): 157–69Google Scholar, at 157 (and in Gurr, 230, no. 73). The theatre was merely a microcosm of emergent social trends in England, where status could be bought.

14. Gurr, 24.

15. Ibid., 22.

16. McAuley, Gay, Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000)Google Scholar; McConachie, Bruce, “Using Cognitive Science to Understand Spatiality and Community in the Theater,” Contemporary Theater Review 12.3 (2002): 97114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. De Certeau, 92.

18. Ibid., 117–18. De Certeau's argument about maps and scopic power has become almost commonplace in the scholarly discourse on cartography. In addition to the sources in the subsequent note, see Jacob, Christian, The Sovereign Map: Theoretical Approaches in Cartography through History, ed. Dahl, Edward H., trans. Conley, Tom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Harley, J. B., The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography, ed. Laxton, Paul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; and Foucault, Michel, “Questions on Geography,” trans. Gordon, Colin, in Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, ed. Gordon, (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 6377Google Scholar.

19. See Gillies, John, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Armstrong, Philip, “Spheres of Influence: Cartography and the Gaze in Shakespearean Tragedy and History,” Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 3970Google Scholar; Turner, Henry S., The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts, 1580–1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. chap. 5Google Scholar. On maps and early modern drama, see Traub, Valerie, “The Nature of Norms in Early Modern England: Anatomy, Cartography, King Lear,” South Central Review 26.1–2 (2009): 4281CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sanford, Rhonda Lemke, Maps and Memory in Early Modern England: A Sense of Place (New York: Palgrave, 2002), esp. chaps. 3 and 5Google Scholar; Turner, Henry S., “Literature and Mapping in Early Modern England, 1520–1688,” in The History of Cartography, vol. 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance, Part I, ed. Woodward, David (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 412–26Google Scholar; Sullivan, Garrett A. Jr., The Drama of Landscape: Land, Property, and Social Relations on the Early Modern Stage (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Helgerson, Richard, Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

20. P. D. A. Harvey, “Board Games and Early Cartography,” paper presented at the International Conference on the History of Cartography, Chicago, 21–25 June 1993. My thanks to Robert W. Karrow at the Newberry Library for giving me a copy of this unpublished talk and to Harvey for granting me permission to quote from it. See also Jacob, 327–37.

21. Partlett, David, The Oxford History of Board Games (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 99Google Scholar.

22. As was the case with many board games—which were published as single sheets that could be cut out to create a deck of cards—these same illustrations, with more extensive descriptions, were used for a deck of geographical cards. See also Pierre du Val's “Table géographique rééditée en un jeu de cartes” (“Geographical Tables Reduced to a Game of Cards”) (1669). The earliest known English version of geographical playing cards are Morden's Playing Cards, which depict the counties of England and Wales, complete with small maps of key roads. The deck was first issued in the 1590s and then rereleased in multiple editions throughout the seventeenth century. My thanks to the staff at the British Museum for assistance with these materials.

23. De Certeau, 106, 92.

24. Ibid.

25. I am thus extending to board games and theatre the important argument Valerie Traub has recently made about maps in “Grid Lines and Missing Captions,” paper presented at the Material Texts Seminar, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2009. My thanks to Traub for sharing this unpublished talk with me.

26. The Oxford English Dictionary, online ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), s.v. “board,” I.1.c.

27. Sullivan, 43.

28. Ibid., 54.

29. Neill, Michael, “‘This Gentle Gentleman’: Social Change and the Language of Status in Arden of Faversham,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 10 (1998): 7397Google Scholar.

30. Arden of Faversham; scene and line numbers are given parenthetically in the text.

31. Newman, Karen, Cultural Capitals: Early Modern London and Paris (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, at 28.

32. Kirby, Kathleen M., “Re: Mapping Subjectivity—Cartographic Vision and the Limits of Politics,” in BodySpace: Destabilizing Geographies of Gender and Sexuality, ed. Duncan, Nancy (New York: Routledge, 1996), 4555Google Scholar, at 48.

