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The Spanish Tragedy | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The action of The Spanish Tragedy takes place in four acts, 31 scenes, and 5 additions—added in the play's 1602 published version, well after the initial performances of the play and intended to make the flow of action from one scene to the next more clear.

Act 1

The play opens with an exchange between the two members of the Chorus; the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge. The ghost explains who he was in life; a Spanish knight who loved Bel-Imperia in secret, but who was killed in war by the son of the Viceroy of Portugal, Balthazar. In his journey into the underworld he is directed to the court of Hades and Persephone. Persephone instructs Revenge to lead the Ghost of Andrea back to Earth to observe events leading up to the death of his killer at the hand of his beloved Bel-Imperia. Balthazar has been captured by both Lorenzo and Horatio; the King of Spain mediates that Lorenzo will have charge of the prisoner, while Horatio will receive the ransom.

Meanwhile, the Viceroy of Portugal is made to believe his son Balthazar has been murdered, and falls in grief to the floor, casting aside his crown and bewailing Fortune for his loss. Horatio and Bel-Imperia meet; Horatio tells her about her lover Andrea's death, whom he also mourns as his closest friend. Balthazar enters and falls madly in love with Bel-Imperia on sight. The Ambassador of Portugal sees how well Balthazar is being treated; far from dead, as the viceroy assumes. Hieronimo, the Knight Marshall of Spain, entertains the king with a Dumb Show in which Spain and Portugal have been made to yield to the English. Outraged that his murderer is feasting, the Ghost of Andrea upbraids Revenge, who only assures the ghost in stark opposition how this temporary situation will be reversed.

Act 2

Lorenzo, having noticed Balthazar is completely smitten by his sister Bel-Imperia, goes to work to persuade the Portuguese prince that she will, with time and patience, come round to Balthazar's suit. Lorenzo suspects a rival and summons Bel-Imperia's servant Pedringano to ask if his sister has a secret lover. Lorenzo first tries the "carrot" (that is, he reminds Pedringano of how he helped him avoid punishment), but it isn't until he applies the "stick" by threatening violence that Pedringano says it might be Horatio. Lorenzo engages the lovesick Balthazar in a plot to bring about Horatio's downfall. Although the attraction between Bel-Imperia and Horatio is turning into love, the King of Spain and his brother the Duke of Castile discuss the advantages of having Bel-Imperia marry Balthazar. At a tryst between Horatio and Bel-Imperia in his parents' garden, Lorenzo and Balthazar abduct Bel-Imperia and attack Horatio: first hanging him from a fruit tree, then repeatedly stabbing him to death with the aid of Pedringano and Serberine. Hearing the commotion, Hieronimo wakes from sleep and finds his son murdered. Addition 1 appears in Scene 5, following line 45, in which Hieronimo and his wife Isabella recognize that the hanged man is their son. Act 2 concludes with the Ghost of Andrea outraged over the death of his friend Horatio and the abduction of his beloved Bel-Imperia. Revenge, however, calmly advises the Ghost of Andrea that patience is required until the time is ripe for revenge to go to work.

Act 3

The false Portuguese courtier Villuppo accuses his true counterpart, Alexandro, of having stabbed Balthazar in the back during the battle. Alexandro protests his innocence, but the viceroy will not listen, instead ordering Alexandro to be burned at the stake. Before this can be carried out, the ambassador arrives to inform the court that Balthazar is not only very much alive, but is being well-treated at the Spanish court. The ambassador also carries the proposal that Balthazar be engaged to the King of Spain's niece, Bel-Imperia.

