The Sea as Embodied Ally

A backgrounded sea presence similar to that in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is also found in Marlowe’s earlier play, The Jew of Malta (1589–1590).1 Marlowe, however, includes lines suggesting the sea has the capacity to act as an ally or embody the rage and bravery of a threatened nation. Like Antonio in Merchant, main character Barabas’s wealth comes from his sea ventures, as do his losses—the largest of which stem from the arrival of the Turkish fleet. This event is introduced via Marlowe’s wordplay remark, “What accident’s betided to the Jews?” (1.1.145, emphasis mine). Later, when Ferneze, Governor of Malta, joins with the Spanish to resist the Turks’ demands of tribute and threats of attack, his words to Callapine, Bashaw of the Turks, speak of the sea in terms that imply its agency and alliance with the island. Warning Callapine of the consequences of pressuring Malta, Ferneze describes the waves as willing tools and instruments of vengeance that will side with Malta if the Turks attempt to invade:

Bashaw, in brief, shalt have no tribute here, 
Nor shall the heathens live upon our spoil.
First will we raze the city walls ourselves,
Lay waste the island, hew the temples down,
And, shipping off our goods to Sicily,
Open an entrance for the wasteful sea,
Whose billows, beating the resistless banks,
Shall overflow it with their refluence.” (3.5.11-18)

Marlowe crafts lines as descriptors of an entity eager to break its bounds and “overflow” the island. It is made clear, however, that this action would be coordinated with and encouraged by Malta as a response to threats of war. Far from describing a fear of waves overtaking their shores, these lines reflect a people willing to cooperate and fully prepared to allow the waves entry. 

These images of a sea imbued with agency and the capacity to assist or oppose are flexible. They can suggest interaction with or aid for those imperiled, or they can suggest the violence of war through depictions of a threatening, dangerous tide. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c.1585-87),2 this imagery is central to the description of an angry, passionate, god-like entity, one seeming to echo the play’s theme of revenge:

Their violent shot resembling th’ocean’s rage,  
When, roaring loud and with a swelling tide,
It beats upon the rampiers of huge rocks,
And gapes to swallow neighbor-bounding lands. (1.2.48-51)

The violence of conflict is compared to an entity both vengeful and embodied. Kyd’s images mirror the passions of battle: angry, raging, roaring, and increasing. The tide’s embodiment becomes more pronounced as the passage progresses: it “beats upon…huge rocks,” “gapes to swallow lands,” and its increasing rumble is made almost tangible through consonance (“rage,” “roaring,” “rampiers,” and “rocks”). Kyd’s words evoke a monstrous presence possessing traces of a sea god, capable of rage and dangerous to any opposition. In contrast to Malta’s sea as ally, Kyd’s entity is aggressive and uncontrolled, threatening destruction as it wills or chooses, coming to no creature or country’s aid. 


[1] Marlowe, Christopher, “The Jew of Malta,” in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 287–349.

[2] Kyd, Thomas, “The Spanish Tragedy,” in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 3–73.

Radio Silence: explained…and a slight (temporary) shift

As you might have noticed, my blog has been seriously neglected lately. Why? Well, in addition to my day job, I started a professional certificate in editing at the University of Chicago–so my available time has taken a hit. I’m not able to give plays like The Changeling the attention they deserve and post an analysis in a decent space of time.

I want to keep my blog up and running, though, so I’ve hit on an idea. The second half of my MA thesis was good as far as content, but I never felt it matched the first half stylistically. What I propose to do is break the second half into sections and edit them to my liking, then post them here. With any luck you’ll find them as entertaining and informative about early modern drama as my earlier posts.

The title of my thesis was The Sea in Early Modern Drama: Existential Affect, Imperative Choice, and Embodiment of Transformation. The project was more of a compendium of examples and how they were used than a defense of a stated argument. The first half (in my opinion, the better stylistically) addresses language used by early modern dramatists to portray situations of intense emotion or imperative choice, such as Brutus’s line “there is a tide in the affairs of men” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 4.3.215 [Arden Complete Works]). The second half, the one I propose to post in sections here, looks at language suggesting the embodiment of transformation: think Ariel’s song in The Tempest or Clarence’s dream in Richard III. If you’re here for the non-Shakespearean content, no worries! Works by Will’s contemporaries are also part of the discussion–you might even learn about a play you didn’t know existed.

Thanks for being patient while I revise what I think is an interesting exploration of dramatic language and usage. When I can, I’ll get back to my close reading of non-Shakespearean drama.

Happy reading!

The Changeling – Act One, Scenes 1-2: “There’s scarce a thing but is both lov’d and loath’d”


Scene One: Alsemero, a visitor to Alligant, has encountered Beatrice-Joanna in the temple. He decides to change his travel plans to stay and woo her, not knowing she is already betrothed to Alonzo. Alsemero’s companion, Jasperino, is surprised by his friend’s lovesick behavior but decides to pursue Beatrice-Joanna’s maid, Diaphanta. Alsemero learns of Beatrice-Joanna’s engagement but does not leave Alligant. Beatrice-Joanna is having second thoughts about her betrothal to Alonzo since meeting Alsemero. She explains to Alsemero that she finds her father’s servingman, DeFlores, repulsive.

Alsemero enters in a reverie, comparing his glimpses of Beatrice-Joanna to things sacred and holy. Both times she was in the temple, leading him to conclude that this “…admits comparison / With man’s first creation, the place blest” (1.1.7-8). Where an allusion to the Garden of Eden might also suggest the Fall of Man and its connection to sin and death, Alsemero uses it to describe pairing with
Beatrice-Joanna as “perfection” (1.1.11). His thoughts quickly move to holding their marriage ceremony in the temple, which would signify both “beginning and perfection too” (12). Starting the play with musings on perfection and holiness introduces its exploration of appearances and seeming, themes important to the plot. Can first impressions and external appearances be considered legitimate indications of character?

Jasperino arrives to let Alsemero know the seas are favorable for their departure but is surprised when his friend resists leaving. Jasperino praises the wind as “fair” for a “swift and pleasant passage” (13, 14) but Alsemero disagrees, saying, “I know ‘tis against me” (21). Jasperino is confused by his friend’s reticence, as in the past he has been a keen traveler. He asks if Alsemero is unwell, since “Lover I’m sure y’are none, the stoic / Was found in you long ago” (36-37). The ship’s crew is told they will not be setting out today; sensing Alsemero’s lovesickness, one seaman quips in an aside “We must not to sea today; this smoke will bring forth fire” (50-51). This throw-away remark anticipates the events of the final act.

Beatrice-Joanna and Diaphanta arrive and Alsemero’s manner further astonishes Jasperino: “Salute a woman? He kisses too: wonderful! Where learnt he this?” (58). An hint of things to come that might be overlooked is Beatrice-Joanna’s query to Alsemero: “Which of the sciences is this love you speak of?” (63). Alsemero’s interest in science or medicine becomes important later in the play, and this quick mention is its introduction and only mention. He then takes the opportunity to profess his love to Beatrice-Joanna, whose response is unexpected:

Be better advis’d sir:
Our eyes are sentinels unto our judgements
And should give certain judgement what they see;
But they are rash sometimes, and tell us wonders
Of common things, which when our judgements find,
They can then check the eyes, and call them blind. (69-74)

Her reply seems to warn Alsemero from his attraction to her. It also advises against making judgements based on appearance alone, an admonishment that aligns with the play’s motif of sight and seeing. Is her warning due to her engagement to Alonzo, or does she sense a darkness within that could prove ruinous? Again, the lines hint at things to come.

Soon after Beatrice-Joanna’s reply, Deflores makes his first appearance. This is surely by design, since Deflores’ looks and what is or is not wrong with his face are important aspects of the character. He announces that her father has arrived, but Beatrice-Joanna demands to know why he felt it necessary to come tell her. In an aside, Deflores explains he is drawn to Beatrice-Joanna even though she abhors him:

…Must I be enjoin’d
To follow still whilst she flies from me? Well,
Fates do your worst, I’ll please myself with sight
Of her, at all opportunities… (98-101)

In her book Occult Knowledge, Science, and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage, Mary Floyd-Wilson includes a chapter considering The Changeling in light of ‘sympathies and antipathies.’ To put it succinctly, Dr. Floyd-Wilson describes how early modern medicine and science believed certain materials and essences were drawn to each other. A ‘sympathy’ meant a strong attraction to some property the other possessed. ‘Antipathy’ was the opposite, meaning some things were by nature opposed. In The Changeling, for instance, sympathy would mean Beatrice-Joanna is subconsciously drawn to something inherent in Deflores’ nature despite feeling physical revulsion. Similarly, although Deflores is physically attracted to Beatrice-Joanna, without sympathy he might not be willing to endure her scorn and verbal abuse. Sympathies and antipathies go a long way to explain why Middleton might have taken such care to point out Deflores’ facial defect. Since he is portrayed as being scarred or disfigured, physical attraction can be ruled out as the basis for Beatrice-Joanna’s actions later in the play.  His being unattractive rather gives the audience pause; is she being coerced, or has she discovered something in his nature drawing her to him?    

Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero touch on the concept of sympathies and antipathies in the next few lines. She tells him she is repulsed by Deflores, calls it “my infirmity” (106), but cannot explain the feeling. Alsemero replies that everyone has something they cannot tolerate and that “There’s scarce a thing but is both lov’d and loath’d / Myself (I must confess) have the same frailty” (122-23). His particular aversion, he tells her, is something she personally may like: “a cherry” (125).  While it is tempting to associate his remark with our modern slang reference to virginity (which would align nicely), the Oxford English Dictionary shows the earliest use of that meaning to be the late 19th century. Alsemero, then, is simply not a lover of fruit.  