33. We might also consider Mosby in this grouping, although I have not included an extended discussion of him in this essay because his social position is somewhat different from that of Greene, Black Will, and Shakebag. Mosby does turn to murder to advance his social position, but he also, like Arden, pursues more “civilized” routes: he romances Alice, who is his social superior, and he actively pursues the patronage of Lord Clifford. Notably, Mosby's murder plots involve less physical engagement than do the other murderers' plots. He maintains an even greater distance from his target and doesn't get his hands dirty, as it were, until the final backgammon scene. If, as I argue below, murder is like game play—necessitating physical interaction between players and the “men” on the boards—then it is especially significant that Mosby can bring about Arden's death only by engaging in an actual board game with his target.

34. Neill, 75. For a related argument, which criticizes feminist approaches to the play on similar grounds, see Attwell, David, “Property, Status, and the Subject in a Middle-Class Tragedy: Arden of Faversham,” English Literary Renaissance 21.3 (1991): 328–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35. Helgerson argues that “Arden's appropriation of the abbey lands in Faversham finds its counterpart in Mosby's appropriation of Alice Arden's body” (28).

36. Shepard, Alexandra, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), esp. 26Google Scholar.

37. Ibid., 247.

38. Ibid., 32, 248–249.

39. In using the term “masculinity” instead of Shepard's “manhood,” I make room for analysis of those women who, because of their higher status and sometimes their more advanced age or particular social circumstances (e.g., widowhood), subscribed to codes of patriarchal masculinity in an attempt to usurp patriarchal roles and privileges, acting even as heads of households. Alice, who questions Arden's right to “govern me that am to rule myself” (10.84), may serve as one such example, though I do not have space to discuss her and other such female characters here.

40. Upon Arden's death, Greene will ostensibly reclaim his lands (which belong to Arden for the “term of Master Arden's life” [1.467]), and Black Will and Shakebag will reap great financial and, they believe, social rewards.

41. That the murderers might be models of masculinity because of their turn to violence chafes against the ways some critics have approached them. For instance, David Attwell argues that the murder plots and their failures are evidence of the play's call “for a central form of control by means of the institutions of bourgeois civil society” (348). But as Frances E. Dolan points out, the play also invites its audiences to root for the murderers; see Dolan, , “The Subordinate('s) Plot: Petty Treason and the Forms of Domestic Rebellion,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43.3 (1992): 317–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar. (A revised version appears in Dolan, Frances E., Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550–1700 [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994], 5988Google Scholar.) Murder may be outside of lawful patriarchal society, but it is also a viable option for men who are structurally disempowered by a patriarchal system.

42. De Certeau, 106.

43. Murray, 120.

44. My reading of Arden complements that of Dolan in Dangerous Familiars, which argues that Arden is less of an agent in the play than in other accounts of the crime and yet remains central as the target of the murderers' plot. There has been some disagreement among critics about whether Arden's life is preserved by luck or Providence. On the argument for Providence, see Comensoli. Leggatt, Alexander, in his “Arden of Faversham,” Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983): 121–33Google Scholar, argues that the play keeps its audience guessing on this point. It's worth noting that the question of luck versus Providence is debated with great stakes in many treatises on gaming in the early modern period.

45. By contrast, Mosby and Alice's earlier plot fails when Arden refuses to eat the poisoned broth Alice prepares. Unlike in the climactic murder scene, the murderers here maintain a distance (temporal and spatial) from the actual murderous act. Thus, when chance intervenes and Arden refuses the broth, the murderers cannot regroup and immediately change tactics; they must devise another plot.

46. By which he means the governing official of a legitimate livery company. See White, Arden of Faversham, 34n105.

47. On the significance of social climbing in the play, see Whigham; Attwell; Neill; and Helgerson.

48. Michael does as he is instructed and tells the murderers that he will leave the door to Arden's home unlocked that evening so they can find Arden in his bedchamber. It is notable that when asked for a place for the murder, Michael answers not with a map of the house but with what de Certeau calls a “tour” (118–22): “No sooner shall ye enter through the latch, / Over the threshold to the inner court, / But on your left hand shall you see the stairs / That leads directly to my master's chamber” (3.173–6). Of course, this plan fails, and in retrospect Michael's tour of Arden's house works subversively in the ways de Certeau describes: because Michael has narrated through a story how Black Will can find Arden's bedroom, Black Will has no bird's-eye map of the house. When he finds the doors locked, his plans are foiled entirely; he cannot even begin to contemplate another way to get into the bedroom—he has no idea where it is except by way of Michael's tour.

