Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”: Existential Boundaries Meet Metatheatre

This blog entry has been a long time coming, what with Thanksgiving, being knocked flat by a nasty cold, and the like. Anyway, several weeks back, I did a full-on tweet-gush over the pleasures of re-reading. This was brought on by a third? fourth? more? read of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. I went into this particular read with an open mind and came out of it with a new respect for Kyd. I’m not trying to make a cohesive argument here, just noting some impressions and what caught my fancy. This is a dense play with a lot going on (as you know), so I’m going to assume anyone reading my ramble has a basic knowledge of the plot and characters.

I noticed frames and boundaries. Each one nests inside another, yet all are completely separate. Although important to the organization of the plot, these boundaries aren’t left to stand: they’re poked, prodded, and shown to be porous. Kyd begins this nesting and framing by starting the play with Revenge and Andrea on stage; they remain on stage throughout (, watching and at times commenting on the action. In IV.4, Kyd sets it up so we are watching Revenge and Andrea watch the King, Duke, and their retainers watch a play put on by Hieronimo, Bel-Imperia, et al. How meta is that? This is just one example of how ST displays its frames and boundaries. It’s also proud of being a play and wants you to know it. It’s like a Mondrian, formed and formatted by boxes that become the work of art, thereby creating a meta experience for the viewer. So why all the boundaries? Based on my reading experience, early modern playwrights loved boundaries. They knew their importance for separating and defining, but they also recognized their necessity for pushing back, making a point, or creating parody. Gender is one they couldn’t leave alone (I’m sure the gentle reader knows several instances of cross-dressing in early modern drama). Another line they loved to toe is class: think of Malvolio, envisioning himself married to his mistress (and our laughs at his presumption). There’s also the supernatural and spiritual: Glendower, fairies, Endymion, Doctor Faustus. ST rests on more prosaic boundaries, however; we find no cross-dressing or over-reaching of class, and the supernatural considerations are not of religion or power. Kyd’s boundaries are of blood, life, and relationships; he shows us how they structure a particular situation, their porosity, and how they can be collapsed while still holding true. He does this in a way that not only displays his plot’s structure, he revels in the experience of being meta.

One important boundary is Hieronimo’s arbor, which is fraught with meaning. Bel-Imperia and Horatio first meet here to consummate their love after Andrea’s death (II.4). If their consummation is physical, it adds yet another boundary, but even if it’s not, the line between their being friends and lovers is crossed within the confines of this arbor. The arbor stands as a portal between life and death, as it’s where Horatio is murdered and his body hung for his father Hieronimo to find (II.5). It’s a place where Isabella crosses the line between sanity and madness (III.8.5 sd), and where she stabs herself (IV.2.37-38 sd), making it once more a portal between life and death. It is mirrored in the gallows when Pedringano is hung in III.6; his body reminds us of Horatio’s body and the arbor’s association with life and death.

Balthazar’s character is constantly shifting and unsure, moving from one side of a boundary to another, never standing firm. In I.2, he’s literally caught between Horatio and Lorenzo: Lorenzo claims he took Balthazar’s horse by the reins and seized his weapon, while Horatio says he’s the one who knocked him from his horse and unarmed him (I.2.155-158). Balthazar is no help in the dispute. He equivocates by describing Horatio as more courteous and valorous, Lorenzo as brutal, but never allows which was his actual captor (I.2.161-165). By way of this dispute, his character parallels that of Bel-Imperia, who is also a point of contention between the two men. Balthazar recognizes this similarity (II.1.112-131), but he is weak compared to her. Unable to make a stand as far as his feelings, and much to her disgust, he is clearly intimidated by her strength and independence (II.1.9-28).

Through the character of Balthazar, the “fence-sitter” or the person who cannot choose one side of an argument or another is seen as weak and ineffective. This is not a matter of a back-and-forth that permeates boundaries, but one of fearing them. Since Balthazar is unable to maintain a stance one way or this other, he is in danger of being led astray, outwitted, or overcome. This is exactly what happens when the boundaries between the characters of Balthazar and Lorenzo collapse following the murder of Horatio. As Lorenzo puts it, he lays the plan and Balthazar (unwittingly) does the work, so he sees Balthazar as just as implicated in the killing as he is (III.4.38-49). In Lorenzo’s mind, through their conspiracy they become one, merged in his paranoid plan to eliminate all who may know too much. In the final act, Kyd deftly makes note of Baltazar’s lack of a strong, discrete self; preparing to stage Hieronimo’s play-within-the-play, Balthazar is asked “What, is your beard on?” (IV.3.18). In response, he notes his costume beard is “half on; the other [half] is in my hand” (19). Quite frankly, a better definition of waffler, or a character who is half a man or still half boy, I’ve yet to see.

