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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4358

Whatever is said of Thomas Kyd’s other works, The Spanish Tragedy is an enduring achievement. Kyd adapted to his own purposes the horrors, the theme of revenge, the trappings of ghosts and chorus, the long speeches, and the rhetoric of Senecan drama. He pointed the way to a new form...

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Whatever is said of Thomas Kyd’s other works, The Spanish Tragedy is an enduring achievement. Kyd adapted to his own purposes the horrors, the theme of revenge, the trappings of ghosts and chorus, the long speeches, and the rhetoric of Senecan drama. He pointed the way to a new form merging the impulses of the popular drama with the structure and methods of classical drama—both tragedy and comedy. He demonstrated that what gives life to a play is not argument or idea so much as psychological reality—characters that develop naturally out of the action of the play. He brought together in one play, perhaps not with perfect success, a variety of styles ranging from the sententiousness of his Senecan models to the lyric love combat between Bel-imperia and Horatio and the anguished cries of a distraught father. The extravagance Kyd permitted himself in Hieronimo’s raving (“O eyes! no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears. . . .”) made the play a byword in Ben Jonson’s day, but Kyd’s sense of dramatic propriety helped rescue blank verse from monotony for use in genuine dramatic expression. Kyd’s flair for the theatrical allowed him to pave the way for an exciting and meaningful use of the stage; later developments in stagecraft may have proved more subtle, but few have surpassed the power of the final scene of The Spanish Tragedy. If the play could be dated with exactness, The Spanish Tragedy might well prove to be historically the most important play written before those of Shakespeare. Even without exact dating, however, the play makes Kyd, with Marlowe, one of the two most significant predecessors of Shakespeare. Whatever its historical importance, the play retains, even today, its own intrinsic power.

The Spanish Tragedy

Although the early editions of The Spanish Tragedy are anonymous, few readers have seriously disputed Kyd’s authorship, since the play was first attributed to him by Thomas Heywood (in his An Apology for Actors) in 1612. Most readers of Cornelia, ascribed to Kyd in the original edition, and of Soliman and Perseda, presumed by most to be by Kyd, point to similarities that suggest common authorship with The Spanish Tragedy. The play has traditionally been dated between 1582 (when a work by Thomas Watson, which it seems to echo, was published) and 1592, the date the play was first entered in the Stationers’ Register. Modern biographers do not agree when they attempt to narrow the limits, but the lack of any reference in the play to the famous English victory over the Spanish Armada and the suggestion in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (pr. 1614) that the play had been around for twenty-five or thirty years make the period from 1585 to 1589 more likely. Kyd’s influence on the development of Elizabethan drama could be more surely assessed if the date of The Spanish Tragedy were certain, but, whether it or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (pr. c. 1587) came first, The Spanish Tragedy holds a place of high importance in English dramatic history.

Critical assessment of The Spanish Tragedy has been made difficult by a perplexing textual problem. Scholars who have sorted out the extant texts from the 1590’s are able to agree that the authoritative text is the unique copy of the undated octavo printed by Edward Allde for Edward White. What has baffled researchers, however, is the presence of about 320 lines of additions deriving from a quarto of 1602. Most editors, though they assume that the lines are by a later hand, include them nevertheless, set in a different typeface, within the text of the play, so that the additions have, in effect, become a part of most modern readers’ experience of the play. It is possible, as Andrew S. Cairncross notes in his Regents edition of the play (1967), that the so-called additions were originally written by Kyd, later cut, and still later restored as “additions.” Much scholarly effort has gone into trying to identify the author of the additions. Henslowe’s Diary records payment in 1601 and 1602 to Ben Jonson for “adicyons” to “Jeronymo.” If the reference is to The Spanish Tragedy, Jonson was employed to rework to some degree a play that he ridiculed in other places. Without further evidence, modern readers have no way of knowing who wrote the additions. It is probably safest to believe that they were not written by Kyd and to attempt to see the play whole without them, in spite of the fact that some of them, especially the “Painter Scene,” are interesting both in their own right and as they are integrated into the play.

Coming at the outset of Elizabethan drama, The Spanish Tragedy is inevitably seen in historical perspective, but what is remarkable about the play is its own interest apart from historical considerations. Although it is clear that Kyd is doing some things either for the first time or quite crudely in comparison to later dramas, it is possible to understand how The Spanish Tragedy enthralled audiences in Kyd’s day and to read it with pleasure even today.

