The Spanish Tragedy | Study Guide

Thomas Kyd

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The Spanish Tragedy | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



The Spanish Tragedy opens with a prologue to the action to come, in which the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge appear together. The Ghost of Andrea begins by reciting who he had been in life: a courtier of modest station in the Spanish court and the chivalric lover of Bel-Imperia, a woman of higher rank. As a humble knight in the Spanish forces against the Portuguese (also called Portingale) he fought with valor until he was killed by Balthazar, the Prince of Portugal. The Ghost explains to Revenge and the audience that he attempted to find his rightful place in Hades, but could obtain no passport from Charon until his friend and fellow-knight, Horatio, had performed his funeral rites. Finally allowed passage into Hades, the Ghost of Andrea first approached the three judges Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus, to obtain his passport and assignment to his reward in the underworld. Minos first drew up the "graven leaves of lottery" describing Andrea's life as having been true in love and war and implying that Andrea must follow the right-hand path to reward instead of the left-hand path leading to the punishments of damnation.

The Ghost of Andrea goes on to say that the three judges were unable to agree on which of the two separated realms of reward would be most fitting for Andrea: lovers or warriors. The Ghost of Andrea recites to Revenge how two of the three judges—Aeacus and Rhadamanthus—conducted a brief debate between them. On the basis that Andrea had been a true and loyal chevalier to his ladylove, Aeacus argued that he be sent to the pleasant abode of lovers. But in pointing out the fact that he died in battle, Rhadamanthus declared for the realm of fallen warriors, "Where wounded Hector lives in lasting pain, And Achilles' Myrmidons do scour the plain." The deadlock was resolved when Minos ruled that the Ghost of Andrea be sent along the middle path to the court of Pluto and Persephone for resolution. When he came to the crossroads on his way, the Ghost of Andrea first looked along the right-hand path leading to the realms of warriors and lovers, which are strictly divided. Then the ghost looked along the left-hand path leading downward to the punishments of hell, "Where bloody Furies shakes their whips of steel, And poor Ixion turns an endless wheel." He further describes to Revenge the horrific punishments of usurers, wantons, murderers, and perjurers. The ghost took neither the left nor the right path, but proceeded straight ahead along the path to the Elysian Fields and the tower in which Pluto and Persephone hold court.

Upon gaining access to the king and queen of the underworld, the Ghost of Andrea presented on bended knee the passport the judges had given him, and asked for conclusive judgment. This graceful gesture of chivalric humility pleased Persephone, who asked her dark lord permission to give Andrea his doom. Unable to resist her request, Pluto granted it with a kiss, whereupon Persephone whispered into the ear of Revenge, instructing Revenge to lead the Ghost of Andrea through "the gates of horn" and show him a true vision. All at once, as the Ghost of Andrea concludes his account, he now finds himself together with his guide. Revenge replies that it is here that Andrea will witness the downfall of his murderer at the hands of his own love, Bel-Imperia, and that the two of them will serve as Chorus for the tragedy as it unfolds before them.


How Revenge and the Ghost of Andrea enter the stage is not clear. However, it is likely—given stage conventions of the time—that they entered by way of a trapdoor under the stage to indicate they have arrived from the underworld. In giving his description of who he had been in life, the Ghost of Andrea is not only providing Revenge with essential background information, but also referring to the events of a play prequel to The Spanish Comedy (now lost) with which Elizabethan audiences of The Spanish Tragedy after 1600 would have been familiar. The ghost's description of the underworld serves two purposes. One, by referring to classical descriptions of the underworld and its occupants from Greco-Roman mythology, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid (and possibly also Dante's Inferno), the Ghost of Andrea "proves" that he actually went there, instead of merely making it all up as a fiction. Two, a crossroads provides context in terms of direction in the underworld. The left-hand (or sinister) path leads downward to where pagan classical characters such as Ixion endure endless suffering. An added implication to the opposition of right- and left-handedness might also refer to one-on-one combat; anyone familiar with hand weapons would know that a left-handed swordsman of modest skill can overcome a more skilled right-handed swordsman—a concept that recurs throughout the play. However, the right-hand path leading upward indicates a pagan view of reward in the divided pleasures of fighting (Mars) and lovemaking (Venus).

Opposition of left (evil) and right (virtue) were also symbolically represented in morality plays during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which a human soul was enticed to act upon the advice of Satan whispering in his left ear, while an Angel of the Lord (or Virtue) whispered into his right ear.

The midway path straight ahead at the crossroads of the underworld leading toward divine justice foreshadows the mediation and compromises between opposites running throughout the play. The playwright immediately establishes parallel opposition in the very first scene in the characters of the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge to act as a Chorus. This device invokes the Senecan tragic form and redirects the force of witness toward the slow workings of justice that fall straight and "midway" between justice on Earth and justice by divine agency.

Both the "graven leaves of lottery" and the "passport" refer to the power of the written word that will, as the play progresses, disintegrate. The interchangeable name of Portugal/Portingale was probably used because the more uneducated Elizabethans in the audience were familiar with the term Portingale in reference to Portugal.

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