The Spanish Tragedy | Study Guide

Thomas Kyd

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The Spanish Tragedy | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy is an extremely influential work of early-modern drama filled with acts of deception and violence. First performed in 1587, The Spanish Tragedy tells of Hieronimo's plight to avenge the murder of his son, Horatio, at the hands of the duke of Castille, Don Lorenzo, and the Portuguese ambassador, Balthazar. Hieronimo stages a play as entertainment for the court while he plots his vengeance, convincing both Lorenzo and Bathazar to act in it. This play-within-a-play serves both as an opportunity for Hieronimo to distract his foes and kill them, as well as a narrative that mirrors the main action of Kyd's work.

The Spanish Tragedy's enduring critical acclaim comes from its groundbreaking tropes and dramatic devices, which inspired a generation of English playwrights. Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, including Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, followed many of the dramatic techniques first used by Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy. Ideas such as the play-within-a-play and a plot revolving around the insatiable desire for revenge became staples of theater during the English Renaissance and afterward.

1. Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy to vilify Spain in England.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, English works of drama often included subtle political messages. The Spanish Tragedy aimed to portray Spain as a villainous empire that was the archrival and antithesis of England. The reason for this was twofold: England had cause to resist Spain on both religious and patriotic grounds. Spain was Catholic, whereas England had broken away from the Catholic faith in the 16th century when Henry VIII established the Church of England, and thereafter writers often sought to undermine the threat of the papacy gaining control over the country by portraying Catholicism as corrupt. In addition England faced a military threat from Spain, culminating in the attack of the Spanish Armada against Queen Elizabeth's forces in 1588.

2. The Spanish Tragedy may have inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Shakespeare's Hamlet shares many themes with The Spanish Tragedy, such as the concept of revenge at all costs, characters' descent into madness, and the influence of the supernatural. These connections have led scholars to believe Shakespeare relied heavily on Kyd's play for inspiration, as The Spanish Tragedy was at the height of its popularity when Shakespeare completed Hamlet from 1599 to 1602. Also, Kyd was responsible for writing an earlier play referred to as Ur-Hamlet, which literary historians believe was essentially the same story as Shakespeare's. Although no copies of Ur-Hamlet have survived, parts of it were reconstructed from a German-language manuscript that is believed to be a translation of Kyd's original.

3. Kyd got his former roommate—Christopher Marlowe—arrested for heresy.

Kyd briefly lived with another renowned English playwright, Christopher Marlowe, author of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. When authorities conducted a raid on Kyd's home, they found "heretical documents" indicating one of the men was an atheist. Kyd was arrested and tortured; he confessed that the documents belonged to Marlowe. This information led to Marlowe's arrest in May 1593. Although Marlowe was released after five days, he only enjoyed 10 days of freedom before being killed in a bar fight. Many scholars speculate that Kyd may have, in fact, been a lifelong atheist and that he either framed Marlowe or the two were coconspirators in this act of "heresy."

4. Due to a copyright dispute, only one copy of the first known edition survived.

The Spanish Tragedy had a rocky start to its publication, as the very first printing caused a copyright nightmare. This 1592 edition was printed and published by two separate people, Edward Allde and Edward White, respectively—but neither held the rights. The bookseller Abel Jeffes was the rightful claimant, and he took prompt legal action against the other two. The court fined White and demanded that all remaining copies be destroyed. The one surviving copy of this first quarto was apparently riddled with errors, leading scholars to refer to it as the "bad quarto."

5. The Spanish Tragedy wasn't attributed to Kyd for more than a century after its first performance.

Although The Spanish Tragedy was met with popularity and acclaim from its earliest performances, no one knew who was responsible for the masterpiece for well over 100 years. Until 1773, the play was published under anonymous authorship. Kyd was only revealed to be the author after the scholar Thomas Hawkins compiled his volume, The Origin of the English Drama, and glossed over a citation during his research attributing The Spanish Tragedy to "M. Kid." Hawkins deduced that, despite the different spelling, this had to be proof of Kyd's authorship, particularly when matched with his writing style.

6. No one knows the exact year The Spanish Tragedy was written.

Although the mystery of The Spanish Tragedy's authorship was solved in 1773, the exact date of the play's publication still eludes scholars. Historians have narrowed the date range to between 1584 and 1587. A reference to The Spanish Tragedy in Ben Jonson's 1614 Bartholomew Fair indicates that it was completed in the late 1580s, and the fact that Kyd neglects to mention the Spanish Armada leads scholars to believe it was completed before 1588, when the Spanish fleet attempted an invasion of England.

7. The Spanish Tragedy established the genre of revenge tragedy.

The Spanish Tragedy is often credited as the first major work of "revenge tragedy," a genre that became extremely popular in England during the 17th century. The most notable work of the genre is Shakespeare's Hamlet, which Kyd's plays notably influenced. The Spanish Tragedy wasn't necessarily the first dramatic work to feature the theme of vengeance, but it set certain standards for the genre, such as using ghostly apparitions to move the plot and convey the importance of retribution. In The Spanish Tragedy Kyd actually includes the spirit of revenge, who appears alongside the apparition of Andrea, as a member of the chorus.

8. The Spanish Tragedy was heavily influenced by an ancient Roman playwright.

While The Spanish Tragedy was highly influential for other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, Kyd modeled his work on the plays of Seneca, a dramatist from ancient Rome. Seneca, born in 4 BCE, produced early plays such as Medea and Thyestes that captivated classical audiences. The themes of violent revenge and ghostly intervention—even details such as including a spirit in the chorus—derive from Seneca's plays. Kyd, along with other English playwrights, drew heavily from Senecan drama and repopularized this style for a 16th-century English audience.

9. Shakespeare may have written additional scenes for The Spanish Tragedy.

A 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy featured five additional scenes. Since Kyd died in 1594, it is widely believed these additions were not written by Kyd himself, but by other notable playwrights. Ben Jonson, John Webster, and William Shakespeare have all been considered as potential authors of these supplementary scenes. In 2013 a professor from the University of Texas published an article claiming that the proof of Shakespeare's hand in the additions was evident from an early copy of the 1602 edition, which featured Shakespeare's notoriously sloppy and nearly illegible penmanship.

10. T.S. Eliot quoted The Spanish Tragedy in his most famous poem.

T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem "The Waste Land" is often considered one of the most important works of poetry from the 20th century. The poem includes a meditation on the juxtaposition between Christianity and Buddhism and features the line "Hieronymo's mad againe" from The Spanish Tragedy. Many speculate that this inclusion was a subtle reference to Kyd's alleged atheism, for which he was nearly condemned by English authorities, as a contrast to the poem's lengthy discussion of competing world religions.

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