Thomas Kyd and The Spanish Tragedy: Introduction and Overview

Front Matter: I wrote about ST for a previous blog post, and my intentions are not to rehash that here. I will mention things noted in my earlier entry, but this will be a fresh take on what is an enjoyable and well-written play.

There’s not a lot of information on Thomas Kyd (1558-1594). He was apparently a well-known playwright during the 1580s, the decade when The Spanish Tragedy is thought to have been written. It was a smash hit at the time and was played for many years with much success. ST started the vogue for revenge plays, a genre which is exactly what it sounds like: someone gets killed or murdered, and someone else, usually a family member, works to exact revenge on the killer/murderer. It is believed the genre was based on classical Roman, likely Senacan, tragedies (see below for more on Seneca). There is some consensus that Kyd also wrote what is called the Ur-Hamlet, the Hamlet that may have inspired Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Later, Kyd was an associate of Christopher Marlowe, an association that brought him some trouble. More on Kyd, as well as the Marlowe affair, can be found here and here.

The plot of ST is intricate, and involves 1) Andrea, killed in battle, who was in love with Bel-Imperia; 2) Andrea’s best friend Horatio, who becomes Bel-Imperia’s lover and is killed by her brother Lorenzo and suitor Baltazar; 3) Horatio’s father, Hieronimo, who exacts revenge in an unusual way. There are similarities to Hamlet: feigned madness, a perceived delay in revenge, and a play-within-a-play. ST is very meta, as noted in my previous blog post. It is framed in a way that makes the play itself seem like a play-within-a-play, even before the actual play-within-a-play begins in the last act. There are also references to the process of putting on a performance in an early modern theatre. Not only do these insights add to the play’s meta-ness, they are historically interesting.      

Here are the characters:

  • BAZULTO: An elderly man who, like Hieronimo, has lost his son.
  • BALTAZAR: The Viceroy of Portugal’s son, and would-be suitor of Bel-Imperia. Believes Lorenzo to be his friend and confidante.
  • BEL-IMPERIA: The Duke of Castile’s daughter, the King of Spain’s niece, and Lorenzo’s sister. She was Andrea’s lover, and after his death, chooses his friend Horatio to take his place in her affections. She wants nothing to do with her suitor Balthazar, despite her family’s wishes. Bel-Imperia is strong, determined, and wants to make her own choices.
  • CYPRIAN, DUKE OF CASTILE: The King of Spain’s brother, and father of Bel-Imperia and Lorenzo.
  • GHOST OF ANDREA: Andrea is killed fighting against the Portuguese. In life, he was a courtier in the Spanish court, Bel-Imperia’s lover, and Horatio’s best friend. In the Underworld, he demands his death be avenged.
  • HIERONIMO, KNIGHT MARSHAL OF SPAIN: Horatio’s father and Isabella’s husband. His position at Court does him no good when he seeks justice from the king, so he takes matters into his own hands.
  • HORATIO: Hieronimo and Isabella’s son, Andrea’s best friend, and Bel-Imperia’s new lover. His death starts a domino effect.
  • ISABELLA: Hieronimo’s wife and Horatio’s mother. Goes insane after Horatio’s death.
  • KING OF SPAIN: …is the King of Spain. He is also Bel-Imperia and Lorenzo’s uncle.
  • LORENZO: The Duke of Castile’s son and the King of Spain’s nephew. Lorenzo is Bel-Imperia’s brother and seeks a controlling interest in her love life. Not a nice guy.
  • PEDRINGANO: Bel-Imperia’s servant. Thinks he’s clever but gets in over his head.
  • REVENGE: You are correct! Revenge personified.
  • SERBERINE: Baltazar’s servant. Gets caught up in the intrigue through no fault of his own.
  • VICEROY OF PORTUGAL: Baltazar’s father.

What else besides the framing and meta-ness is notable? Well, some sections read like a Greek epic. Gods are named and battles are described in a manner reminiscent of works such as Virgil’s Aeneid; the lofty imagery and syntax elevate the plot and keep it from being merely a bloody tale. Kyd’s use of languages other than English is also important. Latin is found throughout the play, contributing to its antique feel. Some of the characters quote Seneca, a Latin dramatist and tragedian who lived from ~4 BCE – 65 AD. Seneca’s tragedies were “closet dramas,” plays not meant to be performed on stage but rather read alone or with others. Although ST was not written as a closet drama, the care Kyd takes with language and words seems to gesture to the genre. Latin is also important to the play-within-the-play in the final scene, which incorporates it alongside Greek, Italian, and French. The effect is that of characters talking at each other instead of with each other, which basically encapsulates the plot: Hieronimo seeks justice, and although he speaks, no one listens. Bel-Imperia wants to choose her lover, and although she speaks, no one listens. Words are spoken, but no effort is made to understand or interpret their message.

In many places, literary structure and rhyme mirror the action on the stage. Two characters’ words might interlock — one using a word or words picked from the other’s previous line or lines — suggesting love or collaboration. At times two characters’ lines might rhyme, or end in a rhyming couplet, implying agreement or affection. At other times, a character’s (or characters’) passion or inner turmoil is reflected by a noted increase in rhyme. The importance of language is not confined to the spoken word, however; the written word is also important. Letters are sent, dropped, written in blood, or non-existent – but necessary to the plot.

Keep an eye out for framing, literal and figurative. The figurative framing starts immediately with Andrea and Revenge, who remain on stage throughout. The literal frames include a gallows and an arbor; these two are also symbolic, serving as existential portals. The final scene returns to the figurative, with Andrea and Revenge watching the Court watch a play…as we watch all of them. So many frames, so many porous boundaries! This is a play that rewards repeated reading or watching with new discoveries every time.

The Before Shakespeare blog talks a bit about The Spanish Tragedy in this entry. As far as videos, ShaLT (The Shakespeare London Theatres Project) posted this clip of Act 2 Scene 4 on YouTube, and there is a 2003 script reading starring Derek Jacobi as Hieronimo (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five). I found only one full-length stage production online; it was done in 2015 by Carleton College. For those who feel adventurous, there are also some interesting modern summaries/mashups (like this one).

For my blog and research, I relied on the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Michael Neill (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). Please note: the Norton includes additions to 2.5, 3,2, 3.11, 3.12, and 4.4 that I chose not to address as they were added after the 1592 text (Neill xxxix-xl). For all Shakespeare references, I used the Arden editions (the Third Series when available). The text of ST can also be found (free) on The Folger’s Early Modern English Drama (EMED) website: https://earlymodernenglishdrama.folger.edu/view/1999/ST

Let’s explore this play and see why it was such a hit with early modern audiences…

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earlymodernetc

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

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