The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy
by Thomas Kyd

Table of Contents
1. The Spanish Tragedy: Introduction
2. The Spanish Tragedy: Thomas Kyd Biography
3. The Spanish Tragedy: Summary
4. The Spanish Tragedy: Characters

5. The Spanish Tragedy: Themes
6. The Spanish Tragedy: Style
7. The Spanish Tragedy: Historical Context
8. The Spanish Tragedy: Critical Overview
The Spanish Tragedy: Essays and Criticism
¨ Critical Essay on The Spanish Tragedy
¨ The Significance of the Alexandro-Villuppo Episode in The Spanish Tragedy.
¨ Play as Mystery and Allegory in The Spanish Tragedy
¨ Revenge
9. The Spanish Tragedy
10. The Spanish Tragedy: Compare and Contrast
11. The Spanish Tragedy: Topics for Further Study
12. The Spanish Tragedy: What Do I Read Next?
13. The Spanish Tragedy: Bibliography and Further Reading
14. The Spanish Tragedy: Pictures
15. Copyright
The Spanish Tragedy: Introduction
The Spanish Tragedy (New York: W. W. Norton, revised edition, 1989), a play by English dramatist Thomas Kyd, was written between 1582 and 1592, when the first known performance took place. Kyd was a popular dramatist in his day, although most of his plays have been lost. The Spanish Tragedy is one of very few extant plays that can with certainty be attributed to him. The play is important not only for its own merits but also because it is the first example of a revenge tragedy, a type of play that was to become extremely popular on the Elizabethan stage during the last decade of the sixteenth century and beyond. The most famous of all revenge tragedies is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and some of the plot devices in The Spanish Tragedy, such as the protagonist’s hesitation in carrying out his revenge, are echoed in Shakespeare’s play. Kyd based The Spanish Tragedy on the tragedies written by the Roman playwright Seneca, whose plays focused on murder and revenge. The emphasis was on a malignant fate that led inevitably to a bloody and horrific catastrophe.
Although The Spanish Tragedy is not performed in the early 2000s, its intricate plot, full of intrigue and even containing comic incidents, its swift-moving and sensational action, the questions it poses about the nature of justice and retribution, and the well-developed character of the revenger, Hieronimo, make it a rewarding play to read.
The Spanish Tragedy: Thomas Kyd Biography
The exact date on which Thomas Kyd was born is unknown, but he was baptized on November 6, 1558, at a church in London. His father, Francis Kyd, was a successful scrivener, that is, a man who copied documents. Kyd’s father was sufficiently well off to send his son to the Merchant Taylors’ School, which had a reputation for high academic standards. Kyd entered the Merchant Taylors’ School when he was seven years old, in 1565. The poet Edmund Spenser was also a student there at the time. Kyd may have remained at Merchant Taylors for eight to ten years, although his date of departure is unrecorded.
After leaving school, Kyd was probably apprenticed to his father, although this cannot be established beyond doubt. By 1583, he had begun writing plays for the company of actors known as the Queen’s Company. Kyd wrote for this company until 1587, although none of his plays has survived. In 1587 or 1588, Kyd entered the service of a lord, possibly the earl of Sussex, as a secretary or tutor. In 1588, he published a translation of Tasso’s Padre di Famiglia, under the title The Householder’s Philosophy. The Spanish Tragedy, the play on which Kyd’s fame rests, was written between 1582 and 1592, probably before 1587. It was the first example of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy and enjoyed great popularity during Kyd’s lifetime and beyond. What other plays Kyd wrote is a matter of conjecture. He may have written Soliman and Perseda, and many scholars argue that he wrote an early version of Hamlet, although no trace of such a play exists.
In 1591, Kyd shared his lodgings with the dramatist Christopher Marlowe. In 1593, Kyd was arrested and  questioned about whether he had any role in writing pamphlets that incited violence against foreigners in London, who were being blamed for outbreaks of the plague and a rise in unemployment. There is no evidence that Kyd did anything wrong; he was under suspicion only because of his association with Marlowe, who was notorious for his atheism. Marlowe was also arrested but was quickly released (and killed in a tavern brawl twelve days later). Kyd was not so fortunate in his dealings with the authorities. Heretical writings were found at his lodgings, but Kyd claimed they belonged to Marlowe. He was subjected to torture during his brief period of imprisonment, but he was not convicted of any crime.
After his release, Kyd wrote Cornelia, an adaptation of a play by the French playwright Robert Garnier. It was published in 1594. In his dedication, Kyd commented about the bitter times and great suffering he had endured. Kyd died later that year, at the age of thirty-six. He was buried on August 15, 1594.
The Spanish Tragedy: Summary
Act 1
The Spanish Tragedy begins with the ghost of Andrea, a Spanish nobleman, and the personified abstraction of Revenge. Andrea explains that he was killed in battle against the Portuguese. This deprived him of his secret love, Bel-Imperia, and his ghost has now emerged from the underworld to seek revenge. Revenge promises the ghost of Andrea that he will witness his killer, Prince Balthazar, killed by Bel Imperia. These two characters remain on stage throughout the play. At the Spanish court, a general explains that during the battle, Balthazar was defeated in single combat by Horatio and taken prisoner. This ensured Spain’s victory, and Portugal has agreed to pay Spain tribute. Balthazar is treated leniently, being merely detained in Spain as the guest of Lorenzo. At the Portuguese court, the viceroy of Portugal is deceived by Villuppo into believing Balthazar is dead. Back in Spain, Horatio tells Bel-Imperia of the circumstances of Andrea’s death, and she transfers her affections from Andrea to Horatio, who was Andrea’s friend. She also vows to have vengeance on Balthazar. Balthazar, encouraged by Lorenzo, declares his love for Bel-Imperia, but she rebuffs him.
The king of Spain holds a banquet, attended by the Portuguese ambassador, to celebrate the new alliance between the two countries. The ghost of Andrea complains to Revenge at seeing Balthazar so well received at the Spanish court. Revenge tells him that friendship will soon turn into enmity.
Act 2
Lorenzo, trying to advance Balthazar’s cause with Bel-Imperia, gets her servant Pedringano to admit that she is in love with Horatio, because he has seen letters she sent to him. Lorenzo promises Balthazar that he will get rid of Horatio, leaving Balthazar free to win Bel-Imperia’s love. In scene 2, Balthazar and Lorenzo, helped by Pedringano, spy on Bel-Imperia as she and Horatio discuss their love for each other. The new lovers arrange to meet in secret at night, in a garden on Horatio’s father’s land, where they will not be disturbed. After a scene in which the duke of Castile agrees to the marriage of his daughter to Balthazar, Lorenzo and Balthazar, informed by Pedringano, surprise Horatio and Bel-Imperia at their secret meeting. They hang and stab Horatio and abduct Bel-Imperia. The disturbance arouses Hieronimo from his bed, and Hieronimo cuts down Horatio and laments his murder. Isabella, his wife, joins him, and he vows revenge. Meanwhile, the ghost of Andrea is again irritated, because he has seen his friend Horatio rather than his enemy Balthazar killed. Revenge replies that he only has to wait, and he will see Balthazar brought low.
Act 3
At the Portuguese court, Alexandro is about to be put to death when the ambassador arrives with the news that Balthazar is alive. The viceroy releases Alexandro and condemns Villuppo to death because of his false claims that Balthazar was dead. In Spain, Hieronimo, mourning for his son, receives a letter from Bel-Imperia in which she tells him that Horatio was murdered by Lorenzo and Balthazar. She calls on him to take his revenge. Hieronimo, suspicious that the letter may be a trick, resolves to investigate before he takes action. After Hieronimo talks with Lorenzo, Lorenzo becomes suspicious that Hieronimo may know something about the murder. He fears that Balthazar’s servant, Serberine, may have said something to him. Lorenzo pays Pedringano to kill Serberine, but after Pedringano shoots Serberine, he is apprehended by three constables, who take him to Hieronimo. Lorenzo then arranges for Pedringano to be executed, while falsely telling him that a pardon already enacted will be revealed at the last minute (thus buying Pedringano’s silence). The scheme goes wrong when the hangman shows Hieronimo a letter he has found on the dead Pedringano’s clothing that confirms that Lorenzo and Balthazar killed Horatio. Hieronimo resolves to go to the king and seek justice. In the meantime, Isabella goes mad in her grief over her dead son, and Bel-Imperia, who is being kept in seclusion by Lorenzo, bemoans the fact that Hieronimo has not yet avenged Horatio’s death. Lorenzo sends for Bel-Imperia, who rails at him for abducting her. Lorenzo explains that he killed Horatio to protect her honor, since they had met in secret. He reminds her of how her reputation suffered because of her clandestine love affair with Andrea. He also explains that he abducted her lest the king should have found her there. He kept her in seclusion because he wanted to spare her the anger of their father, who is angry at Andrea’s death. Balthazar again presses his claim to her love, but Bel-Imperia remains unresponsive. Meanwhile, the grief-stricken Hieronimo contemplates suicide but decides against it, since if he dies there will be no one to avenge Horatio. Meanwhile, the king, the duke of Castile and the Portuguese ambassador agree on the marriage of Balthazar and Bel-Imperia. Hieronimo bursts in, calling for justice, but after he is restrained and ushered away, Lorenzo tries to convince the king that Hieronimo is not only mad but also wants for himself the ransom paid by Portugal for Balthazar. Hieronimo forms a plan for vengeance, but waits until the best time to execute it. Meanwhile, he pretends he knows nothing of the guilt of Lorenzo and Balthazar. However, the grief of a man named Bazulto for his murdered son causes Hieronimo to reproach himself for delaying his revenge.
The viceroy arrives for the wedding, and Castile reproaches his son Lorenzo for obstructing Hieronimo’s access to the king. When Hieronimo enters, summoned by Castile, Hieronimo pretends to be reconciled with Lorenzo. The act concludes with the ghost of Andrea again calling for revenge. Revenge reassures him, in the process explaining to Andrea the meaning of a ‘‘dumb show’’ (mimed performance) they have just witnessed.
Act 4
Bel-Imperia reproaches Hieronimo for failing to avenge Horatio and tells him that if he does not act, she will carry out her revenge herself. Hieronimo reassures her that he has a plan, and asks her to join with him. Lorenzo and Balthazar enter and ask Hieronimo to devise some entertainment for the Portuguese ambassador. Hieronimo produces a tragic play that he wrote when he was young. He assigns them all parts. Balthazar is to play Soliman the Turkish Emperor who pursues a woman, Perseda (played by Bel-Imperia), who kills him after one of Soliman’s men (played by Hieronimo) kills her husband, Erastus (played by Lorenzo). Isabella, believing that Hieronimo has abdicated his revenge, curses the garden where Horatio was murdered, and then kills herself. The play is acted in front of the Spanish king, the viceroy of Portugal, and other members of the court. At the appropriate moment in the plot, Hieronimo stabs Erastus (Lorenzo). Bel-Imperia stabs Soliman (Balthazar) and then stabs herself. The on-stage audience does not realize the deaths are real, not feigned. Then Hieronimo produces the body of Horatio and explains how Horatio was murdered, and that the deaths of Balthazar and Lorenzo are real, designed by him. Bel-Imperia he had intended to spare, but she took it upon herself to commit suicide.