Meanwhile, Jasperino and Diaphanta are engaging in flirty, bawdy conversation. In some ways, theirs is the healthiest relationship in the play. There seems to be no deception between them, and no hints of manipulation, possessiveness, or jealousy. They both seem to have no expectations other than enjoying each other’s company. Consequently, their relationship sets off the very different ones between Alsemero and Beatrice-Joanna, Deflores and Beatrice-Joanna, and Alibius and Isabella. Jasperino and Diaphanta’s relationship is also important to the plot.

Vermandero arrives and welcomes Alsemero, whose late father he knew in younger years. At Beatrice-Joanna’s behest, he invites Alsemero on a tour of his castle; he also urges him to stay for her wedding. Alsemero is shaken by Beatrice-Joanna’s impending wedding, and in an aside laments, “I must now part, and never meet again / With any joy on earth” (194-195). He then insists he cannot stay, even to see the castle. Vermandero, unaware of Alsemero’s love for his daughter, brushes this off as mere civility and begins to praise the virtues of his future son-in-law. Alsemero observes:

ALSEMERO: He’s much
Bound to you, sir.
VERMANDERO: He shall be bound to me,
As fast as this tie can hold him; I’ll want
My will else.
BEATRICE [Aside]: I shall want mine if you do it.
VERMANDERO: But come, by the way I’ll tell you more of him.
ALSEMERO [Aside]: How shall I dare to venture in his castle,
When he discharges murderers at the gate? (213-219)

Much is packed into this short exchange. Alsemero notes that Alonzo has much to thank Vermandero for (“much bound to you”), to which Vermandero replies that he shall be “bound to [him]” (linked, connected) “[a]s fast as this tie can hold him” (as tightly as his marriage to Beatrice-Joanna can contract him). Vermandero will “want [his] will” (lack having his way) otherwise. To this, Beatrice-Joanna remarks in an aside that she “shall want [hers] if you do it” (lack having her own way if Vermandero binds Alonzo to her in marriage). Alsemero’s aside about “discharging murderers at the gate” not only reflects his emotional wounding in hearing of Beatrice-Joanna’s engagement, but also points to the action in Act Three.

As Beatrice-Joanna turns to leave, she drops her glove. If purposeful, this action is both invitation and challenge to a potential lover. It recalls Bel-Imperia’s dropping of her own glove in Thomas Kyd’s earlier The Spanish Tragedy. In their essay, “Fetishizing the Glove in Renaissance Europe” (available with a free JSTOR account), Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones discuss the meaning of gloves and the actions associated with them. A glove, at times perfumed, would be associated intimately with the hand of the beloved. It was a token that could be worn, cherished, or kissed by a devout lover. If this was Beatrice-Joanna’s intent, however, her move backfires. Her father sees the glove and calls for Deflores to pick it up and return it. Does Vermandero sense her possible flirtation?

Beatrice-Joanna is horrified. She refuses the glove and scorns Deflores’ attempt at service: “Mischief on your officious forwardness! / Who bade you stoop? They touch my hand no more: / There, for tother’s sake I part with this,” / [Takes off the other glove and throws it down.] (223-225, sd. 225). Deflores, however, cannot believe his luck:

Here’s a favour come, with a mischief! Now I know
She had rather wear my pelt tann’d in a pair
Of dancing pumps, than I should thrust my fingers
Into her sockets here; I know she hates me,
Yet cannot choose but love her:
No matter, if but to vex her, I’ll haunt her still;
Though I get nothing else, I’ll have my will. (227-233)

Alone on the stage after Beatrice-Joanna has stormed off, Deflores expresses his sexual attraction to her as well as his refusal to stay away. The phrase “thrust my fingers / Into her sockets here” is blatantly erotic, and in some productions made obviously so. He also declares he cannot help being drawn to her, an inversion of Beatrice-Joanna’s professed aversion: his sympathy to her antipathy. Deflores plans to continue being in her presence regardless of how she feels about it, because if he gets “nothing else” (materially/psychologically/ sexually), he’ll “have [his] will.” This not only echoes the previous exchange between Vermandero, Beatrice-Joanna, and Alsemero, but also gives a glimpse into Deflores’ character. No matter how Beatrice-Joanna feels about seeing him, he will do as he pleases for his own gratification. In modern terms, Deflores might be called a stalker.

*

Scene Two: Alibius, an older physician in charge of the local asylum, fears his young wife Isabella will be unfaithful. He confides this to his man, Lollio, who agrees to keep an eye on her. Pedro arrives with Antonio/Tony, claiming Tony is his mad cousin and asking he be admitted for care. Lollio quizzes Antonio to get a feel for his wit, deems him a “scholar,” and escorts him into the ward.

Alibius is riddled with jealousy and fears his younger, beautiful wife Isabella is not content in their marriage. Lollio remarks that young plants are protected by older trees, but Alibius is not convinced. He responds, “I would wear my ring on my own finger; / Whilst it is borrowed it is none of mine, / But his that useth it” (27-29). Alibius’ concern about wearing his “ring” (early modern slang for vagina) ushers in other bawdy jokes and quips about sex and the female anatomy: “if it but lie by, one or other will be thrusting into’t” (30-31), “Thou conceiv’st me” (32), “you must look out, ‘tis every man’s case” (36, ‘case’ being another slang term for vagina), and “Supply my place” (39, in the sexual act).

This exchange is the first of many references to and jokes about cuckoldry in the asylum scenes. Cuckoldry, or wives cheating on husbands, would have resonated with Middleton’s audience and been a sure laugh. It appears or is mentioned in most of the plays of the period and serves as the foundation for many a poke at jealous, older, or hen-pecked husbands. Scholars such as Cristina León Alfar and Sara F. Matthews-Grieco have written books on the topic, and a quick Google search uncovers numerous other papers, dissertations, and theses on cuckoldry and early modern society.

Alibius’ concern is “The daily visitants that come to see / My brainsick patients” (50-1). As stated in my introductory post for this series, going to asylums to get a glimpse of the mentally ill was indeed a pastime in the early modern period. Alibius is anxious that “gallants… / Of quick enticing eyes, rich in habits, / Of stature and proportion very comely” (53-55) might be “most shrewd temptations” (56) for Isabella. He instructs Lollio to ensure these visitors do not see her, then remembers a new patient should be arriving that day. On cue, Pedro and Antonio enter, leading Alibius to state “I think my expectation is come home” (78). This is an apt choice of phrase, since Antonio is smitten with Isabella and pretending madness to gain admittance to the asylum. Hence, the expectation of a new client has been fulfilled and (unbeknownst to Alibius) he happens to be a gallant trying to get close to Isabella. 

Pedro introduces Antonio as “Tony” and asks that he receive the best care, emphasizing that “He is a gentleman” (108). Before leaving, he pays Alibius and gives Lollio a little on the side, since he is to “keep [Tony] sweet and read to him” (91). Lollio quizzes Tony with several riddles and puns to ascertain his wit, a lengthy bit of business meant to provide laughs for the audience. He approves of Tony’s abilities, and as the scene closes, all exit to their various “charge[s]” (189). For Alibius, this means the patients’ ward; for Lollio, it means feeding the patients, getting Tony settled, and keeping tabs on Isabella.

The asylum subplot scenes can be difficult, and audiences may wonder why Middleton felt the need to include them. The obvious reason is that the main plot can be intense with few comedic elements, so the asylum scenes serve as a break. They contain quite a bit of humor, albeit often at the expense of the asylum patients (and therefore likely distasteful to modern audiences). Another reason is that these scenes address similar issues as the main plot and show them in another light. Themes of infidelity, the madness of love/passion, mistrust in relationships, and (to use that anachronistic term once more) stalking are present.

The characters in the asylum scenes also offer a form of oblique commentary on those of the main plot. Isabella, for instance, can be seen as an alternate Beatrice-Joanna. A strong female character with her own mind and a desire for agency, Isabella asserts her choice, station, and identity in a very different fashion than Beatrice-Joanna. Is Lollio Isabella’s Deflores? Antonio and Franciscus her Alsemero and Alonso? This is left for the audience to decide.  

Thomas Middleton and The Changeling: Introduction and Overview

Fair warning: Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling can be difficult to read or watch. Most of the characters are a blend of the attractive and the disagreeable; they’re not individuals you’d want to meet or have a relationship with. The plot involves manipulation, sexual assault, scheming, and murder, and there’s a subplot that includes the use of the mentally ill as entertainment or comic relief. (Evidence suggests this unsavory practice was common in the early modern period.) As if that’s not enough, it’s misogynistic, like most early modern plays. To counter that aspect with a feminist discussion, I highly recommend the Changeling episode of “Not Another Shakespeare Podcast!.”   

If The Changeling is stuffed with difficult subject matter and the characters are so awful, why is it so popular? Why does anyone bother? These are good questions, and the short response to both is that the play is extremely well-written. In performance it’s tense and exciting, and despite the unpleasant stuff can be an enjoyable two and a half hours. It’s not a morality play, but more of an exploration of things going terribly wrong due to…selfishness? An inability to see past one’s own desires? It’s hard to pinpoint. There are people in the play doing bad things, but are they bad people, or merely self-engrossed? Or something else entirely? At the close of the final act, rather than a feeling of moral superiority, there’s a sense of instability and confusion. Some characters do come to bad ends, but were they truly bad or just victims of circumstance? Did they simply make bad choices, or was the darkness in them all along? Could this be the meaning of the title?

In legend, a changeling was a being left in place of a human child stolen by fairies, a definition that doesn’t necessarily align with the play (we hear nothing of the characters’ childhoods). The inherent behavior of these beings was believed “monstrous,” however, which does fit with Middleton’s choice of title. As noted below, Antonio is called “the changeling,” but he’s not a child, and nearly every other character also enacts some sort of deception, bad behavior, or life shift. There are changes in relationships and loyalties, deaths and marriages, and attempts to be something or someone different. All these existential movements are destabilizing, creating a sense of dread or emotional vertigo.

