Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) Critical Essays

Thomas Kyd


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 4358 words.)