Hieronimo then tries to hang himself. He is restrained, and the king demands that he explain himself fully. Hieronimo refuses to explain what role Bel-Imperia had in the plot, and bites out his tongue rather than speak. A pen is brought for him to write down an explanation. Hieronimo indicates he needs a knife to mend the pen, but when the knife is brought, he stabs the duke of Castile and himself.
In the final scene, the ghost of Andrea is pleased by what he has witnessed. He looks forward to welcoming Horatio, Bel-Imperia, Isabella and Hieronimo in pleasant circumstances. Revenge tells him that he can hurl his enemies to the deepest hell, and Andrea picks out the punishments for them that best please him.
The Spanish Tragedy: Characters
Alexandro is a noble in the Portuguese court. He is falsely accused by Villuppo of accidentally causing the death of Balthazar in battle. He is condemned to death by the viceroy, but the truth eventually comes out, and Alexandro is released.
Ambassador of Portugal
The ambassador of Portugal acts as a liaison between the courts of Spain and Portugal.
Balthazar, the prince of Portugal, kills Don Andrea in battle, and thus becomes the object of the desire for revenge exhibited by Andrea’s ghost. Balthazar falls in love with Bel-Imperia, angering the ghost still further, since Andrea was Bel-Imperia’s lover. Balthazar is frustrated by Bel-Imperia’s lack of affection for him, and he participates in the murder of Horatio, whom Bel-Imperia loves, in order to remove his rival. In the play-within-theplay, Balthazar plays the role of Soliman, the sultan of Turkey. He is stabbed to death by Bel-Imperia.
Bel-Imperia is the daughter of Don Ciprian, the duke of Castile, and the brother of Lorenzo. She was Don Andrea’s lover before he was killed in battle by Balthazar. After Andrea’s death, Bel-Imperia falls in love with Horatio. She hates Balthazar, since he was the cause of her lover’s death. Bel-Imperia writes a letter to Hieronimo, informing him of who killed Horatio, and she expects him to carry out his revenge against the murderers. In the play-withinthe- play, Bel-Imperia plays Perseda. She kills the character Soliman, played by Balthazar, and then stabs herself to death, even though her suicide is not called for in the role she is playing.
Christophill is Lorenzo’s servant.
Don Ciprian
Don Ciprian, duke of Castile, is the brother of the king of Spain, and father of Lorenzo and Bel- Imperia. He plays little part in the main action, although he does rebuke Lorenzo for thwarting Hieronimo’s access to the king. Don Ciprian then effects what he believes to be a reconciliation between the two. Although the duke is innocent of any involvement in the death of Horatio, Hieronimo kills him after the play-within-the-play is over.
Duke of Castile
See Don Ciprian
Ghost of Don Andrea
Andrea was a Spanish courtier who was in love with Bel-Imperia. He was killed in battle by Balthazar, and his ghost now demands revenge against Balthazar. The ghost and the personified figure of Revenge emerge from the underworld and watch all the events of the play unfold at the Spanish court.
Hieronimo is the knight marshal of Spain and the father of Horatio. Filled with grief at Horatio’s murder, Heironimo vows to take revenge on his son’s killers. But before he acts, he wants to make sure he knows for certain the identities of the guilty men. He does not take Bel-Imperia’s word for it when she writes him a letter telling him what happened. Hieronimo decides to watch and wait, and not to betray his suspicions to anyone. He is finally convinced of the guilt of Lorenzo and Balthazar when an incriminating letter is found on the body of the hanged Pedringano. But still Hieronimo is frustrated; he cannot understand why heaven does not hear his call for justice and vengeance. He goes almost mad with grief, and contemplates, but ultimatelynrejects, suicide. Hieronimo goes to the king demanding justice, but Lorenzo interrupts him before he can explain himself. Finally, Hieronimo devises a form of revenge by means of a performance of a tragic play he wrote when he was young. He ensures that the two guilty men play characters who are killed. During the course of the play, Hieronimo really kills Lorenzo and ensures that Balthazar is killed by Bel-Imperia. When the play ends, Hieronimo brings out the dead body of Horatio and explains himself to the shocked audience. He tries to hang himself, then bites out his tongue rather than divulge the full story to the king. He stabs the duke of Castile and then stabs himself.
Don Horatio
Don Horatio is the son of Hieronimo and a friend of Andrea’s. Horatio defeats Balthazar in single combat during the battle between the Spanish and Portuguese armies. He then takes the place of the dead Andrea in Bel-Imperia’s affections. Horatio is killed by Lorenzo and Balthazar because he is an obstacle to the marriage between Balthazar and Bel- Imperia.
Isabella is Hieronimo’s wife. Grief-stricken over the murder of her son Horatio, and the delay in exacting revenge against his killer, she eventually goes mad and commits suicide.
King of Spain
The king of Spain is an honorable man. Although he celebrates the Spanish victory over Portugal, he does not behave vindictively towards the defeated foe. He treats Balthazar, the captured prince, generously, andwelcomes Balthazar’s proposed marriage to Bel-Imperia, since this will cement an alliance between Spain and Portugal.
Lorenzo is the son of the duke of Castile, and Bel-Imperia’s brother. He is an evil, scheming character who will stop at nothing to ensure that Bel- Imperia elevates her status by marrying Balthazar. He plans and takespart in the murder of Horatio, and then arranges for two of his accomplices, Pedringano and Serberine, to be killed. Lorenzo plays the character of Erastus in the play-withinthe- play. He is killed by Hieronimo.
Pedringano is a servant of Bel-Imperia. Lorenzo uses him to advance his scheme against Horatio, and also persuades him to kill Serberine. Pedringano is then arrested, and Lorenzo buys his silence by promising him a pardon. But Lorenzo double-crosses him, and Pedringano is hanged.
Don Pedro
Don Pedro is the brother of the viceroy of Portugal.
Revenge is the personified abstraction of the desire of Don Andrea to be revenged on Balthazar. When DonAndrea’s ghost becomes frustrated at the events he witnesses, which do not seem to be leading in the direction he wants, Revenge promises him that revenge will come; all the ghost must do is wait.
Serberine is a servant of Balthazar who is killed by Pedringano on the instructions of Lorenzo. Viceroy of Portugal The viceroy of Portugal is deceived by Villuppo into believing that his son Balthazar was killed in battle. When he finds out that he has been deceived, the viceroy condemns Villuppo to death. The viceroy mends relations with Spain by agreeing to pay tribute. He also consents to the proposed marriage between Balthazar and Bel-Imperia. The viceroy is a spectator at the play during which his son is killed.
Villuppo is a Portuguese nobleman who gives the Viceroy false information about the fate of Balthazar. He insists that the Prince was killed in battle, even though he knows this is not true. When his lie is discovered, Villuppo is put to death.
The Spanish Tragedy: Themes
Justice and Revenge
The single theme of the play is revenge. The theme appears in many different aspects of the plot, with varying degrees of moral justification. It is introduced at the very beginning, when the ghost of Andrea wants revenge on Balthazar for having killed him in battle, although there is nothing the ghost can directly do to bring it about. The next character who wants revenge is Bel- Imperia, whose desired victim is also Balthazar, since he killed her lover, Andrea. Initially, she plans to use Horatio as her means of vengeance, and when Horatio is murdered, she has a double motive for revenge. The third example of the desire for revenge is Balthazar, who wants revenge on Horatio for taking him prisoner in battle and being an obstacle to Balthazar’s attempt to win Bel-Imperia. The last and most important example of the revenge theme is Hieronimo, who seeks revenge for the slaying of his son, Horatio. Hieronimo’s wife, Isabella, shares his desire.
Even though Horatio’s murder does not occur until late in the second act, Hieronimo’s revenge is the main focus of the play, as it is he who has suffered the greatest wrong. It might be argued, for example, that Andrea has little cause to seek revenge on Balthazar, since they met on the battlefield in a fair fight. But Hieronimo has what anyone might regard as just cause. Also, the audience has witnessed the murder of Horatio directly—in contrast, the audience has only been told about the death of Andrea—which gives this aspect of the plot more emotional force.
Once the revenge plot is in place, the question becomes how it is to take place. Whose responsibility is it to exact revenge? Hieronimo’s first thought is that he will do it himself. But Isabella introduces the idea that ‘‘the heavens are just’’ and that time will bring the villains to light, and, presumably, to punishment. Not long after this, in act 3, scene 2, Hieronimo, frustrated at not knowing the identity of the murderer, severely questions the notion of cosmic justice. In lines 9–11, he appeals directly to the ‘‘sacred heavens,’’ saying that if the murder Shall unrevealed and unrevengéd pass,How should we term your dealings to be just, If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust? Immediately after this appeal, Hieronimo finds the letter from Bel-Imperia, informing him that the murderers are Balthazar and Lorenzo—which suggests that the wheels of cosmic justice are in fact responsive to his plight. However, Hieronimo is beginning to believe that he must carry out the vengeance himself. But he is very concerned about the idea of justice. He does not want to strike until he is certain of the guilt of those whom he suspects. When Hieronimo finally comes upon incontrovertible proof of the identity of the murderers, he thanks heaven because he believes it is the gods who have refused to let the murder go unpunished.
Still concerned with justice and how to execute it, Hieronimo resolves to take his case to the king and seek secular justice. It is only the intervention of Lorenzo that stops him explaining the whole story to the king. With the failure of this strategy, and after briefly considering the Christian idea that revenge should be left to God, Hieronimo decides to take vengeance into his own hands. Even then, he believes that his solution to the problem is in fact ‘‘wrought by the heavens.’’ Most modern readers feel that Hieronimo goes too far, since he also kills the duke of Castile. The duke is innocent of any wrongdoing; he is killed simply because he isLorenzo’s father.
This excess on the part of Hieronimo makes it difficult to argue that he is merely the agent of divine justice. It appears that he has stepped over the line that divides a just avenger from a murderer and a villain. His final actions also suggest that any human attempt to enact justice is fraught with danger and prone to error. An example of the fallibility of human justice occurs in the trial and execution of Pedringano. Pedringano may deserve his fate, but the legal process he goes through fails entirely to establish the fact that he was acting on the orders of Lorenzo, who, at least in this instance, escapes punishment.