*

Thomas Middleton was born in 1580 in London. His father was a laborer/bricklayer who did well financially, which allowed Thomas to spend some time at Oxford University. He returned to London and became a prolific playwright, authoring several well-received plays. During Middleton’s lifetime, the most famous was A Game of Chess, a work that got him in quite a bit of trouble for its unflattering take on several prominent royal and court figures. Middleton died in 1627 and is buried in a now unmarked grave in London.

The Changeling is believed to have had its first performance in 1622, although it was not entered into the Stationer’s Register until 1652. The setting is Alligant (or Alicante), Spain, and the plot centers on Beatrice-Joanna, daughter of Vermandero, a wealthy nobleman. Beatrice-Joanna is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo, but when she meets Alsemero, she regrets her impending marriage. She enlists one of her father’s servingmen, Deflores, to kill Alonzo, but Deflores’ idea of recompense is offensive: he wants to be repaid sexually, and when she refuses, he rapes her. For whatever reason, their trysts continue, despite Beatrice-Joanna’s new betrothal to Alsemero. Because of Deflores she is no longer a virgin, so she orchestrates a bed-trick on her wedding night, sending her maid Diaphanta to Alsemero in her place. The deed complete, Diaphanta becomes a liability and is also killed by Deflores. Alsemero later witnesses a tryst between Beatrice-Joanna and Deflores and learns of the two murders. Deflores kills both Beatrice-Joanna and himself when confronted.

Now for the subplot: Alibius, a doctor who oversees the local asylum, is married to Isabella, who is much younger and very beautiful. Alibius, as expected, fears for her chastity if young gallants visit (see “use of the mentally ill as entertainment,” above). As if on cue, two of Vermandero’s servants, Antonio and Franciscus, pretend to be mad and are admitted as residents. Isabella’s subsequent discovery of their ruse and her response plays off the Beatrice-Joanna plot, countering the actions of one strong female character with another.

*

Before delving into themes and what to watch for when reading/watching, here are the main characters and a short explanation of who they are:

BEATRICE-JOANNA: Vermandero’s daughter. When the play begins, she is betrothed to Alonzo; by the play’s end she is married to Alsemero. Beatrice-Joanna has strong feelings about Deflores (to say the least).

VERMANDERO: Beatrice-Joanna’s father, Spanish nobleman, and resident of Alligant/Alicante.

DEFLORES: A servingman to Vermandero. Some sort of facial scarring or skin condition renders him unattractive. He is besotted with Beatrice-Joanna.

ALONZO DE PIRACQUO: Beatrice-Joanna’s first betrothed. It doesn’t go well for him.

TOMAZO DE PIRACQUO: Alonzo’s brother. He attempts to warn Alonzo of Beatrice-Joanna’s apparent lack of affection, but is rebuffed. After his brother’s death, he arrives looking for answers.

ALSEMERO: A nobleman visiting Alligant. He meets Beatrice-Joanna at a religious service and is instantly smitten. He also dabbles in medicine/science.

JASPERINO: Alsemero’s companion. He joins the fun by wooing Diaphanta.

DIAPHANTA: Beatrice-Joanna’s ill-starred servingwoman and recipient of Jasperino’s amorous attentions.

ALIBIUS: A doctor in charge of the local asylum. He has trust issues due to his having a younger and very beautiful wife.

ISABELLA: Young, beautiful, and married to Alibius. She gives him no cause for jealousy, but he goes there just the same. Probably the most likeable character in the entire play.  

LOLLIO: The play’s clown figure. Lollio is Alibius’ saucy, bawdy, and (in his mind) witty assistant.

ANTONIO: The dramatis personae lists Antonio as “the changeling,” but as will become clear, Antonio has no right to single ownership of this description. He has the hots for Isabella and pretends to be mad so he can be committed to the asylum and be near her.

FRANCISCUS: The dramatis personae lists him as “the counterfeit madman” although this description fits Antonio as well. Like Antonio, Franciscus feigns madness so he can be locked up in the asylum and attempt to woo Isabella.

*

There’s a lot to watch for in The Changeling. Pay attention to how many times sight, seeing, or eyes are mentioned or alluded to in the play. This is a central theme pointing to another very important aspect of the play: seeming or appearances. When Alsemero meets Beatrice-Joanna, he believes her to be associated with the holy (1.1.1-12); Jasperino urges Alsemero to his ship, but his friend tells him the wind only seems in their favor (15-16); Deflores appears to be merely a servingman but claims to have been born a gentleman (2.1.49). Was/is his physical appearance in some way associated with his downfall? Beatrice-Joanna seems to feel visceral disgust for Deflores, but by the end of the play is praising him; did her initial revulsion mask a subconscious attraction, or is the change due to something psychological? This handful of examples from the first two acts gestures to situations ripe with the potential for change, and makes the idea that one particular character is “the” changeling either disingenuous or an attempt to distract from other possibilities — perhaps to make their discovery more satisfying.

It’s not difficult to find performances of The Changeling online; there are videos, radio plays, discussions, and audio books. One of the most promising of the filmed productions is this 1974 BBC offering starring Helen Mirren. As of yet I haven’t watched it, but since you can’t go wrong with Helen Mirren I plan to remedy that as soon as possible. The complete text of the play is available (for free!) on the Folger’s extremely useful Early Modern English Drama website. For my blog posts, unless otherwise stated, all references are from the 1988 Penguin Classics Five Plays: Thomas Middleton, edited by Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor.

Let’s dig into this unsettling, sometimes offensive, but exceptionally well-written and enjoyable play…    

The Spanish Tragedy – Act Four, Scenes 1-5: “Am I at last revengèd thoroughly”

Scene One: Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo discuss avenging Horatio’s death. Hieronimo enlists Balthazar, Lorenzo, and Bel-Imperia to perform a play as part of the royal wedding festivities.

In an echo of Andrea’s dissatisfaction with Revenge at the close of 3.15, Act Four begins with Bel-Imperia confronting Hieronimo for his delay in avenging Horatio’s death:

Is this the love thou bear’st Horatio?
Is this the kindness that thou counterfeits?
Are these the fruits of thine incessant tears?
…O unkind father, O deceitful world! (4.1.1-3, 7)

The use of anaphora (“Is this…”) and the underlying guilt (“O unkind father”) recall Hieronimo’s earlier self-chastisement comparing his own inaction to Bazulto’s active seeking of justice  (3.13.99-107).  Bel-Imperia’s criticism of his delay reveals not only her frustration with Hieronimo, but also her feelings for Horatio. She shows her own strength, declaring,

Nor shall his death be unrevenged by me,
…For here I swear in sight of heaven and earth,
Shouldst thou neglect the love thou shoudst retain
…Myself should send their hateful souls to hell,
That wrought his downfall with extremest death (4.1.23, 25-26, 28-29)

Bel-Imperia vows that if Hieronimo neglects his duty, she will avenge Horatio’s death by killing her brother and new husband herself. Her determination contents Hieronimo, who sees it as a sign that the heavens are indeed listening. He apologizes for not believing the truth of her letter (3.2.37-43) and swears he will soon accomplish the deaths of those involved with the murder.  

Bel-Imperia agrees to aid Hieronimo in any way she can. Pleased, he tells her “…the plot’s already in mine head” (4.1.51). The use of the word “plot” ushers in the next bit of action: Lorenzo and Balthazar’s arrival and subsequent request that Hieronimo devise an entertainment for the Viceroy. In 1.4, the pageant for the King was arranged and emceed by Hieronimo, so this duty would be under his purview. He accepts and tells them that in his youth he wrote a tragedy – and as luck would have it, he happened to find the script the other day. He asks Lorenzo and Balthazar if they will participate, “…favor me so much / As but to grace me with your acting it– / I mean each one of you to play a part— (4.1.80-82).

The two men are taken aback by this request, but due to their recently amended relationship with Hieronimo (3.15.160-164) agree to participate. Bel-Imperia readily assents to act a part. Hieronimo then outlines the plot, which concerns a knight of Rhodes who weds an Italian lady “Whose beauty ravished all that her beheld, / Especially the soul of Suleiman” (4.1.110-111). Suleiman tells a friend, the Pasha, of his desire for the lady. The Pasha finds and kills the knight; the lady in turn kills Suleiman and then herself. The Pasha hangs himself.

Hieronimo assigns the parts. He will play the Pasha; Balthazar will be “Great Suleiman, the Turkish Emperor” (134); Lorenzo, “Erasto, the Knight of Rhodes” (136), and Bel-Imperia, “Perseda, chaste and resolute” (138). In keeping with the metatheatrical nature of ST, the preparation and staging of the play-within-a-play follows the process of an early modern theatrical performance. The scripts or parts Hieronimo distributes to the group, for example, are very different from what modern actors receive. Early modern players received their lines and their lines only, with only a few words before and after each line as cues.

As the parts are distributed, Hieronimo advises the group what each character will need by way of costume. Balthazar must “…provide a Turkish cap, / A black mustachio, and a [sword]” (142-143). Lorenzo needs a cross, and Bel-Imperia should choose a costume reminiscent of a goddess “Like Phoebe, Flora, or the huntress–” (146). Hieronimo also tells them that the Viceroy’s ransom will pay for this entertainment. This money, of course, was paid for Balthazar’s release and ultimately intended for Horatio. He will, in essence, fund his own revenge.   

Hieronimo mentions one more thing about the play: “Each one of us must act his part / In unknown languages, / That it may breed the more variety–” (170-172). Balthazar’s lines will be in Latin, Hieronimo’s in Greek, Lorenzo’s in Italian, and Bel-Imperia’s in French. This unusual stipulation will make the play’s dialogue a veritable Babel, with characters speaking at each other rather than toor with each other. This reflects what has happened throughout the play, especially by those pursuing justice. There has been much speaking to each other but little understanding or communication — whether due to honest misunderstanding or by design. The jumble of languages, mirroring Hieronimo’s disordered and turbulent mind, will also confuse the participants and audience. (Remember: the actors’ parts only provided their individual lines, not the entire play.) Deaths will come as a surprise.

