Plays by Thomas Kyd

The Spanish Tragedy

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Spanish Tragedy can be considered the first great classic from the Elizabethan period of playwriting; for seventy years the story of Hieronimo’s revenge was the most quoted play in English. The play is innovative in its use of blank verse and the deadly play-within-a-play device, and sophisticated in its discussion of the morality of revenge and justice.

The play is introduced by the spirit of Revenge, who promises to show the ghost of Don Andrea his enemies being murdered. Andrea was killed by the heir of Portugal, Balthazar, who was then captured and brought as a prisoner to Spain. Andrea’s lover Bel-Imperia decides that she will revenge Andrea by killing Balthazar, who woos her. She now favours Horatio – the young man who captured Balthazar in battle – but Bel-Imperia’s brother and Balthazar kill Horatio, and hang his corpse in an arbour. It is there that Horatio’s father Hieronimo discovers him, and embarks upon one of the bloodiest and most famous revenge plots in early modern drama.

The Spanish Tragedy was staged at the Rose playhouse from 1592.

Thomas Kyd (1558-94) was an English playwright, about whose life and works little is now known. Kyd was a contemporary of Spenser and a friend of Marlowe. He was criticized by the court poets for his lack of formal education but enjoyed great popularity as a dramatist.

None of his early work having survived, he is chiefly remembered for The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589), the first English revenge tragedy. This violent and bloody play proved extremely popular and was revived after the Restoration in a production remarked upon by Samuel Pepys. Its influence can be seen in English tragedy throughout the 17th century, most notably in Shakespeare's Hamlet, which employs not only the revenge theme but also the use of a play-within-a-play to reveal the identity of the murderer. Largely because of this, Kyd has often been suggested as the most likely author of the so-called 'ur-Hamlet' (c. 1594), a lost play that is known to have supplied many of the basic plot elements of Shakespeare's masterpiece.

In recent years much attention has been paid to Kyd's possible role in the events leading to the death of his friend Christopher Marlowe. In May 1593 Kyd was arrested for possession of a 'heretical' treatise denying the divinity of Christ. Under severe torture he stated that the document had been given him by Marlowe, a noted freethinker who seems to have been the authorities' real target. Kyd's evidence led to an arrest warrant being issued against Marlowe, who was killed in murky circumstances a few weeks later. Kyd himself never recovered from his treatment in prison and died the following year.