The Spanish Tragedy | Study Guide

Thomas Kyd

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The Spanish Tragedy | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary



At the Portuguese court, the Viceroy of Portugal enters with his attendants to ask if the Ambassador of Portugal has left for Spain with the tribute payment. His courtier Alexandro replies that the ambassador left two days ago. The viceroy is troubled by the delay and lavishly laments how Fortune has turned him to his lowest misery. In a fit of self-pity, the viceroy throws himself on the ground, and removes his crown, saying that he cannot fall any lower and Fortune (blind and deaf) cannot do anything more to him. While he lies on the floor, the viceroy indulges in reciting a chain of actions and consequences leading him to this fallen state. In this recitation it is clear the viceroy is already mourning the supposed death of his son, Balthazar, and to every hope Alexandro offers, he provides a countering despair.

Even though his faithful courtier Alexandro informs him that his son survived the battle and was taken prisoner, the viceroy assumes the Spanish will ruthlessly kill him. But the false courtier Villuppo tells the viceroy he saw Alexandro shoot Balthazar in the back during the battle, offering as motive Alexandro's ambitions toward the viceroy's crown, and stating that had Alexandro not committed such a cowardly murder, the Portuguese would have won. This explanation of why the Portuguese were defeated seems to feed the viceroy's self-pity over having lost a battle already predetermined by Fate, and Alexandro easily becomes the scapegoat. The viceroy recovers his crown, stands up, and declares he will put off divesting himself of his station until after Alexandro has been executed by hanging and disembowelment. The viceroy promises to reward Villuppo for exposing Alexandro's motives, while Villuppo concludes the scene with pride that his lies have put him in a favorable position to not only get rid of Alexandro as a possible rival to advancement, but to secure the Portuguese crown for himself.


This scene of The Spanish Tragedy is filled with references implicit in the Tarot deck of cards and the agency of random chance, as opposed to directly determined action by human beings and their consequences. In this, the viceroy echoes his son Balthazar's earlier reference to having had to play a "bad hand at cards," blaming Fortuna (Fate) and Nemesis (Justice) for his misery. These figures are both female and blind, representing the ever-changing, impartial circumstances of all earthly conditions—king to commoner. Both Nemesis and Fortuna appear interchangeably on Tarot cards (which made their first documented appearance in Europe sometime around the mid-1400s).

In medieval and Renaissance iconography, Nemesis holds in her hand a balance scale and stands on a rolling stone (likely referring to the balancing act a female acrobat might perform at a court entertainment). In Greek mythology, Nemesis (Eris, goddess of discord) was not invited to the wedding feast of Achilles's divine mother Thetis and his earthly father, King Peleus. She crashed the party anyway and threw in a golden apple labeled "to the most beautiful." Three goddesses—Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena—claimed the apple, then appointed Paris of Troy to decide. Paris found himself most tempted by Aphrodite's bribe of having the beautiful Helen, Menelaus's wife, fall in love and run away with him to his home in Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. It may be mentioned that Helen of Troy makes an appearance in Kit Marlowe's very popular play of the time, Dr. Faustus (c. 1588), so audiences of all ranks were very familiar with this story.

By contrast, Fortuna turns her giant wheel, which corresponds not only to a cart wheel, but also to the water wheels of English mills grinding grain. Ambitious humans are attached to the rim and turned (usually clockwise, but sometimes counterclockwise) first upward to the highest station, and then downward again to the ground. According to Roman Stoics, whom educated Elizabethans admired, the only way to avoid this rise (hope) and fall (despair) is to find a position on the wheel's spoke, or center of gravity to forego both fame and disgrace, since the one leads to the other on the rim. Sometimes, Fortuna is depicted as a skeleton turning the wheel, reminding the viewer that human life never remains in one condition forever; eventually all fall in death, returning to dust and ashes. Recurring sieges of the plague reminded Londoners of how swiftly and indiscriminately death could strike; the last being the Great Plague of London in 1665–66.

As the play progresses, the false Portuguese courtier Villuppo is mirrored in the duplicitous Spanish courtier Lorenzo, while the true and honorable Alexandro has his counterpart in Horatio, even though unlike Horatio, Alexandro survives. While the Spanish king maintains his balance in a show of generosity and unity, here the viceroy quickly falls to the floor and loses his crown before standing up and recovering both balance on his feet and crown, ostensibly to make sure justice is done.

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