Bel-Imperia is placed behind physical boundaries when her brother Lorenzo locks her in a tower (III.9; III.10.31); but throughout the play, she is framed by various existential boxes and boundaries. In I.4, her dead lover, Andrea, watches as she proclaims her love for his friend, Horatio, who wears Andrea’s blood-soaked scarf as a token (a note to II.6 says “the chorus figures [Revenge and Andrea] have been on stage from the start and remain so…). The scarf, taken by Horatio from Andrea’s arm as his friend lay dead, had been given to Andrea by Bel-Imperia. The scarf therefore binds the three in friendship, love, duty, and finally, the process of revenge. Andrea watches from his place near Revenge as Bel-Imperia lays her gage for Horatio, setting up a love triangle consisting of herself, Horatio, and Balthazar. Balthazar, who was Andrea’s killer (I.4.69), was captured on the field by Horatio but is now captivated by his love for Bel-Imperia, and this interlocking group of lovers is the core of the play. Without the death of Andrea, the spurning of Balthazar by Bel-Imperia, and her choice of Horatio as lover, there would be no motive for the death of Horatio–and no play. Horatio’s murder and Hieronimo’s call for revenge against Lorenzo and Balthazar then dovetails with Andrea’s earlier demand for revenge against Balthazar for killing him in battle. So many to be avenged, so little time!

The play’s love triangle also blends love and war, bringing us back to Bel-Imperia, who repeatedly associates the two. Not only does this keep the strife between Spain and Portingale/Portugual in the forefront, it underscores the battlefield killing of Andrea and his call for revenge. Bel-Imperia’s words of love to Horatio are couched in allusions to battle and he responds in kind: “Thy war shall be with me” (II.2.32), “Appoint the field / Where trial of this war shall first be made” (II.2.39-40); “Nay, then, to gain the glory of the field, / My twining arms shall yoke and make thee yield” (II.2.42-43). Not only are Bel-Imperia’s words to Horatio peppered with references to battle, in one passage, she makes love as war active. After Balthazar proclaims his servitude to her, swears his heart is in thrall (I.4.81, 83), and declares he has “laid [his] heart to gage” (I.4.85), Bel-Imperia turns to leave and purposefully drops her glove, which is picked up by Horatio (I.4.99 sd). Horatio offers it to her, but she tells him to keep it for his pains (I.4.101). In this short passage, the concept of love as war is physically enacted: spying Horatio as he enters, Bel-Imperia throws down her “gage.” This action is a tangible play on the words spoken by Balthazar in line 85, as well as a sign that her choice of lover is Horatio (I.4.67)–who picks up both the glove and her challenge. By picking up Bel-Imperia’s “gage,” Horatio has unwittingly entered into the challenge laid down by Balthazar through his claim to have laid his heart to gage for Bel-Imperia’s love. Not only is Balthazar spurned by his intended, he watches her new love Horatio literally and figuratively pick up her gage, setting the battle in motion.

Bel-Imperia shows her agency by deciding she will love Horatio and refusing to consider Balthazar, who is a politically strategic match. Her framing of love as war, as well as her challenging her suitors with words thick with allusions to battle reveal more than her strength and independence. Is Bel-Imperia at war with love? Could it be she doesn’t want to marry, which would lead to a loss of independence? Or does she simply want to marry the man of her choosing? Is she actively rejecting the idea of a state marriage and becoming a political pawn or prize? Is her Venus/Mars dialog with Horatio a playful way of expressing her sexuality and revealing that she is open to being wooed by him? In III.10.96-99, Bel-Imperia tells Balthazar and Lorenzo that she “fears [her]self…As those / That what they love are loath and fear to lose.” The Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama (eds. Bevington et al, 2002) glosses this as a possible expression of the fear of losing her independence (p47, n9). Is it only in an arranged marriage she fears losing herself, especially this one, meant to broker peace between Spain and Portugal (and uniting her with the killer of her dead lover)? A look at Bel-Imperia’s actions and words throughout the play paint a picture of a woman who appears open to love and comfortable in her independence, seemingly willing to marry the man of her choice. An arranged marriage would stifle her, as she is loath to give up her freedom and become a token to broker peace. Her later suicide fits this scenario; if she cannot live and love on her own terms, her life would be intolerable.