The Spanish Tragedy: Style
Dramatic Irony
The play consistently employs dramatic irony, a situation in which one or more characters act without full knowledge of the facts, but those facts are known by the audience. For example, in act 1, scene 3, the viceroy of Portugal mourns the son he believes to be dead, but the audience knows Balthazar is alive. In act 2, scene 2, when Bel-Imperia and Horatio declare their love for each other, the audience knows that a plot is already in motion to destroy their love. Indeed, in that same scene Lorenzo and Balthazar, unseen watchers, state explicitly what awaits the two lovers. The audience is also aware that after Pedringano has murdered Serberine, the pardon Pedrigano so confidently expects, and on which he bases his words and actions, does not exist. There is also a dramatic irony that frames the entire play, since on several occasions, the figure of Revenge tells the ghost of Andrea what the outcome will be. The audience is not allowed to forget this, since those two characters remain on stage throughout the play. The effect of this dramatic irony is to show that, even while the characters are plotting to avoid or hasten certain events, their fate is already determined, though unknown to them. The characters may think they are in control of their situation, as Lorenzo and Balthazar do, but they cannot escape the destiny that is marked out for them.
The play frequently employs a rhetorical device known as stichomythia, which Kyd derived from Seneca, the Roman writer of tragedies. Stichomythia is a quick-fire dialogue between two or more characters, in which each character gives a one-line response. The responses often echo the words of the previous line. An example occurs in act 2, scene 3, lines 24–30 in the dialogue between Bel- Imperia, Balthazar and Horatio: BEL-IMPERIA: Why stands Horatio speechless all this while?
HORATIO: The less I speak, the more I meditate.
BEL-IMPERIA: But whereon dost thou chiefly meditate?
HORATIO: On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue.
BALTHAZAR: On pleasures past, and dangers to ensue.
BEL-IMPERIA: What dangers and what pleasures dost thou mean?
HORATIO: Dangers of war and pleasures of our love.
Another frequent device is anaphora, the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of each line of verse,
as in Lorenzo’s speech in act 2, scene 1:
The Spanish Tragedy: Style 8
’In time the savage bull sustains the yoke,
In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure,
In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak,
In time the flint is pierced with softest shower—‘
Alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants, is another frequently used device. It occurs, for example, in Hieronimo’s speech at the beginning of act 3, scene 7, where he questions where he can run to with his woes, ‘‘woes whose weight hath wearied the earth?’’ The blustering winds, he continues, have ‘‘Made mountains marsh with spring-tides of my tears, / And broken through the brazen gates of hell.’’
The Spanish Tragedy: Historical Context
The Revenge Play After Kyd had shown the way with The Spanish Tragedy, the revenge play became extremely popular on the Elizabethan stage. John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet are some of the most outstanding plays of this type. The revenge play was adapted from the work of the Roman playwright Seneca (4 B.C. to A.D. 65). Seneca wrote nine tragedies, based on Greek models, but his plays were meant to be recited rather than performed on a stage. They consisted mainly of long speeches, and action was described rather than presented directly. Seneca’s theme was revenge and retribution, and his subject matter was lurid; his plays feature crimes such as murder, incest, and adultery, and there is much blood, mutilation, and carnage. Ghosts appear frequently, and the plays end in a horrible catastrophe. Seneca emphasized that man was helpless to avert his tragic fate, but if he could meet it with stoic resolve he would in a sense remain undefeated. Seneca’s plays held great appeal all across Renaissance Europe. In England, the first original English tragedy based on Seneca’s model was Gorboduc, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, which was first performed in 1562. During the 1560s, many translations of Seneca’s plays, and original plays based on Seneca, were written by university playwrights. Another Senecan revival occurred during the 1580s, in the work not only of Kyd but also of George Peele.
The Senecan basis of The Spanish Tragedy can be seen in Kyd’s theme of murder and revenge, the presence of a ghost, and a bloody trail of events. At one point, Hieronimo even carries a copy of Seneca’s play Agamemnon in his hand and quotes from it. But Kyd and his contemporaries made one important change to the Senecan tradition. In The Spanish Tragedy, typical Senecan horrors (the hanging and stabbing of Horatio, and Hieronimo’s self-mutilation, for example) are shown directly on stage rather than being merely reported by a messenger. This appeared to satisfy the more crude instincts of an Elizabethan audience that regularly enjoyed such violent spectacles as public hangings and whippings, bear-baiting and the like. It also made for an exciting, action-packed spectacle. The Elizabethan enthusiasm for revenge plays was for the most part a dramatic interest only. Although in these types of plays, revenge is presented as an honorable, even sacred duty (Hamlet, for example, never doubts his duty to avenge his murdered father), Elizabethan society did not sanction acts of private revenge. A murder committed to avenge the murder of a close relative was treated no differently in Elizabethan law than any other murder. The punishment for an avenger was the same as for the original murderer. However, despite the insistence by the authorities, secular as well as religious, on the rule of law, family feuds did take place in Elizabethan England, and almost always took the form of the duel. There were other instances as well in which revenge, although officially condemned, might be countenanced. If a known murderer could not be brought to justice because of lack of evidence that could be presented in court, or if a man’s high position in society enabled him to put himself above the law, the average Elizabethan might have had some sympathy and tolerance for an act of private revenge.
The Spanish Tragedy: Critical Overview
The Spanish Tragedy was extremely popular during the last decade of the sixteenth century and was performed well into the seventeenth century. It was also successful as a printed book, with six editions printed between 1602 and 1633. According to Thomas W. Ross, in his edition of the play, it was ‘‘the most prodigious success of any drama produced and printed between 1580 and 1642,’’ dates that would include all of Shakespeare’s works. Translations of the play were performed in Europe; a performance was recorded in Frankfurt in 1601. The play was so well known in England that certain passages, such as Hieronimo’s extravagant expressions of grief and Andrea’s speech in the prologue, were subject to many parodies by other playwrights, who must have known that their audiences would recognize the allusions to the earlier play. However, The Spanish Tragedy has not been performed by professional companies since 1642, and was largely forgotten until historians of drama discovered its importance in the early twentieth century. They realized that the play was a seminal work that revealed much about the development of tragedy, and especially revenge tragedy, in Elizabethan England.
Modern scholars have claimed that The Spanish Tragedy has more than mere historical interest. J. R. Mulryne, in his introduction to the New Mermaid edition of the play, notes that it is ‘‘remarkable for the astonishingly deft and complete way in which Kyd has transmuted his theme into drama, by way of the intricate tactics of his play’s structure.’’ Mulryne claimed that a professional production would show that the play ‘‘deserve[s] its place as one of the first important English tragedies.’’ Philip Edwards, in Thomas Kyd and Early Elizabethan Tragedy, declared that in conception, although not in execution, The Spanish Tragedy was ‘‘more original, and greater, than [Shakespeare’s] Richard III. It is one of those rare works in which a minor writer, in a strange inspiration, shapes the future by producing something quite new.’’
The Spanish Tragedy: Essays and Criticism
Critical Essay on The Spanish Tragedy
The short life of Thomas Kyd is shrouded in obscurity, and The Spanish Tragedy is one of the very few works that can be confidently ascribed to his pen. Many scholars believe that Kyd also wrote a play called Hamlet, and they speculate that probably about a decade later William Shakespeare drew on Kyd’s play, which they refer to as the ‘‘Ur-Hamlet,’’ for his version of the famous revenge drama. Unfortunately, as of 2004, no trace of an ‘‘Ur-Hamlet’’ by Kyd has been disovered, so the matter has not been resolved beyond any doubt. However, the link between Kyd and Shakespeare does not entirely depend on the tantalizing idea that Kyd wrote a version of Hamlet, since The Spanish Tragedy also offers some striking parallels with Shakespeare’s great tragedy. In both plays, as Fredson Thayer Bowers points out in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587–1642, ‘‘the theme is of the problems of life and death and of the mystery of a soul in torment.’’ In addition to murder and revenge, both plays employ ghosts, madness, the hesitation of the hero, and a play-within-a-play as dramatic devices.
Shakespeare often puts these devices to more subtle or more effective dramatic use than his predecessor. An example is in the employment of the anguished voices from beyond the grave. In both plays, a ghost appears in the first scene, his purpose being to demand vengeance for his untimely death. The ghost of Hamlet’s  murdered father, however, is more integrated into the dramatic action than Kyd’s Don Andrea. Whereas Don Andrea is a mere uncomprehending spectator, given to complaining to Revenge but taking no direct part in the action, the ghost in Hamlet is a more active presence. Not only does he appeal directly to Hamlet to carry out his vengeance, he also reappears at a vital moment later in the play (during Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude in act 3, scene 4) to remind Hamlet of his task. In other words, Shakespeare replaces Kyd’s static ghost with one who serves as a goad to action on the part of the protagonist. One difference between the two plays is that in Hamlet, the murder that is to be revenged has already taken place when the play begins. While it is true that in The Spanish Tragedy, Don Andrea has already been killed when the play begins, his desire for revenge, even though it is presented in the very first scene, is essentially peripheral to the main plot, and the play could function perfectly well without it. The principal revenge theme is introduced only near the end of act 2, with the murder of Horatio, since Kyd first has to spend time developing the enmity for Horatio on the part of Lorenzo and Balthazar that leads to the murder. Once the murder has taken place, the parallel between Hieronimo and Hamlet becomes clear, since both seek to avenge the murder of a close relative. And in doing so, they both hesitate. The hesitation of the hero and his delay in carrying out his revenge was a staple of the Elizabethan revenge play, and it was Kyd who set the pattern in The Spanish Tragedy. When Hieronimo finds Bel-Imperia’s letter saying that Lorenzo and Balthazar are guilty of Horatio’s murder, he is not convinced. Fearing the letter made be a trap, he resolves to investigate further: ‘‘I therefore will by circumstances try / What I can gather to confirm this writ.’’ Hieronimo here resembles Hamlet; Hamlet also, to justify his delay, convinces himself  that the source of his information about the murder—the ghost of his father—may be unreliable, a devil sent to deceive him in order to damn his soul. He therefore resolves, like Hieronimo, to gather more reliable evidence. In this speech he is already reproaching himself for his inaction, wondering why, even though he has good cause, he ‘‘Must like a whore unpack my heart with words / And fall acursing like a very drab.’’ Hamlet sounds very much like Hieronimo, who still does not act, even when further evidence comes. Instead, he spends his time questioning and debating and feeling guilty about it: ‘‘But wherefore waste I mine unfruitful words, / When naught but blood will satisfy my woes?’’ There are two more striking parallels between Hamlet and Hieronimo. In the speech quoted above, Hamlet reacts to the words recited by the First Player, who has tears in his eyes as he relates the grief of Hecuba at the sight of her murdered husband, Priam. Hamlet contrasts the grief shown by the actor, about a long-ago  event that can mean nothing to him personally, to his own muted response to his father’s murder, which should in truth be far greater than that shown by a mere actor. This incident echoes a plot device used by Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy, when another character acts as a foil to show Hieronimo the inadequacy of his own response to his situation. The incident comes in act 3, scene 13, when Hieronimo encounters an old man, Bazulto, who is petitioning the king for justice for his murdered son. Observing Bazulto, Hieronimo feels ashamed of his own reaction. In similar fashion to Hamlet, Heironimo reasons that if someone from the lower class of society can mourn and seek redress in the determined way that Bazulto does, how much more effectively should he, Hieronimo, the Grand Marshal of Spain, react? He says, ‘‘Then sham’st thou not Hieronimo, to neglect / The sweet revenge of thy Horatio?’’ The second striking parallel between the two characters occurs when, in each play, the murdered many returns, or appears to return, to remind the revenger of his purpose. In The Spanish Tragedy, this occurs later on in the scene mentioned above. Hieronimo is so maddened by his grief that he mistakes Bazulto for the dead Horatio:
And art thou come, Horatio, from the depth,
To ask for justice in this upper earth?