Hieronimo's grief is interrupted when a letter written in blood drops to the ground at his feet. The letter seems to have been written by the captive Bel-Imperia naming his son's murderers. Hieronimo is suspicious: why would she implicate her own brother? Fearful that his crime could come to light, Lorenzo first has the compromised Pedringano murder Serberine, but in the process, Pedringano is captured and condemned to be hanged. Sure of Lorenzo's ability to get him off, Pedringano clowns around with the hangman until the bench is pushed out from under his feet. Lorenzo deems the silencing of these coconspirators acceptable "collateral damage" to keep himself from being discovered. However, the hangman later gives Hieronimo a letter Pedringano had written to Lorenzo clearly implicating Lorenzo in the murder of Horatio, thus corroborating Bel-Imperia's letter. Hieronimo determines to bring the matter to the justice of the king.

Bel-Imperia, now a captive in her own home, bewails her losses. When nine days have passed, Lorenzo figures his sister should be ready to accept Balthazar's advances. However, he has severely misjudged her willful feelings. Both Hieronimo and his wife Isabella show escalating signs of madness. Blocked by Lorenzo at every turn from approaching the king, Hieronimo plots revenge as his only recourse to obtain justice. First describing to a painter how he wants the scene of his son's murder depicted, Hieronimo later tears the letters of petitioners with his teeth and commiserates with another old man, Bazulto, whose son was also murdered.

Completely ignoring Bel-Imperia's feelings, her father, her uncle the King of Spain, and the Viceroy of Portugal have all come to an agreement and set her marriage to the delighted Balthazar. At the conclusion of Act 3, the Ghost of Andrea is beside himself with anger that his enemies are literally getting away with murder, while his beloved is betrothed to his murderer. To make matters worse, Revenge has fallen asleep. The Ghost of Andrea rails, but Revenge assures him that his sleep is but preparation: the scene of the wedding will also be the scene of vengeance.

It is speculated that, given the length of Act 3, it was most likely divided into Act 3 and Act 4 in the earliest versions of the play, which would bring the number of acts to five, as would have been required by the Senecan model for a classical Roman tragedy.

Act 4

Just as the Ghost of Andrea has goaded Revenge, so now does Bel-Imperia vehemently goad Hieronimo to exact revenge, and she swears to do whatever it will take to help him. When Balthazar suggests Hieronimo put on a play to celebrate the wedding, Hieronimo has in mind a revenge play he wrote set in Rhodes. Bel-Imperia is to act the part of the betrayed maiden speaking in French; Lorenzo agrees to play the part of the Knight of Rhodes speaking Italian; Balthazar plays the part of the cruel Turk speaking Latin; and Hieronimo is to play the part of the murderous Pasha speaking Greek. Although his distraught wife Isabella cuts down the fruit tree from which her son had been hanged, Hieronimo contrives to present the corpse of his son still dangling from the tree as a tableau for the play.

Unbeknownst to the Portuguese and the Spanish assembled as the audience, the knives in the hands of the actors are not stage props, but quite real. They applaud the skill of feigning death, as Pasha (Hieronimo) stabs Erasto (Lorenzo) to death, and then Perseda (Bel-Imperia) fatally stabs Suleiman (Balthazar) before taking her own life. Finally, speaking in English, the Pasha (Hieronimo) opens the curtain to reveal the rotting corpse of his son hanging from the tree. When the horrified court demands an explanation and the king threatens torture, Hieronimo refuses and bites off his own tongue. When given a knife to sharpen his ink pen to write down his story, Hieronimo instead murders the king's brother and then kills himself, ensuring that the united kingdoms of Spain and Portugal will have no heirs to the crown.

The play concludes as the Ghost of Andrea sums up the sequences of murders, asking Revenge permission to act as judge to portion out exactly where and how all his slain enemies will spend their eternal punishments.

The Spanish Tragedy Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Balthazar is captured.

Rising Action

2 Bel-Imperia and Horatio become lovers.

3 Horatio is murdered; Hieronimo discovers the murderer.

4 Balthazar and Bel-Imperia are betrothed.

5 Isabella kills herself.

6 Hieronimo tries to meet with the king and plans a play.


7 Balthazar, Bel-Imperia, Lorenzo, and the duke are killed.

Falling Action

8 Hieronimo takes his own life.


9 Spain and Portugal are without heirs.

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