The play opens with a long speech by the Ghost of Andrea, but if there is little that is dramatic in that technique, the vividly descriptive speech illustrates the theatricality that characterizes this play from start to finish. From “dreadful shades of ever-glooming night,” Revenge and the Ghost of Andrea have come to witness the working out of vengeance for Andrea’s death at the hand of Balthazar on the battlefield. They remain to “serve for Chorus in this tragedy” and return after each act to reestablish this infernal atmosphere and to comment on the progress—or the apparent lack of progress—toward the goal of revenge.

Kyd plants the seeds of a psychological conflict between Andrea’s friend Horatio and Lorenzo, son of the Duke of Castile and brother of Horatio’s beloved Bel-imperia, in scene 1, when Lorenzo claims credit for capturing Balthazar and when the King of Spain, Lorenzo’s uncle, rewards him with the captive prince’s horse and weapons. Because Horatio had bested Balthazar in single combat, he feels cheated of spoils and honor that should have been his. When he submits to the king’s decision, a spectator might wonder how the conflict, here seemingly prepared for, is going to effect Andrea’s revenge. In truth, the play shifts even more radically in the next act to reveal not Horatio but his father, Hieronimo, as the inheritor of his son’s conflict and as the chief character in the developing tragedy. Though Kyd does not fully develop the psychological conflict he sets up here, it is characteristic of The Spanish Tragedy to get beneath the surface of events to that psychological level, and it is this tendency to get at the heart of human action that sets Kyd’s work apart from the plays of the previous two decades that he might have chosen as models to follow.

The following scene has proved a problem for critics. The action shifts abruptly to the Portuguese court, where the nobleman Villuppo forges a tale about how his enemy Alexandro (another nobleman) shot Balthazar in the back and caused Portugal to lose the battle. Some readers believe that Kyd introduces essentially extraneous material in this second plot line. The similarity of the situations, however—each turning on a vicious man’s deception of his ruler to the hurt of another—suggests that Kyd may have intended that the subplot amplify and comment on the main plot. If so, the Portuguese viceroy’s decision to investigate before taking action against Villuppo may suggest to the audience that Hieronimo, who will soon have cause to act, must also be sure before he moves.

At this point, there is still no hint of how Andrea’s revenge is to be effected. To make Horatio, and ultimately Hieronimo, the instruments of Andrea’s revenge, Kyd must provide a greater reason for the involvement of Horatio with Bel-imperia. In the next scene, without very much regard for consistency in Bel-imperia’s character, Kyd reveals that she has chosen Horatio not only as the agent of her revenge but also as her “second love.” The action has come back to the subject announced by the Ghost and Revenge, but the real subject of the play has not yet been broached. Though spectators are reminded at the end of each act that Andrea’s revenge is the true concern of the tragedy, the play takes a turn in the next act that puts Hieronimo at the center. As yet, this central figure has appeared in only a minor role. His next appearance is in scene 5, where—again with no suggestion of his later importance—he presents at court a dumb show depicting England’s conquest of Portugal and Spain. Remarkably, this spectacle pleases both the Spanish king and the Portuguese ambassador (and doubtless appealed to the patriotism of Kyd’s English audience as well). The first act ends with the Ghost of Andrea complaining bitterly about this “league, love, and banqueting” between the Spanish and the Portuguese. He wants vengeance. Revenge promises to turn it all sour in due time. Essentially that is what happens: It all turns sour, and Andrea is revenged after a fashion, but Andrea is never the focus of the play. In the second act, Hieronimo assumes that position.

A new cry of revenge is heard as act 2 begins. On learning that Bel-imperia loves Horatio, Balthazar vows to take revenge against this man who first took his body captive and now would “captivate” his soul. He is encouraged by Lorenzo, who—without an apparent motive for his evil deeds—manipulates much of the action in the second act. Kyd’s early development of a character reflecting the popular notion of a Machiavellian villain suggests once again his importance as a forerunner of the creator of Iago. As manipulator of the action, Lorenzo arranges for Balthazar to spy on Horatio and Bel-imperia as they make an assignation to meet in her father’s “pleasant bower.” The staging of this scene reveals Kyd’s skill in using several levels of the stage at once. Balthazar and Lorenzo observe the conversation between Horatio and Bel-imperia from “above,” while the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge, from their vantage point, watch the couple being watched.

