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Thomas Kyd | Biography

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Early Life and Influences

Thomas Kyd was born in London on November 6, 1558, the son of a scrivener or public copyist, Francis Kyd, and his wife, Anna. Details of Kyd's life are uncertain, but it is known that he received an education at the Merchant Taylors' School, founded in 1561. While there, Kyd would have had a chance to benefit from its first headmaster, humanist and educator Richard Mulcaster (1531–1611) and one of Mulcaster's most illustrious students, poet Edmund Spenser (1552/53–99). Studies at this school would have included a heavy dose of Latin, along with Hebrew, Greek, music, and mathematics. Latin studies would have encompassed the writings of the ancient Romans, particularly the Stoic statesman and playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), as well as the poets Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE–17 CE) and Horace (65–8 BCE), recited by rote in long passages by the students. In addition to tragedies by Seneca, Kyd probably also encountered the Roman comedies of Terrence (c. 195–159 BCE) and Plautus (c. 254–184 BCE). A common trope of these comedies, which also fueled the Italian commedia dell arte, was a pair of young lovers opposed by family. The reader of The Spanish Tragedy will note that especially the first scenes of the play contain phrases in Latin and a rhetorical, rhythmic, and rhyming poetic form, which was taught in Elizabethan grammar schools.

Growing up and into early adulthood, Kyd probably attended a wide variety of London entertainments, such as bear-baiting, dicing, card and board games, and drama performances of the period. At some point, he joined his father's trade as a scrivener. There is no evidence he attended university, which caused his critics to ridicule him as "an uneducated pretender to wit." Kyd then turned to writing.

Kyd as Spy

Kyd evidently had ambitions above his father's trade and by 1587 had entered into the service of an unidentified lord, either Earl of Sussex or Lord Strange, both of whom had their own company of players. As was the case with some dramatists in Elizabethan England, it is speculated that Kyd may have engaged in some tasks of espionage. It was common for a lord or member of the royal household to engage musicians or actors to loiter around eavesdropping on conversations—while seemingly idly strumming on a lute—which were later recited to their patron word for word—a prerequisite for this kind of employment being a phenomenal ear for languages and memorization. As a skilled scrivener, Kyd may also have been engaged in breaking codes embedded in secret messages—of which there were quite a few between Catholics in Spain and England intent upon removing the "heretical" Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Secretary Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532–90) was ruthless in weaving a meticulous spy network and ferreting out treason.

Kyd as Writer

Kyd first wrote The Spanish Tragedy sometime around 1587, and the play was recorded into the Stationer's Register in 1592. Its main claim to fame in theater history is that it provided a revenge tragedy template for playwright William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1599–1601). Records are inconclusive, but The Spanish Tragedy was reportedly more popular in its day than any of Shakespeare's plays. Between 1587–92 the play was performed 29 times in at least four venues, including by Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Spanish Tragedy was still being performed when the theaters closed in 1642, which means audiences enjoyed it off and on for 50 years.

Arrest and Death

While the specifics of Kyd's interrogation are not known, he was arrested in 1593 and protested under torture that atheist papers found in the apartment were not his, but Marlowe's. The playwright was front and center again when his roommate, fellow-dramatist and likely spy, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (1564–93) was murdered under very suspicious circumstances. After publishing another play, Cornelia, in 1594, Kyd died in debt the same year.

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