“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd

Revenge has been central feature of many a drama, right from the earliest times to now, encompassing everything between the highest of brows and the lowest – from the Orestia of Aeschylus to the Death Wish films of Michael Winner; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from westerns and gangster films of varying quality to the blood-drenched “video nasties” that so exercised our moral sensibilities some thirty or so years ago.

The reason for its appeal across so vast a range is not difficult to discern. At the basest end, it provides violence that titillates us, but which we can nonetheless enjoy in good conscience because some of the violence we know will be punished, while the rest of it we know is perpetrated in a just cause (both Titus Andronicus and Death Weekend occupy this end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the theme allows us to ponder such important matters as justice and morality. It encourages us to consider the ultimate futility of meting out injury for injury, and, simultaneously, the moral decadence of not meting out injury for injury. The dilemma is with us still: those who fight dragons become dragons themselves, Nietzsche had warned us; and yet, those who don’t fight dragons allow the dragons to become stronger. It is a horrible moral bind to be in, and it is hardly surprising that those writers who think long and hard about the human condition find themselves fascinated by this seemingly insoluble moral impasse. And neither is it surprising that those who don’t think so long or so hard relish the opportunity of the violent titillation this theme affords. Either way, it makes – if not necessarily for good drama, then, at least, for drama that holds the attention of its intended audience.

The “revenge tragedy” was an important genre of its own in Shakespeare’s days, and one of the seminal works of that genre is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written in the 1580s when Shakespeare was still a young man, and popular enough to be revived in 1602 (with additional scenes possibly by Ben Jonson, no less) when Shakespeare was at his height of his career. It is not, to be honest (and to anticipate somewhat the conclusion of this post), a particularly major work of literature. But then again, one shouldn’t spend all one’s reading time exploring the great peaks: one should know also something of the plains from which the peaks rise. Masterpiece this isn’t, but it’s a diverting enough work. Kyd isn’t interested in the psychology of revenge; neither is he interested in the morality. What he is interested in is pacing the story in such a way as to keep the audience interested in what happens next, in creating tension, and in providing shocks and sensational stage effects. We have a sensational stage effect in the very first scene, as the ghost of the recently deceased Don Andrea enters with the Spirit of Revenge. And together, they sit and watch the events unfold, much as we, the audience, do. In the course of the action, we have villainy, treachery, murder, false imprisonment, attempted forced marriage, suicide, and, of course, madness. Hieronimo goes mad after his son is brutally murdered: there are some splendid scenes of his mad ranting. And if one person going mad makes for good theatre, two people going mad makes for theatre twice as good: Hieronimo’s wife is introduced for no other purpose than for her to go mad also. And then there’s the splendid finale – a play-within-a-play (an idea Shakespeare was more than happy to recycle), but here, the stage-within-the-stage violence is real. Which, of course, can take us into Borgesian labyrinths should we be that way minded (if the violence within the play-within-the-play is real, then might not… etc.) but I doubt any of that was in Kyd’s mind: he saw it for what it was –a sensationally good stage effect. And should we be tempted to think that all this excessive violence is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Hieronimo caps it all by biting his tongue off and spitting it out of his cheek, to ensure that torture doesn’t make him talk. Splendid stuff.

Presumably, this was the sort of thing the audiences of the time wanted, but I must confess myself a bit puzzled by this: these were cruel times, when torture was commonplace, floggings, beheadings, and hanging, drawing and quartering were all public spectacles. Why were audiences so keen to see simulated violence when the real thing was happening just outside the theatre? In all the accounts I have read of Tudor and Jacobean theatre, I have never seen this question addressed. But whatever the reason behind this, simulated stage violence was undoubtedly popular, and the genre of the revenge tragedy seemed a perfect vehicle for giving the audience what it craved.

In the introduction to my Oxford edition, editor Katharine Eisaman Maus spends much time discussing the social distinctions underpinning the drama. The victim of the crime, Horatio, and his avenging father Hieronimo, are, she points out, effectively top ranking civil servants in the court, and are thus somewhat below the aristocratic villains in terms of social ranking. Interesting though this is, I am not convinced that Kyd had any interest in social hierarchies of the court other than as a means to enable the plot. For, obviously, there can be no need for revenge at all if the law may be relied upon to redress the wrong; thus, in any tale of revenge, there must be a good reason why the law cannot be relied upon – either because the law is inefficient, or corrupt, or because, as in the earlier parts of The Oresteia, such a law doesn’t even exist. At the end of The Oresteia the drama is resolved with the establishment of a legal institution capable of redressing wrongs, thus making redundant individual acts of vengeance. But The Oresteia was set in mythical times: The Spanish Tragedy on the other hand, is set in roughly the same time in which the play was written, so some explanation must be provided on this score to make the revenge plot intelligible. And the explanation here seems to be that the villains, occupying a higher social rank than Hieronimo, can block his access to the king. The element of social ranking thus seems to me a plot device more than anything else: certainly, Kyd shows no particular interest in exploring this theme for its own end, and to focus on this element is perhaps to give the play a greater significance than it possesses.

