Thomas Kyd and The Spanish Tragedy


Early Life. As is true in the case of Shakespeare, we do not know the exact day on which Thomas Kyd was born, but we do know that he was baptized in the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, on November 6, 1558. This was eleven days before Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and some six years before the births of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both of whom were born in 1564 (Freeman 1).

Kyd’s father, Francis Kyd, was a successful scrivener. J.R. Mulryne says that he "achieved some distinction as a scrivener, serving as Warden of the Company of Scriveners in 1580" (xi). A scrivener had the duty of copying documents, especially legal documents and therefore occupied a prominent position in the legal world and was usually a person with a good education. Arthur Freeman says that scriveners "considered themselves a distinguished guild" and "maintained high educational standards among themselves" (3). Thus it is not surprising that Francis also sought to provide a good education for Thomas and in 1565, shortly before Thomas turned seven years old, enrolled him in the Merchant Taylors’ School.

Education. Nothing is known about Kyd specifically during his years as a student, but a great deal is known about the school he attended, and it is almost certain that he had the same type of curriculum that the school provided to its other students. It was a new school, three years younger than Thomas Kyd, but it had high admission standards, requiring that its students know the catechism in either English or Latin and that they were able to read and write before they would be admitted (Freeman 6).

This was a school that was attended by several other young men who went on to become accomplished writers; among them was Edmund Spenser, who of course is famous as the author of The Faerie Queen. The school’s headmaster, Richard Mulcaster, was "an excellent Latinist and Greek scholar . . ." and was, as well, quite progressive in his ideas about education. He believed in physical education, in the right of girls to a liberal education, and taught music, singing, and good behavior to his students (Freeman 7). J.R. Mulryne speculates that "Merchant Taylors’ may . . . have first introduced him [Kyd] to the stage, for plays formed part of the boys’ training, some even being acted before Queen Elizabeth at court" (xi).

No documentary evidence exists of how long Kyd stayed at Merchant Taylors’. Typically boys attended for eight-ten years and, as Kyd’s was a comfortable middle-class family who could afford to provide a good education for Thomas it seems likely that he stayed at the school until around 1573-1575.

No record exists of Kyd’s ever having attended a university.

Later Life. What Kyd did between leaving Merchant Taylors’ and beginning his literary career—about 1583—is unknown. The most reasonable guess seems to be that he was apprenticed to his father. Two letters written by Kyd survive, and he had a "remarkably clear and formal" style, which Freeman and W.W. Greg believe "shows the training of a scrivener" (Freeman 12).

By around 1583, however, Kyd was apparently writing plays. In a pamphlet published in 1607, "A Knight’s Conjuring," the author, playwright Thomas Dekker imagines several groups of dead poets in Elysian Fields. One group consists of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser.

In another company sat Learned Watson, industrious Kyd, ingenious Atchlow,

And (tho he had beene a player, molded out of their pens) yet because he had been their lover, and a register to the Muses, inimitable Bentley . . . . (Freeman 13)

What this says is that Kyd was among the playwrights who wrote plays for John Bentley, among the best known of actors at that time. Freeman says that "he was a mainstay of the powerful Queen’s company, at least from its re-formation in 1583 to his own premature death two years later" (13). Since Bentley was buried on August 19, 1585, Kyd must have written any play that Bentley appeared in well before that date, making 1583-84 a reasonable date to assign to the beginning of Kyd’s writing career.

Mulryne says that up to around 1587 Kyd wrote "plays for the Queen’s Company, the leading London players, though none of his work for this company survives" (xi). He then served--probably as a secretary--a lord, either Henry, fourth earl of Sussex, or Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange and in 1588 published a translation of Tasso’s Padre di Famiglia under the title The Householder’s Philosophy.