When in the third scene a state marriage is arranged for Balthazar and Bel-imperia (the Spanish king’s niece), it seems certain that the direction of the play is fixed: Bel-imperia has succeeded in involving Horatio so intimately in her life that this announced marriage will be the spark that triggers Horatio’s anger toward Balthazar, and Andrea, through that anger, will be revenged. The play, however, here moves structurally, as a Roman comedy might, and introduces a significant bit of action that will provide a basis for the intrigue worked out in the double-length third act. When Horatio and Bel-imperia meet and wage a poetic “war” of love, they are surprised by Lorenzo, Balthazar, and his servant Serberine. Horatio is hanged and stabbed, and Bel-imperia is taken away as their captive. Hieronimo hears Bel-imperia’s cry and finds Horatio’s body; the play now becomes the story of Hieronimo’s revenge. In what surely must have been both visually and aurally a spectacular moment, Hieronimo, in fourteen lines of Latin and with a dramatic sword-to-breast gesture, vows revenge. Modern critics recognize the significance of Kyd’s innovation in this development of tragic materials with comic methods and within a comic structure.

Not surprisingly, the Ghost of Andrea renews his complaint that events are not moving very directly toward his revenge: His friend, not his enemy, has been slain. Telling him that he must not expect harvest “when the corn is green” and promising to please him, Revenge allows act 3 to begin. The sudden reappearance, after seven scenes, of the matter of Alexandro and Villuppo is doubtless the reason some critics regard this “subplot” as an intrusion. Others, calling attention to the parallel between the Portuguese viceroy and Hieronimo, see this scene as a warning to Hieronimo not to be too hasty in reacting to his son’s murder. The intrigue plot that feeds Hieronimo’s delay is set in motion when a letter written in blood (the stage direction specifies “red ink”) falls into Hieronimo’s hands. It is a message from Bel-imperia revealing that Lorenzo and Balthazar are Horatio’s murderers. Lorenzo suspects that Serberine has talked. One intrigue leads to another: He hires Pedringano to kill Serberine and then sets up a time for them to meet when the watch, whom he has alerted, will be able to catch Pedringano in the act of murder. Serberine will be murdered, Pedringano will be executed, and Lorenzo will be rid of them both. When, after Pedringano is arrested, he sends to Lorenzo for help, the action—in keeping with the structure—becomes darkly comic. Lorenzo plays a cruel joke on Pedringano. He sends him word that he will save him and then sends a page to him bearing a box that supposedly contains a pardon. Despite instructions to the contrary, the page opens the box and sees that it is empty, but he decides to go along with the deception. The comedy with the cloud of death looming over it continues as Pedringano, certain that he will be saved, confesses recklessly in Hieronimo’s court of justice and jests with the hangman even as he is turned off the scaffold.

With this third death onstage, spectators may begin to suspect that Kyd is exploiting in action the horrors only reported in Seneca. Neither the horror nor the comedy of the situation can obscure the painful irony of Hieronimo’s position as minister of justice, himself crying out for justice. This theme, introduced near the midpoint of the long third act, grows to major significance in the second half. When in scene 7 the hangman brings to Hieronimo Pedringano’s letter, written to reveal all in death if Lorenzo has failed to deliver him, Hieronimo has the evidence he needs to confirm Bel-imperia’s identification of Horatio’s murderers. Still able to believe that justice exists, he resolves to “go plain me to my lord the king,/ And cry aloud for justice, through the court. . . .”

This theme of justice, placed for development in close juxtaposition to the darkly comic, promises to shift the play from a mere revenge intrigue to an exploration of a genuinely tragic experience. Not all critics agree that Kyd is successful in bringing the play from mere sensational display of horror and intrigue into the realm of tragedy, but most readers will agree that the play takes on that potential at this point. The revenge theme that has informed the play up to this point will inevitably clash with the theme of justice. Hieronimo will cry out for both. Critics lament that Kyd’s control of this conflict is uncertain. It is not clear exactly what Kyd intends when he has a minister of justice desert his own quest for justice and resort to private revenge, as Hieronimo does in the final act. Perhaps Kyd—among the first to attempt to reconcile this pagan theme of revenge, which he and his contemporaries found so attractive in Seneca, with the Christian conscience of his audience—was not careful enough with the consistent development of his central character. Modern readers, at least, are left unsure of his intent. Perhaps Kyd was also.