Kyd went on to write a play based on the Hamlet story. This play has not survived, so it is impossible to judge how much Shakespeare took from it; but if Shakespeare did indeed take anything significant from this play, one can only surmise that it was, artistically, a far greater achievement than The Spanish Tragedy. For, in trying to discern what influence if any The Spanish Tragedy may have had on the works of Shakespeare, the answer seems to be – apart from the plot device of the play-within-the-play – “very little”. Amongst other things, Shakespeare doesn’t even seem very interested in the theme of revenge. Apart from the early play Titus Andronicus – in which I cannot see any glimmerings at all of artistic ambition – Hamlet is the only play in the Shakespearean canon in which revenge plays a major role. After that, despite the immense potential of this theme in tragic drama, it appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies only on the periphery of the action rather than at the centre: it is, for instance, Macduff who is motivated by revenge, not Macbeth. Even in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems  uninterested in some of the major aspects of the theme, such as, say, the morality of revenge: once Hamlet is satisfied that the ghost is really the spirit of his father, and that Claudius really is his father’s murderer, this most persistent of questioners never even questions whether or not revenge is morally justified. This issue that so exercised the imaginations of the great Athenian tragedians appears not to have concerned Shsakespeare at all. If Shakespeare’s audiences really did crave revenge tragedy – and the existence of so many plays by his contemporaries in this genre indicates that they did – then Shakespeare seems on the whole to have been swimming against the popular tide in refusing to satisfy them. And if The Spanish Tragedy is indeed representative of the plain from which the peak of Hamlet rises, then, for all the undoubted entertainment value of Kyd’s work, it must be conceded that the height of the peak from the level of the plain is immeasurably great.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Huh, this is not how I remember the play. I guess I need to reread it. I remember a peak, a high peak. Not Hamlet, sure. But it must not be conceded! I do not concede.

    Titus Andronicus is an ambitious play. It is Shakespeare, or whoever, imitating Seneca on the English stage. Kyd’s play is Senecan, too. I’d say forget Aeschylus here. These writers knew nothing about Aeschylus.

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  2. Bloody times, bloody minds. For people who were vulnerable to incredible levels of disease and violence, who lacked security or justice from cradle to grave, a few hours spent murderously taking down villains probably felt pretty good. Anything too tame wouldn’t ring true. Shakespeare was able to take all that bloody angst and channel it away from mindless revenge riffs and into areas of human concern that were more constructive and ennobling.

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    • Hello Janet,

      To judge from popular films and television, a few hours spent murderously taking down villain feels good in our age also! 😉

      I have only just started my exploration of the times, but the age that produced Sidney or Dowland wouldn’t, I guess, be sort of lyricism and gentleness either. To what extent these elements were reflected in the drama of that era I have yet to discover. Admittedly, I didn’t find much in Kyd’s play!

      My best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • It was also the era of Milton and Spenser. Milton found Shakespeare irresistible despite his own reservations about the morally deplorable public theater. There were some really big minds floating around back then, and all the best attributes of humanity are present in its literature, rising above the disease and violence. If you think about modern Westerns, some of the best actually challenge the tropes on which the genre was built. Shakespeare found revenge problematic–maybe he just didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing. It certainly wasn’t squeamishness. Revenge themes do appear in his works but they are playful, as between lovers, or they backfire (Shylock’s pound of flesh, Iago’s jealous scheming), or blow up (Hamlet). Macduff stands out as a revenger (with an actual cause) who gets his man (and doesn’t die at the end). But, as you say, he’s a subplot, a device for giving Macbeth a spectacular exit. And even Macduff doesn’t take up his cause without pointedly bearing some blame himself. What was he thinking, the gallant airhead, running off and leaving his home undefended? Besides, there was a war on and as far as killing Macbeth, it was first come, first served. Macduff would have killed him even without the personal motive. Hamlet is to The Spanish Tragedy as Lawrence of Arabia is to Die Hard. Same medium, different animal.

  3. I thought the uncertainty which mad Hieronimo displays in how to take revenge, or whether to take revenge, was quite akin to Hamlet – but it’s faded a bit in my memory, and Hamlet is even further off.