The various languages also underscore each participants’ persona. Hieronimo’s character uses Greek, the language of epic and tragedy. Balthazar’s speaks in Latin, reflecting his status as prince and eventual king. This could also be an ironic jab at his indecision, as Latin was the language of the law and learning. Lorenzo’s uses Italian, gesturing to his Machiavellian scheming and actions. French was the language of love, so it is fitting that Bel-Imperia speak it while avenging her lovers’ deaths.

Balthazar balks at this revelation, stating the obvious: “But this will be a mere confusion, / And hardly shall we all be understood” (178-179). Hieronimo assures him all will come together successfully — he will see to it. Balthazar, for all his gullibility, is the one who readily expresses misgivings. “How like you this?” (188), he asks Lorenzo, who replies that they must humor Hieronimo.

The others exit, leaving Hieronimo alone on the stage. He muses, “Now shall I see the fall of Babylon / Wrought by the heavens in this confusion” (192-193). Not only was Babylon the location of the biblical Tower of Babel, a structure brought to naught by linguistic confusion, but the city was also associated with sin and oppression. This implies that Hieronimo’s plan goes farther than simply justice for the death of his son. He looks forward to destroying a crushing and corrupt hierarchy. 

*

Scene Two: Isabella, distracted in her grief, tears down the arbor. She then kills herself.

On the heels of Hieronimo’s mention of the fall of Babylon, Isabella enters holding a weapon. She is still distracted, and her words reveal her madness:

Since neither piety or pity moves
The king to justice or compassion,
I will revenge myself upon this place,
Where thus they murdered my belovèd son. (2-5)  

She tears down the arbor, destroying the place of her son’s death. An arbor was a place of shade and concealment created by leafy trees and flowering plants; Babylon, too, was believed to be a place of lush gardens. By tearing down the arbor, Isabella erases a place of life and fertility as well as death. In 2.4, it was where Horatio and Bel-Imperia consummated their love – if only through words and fond embraces.

After destroying the arbor, Isabella curses the ground where it stood:

Fruitless for ever may this garden be,
Barren the earth, and blissless whosoever
Imagines not to keep it unmanured!
An eastern wind commixed with noisome airs
Shall blast the plants and the young saplings;
The earth with serpents shall be pesterèd,
And passengers for fear to be infect,
Shall stand aloof… (14-21)

No longer will this place harbor love and beauty; it is now marked as a place of death and horror. Isabella cries, “See where [Horatio’s] ghost solicits with his wounds / Revenge on her that should revenge his death!” (24-25). Again, it seems Horatio has joined Andrea and Revenge in their vantage point on the stage.

Destroying and cursing the spot is not enough for the distraught Isabella. She exclaims,

And, as I curse this tree from further fruit,
So shall my womb be cursèd for his sake,
And with this weapon will I wound the breast
                She stabs herself.
The hapless breast that gave Horatio suck. (35-38)

Through its association with love and fertility, the arbor had symbolized Isabella herself. After mutilating the place of Horatio’s death, she destroys the place that gave him life.   

*

Scene Three: Preparations are underway for Hieronimo’s play, which is at the core of his plan for revenge.

Isabella tears down the arbor in 4.2; Hieronimo puts up the curtain for his play as 4.3 begins. It is likely that the same stage structure that supported the arbor was also used by Hieronimo to install the curtain. (It is also likely that it served as the gallows for Pedringano’s execution.) This framework, then, can be described as a space of transition, a portal between life and death.

Hieronimo requests that the Duke “…give the king the copy of the play: / This is the argument of what we show” (5-6). This was standard practice for an early modern play. The text would have been examined and vetted by the Master of the Revels prior to staging, but in this case, the king receives an advance copy. Then, in what seems an innocuous request, Hieronimo asks the Duke to “throw [him] down the key” (13) after the royal spectators are seated. Having this key is part of his plan.

Balthazar is instructed to “hang up the title” (17); this is glossed by the Norton as either a placard that provides the title of the play, or based on the next line, gives the setting (103, n17). Hieronimo then says to him, “Our scene is Rhodes–what, is your beard on?” (18), referring to his costume. Baltazar’s reply, “Half on, the other is in my hand” (19), is brilliant work by Kyd. He penned a line that deftly answers the question (no, Balthazar’s not in costume quite yet), while also gesturing to the prince’s waffling, half-man/half-boy nature. In one short phrase, Kyd reveals the problem with Balthazar.  

As if steeling himself for what is to come, Hieronimo gives himself a pep talk. He reminds himself of Horatio’s murder, Isabella’s suicide, and the need for vengeance. There is, however, no question that he is ready to act. The last four lines of his speech, as well as of the scene, make this clear:

Behoves thee then, Hieronimo, to be revenged:
The plot is laid of dire revenge;
On, then Hieronimo, pursue revenge,
For nothing wants but acting of revenge. (27-30, italics mine)

Something to consider: Revenge and Andrea are observing the action, with Revenge unconcerned to the point of dozing. Based on Hieronimo’s comment “nothing wants but acting of revenge” (italics mine), who is directing/advancing the action? Is Revenge the “director” of the play, or a mere spectator? Is Hieronimo acting under his own agency, or is Revenge in charge? Could it be that Revenge is relaxed enough to doze because the characters are following his script and he knows the outcome? If this is the case, who in this play (if anyone) has agency?  

*

Scene Four: Hieronimo’s play is performed for the King, Viceroy, Duke, and the court. As part of the action, Lorenzo and Balthazar are killed and Bel-Imperia kills herself. Hieronimo is detained before he can do the same.

The King, Viceroy, Duke, and their attendants enter and are seated. The King gives his copy of the play to the Duke, saying, “Here brother, you shall be the bookkeeper. / This is the argument of that they show” (9-10). The play does not state implicitly what the Duke does as bookkeeper, but in the early modern theatre one task was prompting actors who needed help with their lines. Some scholars speculate that a bookkeeper might also have introduced locations or characters.  

The play begins. Baltazar’s character, Sulieman, is passionately in love with Bel-Imperia’s Perseda, mirroring the relationship of Baltazar and Bel-imperia. Lorenzo’s character, Erasto, is Perseda’s preferred lover: he initiated Horatio’s death, but now acts his victim’s role.  

The first of the characters to die is Lorenzo/Erasto, stabbed by Hieronimo/The Pasha. Bel-Imperia/Perseda then stabs Suleiman/Balthazar and finally, herself. Before stabbing Suleiman/Balthazar, she says to him,

Tyrant, desist soliciting vain suits:
Relentless are mine ears to thy laments
As thy butcher is pitiless and base,
Which seized on my Erasto, harmless knight;
Yet by thy power thou thinkest to command,
And to thy power Perseda doth obey;
But were she able, thus she would revenge
Thy treacheries on thee, ignoble prince:                                                  Stab  him.
And on herself she would be thus revenged.                                                         Stab herself. 
(59-67)

Before her character kills Sulieman/Baltazar, she says to him what she may have wished to say all along. Since all the characters were speaking a different language, though, Balthazar may or may not have understood.

The King and Viceroy are pleased with the play, and ask Hieronimo what is next for his character, The Pasha. His lengthy response begins by hinting that the onstage deaths were real:

Marry, this follows for Hieronimo:
Here we break off our sundry languages,
And thus conclude I in our vulgar tongue:
Haply you think—but bootless are your thoughts–
That this is fabulously counterfeit,
And that we do as all tragedians do:
To die today, for fashioning our scene– 
The death of Ajax , or some Roman peer–
And, in a minute starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.  (73-82)

Hieronimo then reveals the body of Horatio and explains,

Behold the reason urging me to this:
See here my show, look on this spectacle:
Here lay my hope, and here my hope hath end;
Here lay my heart, and here my heart was slain;
Here lay my treasure, here my treasure lost;
Here lay my bliss, and here my bliss bereft;   (89-93)

As before, his use of anaphora (“Here lay…” and “here my…”) reveals his passion and extreme emotion. He declares that his son’s wounds gave him purpose, and that the cause of his death “was love, whence grew this mortal hate, / The hate, Lorenzo and young Balthazar, / The love, my son to Bel-Imperia” (98-100). He then recounts Horatio’s death, the night “Where hanging on a tree I found my son” (111). This clear reference to Jesus is made stronger by its association with Hieronimo’s earlier statement regarding his son’s wounds giving him purpose. The death of Horatio gave Hieronimo new life; he was born again, so to speak.

Hieronimo next speaks directly to the Viceroy: “Speak Portuguese, whose loss resembles mine: /
If thou canst weep upon thy Balthazar, / ‘Tis like I wailed for my Horatio” (114-116). His next lines are for the Duke: “And you, my lord, whose reconcilèd son / Marched in a net, and thought himself unseen, / And rated me for brainsick lunacy” (117-119). “How can you brook our play’s catastrophe?” (121) he asks the two men.

He displays Horatio’s bloodied handkerchief to the King, Duke, Viceroy, and their attendants. In another gesture to Jesus, Hieronimo implies that the blood staining it cleaved to his own blood and drove him forward in his quest for justice. Now that Balthazar and Lorenzo are dead, however, his revenge is complete:

And never hath [Horatio’s bloody handkerchief] left my bloody heart,
Soliciting remembrance of my vow
With these, O these accursed murderers–
Which now performed, my heart Is satisfied. (126-129)

Hieronimo turns to the body of Bel-Imperia, whom he said was “Solely appointed to that tragic part / That she might slay him that offended her” (138-139). He then suggests that although the plot called for her character’s death, he would have rewritten it at her request, “But love of him whom they did hate too much / Did urge her resolution to be such” (144-145). Although his statement is certainly about Horatio, it is difficult to not think of Andrea as another “whom they did hate too much.” By now, the courtly audience begins to understand that the deaths they witnessed are not counterfeit, but real.

