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The Spanish Tragedy | Context


Legacy of The Spanish Tragedy

Since performances of The Spanish Tragedy continued into the mid-1600s, the play crosses from the Elizabethan into the Jacobean era. James I (1566–1625), who took the throne upon the death of Elizabeth I, was not only paranoid but also highly superstitious. The subject of the play—supernatural spirits, demons, and ghosts stalking about and preying upon the guilty consciences of miscreants, especially those of high rank—were of great interest to him and his court, which helped ensure its popularity.

Published copies of the play were in such demand that it was reprinted nine times before 1633. The play also inspired hundreds of imitations, parodies, poems, stories, and even a ballad, anonymously written in 1620 and titled The Spanish Tragedy, Containing the Lamentable Murders of Horatio and Bellimperia: With the pitiful Death of Old Hieronimo. To the Tune of Queene Dido. The ballad lyrics present the plot from Hieronimo's point of view.

Protestant England and Catholic Spain

Although the political structures alluded to in The Spanish Tragedy are never directly referenced during the course of the play, it is likely Elizabethan audiences easily connected it to events surrounding the "Iberian Union" of 1580 between the crowns of Portugal and Spain. Having divided the territories of the New World between them, Spain and Portugal entered a period of contention following the death of the Portuguese King Sebastian during a battle against the Moroccans and Turks in 1578, leaving no direct heir. Although elderly, Sebastian's great-uncle Henry reigned until his own death in 1580, whereupon Philip II of Spain established the Iberian Union, which lasted until 1640 despite a three-year resistance movement by the Portuguese António, prior of Crato, with the aid of foreign allies.

Intrigue and confusion in the Spanish Catholic court was fodder for political propaganda in Protestant Elizabethan England; not only in plays and public diversions, but also in private discussions at court over card and board games. The defeat of the Spanish Armada during a storm in August 1588 was also fresh in the minds of audiences—England was not entirely certain Spain wasn't going to launch another attack. The Spanish Tragedy made clear Portuguese inferiority to the Spanish: the King of Spain's counterpart is the Viceroy of Portugal, whose son Balthazar is depicted as "dark skinned." In turn, the play takes every opportunity to establish Spain's inferiority to the English.

The Real Hamlet

Most theater historians agree that The Spanish Tragedy is the original revenge tragedy upon which Shakespeare's Hamlet is based. In addition to the shared theme of revenge, both plays include characters who go mad, a "play within a play," and the presence of the ghost of a murdered man. However, who presented the first version of Hamlet is a murky issue because copyright laws were not in effect until the establishment of the Stationer's Register in 1557. Even then, there was no secure guarantee of authorship: sometimes playwrights weren't even named, while their plays enjoyed continuous attendance. Over the course of relatively few years in the mid- to late-1500s, Elizabethan dramatic art was transitioning from itinerant groups of players—who had to submit "letters of passport" to each town official for permission to set up and perform their plays—to official playhouses in South London owned by shareholders, some of whom were the dramatists themselves.

Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists sometimes appeared as minor characters onstage; not only in the performances of their own plays, but also in those written by others. A report stating that Shakespeare performed the part of the "Ghost of Hamlet" can't be assumed to mean he acted in his own play. The statement could have referred to an earlier version by Shakespeare (sometimes referred to as the ur-Hamlet, of which no text is extant) or even a Hamlet (also lost) some theater historians suggest might have been written by Thomas Kyd. In any case, it was common for playwrights to plagiarize not only plays and other writings, but also stories, legends, and plays from antiquity without referencing original sources.

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