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The Spanish Tragedy | Themes


The arrangement of action and dialogue in The Spanish Tragedy is framed in stark opposites recurring throughout the play.

Personal Revenge versus Civil Law

Not only is revenge personified, but it is the guiding principle behind the actions of the play. Revenge moves slowly to attain its maximum effect on those who have committed murder by hitting them at the height of their pleasures (such as the wedding festivities), so they are plunged from extreme joy directly into extreme misery (not only in life, but also in the afterlife). In contrast, civil law as administered by earthly or divine authority of justice is inconstant and uncertain. Although it is acknowledged that this process works some of the time, it is "deaf and blind" in other instances, especially when the criminals are of high rank, like Lorenzo and Balthazar. While his wife Isabella gives up and kills herself, Hieronimo (who wishes he could do the same) must live until he is certain all pleas to civil law are not going to work, whereupon he must exact revenge by his own hand.

Fortune, Fate, and Human Acts

Fortune, Fate, and Nemesis in this play are interchangeably invoked as an excuse to explain why a high-ranking warrior such as Balthazar is defeated—he was simply dealt a bad hand and his capture is not the fault of his actions, but of random fate. The same is true of his father the Viceroy of Portugal, who makes a display of yielding to Fortuna's wheel by falling to the ground and removing his crown, saying that the wheel can't throw him any lower than he now is. But as if transitioning from one state of mind to another, the viceroy continues a description of parallel actions and consequences of those actions that "suggests a world governed not by chance but by the ineluctable chains of consequence that led him to a final acknowledgement of his own responsibility."

Fortune is envious when a person is brought up and therefore casts him down. However, a wheel turns indiscriminately; no one stays down permanently any more than they can always stay on the top. By contrast, people tend to credit themselves when they succeed in accomplishing their ends—patting themselves on the back for being above average. Arrogance dictates that the rules apply to everyone else. The gamble by which this assumption is tested—as the hapless Villuppo observes—doesn't always pay off.

Love and War

The Ghost of Andrea introduces this bonding of opposites in the first scene of the play by describing the paradise of lovers and the paradise of warriors in the Underworld as being right next to each other, but completely separated. Balthazar declares himself slain with love, and as captivated by Bel-Imperia in love as he was by Horatio and Lorenzo on the battlefield. Both war and love lead to a kind of berserk madness through extreme passion that supersedes reason. It is a melding of love and hate that generates the passion needed for Hieronimo to exact revenge. Horatio and Bel-Imperia express their growing love for one another in terms of combat. The classical echo of this is the dalliances between Venus (goddess of love) and Mars (god of war) despite the fact that Venus is already married to Vulcan (god of the fire forges and blacksmith/craftsman to the gods on Olympus).

Reality versus Illusion

Some of the most striking instances of reality wrapped in illusion wrapped in reality (like an onion) are found in Hieronimo's play at the end. Real actors portray the illusions of characters who are killed by means of an illusion of murder onstage only to reveal that the actors themselves have been killed for real; and this is enveloped in a play presented on an Elizabethan stage. The rituals of the court that reinforce rank in descending and ascending order give public illusions designed to cover very real opposites. Although he is the Prince of Portugal, Balthazar is so weak he plays right into Lorenzo's hands; for all the trappings of valor he gained on the battlefield, Lorenzo didn't actually face Balthazar in a fight the way Horatio did. A painting, like a play, also depicts what is wished for, not what is real.

Privilege of Rank

Justice in particular is "blind" to the equality of rank no matter the social or political structure. In this play, however, privilege is pulled to the breaking point when Hieronimo is unable to even communicate with words his plea for justice from the King of Spain. The problem is that the criminals are the Prince of Portugal and the king's own nephew, which, if known, would produce a major scandal. While justice is swift to come for Pedringano for having murdered Serberine, it would take a great deal of delay before it could even come close to punishing Balthazar and Lorenzo for the murder of Horatio. In other words, it is far more important for everyone to keep their appointed place and duty in the kingdom than it is for lesser courtiers like Hieronimo and Horatio to expect justice.

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