Essays and Criticism
Critical Essay on The Spanish Tragedy
The short life of Thomas Kyd is shrouded in obscurity, and The Spanish Tragedy is one of the very few works that can be confidently ascribed to his pen. Many scholars believe that Kyd also wrote a play called Hamlet, and they speculate that probably about a decade later William Shakespeare drew on Kyd’s play, which they refer to as the ‘‘Ur-Hamlet,’’ for his version of the famous revenge drama. Unfortunately, as of 2004, no trace of an ‘‘Ur-Hamlet’’ by Kyd has been disovered, so the matter has not been resolved beyond any doubt. However, the link between Kyd and Shakespeare does not entirely depend on the tantalizing idea that Kyd wrote a version of Hamlet, since The Spanish Tragedy also offers some striking parallels with Shakespeare’s great tragedy. In both plays, as Fredson Thayer Bowers points out in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587–1642, ‘‘the theme is of the problems of life and death and of the mystery of a soul in torment.’’ In addition to murder and revenge, both plays employ ghosts, madness, the hesitation of the hero, and a play-within-a-play as dramatic devices.
Shakespeare often puts these devices to more subtle or more effective dramatic use than his predecessor. An example is in the employment of the anguished voices from beyond the grave. In both plays, a ghost appears in the first scene, his purpose being to demand vengeance for his untimely death. The ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, however, is more integrated into the dramatic action than Kyd’s Don Andrea. Whereas Don Andrea is a mere uncomprehending spectator, given to complaining to Revenge but taking no direct part in the action, the ghost in Hamlet is a more active presence. Not only does he appeal directly to Hamlet to carry out his vengeance, he also reappears at a vital moment later in the play (during Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude in act 3, scene 4) to remind Hamlet of his task. In other words, Shakespeare replaces Kyd’s static ghost with one who serves as a goad to action on the part of the protagonist.
One difference between the two plays is that in Hamlet, the murder that is to be revenged has already taken place when the play begins. While it is true that in The Spanish Tragedy, Don Andrea has already been killed when the play begins, his desire for revenge, even though it is presented in the very first scene, is essentially peripheral to the main plot, and the play could function perfectly well without it. The principal revenge theme is introduced only near the end of act 2, with the murder of Horatio, since Kyd first has to spend time developing the enmity for Horatio on the part of Lorenzo and Balthazar that leads to the murder. Once the murder has taken place, the parallel between Hieronimo and Hamlet becomes clear, since both seek to avenge the murder of a close relative. And in doing so, they both hesitate.
The hesitation of the hero and his delay in carrying out his revenge was a staple of the Elizabethan revenge play, and it was Kyd who set the pattern in The Spanish Tragedy. When Hieronimo finds Bel-Imperia’s letter saying that Lorenzo and Balthazar are guilty of Horatio’s murder, he is not convinced. Fearing the letter may be a trap, he resolves to investigate further: ‘‘I therefore will by circumstances try / What I can gather to confirm this writ.’’ Hieronimo here resembles Hamlet; Hamlet also, to justify his delay, convinces himself that the source of his information about the murder—the ghost of his father—may be unreliable, a devil sent to deceive him in order to damn his soul. He therefore resolves, like Hieronimo, to gather more reliable evidence. In this speech he is already...
(The entire section is 1521 words.)