His monologue over, Hieronimo displays a noose and “runs to hang himself” (153sd). Before he can escape, however, the King calls for his capture. The Viceroy tells Hieronimo to tell the king of Horatio’s murder, and “Upon mine honor thou shalt have no harm” (158). In another reference to Horatio as Jesus, he replies, “Viceroy, I will not trust thee with my life, / Which I this day have offered to my son” (159-160). Hieronimo must also intuit that the Viceroy is trying to trick him.

The awful truth of the deaths in the play-within-the-play now clear, the King demands of Hieronimo, “Speak, traitor! Damned bloody murderer speak! / For now I have thee I will make thee speak: / Why hast thou done this undeserving deed?” (163-165). Hieronimo points out that he loved his son as much as the Viceroy and Duke loved theirs, yet he was not allowed justice:

O good words!
As dear to me was my Horatio
As yours, or yours, or yours, my lord, to you.
My guiltless son was by Lorenzo slain;
And by Lorenzo and that Balthazar
Am I at last revengèd thoroughly,
Upon whose souls may heavens be yet avenged
With greater far than these afflictions.  (168-175)

Although Hieronimo previously confessed all, the King still demands he speak. Hieronimo claims silence is his right, and that he will never “…reveal / The thing which I have vowed inviolate” (187-188). This vow is unclear. He has already confessed his role in the play-within-the-play’s murders, confirmed Bel-Imperia was a willing participant, and explained the reason for his actions; did Kyd leave out or abandon Hieronimo’s secret? At this point, he bites out his own tongue (193sd) to ensure his secret is never revealed. (Blogger’s note: can this even be done? Is it physically possible?) Looking back over Hieronimo’s monologue there are hints of this tongue-biting climax. He remarks “And thus conclude I in our vulgar tongue” (75). A few lines later, he states “The hopeless father of a hapless son, / Whose tongue is tuned to tell his latest tale” (84-85).

One aspect of ST has been the silent importance of the written word, and this is acknowledged in 4.4. Although without a tongue Hieronimo can no longer speak, the Duke quips, “Yet can he write” (195). Feigning compliance, Hieronimo makes signs asking for a knife to sharpen a quill pen. Provided with one, he “…stabs the DUKE and himself” (202sd). The King exclaims, “My brother and the whole succeeding hope / That Spain expected after my decease!” (203-204). In one fell swoop, Hieronimo has wiped out Spain’s (and Portugal’s) future; his desire for revenge has succeeded spectacularly. It has also shed copious amounts of blood, connecting Hieronimo’s vengeance to the stained handkerchief kept near his heart and Bel-Imperia’s letter urging him to act (3.2.26).

The grief of the King and the Viceroy now echoes the passion displayed by Hieronimo in previous scenes. The King laments that “I am the next, the nearest, last of all” (4.4.208): he is the next (the only) one left in the succession, the nearest to death, and the last of his line. The Viceroy’s response is even more extreme, commanding that he and the deceased Balthazar be set

Upon the mainmast of a ship unmanned,
And let the wind and tide haul me along
…To weep my want for my sweet Balthazar:
Spain hath no refuge for a Portingale.  (212-213, 216-217)

A ship at sea was often a symbol of fortune or life’s journey in medieval and early modern literature, so in his grief, the Viceroy throws himself at fortune’s feet. The scene closes with a funeral march, the King mourning the Duke and the Viceroy carrying the body of his son. 

*

Scene Five: Andrea is satisfied.

Scene Five returns to the epic feel that started the play. Andrea recounts the deaths chronologically, from Horatio to Hieronimo, calling them “spectacles to please my soul” (12). He takes care to note “My Bel-Imperia fallen as Dido fell” (10), giving her a stance equal to that of the tragic male characters. (In The Aeneid, Dido, Queen of Carthage, was Aeneas’ lover. She burned herself on a funeral pyre when he left to continue his quest.)

Andrea declares he will “beg at lovely Proserpine” (14) for the boon of ushering Horatio, Isabella, Bel-Imperia, and Hieronimo through the Underworld to the fields where they will spend eternity. Perhaps Proserpine has been the guiding force for Andrea’s revenge. She had, after all, “begged [Pluto] that only she might give [Andrea’s] doom” (1.1.79).

“Against the rest how shall my hate be shown?” (4.5.26) Andrea asks Revenge, who replies that as far as Lorenzo, Balthazar, and the others, “This hand shall hale them down to deepest hell, / Where none but furies, bugs, and tortures dwell” (27-28). Revenge’s response is a rhyming couplet, a simple set of verses that often signal the end of a scene. Rhyme is found throughout Act Four. While in previous scenes it signified agitation or passion, here it indicates satisfaction and closure.

Andrea solicits another boon: “Then, sweet Revenge, do this at my request: / Let me be judge and doom them to unrest” (29-30). In asking to appoint the torments of his enemies, he once more gestures to Proserpine’s request of Pluto. Andrea then names sufferers from myth and suggests substitutes: Tityus replaced with the Duke, Ixion with Lorenzo, Sisyphus with Serberine. Balthazar, he says, should “hang…about Chimera’s neck, / And let him there bewail his bloody love, / Repining at our joys that are above” (36-38).   

Revenge does not respond to Andrea’s suggestion. Instead, the play ends on rhyming couplets:

REVENGE: Then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes,
To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes,
For here, though death hath end their misery,
I’ll there begin their endless tragedy.  (45-48, italics mine)

Giving the figure of Revenge the last words in a revenge tragedy means a satisfying finality for the audience. Deaths have been avenged, and Revenge’s verse ending suggests harmony has been restored.

Or has it?  

The Spanish Tragedy – Act Three, Scenes 13-15: “Thou art the lively image of my grief”

Scene Thirteen: Hieronimo, distracted and grief-stricken, is approached by petitioners requesting he plead their cases to the king. The group includes Balzuto, who seeks justice for his own murdered son.

Hieronimo enters carrying a book and exclaims, “Vindicta mihi!” (1), Latin for “vengeance is mine” (Neill 79, n1). He then begins a soliloquy in which he works through the idea of revenge. Throughout, he uses Latin quotes; these are from the Roman philosopher Seneca, which is also a hint as to the book he carries (possibly Seneca’s Octavia [Neill 79, n1]). Seneca was in vogue at the time ST was written, and his influence can be seen in many plays of the period.

As in previous scenes, the Latin quotes give an epic feel to Hieronimo’s lines. He muses on active revenge as opposed to delay and patient waiting and recognizes that “heaven will be revenged of every ill, / Nor will they suffer murder unrepaid” (2-3). He also observes that those who do harm can be answered in kind, and that death is the worst that can happen. He then declares, “…I will revenge his death” (20) and concocts a plan. His first step is fooling those in the Spanish court: 

…therefore, will I rest me in unrest,
Dissembling quiet in unquietness,
Not seeming that I know their villainies,
That my simplicity may make them think,
That ignorantly I will let all slip–
For ignorance I [know] , and well they know,
Remedium malorum iners est. (29-35)

The Norton translates this last line as “is an ineffective remedy for evils” (Neill 80, n35). While waiting for an opportune moment to act, Hieronimo has decided to feign no knowledge of who murdered his son. His “simplicity” and “quiet in unquietness” will mask his plotting and give the guilty false security. This may also trick them into thinking the murder is indeed “a nine days’ wonder” (3.10.11), and believe they are in the clear. Hieronimo’s calm and courteous demeanor will allow him to wait for the best time to exact revenge.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. In the years after ST, Shakespeare also wrote a play in which the main character is prompted to avenge a murder but takes the better part of the action to muse on what it means to commit such an act. Feigning madness while working through the situation is also in the plot, as is questioning if life is worth the suffering (“To be, or not to be…”). The play is, of course, Hamlet.      

Three citizens arrive with legal suits they want Hieronimo to argue on their behalf.* They have no way of knowing that the man they are appealing to for aid is also in pursuit of justice. One petitioner claims a debt, another contests an eviction, but the third, Bazulto, stands apart “With mournful eyes and hands to heaven upreared” (3.13.68). When asked about his suit, Balzuto explains he cannot put his woes into words, but will instead “With ink bewray what blood began in me” (77). This reference to blood is fraught with meaning: passion/anger, the lineage of his family, his son’s blood spilled. It also recalls the letter penned in blood by Bel-Imperia, dropped from her tower prison and similarly meant for Hieronimo’s eyes (3.2). Once more, a letter or document plays a role in advancing the plot.

Hieronimo reads Bazulto’s suit, which begins “…‘The humble supplication / Of Don Bazulto for his murdered son’” (3.13.78-79). Hieronimo is caught off guard and responds,
 
No sir, it was my murdered son…
Here, take my handkercher and wipe thine eyes,
Whiles wretched I in thy mishaps may see
The lively portrait of my dying self…  (80, 83-85).

In Bazulto, he sees himself: a man whose life is sapped by grief, hastening to the grave. The cloth Hieronimo offers is stained with blood and he explains it was taken from the body of Horatio. Is this the scarf given to Andrea by Bel-Imperia, then worn by Horatio in remembrance of his friend? Hieronimo calls it “a token ‘twixt [Horatio’s] soul and me” (88), a promise he will avenge his son’s death. If it is Bel-Imperia’s scarf, it is a tie that unbeknownst to Hieronimo, binds him to the lovers and their own sense of anger and grief.