In addition to The Spanish Tragedy, only a few other works are attributed to Kyd, and there is some argument about them. Here is Mulryne’s summary of the questions and critical consensus regarding what Kyd wrote:

Kyd may have written Soliman and Perseda, a play that shares it main source with Hieronimo’s last-act play-within-the play in The Spanish Tragedy; but the evidence is not conclusive . . . . Notoriously, Kyd may also be the author of an early version of Hamlet, now lost. Although the evidence rests, in the first instance, on little more than widely disputed allusions in Thomas Nashe’s preface for Robert Greene’s Menaphon, the balance of probabilities seems to incline towards Kyd’s having written such a play. Altogether, the skills apparent in The Spanish Tragedy, taken together with early references to Kyd as a dramatist of some note, strongly suggest that much more of his work than now survives found its way on to the sixteenth-century stage. (xiii)

The remaining knowledge that we have of Kyd’s life and career is based primarily on one cruel and ultimately fatal incident. Around 1591 Kyd began sharing an apartment with Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was the most talented of the early Elizabethan playwrights, and he was in many ways the most dangerous, as we will discuss in detail when we make our study of The Jew of Malta and Edward II. Their living together exposed Kyd to imprisonment and cruel torture a year or so later.

In 1593 London was suffering from an outbreak of the plague and a rise in unemployment. Looking around for someone to blame, some of the citizenry fastened on the foreign people in London. Protests against foreigners began to be printed and displayed on the walls of various public buildings. The Privy Council feared an outbreak of serious violence and on May 11, 1593, they issued an order to search the houses of anyone who might possibly be involved in writing and printing these scurrilous attacks on foreigners. They were to look especially closely

in anie the chambers, studies, chests, or other like places for al manner of writings or papers that may geve you light for the discoverie of the libelers . . . . And after you shal have examined the persons, if you shal finde them dulie to be suspected and they shal refuse to confesse the truth, you shal by aucthoritie hereof put them to the torture in Bridewell, and by the extremitie thereof . . . draw them to discover their knowledge concerning the said libels. (Acts of the Privy Council, XXIV, 222; quoted in Freeman 26)

Thomas Kyd was among the first arrested. The day following the order quoted above, May 12, 1593, he was brought in. They had not found any evidence of his being involved in writing or printing the libels against foreigners, but there were found in his apartment papers that denied the deity of Jesus. Kyd claimed that Marlowe gave the papers to him, and the evidence is reasonably convincing that they, in fact, did come from him; they are clearly not written in Kyd’s handwriting, although they are in the handwriting of a professional scrivener.

Less than a week later, on May 18, 1593, Marlowe was brought in for questioning; he was released two days later but under orders that he was to report to the Privy Council every day until they rescinded this order. No one knows whether or not he did as he was instructed; nor ultimately was it to be a matter of any importance because ten days later, May 30, 1593, Marlowe was stabbed in the eye and died.

The length of Kyd’s imprisonment is not known. Based on a letter he wrote to the head of the Privy Council, Sir John Puckering, asking that Puckering write a letter of recommendation for Kyd to his former patron supporting Kyd’s plea for a renewal of the patronage, he was likely released in late May. He had been tortured, though, and in his letter he speaks of his pain and undeserved suffering. In his letter, Kyd elaborates on Marlowe: he was an irreligious reprobate, was intemperate, and had a cruel heart. He goes on to deny again that he (Kyd) had ever been an atheist or expressed any such opinion and requests that Puckering should question some of Marlowe’s friends to learn the truth about both his and Marlowe’s opinions.

Following his release, Kyd attempted to return to his writing career. He did a translation of a play by the French playwright Robert Garnier called Pompey the Great, his Faire Cornelias Tragedie. This was registered in the Stationer’s Register on January 26, 1594, about nine months after Kyd’s arrest and was published soon after that. The dedication, to the Countess of Sussex, speaks of various "afflictions of mind" that Kyd has recently suffered along with his "misery" and "bitter times and privie broken passions." Apparently a broken man as a result of his imprisonment and torture, Kyd died in August of that same year and was buried on August 15, only 36 years old.

