The Spanish Tragedy – Act One, Scenes 3-5: “They reck no laws that meditate revenge”

Scene Three: In the Portuguese Court, the Viceroy of Portugal mourns his son, Prince Baltazar, who he believes was killed in battle. Villuppo, a nobleman, sees an opportunity for gain and crafts a tale to implicate Alexandro, another nobleman, in the prince’s supposed death.

Scene Two ended with plans to feast Baltazar in the Spanish Court, but the opening of 1.3 is in stark contrast, focusing instead on the Viceroy of Portugal’s grief over his son’s supposed death in battle. Early on, the Viceroy flings himself to the ground (1.3.9 SD), lamenting his perceived loss. He then bemoans the fickleness of fortune and lack of redress for his pain (“What help can be expected at her hands, / Whose foot is standing on a rolling stone… / Why wail I, then, where’s hope of no redress?” [28-29, 31]). His grief over the supposed death, along with his lament that fortune is blind to his suffering and deaf to his cries (“And could she hear, yet is she willful mad” [25]), places him as a prologue to the grief and frustration Hieronimo will show after the actual death of his son Horatio. Where the Viceroy rails against fate, however, Hieronimo’s rage will be directed against the hierarchical powers he believes interfere with justice for his son.

Words pertaining to wealth, as well as the use of Latin, continue. References to wealth from 1.2 are picked up in the first lines of 1.3 as the Viceroy asks if “tribute payment” has been sent to Spain (1.3.3). Latin quotes are part of the Viceroy’s lament (15-17), adding pathos. Spoken as he grovels on the ground, they heighten the Viceroy’s bereft state. Later in the scene, when Villuppo decides to spin his tale, the focus returns to value and wealth through words such as “ransom,” (49), “fortune” (54), “guerdon” (55), “gold” (80), and “reward” (92).

In much of 1.3, the Viceroy’s character is reminiscent of the grieving King Alonso in Shakespeare’s much later The Tempest (c.1611). King Alonso, also inconsolable over the perceived loss of his son, responds to Francisco’s “Sir, he may live” with “No, no, he’s gone” (2.1.114, 123). Similarly, in The Spanish Tragedy, Alexandro tells the Viceroy, “No doubt, my liege, but still the prince survives” (1.3.43). The Viceroy, however, is convinced otherwise: “…they have slain him for his father’s fault” (46). When Alexandro disputes this as “a breach to common law of arms” (47), the Viceroy responds, “They reck no laws that meditate revenge” (48). This line, in essence, encapsulates the entire play.

In a short subplot, the nobleman Villuppo sees in the Viceroy’s determined grief an opportunity for gain. He devises a backstory for Baltazar’s supposed death that lays the blame squarely on Alexandro. The Viceroy is eager to believe the tale, and Alexandro is taken away under custody. Alone on the stage, Villuppo gloats that he “Deceived [him], betrayed mine enemy, / And hope for guerdon of my villainy” (94-95). In the coming scenes, these lines will loom over the action, prescient and apt.

*

Scene Four: Horatio tells Bel-Imperia the story of Andrea’s death; she decides Horatio will take Andrea’s place as her lover. Lorenzo arrives with Baltazar and presents him to
Bel-Imperia as a suitor, something she rejects immediately. The king puts on a celebratory feast with the Ambassador to Portugal in attendance. At the banquet, Hieronimo presents an entertainment much praised by the king.

The “envious forged tale” (1.3.93) wrought by Villuppo at the close of 1.3 is followed by one of truth and affection in the opening of 1.4. Bel-Imperia enters with Horatio and implores him to tell her the circumstances of Andrea’s death, “Who living was my garland’s sweetest flower” (1.4.4). This brings to mind a bower of blooming plants and gestures to the coming action in Hieronimo’s arbor. As before, Andrea’s story is recounted in the style of a Greek epic. Horatio states that “wrathful Nemesis, that wicked power, / Env[ied]…Andrea’s praise and worth” (16-17), suggesting that Andrea’s prowess in battle was such that even the gods were jealous and sought to end his life. Bel-Imperia learns that after Andrea was killed by Baltazar, Horatio carried his body to his tent, wept over him, and took a scarf from Andrea’s arm as a token, intending to “wear it in remembrance of [his] friend” (43). That scarf, Bel-Imperia tells Horatio, was her gift to Andrea as he left for battle and she urges Horatio “now wear thou it both for him and me” (47). They swear friendship and service to each other, and Horatio leaves Bel-Imperia to her thoughts.