Hieronimo has lost all composure, and “draws out more objects” (90sd) that he hands to Bazulto, saying “take this, and this—what my purse?– / Ay, this, and that, and all of them are thine, / For all as one are our extremities” (90-92). If Bazulto is the personification of grief, Hieronimo’s actions are that of a man giving grief his all. He begins a long lament decrying his delay in avenging Horatio. If Bazulto, a poor citizen, can actively seek justice for his own lost son, Hieronimo feels he should do as much – if not more:

See, see, O see thy shame, Hieronimo:
See here a loving father to his son;…
If love’s effects so strives in lesser things,
If love enforce such moods in meaner wits,
If love express such power in poor estates–
…Then shamest thou not, Hieronimo, to neglect
The sweet revenge of thy Horatio?   (95-96, 99-101, 106-107; italics mine)

The anaphora, or repetition of “if love” at the beginning of the lines, drives home Hieronimo’s feelings of guilt and shame. Bazulto does not have the position or wealth of Hieronimo, but love for his son presses him on. Hieronimo’s actions from five lines earlier do imply, however, that he is now prepared to give everything to his cause.  His speech continues with a vow: “I’ll down to hell, and in this passion / Knock at the dismal gates of Pluto’s court, / …Till we do gain that Proserpine may grant / Revenge on them that murderèd my son” (109-110, 120-121). These references connect him with Andrea, who in 1.2 recounted his own journey to the Underworld and experience before Pluto and Prosperpine. Remember, too, that Andrea was placed in the company of Revenge by Proserpine, and the pair sits watching this unfold.

In a fit of passion, Hieronimo tears the petitioners’ requests with his teeth. The petitioners exit the stage in dismay, leaving Hieronimo alone with Balzuto. He now appears to see the image of Horatio in the old man and says to him,

And art thou come, Horatio, from the depth
To ask for justice in this upper earth?
To tell they father thou art unrevenged…
Go back, my son, complain to Aeacus,
For here’s no justice; gentle boy be gone,
For justice is exilèd from the earth:  (132-134, 137-139)

If the director chose to have Horatio join Revenge and Andrea, this becomes yet another metatheatrical moment. Balzuto, quietly wondering at his words, asks Hieronimo, “Alas, my lord, whence springs this troubled speech?” (143), but instead of answering, Hieronimo again cries out to his son. Is he truly conflating Bazulto and Horatio? He says to the old man, “But let me look on my Horatio: / Sweet boy, how art thou changed in death’s black shade? …Horatio, thou art older than thy father” (144-145, 149). Bazulto gently tries to tell him he is not his son, but this only enrages Hieronimo: “What, not my son? thou then a Fury art, / …To plague Hieronimo, that is remiss / And seeks not vengeance for Horatio’s death” (152-53, 156-157). The audience or reader must decide if this response is dissembling or actual madness brought on by guilt at not acting more swiftly in his revenge. This, of course, is another similarity to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which the lead character also recognizes and blames himself for being dilatory in seeking revenge.

Bazulto answers, “I am a grievèd man and not a ghost” (158), leading Hieronimo to observe, “Thou art the lively image of my grief; / Within thy face my sorrows I may see” (161-162). In the features of the old man, Hieronimo sees his inner turmoil. To him, Bazulto is the embodiment of grief, his physicality an expression of sorrow and loss. Revenge may watch from afar, but grief walks among the living. 

*

Scene Fourteen: The Viceroy arrives to make good on the points agreed upon in Portugal’s treaty with Spain — including the marriage of Baltazar and Bel-Imperia. The Duke of Castile confronts Lorenzo with the rumor that Lorenzo is attempting to undermine Hieronimo in the eyes of the King. He insists Lorenzo and Hieronimo be on good terms once more.

The Viceroy and King confirm Bel-Imperia’s betrothal to Balthazar and that the couple will be married the following day. Like many women over the course of history, Bel-Imperia is a bargaining chip. Instead of being seen as an individual with her own mind and desires, she is a token of favor to cement the newly contracted peace and bring prestige to her family. The Viceroy vows that after the nuptials, he will give Balthazar his crown and spend the remainder of his days in prayer – something that both impresses and pleases the King.

The Duke of Castile and Lorenzo remain after the King and Viceroy exit. They discuss the impending marriage, something Lorenzo has “…longed so happily to see” (48). If he speaks truthfully, rather than simply being politic, it may confirm the theory that he hopes to wield influence on the malleable Balthazar and become a shadow figure of power in the Portuguese court. The Duke then confronts his son with a rumor he has heard:

It is suspected – and reported too —
That thou, Lorenzo, wrong’st Hieronimo,
And in his suits towards his majesty
Still keep’st him back, and seeks to cross his suit. (53-56)

As expected, Lorenzo plays dumb and claims to not understand who would say such a thing. His father makes clear that if true, this is not acceptable, saying, “Lorenzo, know’st thou not the common love / And kindness that Hieronimo hath won / By his deserts within the court of Spain?” (61-63). He tells Lorenzo it would be “a scandal…among the kings” should “Hieronimo exclaim on thee” (69, 67), and insists he answer truthfully regarding the rumors. Lorenzo replies that he cannot control gossip, and Hieronimo’s age and grief are the reason he believes this idle talk. He agrees to be reconciled with Hieronimo, and his father calls for the Knight Marshal to be brought to them.

Bel-Imperia enters with Balthazar, looking downcast. When urged by Balthazar to look more cheerful, she tells him, “My looks, my lord, are fitting for my love, / Which, new begun, can show no brighter yet” (101-102). This excellent reply is both truth and a fitting response; she does not love Balthazar, so looking less than happy is appropriate; at the same time, it was thought fitting for a newly contracted bride to be reticent and modest in her affections. Her father then greets her with lines that cannot be welcome: “Content thyself, for I am satisfied: / It is not now as when Andrea lived, / We have forgotten and forgiven that” (110-112).

Bel-Imperia is silent for the rest of the scene. She makes no response to her father’s slight, and no attempt to defend Andrea or their love. Since Andrea is watching the exchange, a director might have him offer angry gestures, sit sulkily, or take it in impassively (3.15 gives a clue as to what Kyd may have envisioned). Similarly, Bel-Imperia’s wordless response is left to the director’s imagination and reading of the scene.

Hieronimo arrives and the Duke greets him kindly. He tells Hieronimo, who continues to feign madness, that contrary to the rumors Lorenzo is not blocking his suit. If he were, the Duke continues, Hieronimo is held in such high esteem that he himself would be offended. Hieronimo responds by drawing his sword and offering to fight anyone repeating this chatter. Lorenzo loved Horatio, he declares, so the gossip that he is blocking justice for Horatio’s death is shameful.

Balthazar’s response to the reconciliation is either naïve or crafty: “Why this is friendly done, Hieronimo” (162). Does he believe Hieronimo is truly forgiving, or is he perpetuating the ruse? Again, in performance, this depends on the director’s vision. Lorenzo, dissembling as before, says “And thus I hope old grudges are forgot” (163), to which Hieronimo replies, “What else? it were a shame it should not be so” (164). Hieronimo is playing the long game, working to outmaneuver the two men. After they exit, an obviously lucid Hieronimo says in Italian, “someone who shows me more affection than usual has either betrayed me, or wishes to betray me” (Neill 91, n168-169). Hieronimo knows what’s going on, and his use of Italian highlights his disgust at the two men who murdered his son. They are untrustworthy and he knows they are actively working against him. They are undeserving of the more honorable language of Latin, the tongue of epic grief and revenge.

*

Scene Fifteen: Andrea is angry that Revenge appears to be sleeping through the unfolding events.

Andrea calls out for Erictho and Cerberus to wake and implore Pluto and Proserpine’s aid against Acheron and Erebus, who signify chaos and despair. Erictho and Cerberus are powerful inhabitants of the Underworld, and of course, Pluto and Proserpine placed Andrea with Revenge at the end of 1.1. In a fit of anger and passion, Andrea declares that none have seen “Such fearful sights as poor Andrea sees! / Revenge, awake!” (3.15.5-6). He then scolds his companion, saying, “Awake, Revenge! for thou art ill-advised / To sleep away what thou art warned to watch” (8-9). Revenge may actually have dosed off or Andrea may deem it sleeping since things appear to be veering from his desired outcome. In a misread of the previous scene, he tells Revenge that Lorenzo and Hieronimo are now in league, halting his chance for revenge.

Revenge responds that Andrea’s fears are not grounded. Revenge has its own time and method; it cannot be forced and can only happen at its own pace. Andrea is then given a foretaste of coming events via a dumbshow, which Revenge explains cryptically. The dumbshow suggests the impending marriage will be closely followed by death, implying that Hymen, the god of marriage, is displeased. This contents Andrea, who promises to settle back and allow things to work as ordained. Revenge answers, “Then argue not, for thou hast thy request” (38). Andrea’s death, as well as Horatio’s, will be answered.

*

*I have to mention a happy accident appearing in the Norton. In 3.13, Hieronimo’s servant announces the arrival of the three petitioners; the original text may have identified the servant’s lines with only an “S.” or perhaps “Ser.” Consequently, the Norton misidentifies the speaker as “Serberine.” Serberine, of course, was involved in Horatio’s murder and subsequently killed by Pedringano at Lorenzo’s behest (3.3). Actors often play more than one part in a production, a process called doubling, and the thought that the actor who plays  Serberine might double the part of Hieronimo’s servant is too perfect. The actor playing Serberine, a character involved in Horatio’s murder and killed to ensure his silence, returns to play a servant to Horatio’s father. Shades of remorse, guilt, and punishment in the servant’s role would be unavoidable. Brilliant!

The Spanish Tragedy – Act Two, Scenes 4-6: “This place was made for pleasure not for death”

Scene Four: Horatio and Bel-Imperia rendezvous at Hieronimo’s bower. Pedringano advises Lorenzo and Baltazar. They murder Horatio and carry off Bel-Imperia.    

