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The Spanish Tragedy | Symbols


Bloody Handkerchief

Elizabethan audiences would remember the silken scarf from the prequel play The Spanish Comedy as the same token which Bel-Imperia had given to her then-lover, Andrea. He wore it into battle with the Portuguese, whereupon his friend Horatio used it to bind Andrea's wounds. When Andrea dies, Horatio conveys it back to Bel-Imperia, but she begs Horatio to keep it as a reminder to avenge Andrea's death; it is also a bonding token between Bel-Imperia and Horatio. It becomes bloodier still when Hieronimo discovers it on Horatio's body and dips it in his son's stab wounds before attempting to use it to signal to the King of Spain that he seeks justice for his murdered son. However, in performing the act of wordlessly waving a bloody scarf at the king, Hieronimo simply reinforces the general opinion (fueled by Lorenzo) that Hieronimo is mad. As black ink on paper represents words, so does blood on the scarf represent deeds done—both are used to plea for justice.

Fruit Tree

The word tree represents not only a fruit tree growing in a garden, but also the tree of crucifixion in the passion of Christ. It is also the hanging beam from which a condemned criminal is hanged. Perhaps even more than her husband Hieronimo, it is Isabella who brings these references together as bookends to the events of the Bible; that is, referring to both the Garden of Eden with its tree of forbidden fruit to the Garden of Gethsemane ending Jesus's earthly presence. Finally, the fruit of love and the fruit of her body destroyed, Isabella not only slashes at the tree from which her son was hanged, but also at her own body which bore the fruit of Horatio's birth. Fruit also refers to the ripening of time it takes for Revenge to work its maximum destruction; just as a fruit cannot be picked before ripe, so too the time to enact revenge must be at the peak of ripeness and not before, or it can miscarry.

Pen, Ink, and Paper

As counterpart to the visceral impact of the white scarf stained with blood (evidence of murder), pen and ink on paper serve the rational currency of coherent words and their meanings. The first reference appears as the passport the Ghost of Andrea needs when traveling along the path to Pluto's court in the underworld. This mirrors the itinerant troupes of actors who had to present their passport of validity to town officials before being allowed to present their plays in Elizabethan England. A written note brings Serberine to keep a date with his own death; a pardon kept in a box causes Pedringano to joke around before he is hanged. It is Bel-Imperia's note to Hieronimo written in her own blood that begins the disintegration of orderly language intended to accomplish justice. This order breaks down when Hieronimo, in utter frustration, tears the petitioners' papers with his own teeth. Finally, the roles for the actors in Hieronimo's play—each written in a different language—confounds communication between them and the audience in a reflection of the Tower of Babel, ripe for God's vengeance upon the arrogant and prideful.

Rope and Knife

These symbols of violent and disjointed murder appear together as the noose with which Horatio has been hanged and the knives of his attackers that cause him to bleed. Hieronimo runs onstage carrying a knife in Act 3, Scene 12 with which he intends to make sure he is able to kill himself; presumably if he can't hang himself, he can otherwise stab himself to death. Moments later, when the King of Spain comes in on the scene, Hieronimo presents these items to him, possibly in the hopes that the king will get the message without words. Hieronimo's speech utterly fails him in the depths of his misery, and he instead stabs at the ground on his hands and knees to somehow summon his dead son to speak for him. Hieronimo as the Pasha also carries a rope with which to hang himself at the end of his play, but instead uses a small knife he is given to sharpen his pen to write with to kill first the Duke of Castile and then himself.


As the symbol of royal authority, the crown is toppled off the head of the Viceroy of Portugal when he believes his son Balthazar is dead, but it is also removed from his head when the Spanish defeat the Portuguese forces. The viceroy is clearly going round on the rim of Fortuna's wheel, but he seems to be aware of this when the line of succession is secured through the marriage of Balthazar to Bel-Imperia. The viceroy has lost, but his son has not, and the anticipated grandson (if the child survives attacks by the ambitious, such as "Uncle Lorenzo") would be in line to follow the current King of Spain in gaining the crown of Portugal and Spain combined.

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