Speaking of suicide…there is so much blood in this play: suicides, stabbings, bloody scarves worn as tokens, letters written in blood, tongues bitten off (is that even possible?). Many of these actions take us back to the breaking or maintaining of boundaries. For instance, the sibling relationship between Lorenzo and Bel-Imperia is destroyed when he kills her lover, their blood ties slashed and destroyed, bleeding like Horatio in the arbor. Grief is linked with blood, as is revenge: Andrea’s bloody scarf, Isabella’s blood when she stabs herself, the death and blood in Hieronimo’s play. Bel-Imperia’s prison boundaries are broken by blood when she uses her blood to write a letter to Hieronimo, which finds an echo of sorts in his biting out his own tongue; in these two actions Kyd examines the effectiveness of the spoken word. Bel-Imperia finds the spoken word useless in her captivity, while Hieronimo is able to escape his own captivity (literal and existential) by voluntarily ending his ability to speak.

In every sense, revenge frames this play. It bounds it, opens it (“enter the ghost of Andrea, and with him Revenge” I.1.1 sd) and literally has the last word (“For here, though death hath end their misery / I’ll there begin their endless tragedy” IV.5.47-48). Revenge, as well as the pain and chaos accompanying it in the mind of the grieving, is made tangible as well as implied. Revenge as a character watches the play and keeps us company as part of the audience. It comments on the action (I.1; III.15; IV.5) just as it drives the action, and its presence adds to the meta aspect of the plot: we know the play is about the act of revenge, yet we can see a physical Revenge observing the action and supporting those who call on him. Revenge sustains those who clamor for him, and is joined by the dead, who continue to exist in his company. The living characters are unable to see Revenge and Andrea sitting on the stage (joined by the dead Horatio?), so when Isabella  says “To heaven, there sits my Horatio / Backed with a troop of fiery cherubins” (III.8.17-18), and Bel-Imperia laments Horatio’s unavenged death with “Andrea, O Andrea, that thou sawest” (III.9.9), the nesting, framing, and meta aspects of the play are compounded. In another instance of this, grief, felt by Hieronimo, Isabella, and Bel-Imperia, is given flesh in the character of Bazulto, the old man seeking justice for his murdered son. Hieronmio recognizes him as the “lively image of my grief” (III.14.162), making grief tangible on the stage, just as the embodied Revenge sits watching with Andrea. Perhaps a directorial choice would be to have Bazulto/Grief join them.

The chaos of the mind brought on by grief is enacted in Act IV with the staging of Hieronimo’s play and its jumble of languages and nationalities. During these scenes, ST again shows just how metatheatrical it can be, referencing Hieronimo “knocking up the curtain” (IV.3.1 sd); giving the King a copy of the play and referring to the “argument” or plot (IV.3.6-7); “hanging up the title” (IV.3.17); and appointing the “bookkeeper” (IV.4.9). As the play draws to a close, Kyd nests, boxes and carefully positions, framing that acts as a foil to the apocalyptic chaos of Hieronimo’s play-within-the play. The play-within-the-play dialog is a Babel of languages, its actors speaking at each other rather than to each other, and ending in carnage and bleeding bodies. All the while Revenge and Andrea sit watching; are they watching the king and his retinue or the bloody play-within-the-play? Are they watching us?

In Kyd’s play, revenge is something directed and set in motion by forces on the outside of life. Revenge exists on the boundaries of existence, yet remains a part of it; set apart, yet woven into the fabric of a life. It is shown as a force that can define and include as well as confuse and separate. Kyd, framing his story like a Mondrian and nesting it like a set of Russian dolls, has a lot to say about boundaries, and he does so subtly and succinctly. The blood is there to hold our attention.




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Shakespeare and early modern drama. MA in English, BA in Liberal Studies. Reader, playgoer, music lover. Twitter: @16thCenturyGirl

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