Horatio and Bel-Imperia meet in Hieronimo’s bower, accompanied by Pedringano. They praise the night for giving them cover so “pleasures may be done” (3), and once more the bower’s perceived safety is mentioned (“…let us to the bower, / And there in safety pass a pleasant hour” (4-5). Despite this, Bel-Imperia tells Horatio “my heart foretells me some mischance” (15) and sets Pedringano as watchman.

Bel-Imperia deems Pedringano “as trusty as my second self” (9), but the servant quickly reveals in an aside that he will “deserve more gold / By fetching Don Lorenzo to this match” (12-13). He exits, unbeknownst to the couple, who are too engrossed in each other to notice and trust him to stand guard. As they become more at ease their words intertwine and are shared, suggesting growing intimacy and mouths touching mouths. At one point, Bel-Imperia repeats and reorders her own words, resulting in a rhythmic, leisurely flow showing her contentment (“And in thy love and counsel drown my fear: / I fear no more, love now is all my thoughts” [21-22, italics mine]).

“Pleasure” is mentioned repeatedly in the couple’s dialogue (all italics mine): “And that in darkness pleasures may be done, / …And there in safety pass a pleasant hour” (3, 5); “And heavens have shut up day to pleasure us” (17), “And Luna hides herself to pleasure us” (19); “…for pleasure asketh ease” (23). Use of the word situates Hieronimo’s bower as a place where Bel-Imperia and Horatio feel secluded and comfortable enough to open their hearts to each other, as well as enjoy each other physically. We hear this in their couplets, which end in easy, simple rhymes:
HORATIO: The more thou sit’st within these leafy bowers,
The more will Flora deck it with her flowers.
BEL-IMPERIA: Ay, but if Flora spy Horatio here,
Her jealous eye will think I sit too near .  (24-27)
Their dialogue is luxurious and sensual, filled with flirtation and physical attraction. The mention of Flora, goddess of flowers and spring, leads to the inclusion of Cupid, Venus, and Mars:
HORATIO: If Cupid sing, then Venus is not far:
Ay, thou art Venus or some fairer star.
BEL-IMPERIA: If I be Venus, thou must needs be Mars,
And where Mars reigneth there must needs be wars.  (32-35)
From here, the lovers’ exchange shifts to that of a metaphorical battle: “Then thus begin our wars: put forth thy hand / That it may combat with my ruder hand” (36-37). There is a similar line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, likely written around five years after ST (“And touching hers, make blessed my rude hand” [1.5.51]).

The naming of the mythological lovers Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war, reiterates the theme of love as war. Bel-Imperia and Horatio seem to role play the mythological lovers, parrying with words of battle (“But first my looks shall combat against thine” [39]; “Then ward thyself: I dart this kiss at thee” [40]; “Thus I retort the dart thou threw’st at me” [41]). Rhadamanth’s earlier refusal to mix warriors and lovers (1.1.46) hangs over the scene; this, as well as the references to Greek gods and goddesses, lends an epic feel to the lovers’ rendezvous.

As their passion increases, the couple’s words become more sensual (“My twining arms shall yoke and make thee yield” [2.4.43]), culminating in references to dying, often used in the early modern period to refer to sex or orgasm. “O stay a while, and I will die with thee: / So shalt thou yield, and yet have conquered me” (48-49), says Horatio. It is unclear if the pair is in the act of consummating their relationship. If they are, the bower can be described as representative of a portal or threshold between friendship and physical love (discussed in my earlier blog post).

Immediately following the couple’s words of surrender, Lorenzo, Baltazar, Serberine (Baltazar’s man), and a disguised Pedringano appear at the bower. Lorenzo tells Baltazar, “…away with her! Take [Bel-Imperia] aside” (51), literally giving his sister to her spurned suitor. He then sneers at Horatio, “O sir, forbear: your valor is already tried” (52). The rhyming of “aside”/ “tried” and the reference to Horatio’s valor links the two triangles in the plot: the love triangle of Baltazar, Horatio, and Bel-Imperia and the war triangle of Lorenzo, Baltazar, and Horatio. Once more, the blending of love and war drives the plot.

Lorenzo orders Pedringano and Serberine to “Quickly – dispatch, my masters!” (53). There is no rhyme or other literary device; his orders are brutal and peremptory. The stage directions state “They hang [Horatio] in the arbor” (SD 53) and “…stab him” (SD 55), the penetration of Horatio’s body mirroring the penetration of sexual intercourse implied not ten lines before. The men’s actions also make a mockery of Horatio’s earlier “The more will Flora deck it with her flowers” (25) — the place of pleasure is now decked with death. Once again, the bower represents a portal between one existential state and another.

Bel-Imperia begs for Horatio to be spared, calling on both Lorenzo and Baltazar: “O save him, brother! Save him, Baltazar! I loved Horatio, but he loved not me” (57-58). Baltazar’s reply, “But Baltazar loves Bel-Imperia” (59), is chilling in its simplicity. There is no feeling of remorse or responsibility, only entitlement to Bel-Imperia’s person. She cries for help, calling “Murder! murder! Help, Hieronimo, help!” (62). Her brother’s response as they abduct her, “Come, stop her mouth! away with her!” (63), is equally cold. “I will stop your mouth” (5.4.97) is a phrase used in Shakespeare’s later Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99) when Benedick finally kisses Beatrice. The idea of Baltazar forcibly kissing Bel-Imperia as he drags her away adds to the violence of the scene and suggests rape, as well as the rending of the bower as a place of love and pleasure.

*

Scene Five: Hieronimo is awakened by Bel-Imperia’s cries. He rushes out to find Horatio dead and hanging in the bower.

Hieronimo hears cries coming from his bower and hurries out to investigate. He sees “A man hanged up and all the murderers gone, / And in my bower, to lay the guilt on me: / This place was made for pleasure not for death” (10-12). He does not immediately recognize Horatio as the victim, but then begins to keen and lament his son’s murder, crying, “O heavens, why made you night to cover sin?” (24). His cry recalls Horatio’s words to Bel-Imperia, “that in darkness pleasures may be done” (2.4.3), spoken in the last scene.

Hieronimo’s passionate grief is underscored by his use of rhyme. His pain is made clear through rhyming couplets such as “sin”/”been,” “devour”/”bower”, “misdone”/”begun,” “wert”/”desert,” and “joy”/”boy” (2.5.24-33). The rhymes are simple, creating a structure of sorts as he struggles to process the chaos surrounding him. His wife Isabella joins him in the bower and rhymes “Horatio” with “woe” when she realizes her son has been murdered: “What world of grief—my son Horatio! / O where’s the author of this endless woe?” (38-39, italics mine). The couple’s shared agony is apparent through their shared words; Hieronimo responds “To know the author were some ease of grief, / For in revenge my heart would find relief” (40-41, italics mine).

Isabella moves from disbelief to emotional anguish, crying, “O gush out tears, fountains and floods of tears, / Blow sighs and raise an everlasting storm!” (43-44). Shakespeare uses like words in King Lear (c.1608), written years after Spanish Tragedy. Lear, mad and raging at the skies, encourages the winds to mirror his passionate anger (“Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” [3.2.1-3]). The use of tempests and storms as a device to express overwhelming, violent passion is found throughout early modern drama. Life is often described as a sea journey, and the weather encountered a metaphor for the good and bad times experienced along the way.

Hieronimo and Isabella morn over Horatio’s body, continuing to speak in couplets as they express their shared grief. At one point, Hieronimo extends the image of the flowering bower to his son’s corpse, saying “Sweet lovely rose, ill plucked before thy time” (46). He vows revenge, telling Isabella,
Seest thou this handkerchief besmeared with blood?
It shall not from me until I take revenge.
Seest thou those wounds that yet are bleeding fresh?
I’ll not entomb them till I have revenged…  (51-54, italics mine)
The anaphora indicates Hieronimo’s resolve. He is steadfast, and by doubling down on “seest thou” and “not…[un]till I” emphatically dedicates himself to seeking justice for his murdered son. If the handkerchief he takes from Horatio’s body is the one Horatio took from Andrea’s body (1.4.42), given to Andrea by Bel-Imperia and worn by Horatio at her behest (1.4.48), the cloth essentially binds Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo in a pact of vengeance against Andrea’s killer, Baltazar, as well as the mastermind of Horatio’s murder, Lorenzo.

Isabella declares, “The heavens are just, murder cannot be hid: / Time is the author both of truth and right, / And time will bring this treachery to light” (2.5.57-59). Her repetition and rhyme indicate a strong belief in the essential goodness of the universe, highlighting the play’s exploration of justice. In Isabella’s mind, since the heavens cannot countenance evil, all will be revealed. Hieronimo, however, is more circumspect:
Meanwhile, good Isabella, cease thy plaints,
Or at the least dissemble them a while;
So shall we sooner find the practice out,
And learn by whom all this was brought about. (60-63).
Hieronimo knows he cannot rely on the heavens to discover Horatio’s murderer. He “sets his breast unto his sword” (SD 67), and in 14 lines of Latin, vows revenge. This action with his sword, and the Latin verse, gesture again to a Greek epic as well as mark out Hieronimo as a tragic figure.

*

Scene Six: Andrea complains to Revenge that what he has seen has only increased his pain.

Andrea and Revenge have been on stage throughout, watching the action. Andrea is affected by what he has seen and complains to Revenge, using repetition, rhyme and anaphora to express his frustration:
Brought’st thou me hither to increase my pain?
I looked that Baltazar should have been slain,
But ‘tis my friend Horatio that is slain;
And they abuse fair Bel-Imperia
On whom I doted more than all the world
Because she loved me more than all the world.  (1-6, italics mine)
Andrea’s expression of dissatisfaction incorporates the passionate syntax of all the characters we have seen thus far: Baltazar’s anaphora (2.1.19-28); Bel-Imperia and Horatio’s repetition and sharing of words (2.2.25-28); and Hieronimo and Isabella’s rhyming couplets (2.5.36-41). Andrea similarly channels and embodies confusion, love, and grief, unsure as to why he is privy to these events and how they advance vengeance for his death. Revenge replies with a promise that he will be satisfied, stating “Thou talk’st of harvest when the corn is green: / …The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe” (2.6.7,9). A certain type of death is implied through Revenge’s reference to the sickle, tool of both the agricultural and metaphorical reaper. The image is of a swift, sweeping motion, cutting through adversaries and clearing the way for justice and renewal.