To tell thy father thou are unreveng’d,
To wring more tears from Isabella’s eyes,
Critical Essay on The Spanish Tragedy 11
Whose lights are dimmed with over-long laments?
So too in Hamlet, act 3, scene 4, the ghost of Hamlet’s father returns to rebuke his son for failing to carry out his promise of revenge.Both Hieronimo and Hamlet soliloquize extensively, in speeches that probe their difficult situation and their reaction to it, and explore questions of justice and revenge, life and death. Both characters at one point consider suicide, and both reject it (although Hieronimo does in the end take his own life). Since Shakespeare was a greater poet than Kyd, and was also able to probe the human condition more profoundly than his predecessor, Hamlet’s soliloquies have stood the test of time and contain some of the best known passages in the English language. In contrast, Hieronimo’s long speeches, in which he laments and questions, often strike modern readers as artificial and bombastic, and therefore lacking emotional impact. But in their day, these speeches were much admired for their rhetorical skill, and it seems likely that were a professional company to stage The Spanish Tragedy today, an accomplished actor might well, despite the different tastes of a modern audience, be able to create the emotional intensity in the role that Elizabethan audiences appeared to relish.
Intensity there certainly is, which manifests in yet another parallel between The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet: the theme of madness. This is another convention of the revenge play, and the madness of the revenger may be either real or feigned. Hieronimo’s madness appears genuine—he appears mad not only in the scene mentioned earlier, but also in act 3, scene 11, when he encounters the two visitors from Portugal—whereas Hamlet’s madness is feigned. Madness also appears in secondary characters in both plays, and in both cases it is coupled with suicide. In The Spanish Tragedy, Isabella goes mad and kills herself; in Hamlet, the victim is Ophelia.
The play-within-the-play, orchestrated by the revenger, is also common to both plays, although the contexts are very different. In Hamlet, the purpose of the play-within-the-play it is to reveal the guilt of the murderer; in The Spanish Tragedy, it is to allow the revenger to carry out his revenge. Since a play-within-the-play does not appear to have been an established convention of revenge plays, this would appear to be a direct borrowing by Shakespeare from Kyd. It is not difficult to imagine Shakespeare in the audience at a performance of The Spanish Tragedy, taking note of Kyd’s ingenious innovations. Or perhaps Kyd’s ‘‘Ur-Hamlet’’ employed the same device, and Shakespeare adapted it from there. Such details of course will never be known. And since The Spanish Tragedy is the template of revenge plays, it is not at all surprising that it presents parallels with Hamlet, the greatest revenge play of them all. But nor should it be forgotten that, although Kyd’s work was quickly overshadowed by Shakespeare’s, The Spanish Tragedy stands in its own right as an original, subtle and moving work of art. Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Spanish Tragedy, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
The Significance of the Alexandro-Villuppo Episode in The Spanish Tragedy.
What a nightmare world of murder, revenge, deceit, and betrayal does Thomas Kyd create in The Spanish Tragedy. As Hieronimo says in act 3, scene 2, his world is ‘‘no world, but [a] mass of public wrongs / Confus’d and fill’d with murder and misdeeds’’—all this before Hieronimo contributes to the accumulation of murders by engineering the deaths of Balthazar, Lorenzo, and the duke of Castile, which are then followed by the suicides of Bel-imperia and himself. Earlier in the play, Lorenzo sends the servants Serberine and Pedringano to their deaths, being especially deceitful in the way he handles Pedringano. And, of course, there is the treacherous murder of Horatio, which sets the main action in motion and is that act that Hieronimo is specifically referring to. Why does Kyd pile on the death and destruction in this way? What point is he trying to make? Or is he just out to create a bloody spectacle? One approach to answering this question is to look at the one episode in the play in which a practitioner of deceit fails in his attempt to engineer someone’s death. This is the episode involving Villuppo and Alexandro at the Portuguese court, the Portuguese subplot which most commentators ignore and which, in the words of one commentator (G.K. Hunter in a 1965 article), is ‘‘famous for its irrelevance.’’
It is true that the episode has little to do with the main plot, with its focus on Hieronimo’s actions in response to the murder of Horatio. Indeed, in a play that is already fairly long, why does Kyd bother to insert two brief scenes about an intrigue in Portugal? To some critics the two scenes are a useless or unnecessary digression, but at least two commentators have written complete articles tussling with the question of why they are there.
In 1969, Ken C. Burrows wrote an article listing several ways in which the Portuguese episode connects to the main plot, focusing mostly on a comparison of Hieronimo and the Portuguese viceroy. A decade earlier, William H. Wiatt also pointed to similarities between Hieronimo and the viceroy, noting that they both receive information accusing someone of killing their sons: the viceroy hears Villuppo accuse Alexandro of shooting Balthazar in the back, and Hieronimo receives a letter from Belimperia saying that Lorenzo and Balthazar have murdered Horatio. The viceroy acts swiftly and nearly sends an innocent man to his death. Hieronimo is more skeptical about the information he receives, and the point of the Portuguese episode, according to Wiatt, is to show that Hieronimo is justified in waiting because accusations can sometimes be false.
The accusation Hieronimo reads in Bel-imperia’s letter is not false. The audience has just seen Lorenzo and Balthazar kill Horatio, so they know the accusation is true. In contrast, having seen Balthazar alive at the Spanish court, the audience knows that Villuppo’s accusation is a lie. The situations contrast so much that it is hard to believe that Kyd’s aim was to make a general point about being skeptical about accusations. Indeed, the assumption that both Burrows and Wiatt make, that the Portuguese subplot creates a parallel between Hieronimo and the viceroy, does not ring true despite the fact that both men grieve over the loss, real or imagined, of a son. Kay Stockholder, in a 1990 article, seems closer to the truth when she notes parallels between Hieronimo and Alexandro.
In the Portuguese scenes, Alexandro, after being accused of murder, cannot make himself heard by the viceroy. Stockholder notes that this foreshadows Hieronimo’s later failure to get the Spanish king to listen to his call for justice over the death of Horatio. More generally, Hieronimo and Alexandro both occupy similar situations as loyal servants at court who suddenly suffer reversals of fortune. However, there is one crucial difference: Alexandro is saved from execution and restored to favor whereas Hieronimo ends up dying in a bloodbath.
Why, in a play where the innocent and guilty alike perish, does Alexandro survive? Alexandro himself has an explanation: it was his innocence that saves him, he says. However, as Kay Stockholder points out, his innocence would not have helped him if the ambassador had arrived a minute later. Philip Edwards, in a 1985 article, sees the last-minute reprieve as ‘‘a satire on the operations of human justice and divine intervention.’’ In opposition to those who see the play as depicting a caring Christian providence, Edwards sees Kyd’s work as ‘‘a denial of God’s care for man.’’ The characters may call on Heaven, but Heavenly agents never appear in the play; the supernatural characters who do appear come from another direction altogether: the Underworld. Kyd depicts Pluto, Proserpine, the three judges of Hades, and the strange creature called Revenge, but never Christ or God or the saints who Hieronimo thinks have blessed his plan for revenge. It is as if, in Kyd’s world, the infernal powers have taken over. For Edwards, this means that Kyd’s play is a work of ‘‘dark pessimism’’—and so it might seem, except for the nagging fact that the innocent Alexandro does survive. For Edwards, Alexandro’s survival is something of a cosmic joke, or perhaps a joke by Thomas Kyd against those who believe there is a benevolent force running the cosmos. For Stockholder, Alexandro’s survival seems to be mere chance; a minute later and he would have been dead. The point is that the ambassador who saves Alexandro does not arrive a minute late; he arrives in time. Is that pure chance, or is Kyd suggesting there is some other reason why the innocent Alexandro survives whereas Hieronimo, in so many ways like him, ends up part of the general bloodbath at play’s end? It may be useful to look more closely at what Alexandro says and does, especially in the second scene of the Portuguese subplot at the beginning of act 3. Brought in to be executed, Alexandro is advised by a kindly nobleman that he should still hope. In response, Alexandro says, ‘‘‘Tis heaven is my hope.’’ A moment later, the ambassador arrives to save Alexandro, and the volatile viceroy shifts his wrath from Alexandro to Villuppo. The viceroy not only orders Villuppo to be killed in Alexandro’s place, but he also orders extra torments laid on for Villuppo. At this point, there is an interesting stage direction saying ‘‘Alexandro seems to entreat,’’ as if Alexandro is graciously asking the viceroy not to be too harsh towards the man who almost had him killed. It has been remarked (for instance by Steven Justice in a 1985 article) that the word ‘‘mercy’’ does not appear anywhere in The Spanish Tragedy. Indeed, mercy is not a quality much in evidence in Kyd’s play. If there is ever a merciful moment in it, it is this one, in which Alexandro seems to entreat the viceroy. Mercy, of course, is a conventional Christian attribute. Does this mean that Alexandro is the only truly Christian character in the play? His resting his hopes on Heaven similarly suggests a Christian approach to life.
Resting one’s hopes on Heaven in Christian theology would include leaving vengeance to God, an idea mentioned in the play itself by Hieronimo in his famous speech at the beginning of act 3, scene 13. In this speech, Hieronimo begins by quoting from the well-known New Testament passage that says that vengeance belongs to the Lord, and he goes on to say, ‘‘Ay, Heaven will be revenged of every ill.’’
Though he quotes this Christian warning to leave vengeance to Heaven, by the end of that same speech,
Hieronimo has vowed to avenge Horatio’s death himself and to do so in a secretive, deceitful way. He will not wait for Heaven to act; he will not follow the model of Alexandro. Instead, he will become more like the man he hates, Lorenzo, practicing the same sort of deceit and taking the law into his own hands. All of whichnis a bit strange since Hieronimo is knight marshal (a high law officer) and is noted for his devotion to justice. Why does he abandon the natural course of justice here in favor of private revenge?
