An introduction to a classic revenge tragedy
The Spanish Tragedy is one of the lesser-known gems among surviving Elizabethan drama – at least, it’s less well-known than the works of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Its influence on later plays in the ‘revenge tragedy’ genre was considerable – most notably, on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Indeeed, Kyd, who died shortly after being tortured for information about his friend Kit Marlowe, is the leading candidate for the authorship of the ‘Ur–Hamlet’, which served as the prototype for Shakespeare’s play. (We discuss the ‘two Hamlets’ in our book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.) What follows is a short introduction to the play, and an analysis of some of its themes and features. Those who wish to avoid spoilers of the play are advised to skip the next couple of paragraphs!
Believed to have been written and first performed in around 1587, The Spanish Tragedy tells the story of Hieronymo, marshal of Spain, whose son Horatio is murdered by Balthasar, son of the viceroy of Portugal, and Lorenzo, son of the Duke of Castile, because Balthasar has his eye on Bellimperia. Bellimperia is Lorenzo’s sister, and she loves Horatio – and this is why poor Horatio is murdered by Balthasar and Lorenzo. Bellimperia, who witnesses the brutal murder of her lover, sends a letter to Horatio’s father Hieronymo informing him that it was Balthasar and Lorenzo who murdered his son, and Hieronymo vows revenge on the two men. However, before he can avenge his son’s death, Hieronymo decides – much like Hamlet in Shakespeare’s later play – that he needs to prove that the letter was indeed from Bellimperia and that both Balthasar and Lorenzo are indeed guilty of Horatio’s murder. There follows a series of delays in Hieronymo’s enactment of revenge, delays which succeed in sending him mad.
Once Hieronymo has spoken with Bellimperia and she has verified that she did indeed send him the letter, he sets about contriving the best way to avenge Horatio’s death. Asked by Balthasar if he will stage a play for the viceroy’s amusement, Hieronymo puts on a play whose plot loosely mirrors the events surrounding Horatio’s murder. (Again, this is a clear precursor to the ‘Murder of Gonzago’ play-within-a-play in Hamlet.) In the play, the characters played by Hieronymo and Bellimperia kill the characters played by Balthasar and Lorenzo, but instead of merely pretending to stab them, both Hieronymo and Bellimperia actually kill the two men. Bellimperia stabs herself afterwards, and Hieronymo then tells the Duke about Horatio’s murder, before killing the Duke followed by himself. Watching the events of the play from the sidelines has been the ghost of Don Andrea, who had been killed by Balthasar in battle prior to the play. Andrea’s ghost is accompanied by Revenge, and the two of them act as a sort of Chorus throughout the events of the play.
It would be easy to view The Spanish Tragedy, in a rather simplistic and superficial analysis, as a crude and inchoate example of the revenge tragedy. Shakespeare would do it with far more finesse and subtlety in Hamlet, true; and Thomas Middleton in The Revenger’s Tragedy (if indeed Middleton was the author of that play). But even when the characters in The Spanish Tragedy strike us as a little two-dimensional, the style of the dialogue is often intriguing and curiously subtle. Consider one small detail of the play’s style: namely, Thomas Kyd’s use of the repetition-as-rhyme device, whereby the verse falls between blank verse (where the line endings are unrhymed, as in tree/man) and rhyming couplets (where two consecutive lines are rhymed tree/see, for instance). Time and again Kyd utilises a sort of halfway house between these two extremes, unrhymed blank verse and rigidly rhyming couplets. The repetition suggests a sense of stasis: Hieronymo’s inability to act or move forward, his obsessive nature:
I look’d that Balthazar should have been slain:
But ’tis my friend Horatio that is slain,
And they abuse fair Bellimperia,
On whom I doted more than all the world,
Because she lov’d me more than all the world.
With what dishonour and the hate of men,
From what dishonour and the hate of men,
And all this sorrow riseth for thy son:
And selfsame sorrow feel I for my son.
Closely and safely, fitting things to time.
But in extremes advantage hath no time;
The plot is laid of dire revenge:
On, then, Hieronymo, pursue revenge:
For nothing wants but acting of revenge.
Bid him come in, and paint some comfort,
For surely there’s none lives but painted comfort.
Hovering between the neatness of the rhyming couplet and the relative chaos of blank verse, such ‘non-couplets’ play out Hieronymo’s dilemma, to steer a path between madness and sanity, chaos and order, revenge and justice.
The Spanish Tragedy is an important play not just because its plot features prefigure a far more famous and consummate work of art, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s also a fine Elizabethan tragedy in its own right, and worthy of close analysis and discussion, because its language is often subtle, surprising, and full of what F. R. Leavis called ‘life’. It represents the beginnings of greatness for Elizabethan drama.
The Spanish Tragedy is included in the excellent Oxford World’s Classic anthology, Four Revenge Tragedies (The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, and The Atheist’s Tragedy) (Oxford World’s Classics), which comes with extensive notes and a helpful introduction.