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.

The Spanish Tragedy – Act One, Scenes 1-2: “Will both abide the censure of my doom?”

Scene One: Andrea enters with Revenge and recounts the circumstances of his death and subsequent arrival in the Underworld. He tells how he stood before Pluto and Proserpine, who placed him in Revenge’s company.

Andrea enters accompanied by Revenge, which immediately situates the tale as a revenge tragedy. It also sets up one of the framing devices so important to the structure of the play: Andrea and Revenge sit on stage and observe the action throughout. The stage directions describe this scene as a “Chorus”; in Greek tragedies, the Chorus was an onstage group commenting on the action, often emphasizing the conflict or issues at hand. (A short video by the National Theatre on the concept of the Chorus and how modern directors have used it can be found here.)

Andrea explains who he was in life, and notes that his “descent — / Though not ignoble – [was] yet inferior far / To gracious fortunes of my tender youth” (5-7). This indicates Andrea was someone we might call self-made, bettering his station through his service to the Spanish Court. He also reveals that “In secret I possessed a worthy dame, / Which hight sweet Bel-Imperia by name” (10-11). In other words, his liaison with Bel-Imperia, niece to the king, was kept under wraps, perhaps due to his “inferior” birth. Their relationship indicates Bel-Imperia is a woman with a mind of her own — not one to follow orders, acquainted with her own desires, and determined to follow her heart.

What follows is a narrative of Andrea’s death in battle and subsequent trip to the Underworld. Not only is the imagery and syntax reminiscent of Virgil’s Aeneid, the tale itself recalls Aeneas’ journey in Book Six. We learn that initially Andrea was not allowed to pass into the Underworld, since his body lay unburied (like the bodies of Miseneus and Palinurus in Virgil’s epic). Only after Horatio, Andrea’s close friend, sees to the burial is he ferried across the Styx.

When Andrea arrives, the guardians of the Underworld cannot agree on where his shade should spend eternity, as he “both lived and died in love, / And for his love tried fortune of the wars, / And by war’s fortune lost both love and life” (38-40). For love, Andrea went to war; valor in battle was a way to improve his standing in the Court and become more deserving of Bel-Imperia’s hand. The guardian Aeacus argues that as a lover, Andrea should be given entry to the “fields of love” (42). He is rebuffed by another guardian, Rhadamanth, as “it were not well, / With loving souls to place a martialist” (45-46). Love and war, Rhadamanth argues, should not be mixed – a concept to keep in mind as the play progresses.

From this point, Kyd incorporates words associated with wealth and value into the dialogue. They are introduced through the guardians’ discussion of fortune in the lines above and their use continues with varying frequency throughout the play. Prisoners are ransomed, soldiers are rewarded, and wealth is promised. The words are striking when considered alongside the play’s larger exploration of revenge and justice. Are these judgments based on perceived worth or equitably decided?

Andrea continues with his tale, stating he “trod the middle path” (72) in the Underworld, journeying between “deepest hell” (64) and “the fair Elysian green” (73). This liminal state is also a reflection of his life. He previously acknowledged that he rose higher than his birth but not high enough to openly court Bel-Imperia; similarly, in death, he fits with neither the lovers nor the soldiers. He is duly sent before Pluto and Proserpine, rulers of the Underworld, and Proserpine “beg[s] that only she might give [his] doom” (79). Proserpine is another figure who “trod the middle path,” spending half each year in the upper world and the remaining half as Pluto’s queen. Consequently, it is only appropriate that she — another liminal figure — is given judgement over Andrea. She sends him away in company of Revenge and they leave through the Gates of Horn, symbolic of truth (82; Neill 7, n82). Revenge then promises Andrea that he “shal[t] see the author of thy death, / Don Baltazar, the Prince of Portingale, / Deprived of life by Bel-Imperia” (87-89). The suggestion is that love will triumph over war.

*

Scene Two: In the Spanish Court, the General tells the King of Spain the story of Spain’s recent victory over the Portuguese, including the capture of Baltazar, Prince of Portugal. Lorenzo and Horatio enter with the Prince; the manner of his capture is disputed, bringing into question who should receive what reward for the feat.

In 1.2, Andrea’s story is told again, this time by other characters. The two narratives are linked as the General responds to the king’s query regarding the fate of his men: “All well, my sovereign liege, except some few / That are deceased by fortune of the war” (2-3, italics mine). This phrase recalls Andrea’s own phrase (1.1.39) and reminds the audience of the deceased courtier watching in the wings, Revenge at his side. The scene is heavy with references to value and worth; words such as “fortune” (1.2.3, 6, 103), “pay” (8), “tribute” (90), “reward” (100), and “enriched” (109) are sprinkled throughout the dialogue. Kyd’s use of other languages is also introduced in 1.2. The Duke of Castile, echoing the king’s giving thanks for his army’s success, quotes Claudian in Latin (12-14 [Neill 8, n12-14]), as does the General during his tale of the battle (55-56 [Neill 9, n55-56]). Until Greek, Italian, and French are introduced in the final scene, Latin is Kyd’s language of choice for quotes. Its use heightens the atmosphere of the play, raising it to the level of Greek tragedy and lending pathos to the characters’ experiences of grief and death.

Like Andrea’s tale in 1.1, the General’s recounting of the battle is aligned with Virgil through word choice and syntax; this also serves to elevate Andrea in death. The General tells how Andrea turned the battle in favor of the Spanish but was then slain by Baltazar, Prince of Portugal (1.2.65-72). Baltazar will soon be presented as a suitor to Andrea’s love Bel-Imperia, so the prince’s killing of his predecessor is noteworthy. Kyd continues to spin a textual web as the General tells of Horatio, Andrea’s best friend, capturing Baltazar shortly after his killing of Andrea. All three men — Andrea, Baltazar, and Horatio – were, hope to be, or will be Bel-Imperia’s lover. This mix of love and war sets up a rivalry that leads to destruction and drives the plot.

At the end of the General’s tale, the king tells Hieronimo, Horatio’s father, of his son’s valor. Hieronimo responds, “Long may he live to serve my sovereign liege, / And soon decay unless he serve my liege” (98-99). These are interesting words. Does Hieronimo inadvertently curse his son? Is Horatio’s future relationship with Bel-Imperia disobedience to the king? The play most obviously engages with the theme of disobedience through Bel-Imperia’s agency, but it is also implied that Horatio has not been compliant with his father’s wishes. Several lines later, upon learning his son is a captor of Baltazar, Hieronimo exclaims, “…though from his tender infancy / My loving thoughts did never hope but well, / He never pleased his father’s eyes till now” (117-119). This is the only suggestion that Horatio’s past was less than dutiful and adds an interesting gloss to the lovers’ story.

Baltazar is brought on stage between Lorenzo and Horatio, who both claim him as their prisoner. Kyd uses this stage business to silently but effectively reveal the personality of the prince. Throughout the play, Baltazar is consistently on the fence, pulled between one person or situation and another; he is shown to be indecisive and a waffler. The fact that he is claimed by both men also gestures to the love triangle of Bel-Imperia, Horatio, and Baltazar — and the machinations of Lorenzo that accompany it. Once more, value and worth are front and center, as whoever is the true captor of Baltazar will be richly rewarded. The two men’s claims to Baltazar are argued in the king’s presence, and in essence, echo the rival claims to Bel-Imperia. She is, or will be, “prisoner” of Lorenzo and Horatio: Lorenzo, literally (at one point) and because she is his sister; Horatio because she has chosen to give him her heart.

Kyd creates a “war triangle” (Baltazar, Horatio, and Lorenzo) that parallels the “love triangle” of Baltazar, Bel-Imperia, and Horatio. This association is strengthened through dialogue. Both Horatio and Lorenzo claim the honor of first taking Baltazar prisoner. Lorenzo states, “This hand first took his courser by the reins” (155), to which Horatio replies, “But first my lance did put him from his horse” (156). Lorenzo, then, thought he took control of Baltazar, but Horatio knocked both men aside. This will also be seen with Bel-Imperia: Lorenzo attempts to control Bel-Imperia by promising her to Baltazar, but Horatio figuratively knocks them aside. This is alluded to in the next lines: Lorenzo says, “I seized his weapon and enjoyed it first” to which Horatio replies, “But first I forced him lay his weapons down” (156-157). The innuendo is obvious. Lorenzo presents Baltazar as a sexual partner for his sister; Horatio, however, forces Baltazar to “lay his weapon[] down.” When asked by the king to clarify who captured him, Baltazar’s response is filled with contrast and indecision:
He spake me fair, this other gave me strokes;
He promised life, this other threatened death;
He won my love, this other conquered me;
And, truth to say, I yield myself to both. (162-165)
Baltazar, therefore, is meant to be seen as an ineffectual partner for the strong-willed, decisive Bel-Imperia — and as ripe for the machinations of Lorenzo.

The king decides between the rival claimants (“Will both abide the censure of my doom? [175]). He awards Lorenzo Baltazar’s horse and weapons (the necessities of war); Horatio receives the prince’s ransom (180, 183). Baltazar is placed in Lorenzo’s custody (185), but the prince asks that Horatio be allowed to “bear [them] company… / Whom I admire and love for chivalry” (193-194, italics mine). Once more, we find that love and war are central. Baltazar’s request, though, is as much a recognition of Horatio’s valor as it is a display of his own indecision.

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…