    Also, I liked the language, which, while not Shakespeare, seemed a cut above a lot of his contemporaries (in the Jonson / Middleton bracket).

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  4. As an example of a peak: Act II, Sc. v, Hieronimo’s discovery.

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  5. Hello Tom and Obooki, if I may answer both of you together:

    When two reading your comments did make me wonder quite seriously what I had missed. What I thought I had read was an exciting story, well crafted and delivered, but lacking in such matters as psychological depth (none of the characters seemed to have much of an inner life), poetic fancy, moral complexity. Which is fine: I am not complaining about the absence of those elements that, as far as I could see, the author never aimed for anyway. But my reaction on reading your comments was, I admit, “What did i miss?”

    i wrote about Titus Andronicus here, and, despite claims sometimes made for it, I could not discern much merit (if any) to the work at all. As i think I said in that post, it’s not so much the violence I object to, but the lack of an adequate response to the violence. The violence in The Spanish Tragedy is nowhere near as extreme,but once again, I could find little evidence of any exploration of either the psychological or the moral ramifications. Kyd’s purpose was no more than to tell a rattling good story. And that he does. But that’s a long way, surely, from Hamlet.

    Hieronimo does wonder whether or not he should carry out the revenge. Hamlet, in contrast, only wonders about that while he is unsure that the ghost he saw was indeed the spirit of his father; once he is settled on that point, he has no doubt that he should indeed carry out the revenge: that is not among the points he ponders. Why he refrains from “sweeping to his revenge” involves psychological complexities way beyond anything we find in Kyd’s play.Here, Hieronio’s ponderings, far from revealing a complex inner life, merely serves the function of the plot: obviously, if he carries out the revenge immediately, the play would finish prematurely, so Kyd has to invent some reason for delaying the denouement.

    Here is the scene in which Hieronimo descovers horatio’s murder:

    HIERO. What outcried pluck me from my naked bed,
    And chill my throbbing hart with trembling feare,
    Which neuer danger yet could daunt before?
    Who cals Hieronimo? speak; heare I am!
    I did not slumber; therefore twas no dreame.
    No, no; it was some woman cride for helpe.
    And heere within this garden did she crie,
    And in this garden must I rescue her.
    But stay! what murderous spectacle is this?
    A man hanged vp, and all the murderers gone!
    And in the bower, to lay the guilt on me!
    This place was made for pleasure not for death.

    He cuts him downe.

    Those garments that he weares I oft haue seene,–
    Alas! it is Horatio, my sweet sonne!
    O, no; but he that whilome was my sonne!
    O, was it thou that call’dst me from my bed?
    O, speak, if any sparke of life remaine!
    I am thy father. Who hath slaine my sonne?
    What sauadge monster, not of humane kinde,
    Hath heere beene glutted with thy harmeles blood,
    And left they bloudie corpes dishonoured heere,
    For me amidst these darke and dreadfull shades
    To drowne thee with an ocean of my teares?
    O heauens, why made you night, to couer sinne?
    By day this deed of darknes had not beene.
    O earth, why didst thou not in time deuoure
    The [vile] prophaner of this sacred bower?
    O poore Horatio, what hadst thou misdoone
    To leese thy life ere life was new begun?
    O wicked butcher, what-so-ere thou wert,
    How could thou strangle vertue and desert?
    Ay me, most wretched! that haue lost my ioy
    In leesing my Horatio, my sweet boy!

    This is theatrically effective, agreed, but in comparison to Shakespeare, I can discern very little depth to the psychology; nor can I see any felicitous turn of phrase likely to stay too long in the mind. Everything in this scene, and in the play, seems to be directed towards advancing the plot, and nothing more. Which, as I say, is fine, but that does seem to me to lack artistic ambition.

    I am obviously missing a lot, aren’t I? Or it could be that I am not in sympathy with the “revenge tragedy” genre. (As I say in my post, I don’t think Shakespeare cared too much for the genre either.) If that is indeed the case, then that certainly is a handicap in setting out toe explore the drama of that era. I shall try to read with a greater sympathy for the traditions of this genre.

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  6. Die Hard is full of felicitous turns of phrase (though I don’t use that kind of language myself) and very little of Lawrence of Arabia is quotable at all. If you read The Spanish Tragedy as stage play, it’s very dramatic and moving. An actor can really knock out:

    O heauens, why made you night, to couer sinne?
    By day this deed of darknes had not beene.

    Though audience members are more likely to quote that touching bit following regrettable nighttime activity not involving murder.