Alone, Bel-Imperia muses “But how can love find harbor in my breast, / Till I revenge the death of my beloved?” (64-65). This, of course, echoes Revenge’s promise to Andrea, “…thou shalt see the author of thy death, / Don Baltazar… / Deprived of life by Bel-Imperia” (1.1.87-89). She decides that “second love shall further my revenge” (1.4.66); because Horatio was Andrea’s friend, and Baltazar Andrea’s killer, she will take Horatio as her lover. These few lines are intense and important. They reveal not only the workings of Bel-Imperia’s mind, but also show her to be a strong, intelligent, strategic woman. She feels she is the one who must avenge Andrea’s death and is ready to meet the challenge. In most early modern plays, the character taking revenge is a son or other male family member. Kyd, however, gives this role to Bel-Imperia, along with a strength and fortitude reminiscent of Greek heroines such as Dido and Electra. In this way, Bel-Imperia, like Andrea, is linked to epic poetry — albeit in a more subtle manner. Kyd also takes this opportunity to weaponize love, situating it as a tool of revenge.

Lorenzo and Baltazar approach Bel-Imperia, who greets them both with disdain. Baltazar attempts to flatter her, which falls flat and makes things worse. Notice the sharing of words between characters:

Bel Imperia: Your prison then belike is your conceit.
Balthazar: Ay, by conceit my freedom is enthralled.
Bel-Imperia: Then with conceit enlarge yourself again.
Baltazar: What if conceit have laid my heart to gage? (82-85, italics mine)

Kyd uses this device throughout the play to show connections of varying sorts (love, agreement, tension, opposition) between characters. Here, twisting the meaning of conceit (wit/desire/imagination/whim [Neill 20, nn.82-85]) reflects Bel-Imperia’s attempts to free herself from an undesirable suitor. She uses the word first; he picks up on it to protest his attachment to her; she contorts the meaning and flings it back at him; he then uses it to elicit pity. The sharing of words continues:

Bel-Imperia: A heartless man and live? A miracle!
Baltazar: Ay, lady, love can work such miracles. (88-89, italics mine)

Bel-Imperia: What boots complaint, when there’s no remedy?
Baltazar: Yes, to your gracious self must I complain,
In whose fair answer lies my remedy… (92-94, italics mine)

Each time, Baltazar seizes on a word used by Bel-Imperia (miracle, complaint, remedy), and turns it to flatter her or elicit pity.

Eventually, Bel-Imperia has had enough of the parrying and turns to leave. Seeing Horatio approaching, “she…lets fall her glove, which Horatio…takes up” (99 SD). In Baltazar’s previous exchange with Bel-Imperia, he claimed to “have laid [his] heart to gage” (85) for her love. By Bel-Imperia’s dropping a glove in front of Horatio, she throws down her own gage, challenging Horatio to be her lover and igniting the play’s love triangle (Bel-Imperia, Baltazar, and Horatio). “Throwing down your gage” or gauntlet) was a challenge to fight, usually to right a perceived insult to honor or station – in other words, to avenge a wrong. In Shakespeare’s 1597 play Richard II, Bolingbroke and Mowbray challenge each other by throwing down their gage, or glove (1.1.69, 146). Later in that same play, nearly every character on stage throws down a glove or gauntlet, creating a shortage (“Some honest Christian trust me with a gage, / That Norfolk lies” 4.1.83-84). Bel-Imperia’s action at first seems off-hand or unimportant, but it is a pivotal point in the play and a blow to both her brother and the prince. Kyd’s use of this simple gesture is masterful, suggesting Baltazar’s words are useless (“laid my heart to gage”) and contrasting Horatio as a man of action (“Signor Horatio stooped in happy time” [102]).

Lorenzo, Baltazar, and Horatio are called to a banquet that boasts a masque of sorts, or an entertainment, devised by Hieronimo. Masques were like plays but were more of a state or political event, and usually praised the king, his Court, or his reign in general. The banquet and masque in 1.4 do triple duty: display the wealth and bounty of the king and Spanish Court, demonstrate their fair treatment of their high-ranking prisoner Baltazar, and celebrate Spain’s victory over Portugal. Hieronimo’s masque is important in that it gestures to his play-within-a-play in the final scene. By showing Hieronimo in charge of presenting and narrating the banquet’s entertainment, his future offer of a self-written play as a diversion for the Court is not unexpected or out of place.

*

Scene Five: Andrea expresses impatience at the scenes of love and revelry he has seen.

This very short scene (9 lines) allows Andrea to vent his frustration. “Come we for this from depth of underground / To see… / Nothing but league, and love, and banqueting!” (1.5.1,4). Revenge calms him by promising the pleasures he has witnessed will be changed to “hate,” “despair,” and “misery” (7, 8, 9).

The scene is also a framing device. Act One began with Andrea and Revenge, and they close it. This is an example of how Kyd neatly layers the scenes and storylines of the play, nesting them like Russian dolls. As the action unfolds, these layers make what is actually a very intricate plot more accessible. Reading The Spanish Tragedy is a complement to watching it, since reading allows the chance to step back and recognize its many frames and scaffolds.

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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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