The Play

Date. The date of TheSpTrag is unknown. It is definite that it was written after 1582 and before 1592: it adapts some lines from a work known to have been written by March 31, 1582, and there is a record of its being performed on February 23, 1592. Your editor, J.R. Mulryne, says that the "balance of conjecture [is] in favor of the later years"—that is, around 1588-1590. Mulryne’s view, however, hardly represents a critical consensus. F.S. Boas, the editor of that standard scholarly edition of Kyd’s works, places the play between 1585-1587, and Freeman agrees with that date, noting that Kyd’s portrayal of the Spanish—which he sees as showing them in an aggressively negative light—is appropriate to the period before the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Works by English writers published after that event tend to be less shrill in their attacks on the Spanish; there is a sense of confidence that they are not an unbeatable enemy (Freeman 75-76). I find Freeman’s argument persuasive, but no one knows definitely the date of The Spanish Tragedy’s composition.

Critical Reaction and Commentary. The Spanish Tragedy was a very popular play during the last decade of the sixteenth century, and it was well known into the seventeenth century, with Ben Jonson among the numerous later playwrights who used lines from TheSpTrag for comic effect in their plays. Critics have generally praised TheSpTrag. In the first surviving assessment of Thomas Kyd, Francis Meres--whose introduction to his anthology, Palladis Tamia, reviews and critiques a number of English writers of the late sixteenth century--placed Kyd among "our best for Tragedie" (quoted in Edwards 6). Philip Edwards calls TheSpTrag "more original, and greater, than Richard III" (6). And Arthur Freeman, after noting that the play has been called "bombastic" and "crude" by some, finds that "the manner of TheSpTrag is essentially patient and graceful"; its style "is . . . reserved . . . and delicate" (Freeman 80); and the play’s blank verse has a "pleasing directness" (Freeman 81).

Sources. There is no known story that Kyd drew from in writing The SpTrag, but Boas believes that the play "is probably drawn from some lost romance which preceded the play" (Quoted in Freeman 50). It is now generally agreed, however, that rather than there being a single lost source Kyd drew on a number of unrelated stories and blended in historical events from the Spanish-Portuguese wars of 1578-1580.

The most important influence on the play is the work of the Roman playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD). Seneca was the Roman playwright most often read by English students after the revival of interest in classical works in the early sixteenth century, and his plays provided the Elizabethan playwrights with ideas that they incorporated into their own works.

The Issue of Revenge. Revenge tragedies were among the most popular of plays during the last decade and a half of the sixteenth century in England. As noted above, the general structure and content of a revenge tragedy came to the Elizabethans through the plays of Seneca, but Kyd’s version of a revenge tragedy is more complex and thoughtful, and it is Kyd’s version which became the model for later Elizabethan dramatists, most notably Shakespeare, in Hamlet.

What strikes any reader or audience member is the presence of revenge as the central motivating force of the play; it is what drives the action from the beginning through the end.

"Then was the ferryman of hell content
To pass me over the slimy strond" (1.1.27-28, p.6)

He goes to Pluto and his "doom" (fate) is pronounced by Proserpine, Pluto’s consort. Her order is that he should be led by Revenge to view the death of Balthazar.

If destiny deny thee life, Hieronimo,
Yet shalt thou be assured of a tomb;
If neither, yet let this thy comfort be,
Heaven covereth him that hath no burial.
And to conclude, I will revenge his death! (3.13.16-20, p 86).

As I said earlier, though, Kyd’s story is not just the tale of single-minded quests for revenge; he complicates the issue in the story of Hieronimo. Hieronimo’s first reaction, in fact, is to seek justice, not revenge.

O sacred heavens! If this unhallowed deed,
If this inhuman and barbarous attempt,
If this incomparable murder thus
Of mine, but now no more my son,
Shall unrevealed and unrevenged pass,
How should we term your dealings to be just,
If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust? (3.1.5-11, pp. 52-53).