It could be argued that since the murderers he wants brought to justice are the nephew of the Spanish king and the son of the Portuguese viceroy, he would have little chance in a court of law. It is true that when Hieronimo does try to approach the king about the murder, he is shooed away by Lorenzo, the king’s nephew. Still, his efforts to reach the king seem almost half-hearted, undercut perhaps by some incipient madness on his part, all very understandable but still unfortunate. It is not necessary to condemn Hieronimo as a villain as Fredson Bowers did many years ago in his book Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy; as Peter B. Murray says in his book on Kyd, Hieronimo remains a sympathetic character despite his misguided actions. His actions, in the context of the play, do seem misguided; they certainly lead to a horrifying conclusion. Another character in a similar situation is Hieronimo’s wife, Isabella. She too, despite her grief and anguish over Horatio’s death, at first counsels Christian patience and reliance on Heaven. ‘‘The heavens are just,’’ she says at the end of act 2, scene 5, adding that ‘‘murder cannot be hid’’ and that ‘‘Time,’’ as ‘‘the author of both truth and right,’’ will ‘‘bring this treachery to light.’’ According to Ronald Broude in a 1971 article, this statement of Isabella’s expresses the theme of the play: it is best to let time bring justice. However, like her husband, Isabella cannot wait. In act 4, impatient over the king’s failure to bring justice, she attacks the grove of trees where Horatio was killed, taking revenge on the place as her husband will soon take revenge on the persons, and then she kills herself. Broude points out one character who does wait patiently, at least at one moment. This is Belimperia, who when imprisoned by her brother says, ‘‘Well, force perforce, I must constrain myself / To patience, and apply me to the time, / Till heaven, as I have hoped, shall set me free.’’ In the very next line she is set free: patience and time, and trusting to Heaven, have done their work, just as they seem to have in the case of Alexandro. Hieronimo, however, is not patient. Nor does he continue to look to Heaven. As Lukas Erne notes in his 2001 book Beyond ‘‘The Spanish Tragedy,’’ Hieronimo turns more and more to the infernal forces as the play goes on. In act 3, scene 12, he promises to ‘‘marshal up the fiends in hell’’ to be avenged on Lorenzo. In scene 13, he vows: I’ll down to hell, and in this passion
Knock at the dismal gates of Pluto’s court,
Getting by force, as once Alcides did,
A troop of Furies and tormenting hags
To torture Don Lorenzo and the rest.
Not much Christian forbearance there. Erne says, disagreeing with Edwards, that Kyd’s play does not so much depict ‘‘a cosmic drama about a world deserted by God as the personal drama of Hieronimo deserting God.’’ There is something in this. Mostly Kyd seems to present a world without God, a world controlled by the infernal powers, where murder and betrayal rule supreme. Perhaps his point is that this is only the world as created by those who turn to the infernal powers and take vengeance into their own hands. Perhaps he is saying there could be a different sort of world, if only there were more people like Alexandro, more people who put their trust in Heaven and forgave their enemies.
Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on The Spanish Tragedy, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Play as Mystery and Allegory in The Spanish Tragedy
Kyd’s method of analogously identifying his play as a mystery within the dramatic action forms the most important clue to the allegorical nature and interpretation of The Spanish Tragedy. With the induction scene serving as the primary frame, he builds a series of frames within a frame in what is known mathematically as a process of infinite regression, the box-within-a-box effect. What we may call the play proper, that is, all of the action that takes place after the induction and before the final judgment, is a play-within-a-play which in turn frames three smaller plays-within-the-play, Hieronimo’s historical masque, Revenge’s dumb show, and Hieronimo’s revenge playlet. Within this complex structure of plays-within-the-play, Kyd proceeds to categorize The Spanish Tragedy as a mystery through a series of analogies. At three strategic points, the play proper, the historical masque, and the dumb show are identified by stage characters as mysteries. In this fashion, the theater audience is directed to reason analogously: the play presents three examples of a play-within-a-play designated as a mystery and thus by analogy the entire play—The Spanish Tragedy—is a mystery.
We will begin with an analysis of the second and third instances, the historical masque and the dumb show, and then go on to consider the most comprehensive example of the play proper. The second play-within-the-play occurs at I.iv when Hieronimo presents an historical masque to celebrate the end of the war between Spain and Portugal. He introduces a series of three unexplained dumb shows, which the Spanish King asks him to expound: ‘‘Hieronimo, this masque contents mine eye, / Although I sound not well the mystery.’’ The context of the King’s remark shows, as Philip Edwards notes, that mystery means ‘‘hidden meaning, allegorical significance,’’ but the word may also be applied to the masque as a whole since it contains the hidden meanings. After Hieronimo clarifies the historical incidents and characters, the King and Portuguese ambassador relate the three shows to the recent war between Spain and Portugal.
By means of this dramatic action, Kyd suggests the analogous identification of The Spanish Tragedy as a mystery. The actions delineated represent in small the acts of presenting, attending, and interpreting a symbolic play. Hieronimo serves as an author-figure presenting a masque to an onstage audience which then furnishes contemporary interpretations of the historical scenes. In an analogous manner, the theater audience is being directed to conclude, like its onstage analogue, that the play it is watching—The Spanish Tragedy—is a mystery containing allegorical significance.
In a similar manner, the use of mystery at III.xv.19 to define the dumb show also analogously points to the identification of the play as a mystery. When Andrea demands that Revenge undermine the apparent reconciliation of Hieronimo with Lorenzo and Balthazar, Revenge presents an unexplained dumb show, and Andrea, like the Spanish King, asks him to ‘‘reveal this mystery’’ (III.xv.29). More clearly than in the first usage, this context establishes that the dumb show itself is mystery. After Revenge identifies its characters and the plot of the marriage disrupted by Hymen, Andrea is then able to provide the hidden meaning by comparing the dumb show to the larger action which he is watching: ‘‘Sufficeth me, thy meaning’s understood . . .’’ Although his understanding is not enunciated, we are meant to see that he recognizes that the dumb show is a foretelling of the ill-fated nuptials of Belimperia and Balthazar. Andrea has been told at the outset that she will murder him and he has just witnessed a symbolic foreshadowing of that eventuality.
Just as he discovers the hidden significance of the dumb show by comparing it to the large play, so too we are to make a similar comparison to understand The Spanish Tragedy as a mystery. The first and most comprehensive identification of The Spanish Tragedy as a mystery occurs at the conclusion of the induction scene immediately before the opening of the play proper. As Andrea and Revenge prepare to take their places on the stage to watch, unseen by any stage characters, the action unfold before them,
Revenge introduces the largest of the plays-within-the-play as a mystery:
Then know, Andrea, that thou art arriv’d
Where thou shalt see the author of thy death,
Don Balthazar the prince of Portingale,
Depriv’d of life by Bel-imperia:
Here sit we down to see the mystery,
And serve for Chorus in this tragedy. (I.i.86–91)
This usage leaves no doubt that Revenge is defining the play proper as a mystery and that by analogy Kyd is classifying The Spanish Tragedy as a mystery. In addition to identifying the play as a mystery, the pattern formed by the analogies tells us a great deal about  how we are to interpret The Spanish Tragedy. The process moves from the first and most inclusive of the identifications to two smaller instances, which by repetition confirm the initial designation of The Spanish Tragedy as a mystery and also clarify the meaning that Kyd wants us to apply to mystery. The first usage, which evokes the general meaning of mystery as dramatic spectacle, is further defined by the succeeding usages, which demonstrate that it means a play containing hidden meanings or allegorical significance. The retrospective way by which we become aware of the allegorical definition of mystery in the first context provides a significant clue to the proper method of interpretation. At the outset, we experience the central word of the play with little clarification; then we learn in subsequent contexts how we are to understand the first example and thus we move back to the beginning with increased comprehension. In short, the interpretative pattern formed by the analogies is progressive, cumulative and then retrospective.
In the sixteenth century, mystery contained two related notions: that there are meanings hidden beneath a literal level and that these are available only to the learned few. These concepts were derived from its definition as ‘‘certain secret religious ceremonies (the most famous being those of Demeter at Eleusis) which were allowed to be witnessed only by the initiated, who were sworn never to disclose their nature (OED general definition; cf.II.9). From this ritual meaning, mystery, as Edgar Wind has described, gained figurative definitions called mystères littéraires, which refer to philosophic truths beneath the literal level. In this analogous sense, philosophy and literature become mysterious or mystical, borrowing terminology and interpretative methods from the ancient rituals. As Pico stated, ‘‘. . . as was the practice of the ancient theologians, even so did Orpheus protect the mysteries of his dogmas with the coverings of fables and conceal them with a poetic veil. . . . ’’
The conflation of mystery with allegory as designations for literature with hidden meanings was aided by their basic conceptual and lexical similarities. Edward Honig has pointed out that the original meaning of mystery (Gr. mysterion, fr. mystes, ‘‘close-mouthed,’’ fr. myein ‘‘to be shut’’) is related to the original meaning of allegory as ‘‘‘other-speaking’ or speaking otherwise than one seems to speak.’’ Both words denote the concealment of figurative meanings beneath a literal level. Historically, the linking of mystery with allegory was also furthered, as Don Cameron Allen explains, by the allegorical interpretations of the works of Homer and Virgil and by the influence of the hermetic tradition, which prompted the concern of Renaissance artists and writers with mysterious meanings.
The synonymous relationship between mystery and allegory is also reflected in their official definitions. Most Renaissance dictionaries establish a literary context for mystery by defining it as the hidden or secret meanings found beneath the literal sense. Thomas Elyot’s Dictionary of 1538 defines mysteria as ‘‘thynges secrete or hid in wordes or ceremonies,’’ while John Rider’s Bibliotheca Scholastica (1589) also emphasizes the difference between the literal surface and the hidden meaning beneath that surface by defining misteries as ‘‘things plaine in woordes, but hid in sence.’’ And in Queen Anna’s New World of Words (1611), John Florio adds the idea that only a select audience can come to an understanding of the concealed meanings when he defines the Italian cognate misterio as a ‘‘misterie or secret . . . a thing secretly hid in words or ceremonies, whereunto the common sort might not come.’’ All of these similar definitions of mystery are related to Puttenham’s description of allegory as ‘‘a duplicitie of meaning . . . vnder couert and darke intendments,’’ which appears ‘‘when we do speake in sence translatiue and wrested from the owne signification, neuerthelesse applied to another not altogether contrary, but hauing much couenience with it. . . .’’ Both Puttenham’s and the dictionaries’ emphasis on the presence of hidden meanings beneath the literal level indicates a close relationship between mystery and allegory in the sixteenth century. Another important indication of the fusion of the two words is provided by the fact that Elizabethan writers often describe their allegorical works in terms traditionally associated with mystery ritual and mysterious writings. In The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch, Abraham Fraunce links allegorical poetry with mystery: ‘‘They [the nine muses] are called Musa . . . who teach and instruct a man in those things, that are sacred and holy, diuine and mysticall, whereof came the word mysterie.’’ In an explicit comparison of poetry with the nature and purpose of mystery writings, Nashe explains in The Anatomie of Absurditie that since ‘‘Poetrie [is] . . . a more hidden and diuine kind of Philosophy, enwrapped in blinde Fables and dark stories . . . the . . . Reader can diuine what deep misterie can be placed vnder plodding meeter.’’ Furthermore, in the preface to his translation of Orlando Furioso, an important apologia for allegorical literature and interpretation, Harington equates the profound meanings or mysteries found in ancient writings with the figurative meanings present in allegory: ‘‘The ancient Poets have indeed wrapped . . . in their writings divers and sundry meanings, which they call the sences or mysteries thereof. . . . and these same sences that comprehend so excellent knowledge we call the Allegorie. . . . He then explains that such secrecy is necessary to ‘‘conceale these deepe mysteries of learning . . . [so] that they might not be rashly abused by prophane wits’’ (11.39,41). In this way Harington emphasizes the relationship between mystery and allegory as designations for literature which contains concealed levels of meaning to be understood only by those with the intellectual capacity to ‘‘digest the Allegorie.’’ Thus when Kyd identifies The Spanish
Tragedy as a mystery by means of three analogies, he expects his audience—or at least the more learned members of the theater and reading audience—to recognize that mystery means allegory and to interpret the play in an allegorical fashion, that is, as a play with a literal level and an allegorical level containing hidden or symbolic meanings.
