The Spanish Tragedy, one of the most popular English plays of the sixteenth century, marked a change from the earlier, stilted English drama. Thomas Kyd built his plot on a foundation of three conventional devices found in the Roman tragedies of Seneca. One is a ghost, the second is revenge for a murdered relative, and the third is a liberal use of bombast and soliloquy in the dialogue. To these he added strange characters with perverse psychological twists: madmen, murderers, suicides. He also employed the device of a play-within-a-play, public hanging, and other items new to English drama. Kyd upstaged all his contemporaries in his ability to devise thrilling stage tricks. As a pioneering playwright, Kyd, in this play, pointed the way to the lurid, bloodthirsty revenge plays of the Jacobean and Caroline stage. The popularity of The Spanish Tragedy is evidenced by the fact that it is known to have gone through at least ten editions by 1634.
The play defines Elizabethan revenge tragedy. The major stock features are all to be found in it, including revenge directed by either a father or a son for the sake of the other; a ghost, outside the action of the play, who aids the revenger; hesitation of the hero or revenger (the hero often is contaminated by his passion and becomes, because of the delay, Machiavellian); real or pretended insanity; and the presence of suicides, intrigues, scheming villains, and other various horrors.
Comparison between The Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), written about fifteen years later, is provocative. Both plays have an amiable Horatio, ghosts returning from the dead, father-son vengeance themes, justice delayed because of the mental state of the avenger, a dumb show, a play-within-a-play, and profound sensationalism. There is no doubt that Kyd’s play in some ways helped to shape Hamlet. Kyd is in fact attributed as author of the lost play that is probably an earlier version of the Hamlet story.
The Spanish Tragedy withstands the test of critical analysis. Its multiple-subplot construction produces some interesting and sophisticated critical questions. As a result of the liveliness of his play, Kyd is not always regarded as a careful playwright. The revenge motif, for example, plays itself out through three characters: Don Andrea, Bel-Imperia, and Hieronimo. Furthermore, in addition to the audience of the play, there are two other onstage audiences. One is the ghost of Don Andrea and the Spirit of Revenge. The other is the Spanish court, which witnesses the dumb show.
A major critical issue regarding The Spanish Tragedy is the question of audience response to Hieronimo. Is he a hero or a...
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