49. Arden of Faversham, 54n18.

50. De Certeau, 93.

51. Ibid.

52. Wine, M. L., ed., The Tragedy of Arden of Faversham (London: Methuen, 1973), 161Google Scholar.

53. Ibid., 155.

54. The illustration is also (as here) printed facing sideways on the page, which some have called an awkward positioning because it seems to demand that the reader turn the book in order to see the image from the “correct” perspective. But if the illustration functions as a representation of the phenomenology of game play, then its positioning on the page is actually ingenious: it puts readers on the side of the game board facing Mosby so that they inhabit the playing perspective of Arden.

55. In theatre, as in board games, interaction could be intense even if it was not obviously physical. Cognitive scientific research on board games has found that players produce mental maps of a game board, imagining different playing scenarios even when they are not physically manipulating pieces. See Saariluoma, Pertti, Chess Players' Thinking: A Cognitive Psychological Approach (London: Routledge, 1995)Google Scholar. In fact, this dynamic helps explain why board games can be engaging spectator sports, as they were in the early modern period and remain in some cultural contexts today. Such research on board games supports findings by scholars of embodied cognition and theatre who argue for spectatorship as an active, indeed physically interactive, engagement, even when spectators do not make explicit physical contact with actors or the stage. See, for example, Foster, Susan Leigh, “Movement's Contagion: The Kinesthetic Impact of Performance,” in The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, ed. Davis, Tracy C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 4659CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McConachie, Bruce, Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crane, Mary Thomas, “What Was Performance?Criticism 43.2 (2001): 169–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Cook, Amy, “Wrinkles, Wormholes, and Hamlet: The Wooster Group's Hamlet as a Challenge to Periodicity,” TDR: The Drama Review 53.4 (2009): 104–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56. Richardson, Catherine, Domestic Life and Domestic Tragedy in Early Modern England: The Material Life of the Household (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 106CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Marissa Greenberg also observes the play's obsessive staging of places as part of her interesting argument that domestic tragedy more generally maps London, offering playgoers the fantasy of an “imageable” and thus safer city; Greenberg, , “Signs of the Crimes: Topography, Murder, and Early Modern Domestic Tragedy,” Genre 40.1–2 (2007): 129CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57. The main difference between Irish and backgammon is that the latter game allows players who cast doubles on the dice to play out the doubles, resulting in a faster game. For example, a player who casts double aces would move a total of four points (spaces) instead of two, as in Irish.

58. Cram, Forgeng, and Johnston, 124–5.

59. Notably, Arden describes himself as eluding place when he offers Anne promises of his constancy: “That time nor place nor persons alter me” (10.30).

60. White, Arden of Faversham, 119.

61. On patriarchal authority as existing in a state of perpetual contest, see Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, esp. 57, which observes that only when the Arden household is empty can the conflict end.

62. Gurr, Andrew and Ichikawa, Mariko, Staging in Shakespeare's Theatres (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4Google Scholar.

63. Elam, 50–62.

64. McAuley, 246.

65. Quoted in Cook, Ann Jennalie, “Audiences: Investigation, Interpretation, Invention,” in New History of Early English Drama, ed. Cox, and Kastan, , 305–20, at 310Google Scholar.

66. Berry, Herbert, “The Stage and Boxes at Blackfriars,” Studies in Philology 63.2 (1966): 163–86Google Scholar.

67. Beckerman, Bernard, Dynamics of Drama: Theory and Methods of Analysis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 10Google Scholar.

68. Quoted in Gurr, 249, no. 164.

69. Berry, 165.

70. Quoted in Gurr, 199.

71. Quoted in ibid., 44.

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