To aid us in our search for the hidden mysteries, the scene containing Revenge’s dumb show provides the particular interpretative method which we should adopt. We learn by means of two analogies that first, the play we are watching is an allegory, and, secondly, that its allegorical meanings can be discovered through a process of analogous interpretation. In the first analogy, as we discussed earlier in this chapter, we see that just as an onstage audience discovers that a dumb show has allegorical meanings, we, too, must recognize that The Spanish Tragedy is an allegory. And in the second analogy, the onstage audience discovers the allegorical import of the dumb show by comparing it with the action of the entire play, so that we will recognize that we must compare the play we are viewing to something else, as yet undefined, if we are to grasp the hidden mysteries. Like Hieronimo in the historical masque, Revenge presents an unexplained dumb show, and, when questioned by Andrea about its mystery, he identifies the characters and the particular events they enact. The onstage audience—Andre in this instance—realizes that Revenge wants him to see the show as a dramatic response to his growing impatience with the slow working of vengeance. As soon as Andrea connects the action of the small play with the events of the play, he comes to understand how the dumb show prefigures and represents in small the prevention of the impending marriage between Bel-imperia and Balthazar and, consequently, the fulfillment of the destiny announced at the outset of the play. Similarly, the theater audience learns to compare the masque as an allegory to the play they are watching—The Spanish Tragedy—in order to recognize the latter’s allegorical nature. Moreover, just as Andrea learns to interpret the dumb show’s allegorical meanings by means of an analogy, the theater audience is also being instructed to use analogy to discern the allegorical meanings beneath the literal level of The Spanish Tragedy. We are directed to make one analogy between the playwithin- the-play and the entire play as mysteries and then to construct another interpretative analogy in order to understand the literal and figurative meanings of The Spanish Tragedy.
Kyd’s emphasis on analogy as the method of allegorical interpretation is consistent with Renaissancerhetorical theory. As Murrin states: ‘‘. . . allegory can be described as a figure of speech incomplete in itself, which, for this very reason, makes certain demands on an audience. The hearer by analogy must fill in the proper meaning to complete the figure. It follows that allegorical figures presuppose a certain cooperation between a speaker and an auditor; the former makes a statement and the latter completes it by his interpretation.’’ The reader by means of an analogy completes the implied comparison between the literal statement and an unstated idea to arrive at an understanding of the hidden meaning. It is this relationship between the author, the work, and his audience that is depicted in the scene containing the dumb show. The open-ended literal level of Revenge’s dumb show is completed through analogy by Andrea, who recognizes that Revenge intends him to ‘‘read’’ the dumb show as an allegory. Similarly, we must close the openended literal level of The Spanish Tragedy with an analogy in order to discover its allegorical meanings. However, a problem arises with the analogy that the theater audience is supposed to make. By analogy with Andrea’s method of interpretation, we should also have to compare the play we are viewing—The Spanish Tragedy—with something else in order to learn its allegorical meanings. But what and where is this something else that we should look for? The answer to this question involves the basic problem of allegorical writing and interpretation. How does the author include the hidden meanings within the literal level? Then, how does the reader find the hidden meanings and, thus, complete the analogy? The clue to the solution to these problems in connection with The Spanish Tragedy is provided by Kyd’s analogical use of the different meanings of mystery on the literal and allegorical levels.
One of the basic meanings of mystery in the Renaissance is ‘‘a hidden or secret thing; a matter unexplained or inexplicable’’ (OED. II.5). This meaning informs the literal level of dramatic action which concerns secrets and revelations, hidden crimes and searching for clues, apprehension and punishment. Kyd fashions, in effect, what we have come to call a mystery story or a whodunit; but, by leaving the simple mystery story unsolved, with the moral status of the ostensible hero in question and with a number of other secrets and narrative problems unrevealed, he directs us to discover by analogy that it is our task to serve as quasi-detectives in searching for clues to the themes and meanings of the play. We are encouraged to see the play as a mystery story in a different sense from the stage characters who lack our detached perspective and the necessary awareness to make such critical and epistemological judgments. We are led through our wider perspective as members of the audience to interpret The Spanish Tragedy as a literary mystery or allegory with hidden meanings. Source: Frank R. Ardolino, ‘‘Play as Mystery and Allegory,’’ in Thomas Kyd’s Mystery Play: Myth and Ritual in ‘‘The Spanish Tragedy,’’ Peter Lang Publishing, 1985, pp. 15–28.
One of the most popular and influential of plays in its own day, The Spanish Tragedy became the object of affectionate derision in the succeeding generations—or of derision without affection, as with Jonson. Such elements of the play as Hieronimo’s outcries and the sallies of his madness, the elaborately patterned verse, Andrea’s sombre prologue, were constantly parodied and guyed by Jacobean and Caroline dramatists. This attention to the play, however scornful, shows the hold which Kyd’s work had; a hold demonstrated by the successive editions of the play, and the desire to keep it fresh by adding new scenes. It was looked on as an extravagant and crude work, and yet a bold work, holding a special position as the best that could be done in an age which had not learned to produce a polished play. And it may be said that the attitude has stuck, and still prevails. Once the play had sunk into oblivion, after the mid-seventeenth century, it was not rehabilitated in the Romantic period, as so many other ‘forgotten’ plays were. Lamb (1808) was interested only in the Additions: he gave the ‘Painter’s Scene’ in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets and remarked that these scenes were ‘the very salt of the old play (which without them is but a caput mortuum, such another piece of flatness as Locrine)’. With the growth of evolutionary criticism, historians of drama found the play a seminal work in tragedy and the revenge play, in spite of the crudity which they did not gloss over. Mild merits of various kinds were proposed by various critics, chiefly skill in maintaining suspense and in working out a complicated plot. There have been wide differences of opinion on Kyd’s powers of characterization. But although there has been general recognition of Kyd’s unusual ability in contriving a theatrically effective play, no one has made a serious claim that Kyd has much to offer as a poet or tragic dramatist. It is significant that the most exhaustive and sympathetic study of The Spanish Tragedy, the monograph by Biesterfeldt published in 1936, is a study in structure (Die dramatische Technik Thomas Kyds). A standard view of Kyd is Gregory Smith’s summing-up in The Cambridge History of English Literature (vol. v, 1910, p. 163):
The interest of Kyd’s work is almost exclusively historical. Like Marlowe’s, it takes its place in the development of English tragedy by revealing new possibilities and offering a model in technique; unlike Marlowe’s, it does not make a second claim upon us as great literature. The historical interest lies in the advance which Kyd’s plays show in construction, in the manipulation of plot, and in effective situation. Kyd is the first to discover the bearing of episode and of the ‘movement’ of the story on characterisation, and the first to give the audience and reader the hint of the development of character which follows from this interaction. In other words, he is the first English dramatist who writes dramatically.
The historical position of Kyd has been the chief concern of criticism, and that is one reason why the brief account of the play which follows avoids questions of what Kyd borrowed and what he gave to others. Another reason is that our uncertainty about the date of the play makes it extremely difficult to mark Kyd’s place in a fast-moving development of the drama. Was Lorenzo the first great Machiavellian villain? Did Kyd invent the Elizabethan revenge play? Yet Kyd’s play is a most ingenious and successful blending of the old and the new in drama, and the fact that a comparative method is not followed here will not, I hope, obscure the obvious point that no good verdict can be made on Kyd’s achievement which does not take into account what was achieved in plays written or performed at the same period.
The Spanish Tragedy is a play about the passion for retribution, and vengeance shapes the entire action.
Revenge himself appears as a character near the beginning of the play, a servant of the spiritual powers, indicating what a man may find in the patterns of existence which are woven for him. Retribution is not only the demand of divine justice but also a condescension to human wants. Andrea seeks blood for his own blood; though he died in war, Balthazar killed him in a cowardly and dishonourable fashion, and not in fair fight (I. iv. 19–26, 72–5; I. ii. 73). The gods look with favour on Andrea and are prepared, by destroying his destroyer, to bring him peace. When all is completed, he exults: ‘Ay, now my hopes have end in their effects, / When blood and sorrow finish my desires . . . Ay, these were spectacles to please my soul!’ Men lust for retribution, and the gods, assenting to this idea of satisfaction as only justice, can and will grant it. Marlowe never wrote a less Christian play than The Spanish Tragedy: the hate of a wronged man can speak out without check of mercy or reason; when a sin is committed, no-one talks of forgiveness; the word ‘mercy’ does not occur in the play.
Once Proserpine has granted that Balthazar shall die (I. i. 81–9), everything that happens in the play serves to fulfil her promise. To bring about what they have decreed, the gods use the desires and strivings of men. Hieronimo and Bel-imperia and Lorenzo, as they struggle and plot to bring about their own happiness, are only the tools of destiny. The sense of a fore-ordained end is strongly conveyed by Kyd by his constant use of dramatic irony. The characters always have mistaken notions about what their actions are leading them towards. Belimperia believes that ‘second love will further her revenge’, but only, it turns out, through the murder of her second love. As Horatio and Bel-imperia speak of consummating their love, they are overheard by those who are plotting to destroy it. And as the unwitting lovers go off the stage, the King enters (II. iii) complacently planning the marriage of Belimperia with Balthazar. By the very means he chooses to make hiscrime secret, the liquidating of his accomplices, Lorenzo betrays the crime to Hieronimo. Pedringano is secure in his belief in the master who is about to have him killed. The King and the court applaud the acting in a play in which the deaths are real. And there are very many other examples. In a way, the play is built upon irony, upon the ignorance of the characters that they are being used to fulfil the decree of the gods. The play seems to move in a rather leisurely way from the entry of Andrea’s Ghost to the killing of Horatio, the deed which opens the play’s chief interest, Hieronimo’s revenge. There is the description of the underworld by Andrea, two long reports of the battle in which Andrea was killed (one by the General to the King, and one by Horatio to Bel-imperia), Hieronimo’s ‘masque’, and the introduction of the sub-plot concerning Villuppo’s traducement of Alexandro at the Portuguese court. These prolix early scenes should not be dismissed without taking into account Kyd’s use of the long speech in general throughout the play. Two recent and most interesting brief studies of the play’s language have put Kyd’s ‘antiquated technique’ in a new light. Both Moody E. Prior and Wolfgang Clemen demonstrate how Kyd converts the techniques and conventions of an academic and literary drama with considerable skill to new dramatic ends: the long speechbecomes more dramatic in itself and is used more dramatically. A good example used by both critics is that the most elaborately stylized rhetoric issues from the mouth of Balthazar, and these studied exercises in self-pity are used as a means of characterization; the more practical people, like Lorenzo and Bel-imperia, are impatient of his round-about utterance (e.g., I. iv. 90–8, II. i. 29, II. i. 134). Clemen has particularly valuable things to say about how Kyd controls the tempo of the play through his use of the long speech, and how purposefully he knits together (each mode serving its own function) the long speech and dialogue; a long speech, for example, will introduce, or sum up, issues which are to be or have been set out in dialogue. But although Clemen, like Biesterfeldt before him, can find the early scenes in some measure artistically justified, and an improvement on what Kyd’s predecessors achieved in long ‘reports’, it is the very absence of that artistry which Kyd shows in his handling of the long speech in the later parts of the play which makes the early scenes seem so laboured. And, long speeches apart, it is very hard to justify the sub-plot. The Portuguese court could have been introduced more economically and the relevance of theme is very slight. Few readers of
The Spanish Tragedy resent the clamant appeals and laments of Hieronimo and the rest once the play is under way, but few readers fail to find the early scenes tedious, and I think the common reaction is justified. It is as though Kyd began to write a literary Senecan play, and, even as he wrote, learned to handle his material in more dextrous and dramatic fashion.