    I would guess fans went about their daily grind, smacking each other playfully with brooms and horsewhips and saying whatever the Kyd equivalent of “Yippee-ki-yay, M*#*%@” was. Kyd, however, didn’t have helicopters and dinosaurs and things to fill in where words are hard and pictures solve everything; he had to do it with meter and alliteration and rhyme. He was no Shakespeare, but he still had an ability to deliver heaps of drama in little more than words.

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    • Hello Janet, the only reference to Shakespeare by Milton I know of is that passage about “warbl[ing] native woodnotes wild”, which does seem a trifle patronising to me. Does Milton indicate a love for Shakespeare anywhere else? I don’t ask this as a rhetorical question – I’m by no means a Milton scholar, and I’d be really interested to know. But yes, there were some extraordinary minds floating around back then. I’d be surprised indeed if Donne had never been to see a Shakespeare play 9and maybe even see Shakespeare act); and I’d be equally surprised if the young Milton, growing up around St Paul’s, had never heard Donne preach. Anthony Burgess’ novel “Enderby’s Dark Lady” opens with Shakespeare and Jonson getting together over a few ales: I like to think that actually happened.

      I agree with you Shakespeare wasn’t squeamish: he’d hardly have written “King Lear” had he been so. But I do fid it interesting that he didn’t seem particularly interested in revenge as a theme. We know very little about Shakespeare the man, of course, and the best way – indeed, the only way – to get some idea of the sort of thing Shakespeare thought about and was most interested in is to examine his works, and see which themes tend to re-appear; and,, equally, which themes don’t. Even in “Hamlet” – the one play of his mature years in which revenge is a central motif – Shakespeare seems quite uninterested in the morality of revenge. This in itself is, I think, interesting.
      I was probably a bit too harsh on “The Spanish Tragedy”: it is certainly an exciting piece of stagecraft. My issue with it is that it seems to contain nothing but the plot; and the plot itself is not so fascinating that it continues to resonate in the mind. It is enjoyable while seen (or read), but, for me at any rate, it doesn’t leave behind much of an aftertaste. But as I say, I am possibly being too harsh, and criticising it for not being what it was never intended to be in the first place.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Hamadri, I’m not a Milton scholar either–just a fan. Milton’s first published poem was “An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, William Sheakespeare.” Not his best effort, by a long shot, but we all gotta start somewhere. Here’s a link that talks a little bit about it: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/on_shakespeare/intro.shtml

        “… Gordon Campbell reckons that Milton’s contribution was solicited for the second folio (1632) commendations because one from his father had appeared in the first folio (1623), and the request represented a significant show of gratitude towards the Milton family. John Milton senior had been a trustee of Blackfriars Theatre, famed as the winter quarters (after 1608) of the King’s Men…. [T]he younger John Milton was just commencing M.A. and had a small but promising reputation as a versifier if not yet a poet.”

        Milton’s own playwriting wasn’t exactly fit for the King’s Men–its original actors were children. Comus is further from Hamlet than The Spanish Tragedy in terms of dramatic action, but closer in the beauty of its language and its intelligence. I want to say that the mature (and deeply religious) Milton distanced himself from theater, but I would have to do some digging to find sources. Certainly, he was aware that Shakespeare had set the bar for English writers, which he considered the greatest ambition a man could have.

      • Opes! Here we go: John Guillory’s Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History. He finds Shakespearean echoes all over Milton’s work (they are not obvious to me, but that isn’t my day job, unfortunately) and argues that Comus’s seductive powers, including the paralyzing power to stick a lady (that is, Milton) to a chair, refer to Shakespeare’s influence over the poet.

      • Thank you very much for this, Janet. I really knew nothing at all of this.

        I read a lot of Milton in my early 20s – including th3e “Big Three”, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes – but these are not works I have lived with. I agree with you fully when you say:

        Comus is further from Hamlet than The Spanish Tragedy in terms of dramatic action, but closer in the beauty of its language and its intelligence.

        I did not, however, catch any echoes of Shakespeare’s language in Milton’s. And, of course, when Milton returned later to dramatic verse (Samson Agonistes) it was a closet drama, to the Greeks he turned for a model rather than to Shakespeare. But I’ll look up John Guillory’s book: it does, I admit, seem unlikelyy that a poet writing so shortly after Shakespeare could be entirely free of his predecessor’s shadow.

        Thank you very much for thr references, and all the best,
        Himadri

  7. “The Tempest” is a revenge play. So is “Coriolanus.” Not “revenge tragedies” but subtle parodies of revenge tragedies.

    Reply

    • Yes, you’re right. Revenge is certainly Coriolanus’ main motivation in the latter part of the play, and is Prospero’s throughout. I’m trying to thinjkk of a “but…” to that, but there isn’t one.

      Reply

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