The remainder of this long third act is given over to two things: taking care of plot necessities in order to set up Hieronimo’s revenge in act 4 and exhibiting Hieronimo in various states of calm or distraction, always searching for justice. The plans for the marriage of Balthazar and Bel-imperia proceed; the Portuguese viceroy arrives and announces that he intends to give his son Balthazar his crown upon Balthazar’s marriage to Bel-imperia. It is this royal wedding that later provides the occasion, in act 4, for Hieronimo’s revenge. Hieronimo, meanwhile, confronts the Spanish king and demands justice, but his wild manner of doing so makes it easy for Lorenzo to persuade the king that he is “helplessly distract.” An entire scene is given to exhibiting Hieronimo distraught and to underscoring the reason: his failure to find justice in his own cause. The man who had been the best advocate in Spain is now so distracted by his own frustrated efforts to find justice for himself that he is incapable of doing his duty. In the final scene of act 3, Kyd—his eye always on the theatrical—has Lorenzo’s father demand to know why the relationship between Lorenzo and Hieronimo is so strained. The Duke of Castile accepts his son’s explanation and requires the two to embrace. Hieronimo, on the verge of executing his revenge, accedes, and the Ghost of Andrea labors the irony by his furious reaction to seeing “Hieronimo with Lorenzo . . . joined in league.” To calm Andrea down, Revenge shows him an ominous dumb show—another Kyd spectacular—revealing two bearing nuptial torches burning brightly, followed by a sable-clad Hymen, who puts them out.

In act 4, Hieronimo moves swiftly to act on his plan for revenge. He confides his plan to Bel-imperia and asks her to cooperate in whatever way he asks. When Hieronimo is asked for an entertainment for the court on the first night of the wedding feast, he agrees, provided the courtiers themselves consent to act in his tragedy of Soliman and Perseda. They agree also to the strange request that they speak their lines in different languages. Hieronimo promises to explain all in a final speech and “wondrous show” which he will have concealed behind the curtain. Before the entertainment can begin, Isabella cuts down the arbor in which Horatio was hanged and stabs herself. Her death, the fourth in this tragedy, is only the beginning. With all locked in the room and with the keys securely in Hieronimo’s possession, the play begins. What seems to be a play-within-a-play, which is itself being watched by two who have been an onstage audience throughout, turns out to be all too real for those who think they are acting. The Bashaw (Hieronimo) stabs Erasto (Lorenzo); Perseda (Belimperia) stabs Soliman (Balthazar) and herself. Hieronimo reveals the “wondrous show” behind the curtain (his dead son) and explains his “play” as revenge for Horatio. He then runs off to hang himself but is stopped. Though it is not perfectly clear what more they want to know, the king and Castile try to force Hieronimo to give further explanation. Kyd’s taste for the spectacular is not yet satiated: Hieronimo bites out his tongue rather than talk. Then, calling for a knife to mend his pen in order to write an answer, he stabs Castile and finally himself.

A dead march ends the action except for the chorus. Finally, the Ghost of Andrea is happy, though his own death is avenged only in the fact that Balthazar has died in Hieronimo’s revenge for Horatio. The final chorus, like all the others, recalls the ostensible subject of the play, but even more it points up the fact that Andrea’s primary function has been to provide atmosphere. If spectators have come to accept him and Revenge as a touch of atmosphere, they are not shocked to hear him say that “these were spectacles to please my soul.” To be pleased by these “spectacles,” which include the deaths of his lover, his best friend, and his friend’s father and mother, is certainly to go beyond his function as a real character. As a bit of spectacle, however, and as a means of providing both atmosphere and obvious structural links for the various revenges in the play, the chorus serves well.

The ambiguity of Hieronimo’s portrayal precludes the possibility of a confident assessment of the meaning of the play. A more certain hand might have drawn Hieronimo clearly as one who tragically fails to wait for God’s justice and destroys himself in the process or, alternatively, as one who seeks diligently and finds the world void of justice and in despair seeks his own redress. Hieronimo is probably best understood as a person destroyed by the tragic dilemma of being a minister of justice who is forced—or feels that he is forced—to take justice into his own hands. On reflection, this looks very much like private revenge, but there is little doubt that even Kyd’s first audience, constantly reminded from the pulpit that God claims vengeance for his own, would fail to make allowances for a man so sorely abused and so faithful in his own administration of justice to others. The tragedy is that he destroys himself and his own faith in justice in the process.

