Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803

What is known of Thomas Kyd is based on a very few public documents and a handful of allusions and references to him, most of them occurring after his death. Contemporary biographical accounts of Kyd are indebted to Arthur Freeman’s careful investigation of Kyd’s life in Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (1967). Records show that Kyd was baptized in London on November 6, 1558. Though there is no documentary identification of his parentage, scholars generally believe that his father was Francis Kyd the scrivener. If one may judge by other scriveners ( John Milton’s father was a scrivener), Francis Kyd would have been educated and reasonably well-to-do. Records also show that Kyd was enrolled at the Merchant Taylors’ School in October, 1565. There—like Edmund Spenser, who was an older pupil in the school when Kyd entered—Kyd came under the influence of the school’s well-known headmaster, the Humanist Richard Mulcaster. The date of Kyd’s leaving the Merchant Taylors’ School is not recorded; indeed, nothing is known with any certainty about Kyd for the decade after he should have left school. Although some have conjectured that Kyd may have entered a university or traveled abroad, there is no evidence for either. The curriculum of the Merchant Taylors’ School was sufficient to have taught him the Latin he used in The Spanish Tragedy and in the translations he made.

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In a tantalizing allusion that most scholars have interpreted as a reference to Kyd, Thomas Nashe, in his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589), complains of someone who has left the trade of scrivener, to which he was born, and is busying himself with the “indevors of Art,” apparently writing imitations of Senecan tragedy and dabbling in translations. Though much has been made of this passage, especially in an effort to link Kyd with an early version of Hamlet (also mentioned in the passage), the allusion, if it does in fact refer to Kyd, yields very little biographical information other than that Kyd was active in the theater by, and probably before, 1589. T. W. Baldwin has shown in “Thomas Kyd’s Early Company Connections” (1927) that a reference by Thomas Dekker in a 1607 pamphlet to “industrious Kyd” and his associates at that time indicates clearly that Kyd was writing for the theater as early as 1585. It was probably during these years, 1583 to 1589, that he wrote The Spanish Tragedy as well as Soliman and Perseda and translated a dialogue by Tasso, Il padre di famiglia, as The Householder’s Philosophy. If he was truly “industrious Kyd,” as Dekker labeled him, and if he was of real concern to Nashe, it must be assumed that he wrote, or had a hand in, many other plays.

Kyd’s career came to an inglorious end. He died, apparently abject and desolate, in 1594 after a period of imprisonment and a seemingly unsuccessful effort to stage a comeback. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, an important member of the Privy Council, Kyd recounts some of the circumstances surrounding his arrest, defends himself against the charges, and pleads for assistance in regaining the favor of his former patron. Because the letter was written shortly after Kyd’s release from prison and refers to Marlowe as already dead, it was probably written in the summer of 1593. Kyd was arrested earlier that year under suspicion of having written some libelous attacks on foreign residents of London. A search of his quarters revealed even more incriminating papers, containing “vile heretically Conceiptes.” Kyd was jailed and tortured, although the papers were not written by him and belonged, he said, to Marlowe, having by mistake been mixed with some of his own when they were “wrytinge in one chambere twoe yeares synce.”

After his release, Kyd apparently hoped to regain favor with his former lord. When he was not reinstated to that service, he wrote to Puckering asking for help. From the letter, it is clear that Kyd had been for some years in the service of a patron, that he at one time had shared quarters—or at least had written in the same chamber—with Marlowe, that he had been arrested, imprisoned, and released, and that he found life after imprisonment difficult without assistance from his patron. A reference to “bitter times and privie broken passions” in the dedication to Cornelia, published early the next year, suggests that his suit was unsuccessful and that he had resumed his writing in an effort to regain favor. In only a few months, however, Kyd was dead. The parish register of St. Mary Colchurch, London, records his burial on August 15, 1594. The final public document relating to Kyd is a formal renunciation by Anna and Francis Kyd of the administration of their son’s estate, a legal means of dissociating themselves not from their son but from his debts.

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