But the opening of the play will seem far more dilatory than it really is to those who take it that the real action starts only with the death of Horatio. It is Balthazar’s killing of Andrea which begins the action—the news being given by the ghost of the victim. The avenging of Andrea is, as we have seen, the supernatural cause of all that follows; but in terms of plot, too, or of direct, human causes, all flows from Andrea’s death. For Andrea’s mistress wishes to revenge herself on the slayer of her lover. Bel-imperia is a woman of strong will, independent spirit, and not a little courage (witness her superb treatment of her brother after her release, first furious and then sardonic, making Lorenzo acknowledge defeat; III. x. 24–105); she is also libidinous. Kyd has successfully manoeuvred round a ticklish necessity of the plot (that Bel-imperia and Horatio should be lovers) by making Bel-imperia a certain kind of woman; what has to be done, is credibly done, naturally done. There is no question about her relations with Andrea (see I. i. 10, II. i. 47, III. x. 54–5, III. xiv. 111–12); and, with Horatio, she does not appear to be planning an early wedding; the two are entering upon an illicit sexual relationship, and it is Bel-imperia who is the wooer (II. i. 85, II. ii. 32–52). But, not to anticipate, Bel-imperia, while wishing to avenge Andrea, finds herself conceiving a passion for Horatio (I. iv. 60–1). She is momentarily ashamed of her lightness and tries to rationalize her affection as being a sign of her love for Andrea (62–3); then she repents and decides that revenge must come before she is off with the old love and on with the new (64–5) and then (triumphant ingenuity!) realizes that to love Horatio will in fact help her revenge against Balthazar, since it will slight the prince, who is a suitor for her love (66–8). So character and plot are married, and the action drives forward on its twin pistons of love and revenge. Bel-imperia’s scheme brings about her lover’s death. Balthazar has new cause to hate the man who took him prisoner, but his hate would be nothing were it not given power by the hate of Lorenzo, whose fierce pride has twice been wounded by the lowly-born Horatio: once over the capturing of Balthazar, and now in his sister’s preferring Horatio to his royal friend. Bel-imperia’s revengeful defi- ance brings about the simple reaction of counterrevenge— the murder of Horatio in the bower. Horatio is hanged and the fourth of the interlocked revengeschemes begins: Andrea’s the first, then Belimperia’s, then Lorenzo’s and Balthazar’s, and fi- nally Hieronimo’s. Kyd may seem to take some time to reach this most important of his revengeschemes, but he chose to set layer within layer, wheels within wheels, revenge within revenge. The action is a unity (the Portuguese scenes excepted), and in engineering the deaths of Balthazar and Lorenzo, Hieronimo satisfies not only himself, in respect of Horatio, but Bel-imperia in respect of Horatio and Andrea, and Andrea in respect of himself. And Hieronimo’s efforts to avenge his dead son are the means by which the gods avenge Andrea.
The presence of the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge upon the stage throughout the play, with their speeches in the Choruses, continually reminds us of this fact, which is indeed so central to the meaning of the play that it is astonishing that it is occasionally overlooked. Hieronimo’s motives for revenge are several. (i) Revenge will bring him emotional relief; (ii) it is a duty; (iii) a life for a life is the law of nature, and (iv) is, in society, the legal penalty for murder. Hieronimo’s first remark about revenge is to tell Isabella that if only he knew the murderer, his grief would diminish, ‘For in revenge my heart would find relief.’ The therapeutic virtues of homicide may seem doubtful, but Hieronimo insists: Then will I joy amidst my discontent, Till then my sorrow never shall be spent. (II. v. 55–6) Closely associated with this odd and selfish cue for revenge is the idea of revenge as an obligation. We are toimagine (because it is hardly stated explicitly) that Horatio’s peace in the world beyond depends, likeAndrea’s, upon his obtaining the life of his murderer as a recompense for, and a cancellation of, his own death. For Hieronimo to assume the duty of securing this price is a tribute to his son and a measure of his love: Dear was the life of my beloved son, And of his death behoves me be reveng’d. (III. ii. 44–5) Hieronimo takes a vow to avenge Horatio and, of course, the notion of a vow to be fulfilled, with the bloody napkin as a symbol of it, provides a good deal of the play’s dramatic force, particularly as regards Hieronimo’s sense of insufficiency, failure, or delay. But, it may be noted, delay itself is not an issue in the play. That Hieronimo’s conscience should accuse him for being tardy (III. xiii. 135) is a measure only of the stress he is under and the difficulties he faces, and of the depth of his obligation; that Bel-imperia and Isabella should speak of delay (III. ix and iv. ii. 30) is a measure only of their understandable impatience and does not mean that Hieronimo could have acted more quickly. It is the sense of delay which is real, and not delay itself. Hieronimo does everything possible as quickly as possible.
The idea of revenge as a personal satisfaction for wrongs endured is enlarged into the idea of revenge as punishment, a universal moral satisfaction for crime committed, or the demands of divine justice. Though Hieronimo’s wrongs are personal, he sees his claims for satisfaction as the claims of the Order of Things. The mythology chosen to represent the governance of the world is rather muddled in The Spanish Tragedy; paganism sits uneasily with—something else; but the gods (whoever they are) hate murder and will, through human agents, punish the murderer. There is morality among the gods, or so Hieronimo (somewhat anxiously) trusts:
The heavens are just, murder cannot be hid. (II. v. 57)
If this incomparable murder thus
Of mine, but now no more my son,
Shall unreveal’d and unrevenged pass,
How should we term your dealings to be just,
If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?
(III. ii. 7–11)
Murder, O bloody monster—God forbid
A fault so foul should scape unpunished. (III. vi. 95–6)
When things go wrong with Hieronimo, he pictures himself beating at the windows of the brightest heavens, soliciting for justice and revenge (III. vii. 13–14). When things go well, he has the sense of divine support. But the nexus between Hieronimo’s plans for revenge and the workings of providence is a somewhat controversial matter, and must be discussed with other facts in mind. Punishment of murder is the course of human law, and Hieronimo’s revenge is to be within the framework of law. Yet he goes about to discover the murderer in a manner curious to modern eyes. He sees it as his personal duty to find the criminal, and he conceals the crime. But this is no usurpation of the law; there is no C.I.D. to call in and he must act himself. The secrecy is to be explained by Hieronimo’s fear that someone is contriving against his family so that it behoves him to move warily. Bel-imperia’s letter seems to confirm his suspicion; nothing could be less credible than its news, and, should there be a plot against his family, what more suitable means to entrap him than to get him to lay an accusation for murder against the King’s own nephew (III. ii. 34–43)? He will find out more, still keeping his mission secret (III. ii. 48–52). Confirming evidence comes via Pedringano, and Pedringano’s arrest and punishment are an important accompaniment of Hieronimo’s vendetta. For here is an orthodox piece of police-work, as it were. Pedringano commits murder, he is arrested flagrante delicto by the watch, tried by a court, and executed. There is law in Spain, and, once a murderer is known, he can be brought to account by due process of law. Hieronimo’s anguish at the trial of Pedringano is not because for him justice has to be secured by different means, but because the course of justice which is available cannot be started since he, the very judge, cannot name the murderer of his son. It is not the least part of Hieronimo’s design to indulge in Bacon’s ‘wild justice’; it does not enter his head to ‘put the law out of office’. But, now that Hieronimo has Pedringano’s letter and the clinching evidence which he needed, he may proceed to call in the aid of law and get justice. To lay an accusation, however, proves to be the heaviest of Hieronimo’s difficulties. The protracted battle of wits between Hieronimo and Lorenzo (so excellently handled by Kyd and so unfortunately obscured in the Additions) comes to a head, and, more powerful obstacle still, just as Hieronimo is ready to call down punishment on the criminals, the strain on his mind begins to tell, and his madness begins. The unsettling of Hieronimo’s mind is well done; it has been prepared for long ago, in Hieronimo’s excessive pride in his son when he was alive, and it is made more acceptable in that Isabella (‘psychologically’ unimportant as a character) has already been shown to be going out of her mind with grief. Hieronimo’s frenzy makes Lorenzo’s task of keeping him from the King easy; Hieronimo really prevents himself from securing justice. Thwarted, he plots to be his own avenger.