Cornelia

Kyd’s other works are of lesser interest. The only play ascribed to Kyd in the first edition is Cornelia, his translation of Robert Garnier’s Cornélie (pb. 1574), which had appeared in a collected edition of Garnier’s works in 1585. Kyd was trying to recover from the disgrace of imprisonment by offering to a potential patron this translation, done under the influence of an earlier translation by the Countess of Pembroke (Antonius, 1592) of Garnier’s Marc Antoine (pr. 1578). He excuses the flaws in his translation by reference to “those bitter times and privie broken passions that I endured in the writing of it.” To read Cornelia after reading The Spanish Tragedy is to understand the originality of the latter. One coming to Cornelia from The Spanish Tragedy would be surprised to find a play filled with talk rather than action—talk voiced in rather uninspired blank verse. Cornelia preserves Garnier’s brand of French Senecanism in its quiet, reflective, and very long speeches. Act 1, for example, consists of one long speech by Cicero, lamenting Rome’s war-torn state, followed by further lamentation and reflection by the chorus. In act 2, Cornelia debates with Cicero whether she should take her own life. Having lost two husbands, she believes that she is a plague on any who love her. Much of the middle part of the play is about Caesar’s tyranny. The focus returns to Cornelia in act 5 when a messenger, in a speech of nearly three hundred lines, provides a detailed account of the defeat of her father, Scipio, and his decision to take his own life rather than submit to captivity. Lamenting, Cornelia, who has longed for death throughout the play, wonders if the time has now come for her to die. She decides against suicide, however, because no one would be left to provide proper burial and tombs for Scipio and her husband, Pompey. The play ends with her quiet resolve to live. For all of its quiet manner, however, Cornelia was, as Freeman notes, Kyd’s “most celebrated work for nearly two centuries.”

Soliman and Perseda

Soliman and Perseda, published anonymously in 1599 by the same publisher who issued The Spanish Tragedy, is ascribed to Kyd by most literary historians because of the plot relationship to Hieronimo’s final “entertainment” in The Spanish Tragedy as well as other parallels, echoes, and stylistic considerations. If it is indeed Kyd’s, he probably wrote it during the same period when he was writing The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe was writing Tamburlaine the Great, another play of death and destruction set in the Near East. Critics have paid little attention to Soliman and Perseda, but Kyd’s mingling of the comic and tragic, evident in The Spanish Tragedy, is given such full development here that Soliman and Perseda should surely be seen as a forerunner of a long line of Elizabethan plays that integrate the two modes. Freeman believes that Kyd may have been the first to effect a “true confrontation of comic and tragic themes within mixed scenes,” a confrontation that goes beyond the mere mixing of tragic matter with unrelated buffoonery. Like The Spanish Tragedy, Soliman and Perseda employs a chorus to preside over a bloody story. Love, Fortune, and Death vie for position as chorus, each claiming a major role in causing the story. In the end, Death lists twelve dead, brutally murdered onstage, as evidence of his power. (At that, Death must have lost count, for the toll is even larger.) The play also offers the beautiful love of Erastus and Perseda, the comic pursuit of Perseda by the boastful but cowardly Basilisco, and the murderous obsession of Soliman for Perseda—a desire so strong that he is persuaded to kill Erastus, whom he loves and admires, for her. In the final scene, Soliman kills Perseda herself. Having disguised herself as a man and vowed to defend Rhodes against Soliman’s attack, Perseda challenges Soliman to single combat, promising to yield Perseda to him if he wins the duel. When she is mortally wounded, she reveals herself, and Soliman asks for a kiss before she dies. Perseda, having earlier poisoned her lips, grants his request, and Soliman dies giving orders that his soldiers take Rhodes (“Spoil all, kill all. . . .”) but that he and Perseda be buried with his friend and her husband, Erastus.

Other Works

Of several other plays that have been attributed to Kyd, the most difficult attribution to prove or refute is that of the Ur-Hamlet . Assuming that Nashe was referring to Kyd as the “English Seneca” who would, “if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, . . . afford you whole Hamlets,” many scholars have concluded that there was some pre-Shakespearean dramatic version of Hamlet and that Kyd was probably the author of it. Kyd’s obvious interest in the revenge theme has fed this suspicion. No such play is extant, however, and it seems fruitless to try to reconstruct the lost play—if one ever existed—unless further evidence comes to light. The First Part of Jeronimo (pb. 1605), though it has been advanced as a first part of The Spanish Tragedy, was probably not by Kyd but, like the Spanish Comedy (mentioned in Henslowe’s Diary), a spin-off from Kyd’s extremely popular play.

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