Thus must we toil in other men’s extremes,
That know not how to remedy our own;
And do them justice, when unjustly we,
For all our wrongs, no compass can redress.
But shall I never live to see the day
That I may come, by justice of the heavens,
To know the cause that may my cares allay [To experience the circumstances that will ease my emotional distress] (3.6.1-6, p.64)

     He hears no answer from heaven, however. His sighs, he says, mount to heaven and

Beat the windows of the brightest heavens
Soliciting for justice and revenge;
But they [justice and revenge] are placed in those empyreal heights,
Where, counter-mured with walls of diamond,
I find the place impregnable. . . . (3.7.13-17, p. 70)

There is substantial disagreement among commentators on this play as to exactly what position it takes on the matter of revenge, whether it condemns it or condones it. This mirrors contemporary ideas as well. Elizabethans were well aware of the Church’s stand on personal revenge and there are numerous instances in which individuals were punished by the legal system for taking the law into their own hands. Yet there was understanding, too, that in some instances the law provided no justice; this was especially true in those cases in which the evildoer was immune to punishment because of his position in society. In those cases, what is a person supposed to do? Discuss, conclude.

Machiavellianism. In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli had published a work on political philosophy entitled Il Principe (The Prince). In this work Machiavelli stated his belief that success in the political arena grew out of a commitment to lead and a willingness on the part of an individual to take a chance to try to bring about a political result which can never be known. Once an individual has accepted that he wishes to commit himself to this task, he cannot go halfway: he cannot be swayed by moral or ethical considerations which are external to the sphere in which he moves. The political act, Machiavelli believed, has no need to derive its morality outside itself; what is right or wrong is determined by its effectiveness in establishing and maintaining a state which can provide an ordered and free form of social living.

So far as good and evil acts on the part of the leader are concerned, Machiavelli believed that a leader should not divorce himself from the good but that he should be able, as a particular situation demanded, to enter into evil. The effective statesman, then, might find it necessary to follow certain cruel expedients, contrary to Christian teachings and even destructive of human life itself. A person who cannot renounce his moral scruples is not fit to rule a state.

This insistence on a basically amoral code of political conduct led to Machiavelli being attacked, especially by Church authorities, during the last half of the sixteenth century. A book by the French author Innocent Gentillet, Contre-Machiavel (1576), made a savage attack on Machiavelli and his doctrines and was a major factor in the spread of a popular view of Machiavel as Satan’s tool. This view is the one that soon became widespread in the drama of the age. As one commentator on Elizabethan drama noted, Machiavelli became "the master figure of Elizabethan drama . . . at the back of every Tudor mind" (Wyndham Lewis).

The caricature of Machiavelli’s ideas is portrayed through various villains in the works of a wide range of Elizabethan dramatists, most especially the works of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, and William Shakespeare. Common to these villains is the pursuit of power or status and a willingness to use any means to achieve their goals, especially deceit and murder.

The character from The Spanish Tragedy most often recognized as the Machiavellian villain is, of course, Lorenzo. Discuss his motive (offended class consciousness—maintaining his own status in society) and his various plots—enlisting Serberine and Pedringano, then getting Pedringano to kill Serberine, then tricking Pedringano into thinking that he was going to be pardoned, and so on.

Others who show some Machiavellian traits—most obviously Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo, both of whom employ deceit.


Kyd Bibliography

Ardolino, Frank R. Thomas Kyd’s Mystery Play: Myth and Ritual in ‘The Spanish
     Tragedy.’ American University Studies. Series IV, English Language and
     Literature, Vol. 29. Peter Lang: New York, 1985.

Edwards, Philip. Thomas Kyd and Early Elizabethan Tragedy. Writers and Their Work:
     No. 192. London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1966.

Freeman, Arthur. Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Hill, Eugene D. "Senecan and Vergilian Perspectives in The Spanish Tragedy." ELR 15
     (1985) 143-165.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. J.R. Mulryne, ed. New Mermaids. New York:
     W.W. Norton, 1989.

Mulryne, J.R., ed. The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. New Mermaids. New York:
     W.W. Norton, 1989.

Murray, Peter B. Thomas Kyd. Twayne’s English Authors Series 88. New York:
     Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969.