At this point, we may bring in again the question of divine justice. Momentarily, and most awkwardly,
Jehovah assumes a role in the play; Hieronimo remembers that the Lord says, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ (III. xiii. 1 and note). He acknowledges that ‘mortal men may not appoint their time’ (l. 5). But since ‘justice is exiled from the earth’ he persuades himself that private vengeance is justified. Bowers is of the opinion that the play condemns Hieronimo for taking it upon himself to be the executioner instead of waiting for God’s will to be done, and that ‘Kyd is deliberately veering his audience against Hieronimo.’ The problem is far from simple. It has been seen that the gods of the play like revenge. More important, after the Vindicta mihi speech, Hieronimo is convinced that his private course is congruent with the morality of heaven. When he is joined by Bel-imperia, he interprets his good fortune as a sign of the approval of the gods, and feels that he is a minister of providence:
Why then, I see that heaven applies our drift,
And all the saints do sit soliciting
For vengeance on those cursed murderers. (IV. i. 32–4)
Moody Prior (Language of Tragedy, p. 57) sees this outcry as a turning point in the drama. ‘Private vengeance is now identified with the justice of heaven, and the torment of his mind is over. In the episodes which follow, he is calculating and selfpossessed.’ This seems a most sensible view, but the question must be asked, Is Hieronimo deluding himself in supposing he now has divine support? To answer ‘yes’ to this question must suggest that there is a clash in the play between the dominant pagan morality and a Christian morality. The only overt introduction of the Christian morality on revenge is in the brief allusion to St Paul; where, in other parts of the play, the mythology for Providence seems to be Christian—as in the passage just quoted, with its reference to heaven and saints—we almost certainly are faced with inconsistency and confusion on Kyd’s part and not a dualism. We could, indeed, make no sense out of a dualism which meant that every reference to powers below was a reference to evil and every reference to powers above a reference to good. The clash, if it exists, must be between the ideas which Hieronimo has and ideas not expressed in theplay, except in the Vindicta mihi speech. In other words, the argument must be that Hieronimo is condemned because the Elizabethans condemned revenge, however strongly the play’s gods support him. But what an Elizabethan might think of Hieronimo’s actions in real life may be irrelevant to the meaning of The Spanish Tragedy. Hieronimo may still be a sympathetic hero in spite of Elizabethan indignation against private revenge. The cry of Vindicta mihi, and the pause it gives Hieronimo may be more of a dramatic than a moral point. Hieronimo, robbed of the law’s support, rocks for a moment in indecision before determining that at all costs the murderers must die. The indecision, and then the determination, are dramatically most important and effective; but the cause of the indecision (the inappropriate promptings of Christian ethics) is not important. Kyd has won sympathy for Hieronimo in his sufferings; there is no sign, at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth Act, that Kyd now wishes the audience to change their sympathetic attitude, even though orthodoxy would condemn the private executioner.
 Kyd creates, and successfully sustains, his own world of revenge, and attitudes are sanctioned which might well be deplored in real life. The moral world of the play is a make-believe world; the gods are make-believe gods. In this make-believe world, the private executioner may be sympathetically portrayed and his Senecan gods may countenance his actions. And all this may be, however strongly Kyd himself disapproved of private vengeance. I remarked that The Spanish Tragedy was an un-Christian play, and so it is. But it is not written to advocate a system of ethics, or to oppose one. If its moral attitudes are mistaken for the ‘real life’ attitudes of the dramatist, then the play has an appalling message. But if the play is seen as a thing of great—and skilful— artificiality, with standards of values which we accept while we are in the theatre, there is no problem at all about sympathizing with the hero. The play had power enough to lull an Elizabethan conscience while it was being performed. It could well be said, however, that it is a poor play which depends on the audience suspending its belief in law and mercy. And yet a swingeing revenge-play has its own emotional satisfaction for the audience. Vengeance is exacted from evil-doers by a man whose wrongs invoke pity; in enabling an audience to forget their daily docility and to share in Hieronimo’s violent triumph, it may be that Kyd has justified himself as an artist more than he would have done in providing a sermon on how irreligious it is to be vindictive. It would be foolish to gloss over the difficulty of siding with Hieronimo to the very end, after the punishment of the criminals. As Bowers points out, he seems in the final scene little more than a dangerous and bloodthirsty maniac. Although I have suggested that the crudities of Hieronimo’s departure from life might have been much less apparent in Kyd’s original version of the play, no theory of revision can explain away what seems to be the pointless savagery of the murder of the unoffending Castile. It may be that Kyd was trying to give a Senecan touch of the curse upon the house, but there are other considerations which make condemnation of Hieronimo rather irrelevant. In the first place, Castile was Andrea’s enemy (see II. i. 46–7 and III. xiv. 111–13) and Hieronimo is the agent of destiny employed to avenge Andrea; Castile’s death appears to make Andrea’s peace perfect. Revenge is satisfied, and we had best try not to worry about the bloodthirstiness of it all. Much more important, however, is the reflection that The Spanish Tragedy is, after all, a tragedy of sorts. Hieronimo has gone mad with grief, with the stress of observing his vow, and with the long war between himself and Lorenzo.
 As Castile falls, horror is mingled with pity that this should be the end of Hieronimo’s life. If we cannot take Senecan revenge very seriously, or the somewhat contrived idea of destiny, we can take Lorenzo’s machinations and Hieronimo’s sufferings without embarrassment. The Spanish Tragedy has most merit in its study of the hero’s grief and final distraction, and, when at the end the innocent man suffers at the hands of the hero whose innocence was not in question, it is probable that an audience feels a more complex emotion than revulsion against extra-legal revenge. Source: Philip Edwards, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in The Spanish Tragedy, edited by Philip Edwards, Methuen, 1959, pp. l–lxi.
The Spanish Tragedy: Compare and Contrast
1580s: Spain is the leading world power. In 1588, the English fleet defeats the Spanish Armada, and so prevents an invasion by Catholic Spain of Protestant England.
Today: Spain and Britain are mid-level European powers. Both are members of NATO and the European Union.
1580s: Elizabethan authors do not own the copyright to their work; they are poorly paid by the theater companies to which they sell their work, and they do not receive royalties from the publisher. Plays are often published anonymously, and pirated or corrupt editions appear, sometimes based on an actor’s memory of the script or a copy made by a spectator during a performance.
Today: Strict copyright laws define ownership of a literary work, and legally enforceable contracts define the amount of royalties an author receives. Plagiarism or infringement of copyright is illegal and offenders may be prosecuted.
1580s: London is the largest city in Europe, with a population of over 100,000. Many foreigners come to live in the city, taking advantage of lenient immigration laws and the willingness of employers to hire aliens.
Whenever unemployment rises, Londoners tend to blame the presence of foreigners.
Today: With a population of 7,172,036, London remains one of the most populous cities in Europe, along with Moscow, Istanbul, and Paris. Patterns of immigration have changed over the centuries, and London is now a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city. Ten percent of the population is Indian, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani; 5 percent is African, and 5 percent come from the Caribbean.
The Spanish Tragedy: Topics for Further Study
Research the English attitude towards Spain in Elizabethan times. Analyze ways in which this attitude sheds light on the play.
Does Hieronimo retain the sympathy of the audience until the end of the play, or does he become a villain too? Does his madness cloud his judgment?
Research the work and influence of the sixteenth century political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli. In what sense might Lorenzo be considered a Machiavellian figure?
What is the difference between revenge and justice? Are the two concepts sometimes merged? Can revenge ever be justified?
The Spanish Tragedy: What Do I Read Next?
The plays collected in Four Revenge Tragedies: ‘‘The Spanish Tragedy,’’ ‘‘The Revenger’s Tragedy,’’ ‘‘The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois,’’ and ‘‘The Atheist’s Tragedy: (Oxford World’s Classics, 2000), edited by Katharine Eisaman Maus, show how the Elizabethan revenge tragedy was treated by dramatists such as George Chapman (Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois), Cyril Tourneur (The Atheist’s Tragedy) and the author of the anonymous The Revenger’s Tragedy (which is sometimes ascribed to Tourneur or Thomas Middleton). M. C. Bradbrook’s Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (2d ed., 1980) deals with the conventions which gave Elizabethan drama its special character. Bradbrook also analyzes individual plays by Marlowe, Tourneur, Middleton, and John Webster. There are many allusions to Kyd and to Shakespeare. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology (2002), edited by David M. Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen, is an extensive collection of twentyseven plays written in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Playwrights represented include Marlowe, Middleton, Webster, and Ben Jonson. A New History of Early English Drama (1998), by John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, is an innovative collection of twenty-six essays on early modern English drama, up to 1642. The essays cover such topics as the conditions under which plays were written, produced and disseminated. The emphasis is not on individual authors but on the place of the stage in the wider society, and how it was impacted by religious, civic and other cultural factors.
The Spanish Tragedy: Bibliography and Further Reading
Bowers, Fredson Thayer, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587–1642, Princeton University Press, 1940, pp. 3–100.
Broude, Ronald, ‘‘Time, Truth, and Right in The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in Studies in Philology, Vol. 68, 1971, p. 131.
Burrows, Ken C., ‘‘The Dramatic and Structural Significance of the Portuguese Sub-plot in The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in Renaissance Papers, Fall 1969, p. 30.
Edwards, Philip, Thomas Kyd and Early Elizabethan Tragedy, Longmans, 1966, p. 6. ———, ‘‘Thrusting Elysium into Hell: The Originality of The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in The Elizabethan Theatre
XI, edited by A. L. Magnusson and C. E. McGee, P. D. Meany, 1985, pp. 123, 131–32.
Erne, Lukas, Beyond ‘‘The Spanish Tragedy’’: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd, Manchester University Press, 2001, pp. 110–11.
Hunter, G. K. ‘‘Ironies of Justice in The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition:
Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, Barnes & Noble, 1978, p. 220; originally published in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 8, 1965.
Justice, Steven, ‘‘Spain, Tragedy, and The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 25,  1985, p. 274.
Kyd, Thomas, The Spanish Tragedy, edited by J. R. Mulryne, New Mermaid ed., Hill and Wang, 1970.
———, The Spanish Tragedy, edited by Thomas W. Ross, University of California Press, 1968.
Murray, Peter B. Thomas Kyd, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 54, 127.
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins, Arden Shakespeare ed., Methuen, 1982.
Stockholder, Kay, ‘‘‘Yet Can He Write’: Reading the Silences in The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in American
Imago, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer 1990, p. 101.
Wiatt, William H., ‘‘The Dramatic Function of the Alexandro- Villuppo Episode in The Spanish Tragedy,’’ in Notes and Queries, n.s., Vol. 5, 1958, pp. 327–28.
Further Reading
Clemen, Wolfgang, English Tragedy before Shakespeare, Methuen, 1961, pp. 100–12. This is an analysis of the long set speeches in The Spanish Tragedy. Clemen shows Kyd’s originality in integrating these speeches with the structure of the plot and in presenting them in a more dramatic fashion than their Senecan models.
Freeman, Arthur, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems, Clarendon Press, 1967. This is the most comprehensive account of Kyd’s life and works. It includes detailed discussions of the date and sources of The Spanish Tragedy, as well as its style, structure, stage history, parodies, textual additions, and critical reception.
Harbage, Alfred, ‘‘Intrigue in Elizabethan Tragedy,’’ in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 37–44. Harbage argues that one of Kyd’s distinctive and influential achievements was his introduction into tragedy of the element of intrigue, in which the action is complicated. In doing this, Kyd also employs comic methods, thus creating a kind of ‘‘comitragedy.’’
Johnson, S. F., ‘‘The Spanish Tragedy, or Babylon Revisited,’’ in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 23–36.
Johnson argues that in the play, Spain is equated with the Biblical Babylon, which God promises to destroy. Hieronimo’s vengeance is therefore just, since it brings down the king of Spain, whom many English Protestants regarded as being in league with the Antichrist, the pope.
Murray, Peter B., Thomas Kyd, Twayne’s English Authors Series, No. 88, Twayne, 1969. Murray sketches the literary and historical background of the play and then analyzes it scene by scene in terms of the development of action, character and theme. The final chapter considers the play’s relation to the tragedies that followed it, with attention to the additions to Kyd’s play that were published in 1602. Murray also includes a chronology and an annotated bibliography.

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