"The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd

Categories: Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy stands among the first group of Elizabethan plays now known as the Tragedies of Revenge. To present his theme Kyd has structured the play masterfully. Not only are the ironies brilliantly cultivated but also the episodes are contrived with striking skill to reflect and balance each other. Mingling the themes of love, conspiracy, murder and revenge, Kyd found a way of adapting some of the main elements of Senecan tragedy to roaring melodrama. Kyd showed a singular genius in combining the popular with the academic tradition, with knowledge of the limitations and possibilities of the theatre of the day.

The Spanish Tragedy is the first, and in its own melodramatic way the most powerful of the revenge plays which so captured the Elizabethan and the Jacobean imagination. It opens with a prologue, in which the ghost of Andrea, a Spanish nobleman slain in battle against the Portuguese prince, Balthazar, tells how Proserpine in Hades has promised him revenge against his slayer and Revenge, a spirit who accompanies him confirms that he will see vengeance duly executed on Balthazar.

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But in fact, though revenge is a main theme in the play, it is only incidentally Andrea’s revenge, and the prologue is somewhat misleading.

Its heroic plot involving murder, frenzy, and sudden death gave the play a great and lasting popularity. Kyd could translate an exciting story into a tense series of striking situations effectively lined by suspense and surprise. He was a man of theatre and a skilled dramatic craftsman.

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He provides for a clear external conflict, in turn, causes division and habitation in the heart of the hero and thus united plot and character, so that the development of the action is the outcome of the clash and interplay of these elements.

The plot develops through a series of situations and reaches the culmination of its horror in the last powerful scene. The management of the plot involves an artistic creation and the prolongation of ‘suspense’ which is the soul of dramatic action. In course of this development, the character of the hero is clearly revealed and it undergoes a process of subtle change till the good and pious man of the opening part is transformed into a crafty and heartless man of blood who can murder even the innocent old father of his victim without the least scruple.

A brief analysis of the Spanish Tragedy proves that in Kyd a dramatist had arisen capable of devising a well-sustained plot. Kyd was successful in his attempt to reconcile the classic and native styles of drama in this play. He had a strong marked sense of theatre and managed to fuse the heterogeneous and discordant elements of earlier types of play and from them produced a striking and original composition that is his own. The machinery of his play was mainly borrowed from the Senecan school.

It was from it that he drew the ghost and under its influence he frequently employed the Chorus and put classical quotations into the mouth of his characters. The plot of the Spanish Tragedy is artistically constructed and the threads of the action are skillfully interwoven and made complicated. Although a number of subsidiary plots are introduced, the course of the main plot remains clear. The Alexandro – Villupo incident forms part of the justice among them, the Pendringano - Serberine does the same, and also leads back, through the letter device, to the revenge theme.

The mime presented by Hieronimo (Act I, scene iv) and the dumb show of revenge (Act III scene xv) may seem extraneous, but they perform several functions. They present spectacle and melodrama mixed with patriotism. They also illustrate Hieronimo’s dramatic talent in preparing for the final play – scene and foreshadow the catastrophe in store for Spain and Portugal. Kyd also uses the necessary delay in revenge to create and maintain suspense. The question is “who killed Horatio? ” the situation evolves into a battle of wits, with Hieronimo trying to find out, Lorenzo to conceal, the truth.

The conflict is drawn out by the discovery of Pedringano’s and Bel-Imperia’s letters, Hieronimo’s suspicion of a trap, Lorenzo’s counter action in preventing access to the king, the apparent reconciliation of Lorenzo and Hieronimo and finally Hieronimo’s play device. The play within the play is an example of Kyd’s structural artifice. There is certain appropriateness in Bel-Imperia playing Perseda, Balthazar playing Soliman and Hieronimo playing the Bashaw. They exact in these parts, roles that are parallel to their actions in the main play. The plot is also structured with intrigues, ironies and suspense.

Truth is gradually vindicated in the matter of Villupo, or the death of Serberine, or the killing of Horatio. The examination of the plot of the Spanish Tragedy confirms Kyd as the master of theatrical niceties. He knows how to use stage action to underline the symmetries of the plot. That is how the whole range of the play’s action is carefully linked. Revenge as the prime mover of Kyd’s play is undoubtedly a Senecan theme. Kyd shares with Seneca a certain interest in bloodshed and various kinds of horror; though the Spanish Tragedy is quite free of exaggerated relish of such matters.

Moreover, Kyd quotes Seneca directly, makes use of Senecan tags in translation and owes a general stylistic debt to Senecan rhetoric; his use of stichomythia (answering single sentence of verse in dialogue) is a Senecan technique: Bel-Imperia : Why stands Horatio speechless all this while? Horatio : The less I speak the more I meditate Bel-Imperia : But whereon dost thou chiefly meditate? Horatio : On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue. Balthazar : On pleasures past, and dangers to ensue. Bel-Imperia : What dangers, and what pleasures dost thou mean?

Horatio : Dangers of war, and pleasures of our love. (Act II scene ii 24-30) These structural qualities added of the effect of the presentation of the theme most vibrantly. In and around the Elizabethan age, revenge was the chief motive of tragedy because it touched upon important social and political problems of the day. The credit of the originator of English revenge tragedy undoubtedly rests with Kyd, illustrating the moral law. Each major character in the Spanish Tragedy has been the victim of some wrong and seeks revenge. The play’s action is set in motion and is sustained by revenge intrigues.

Andrea seeks revenge for his death in the battle at the hands of Balthazar. Balthazar and Lorenzo seek revenge on Horatio for winning Bel-Imperia’s love. Hieronimo pursues vengeance for the murder of his son. From these intrigues develop all the rest of the play’s narrative. Hence passion for vengeance and retribution becomes the hall mark of this great tragedy. The motif revenge is clear from the very beginning of the play, and there are frequent references to it throughout the play. When Horatio is killed, there follows the following dialogue between his parents:

Isabella: What world of grief: my son Horatio, O, where’s the author of this endless woe? Hieronimo: To know the author were some ease of grief; for in revenge my heart must find relief. (Act II scene iv 101-04) Hieronimo tells his wife that he will keep the bloody handkerchief till he takes revenge. All the soliloquies of Hieronimo after this contain references to revenge; his thoughts are fiercely inflamed; his frame of mind steps to unfrequented paths; he feels he is being dragged into revenge; both night and day are driving him to seek the murderer of his son.

He is very much tormented and is on the verge of complete madness. In the beginning Hieronimo does not want revenge unlawfully. But later he comes to the conclusion that he will not have justice justly. Then he decides to have it by all means, fair or foul. Yet at the same time, he wants to maintain the secrecy of his designs. Other characters like Andrea, Bel-Imperia, Balthazar and Lorenzo also seek revenge for their own reasons. The revenge theme in the play also offers a convenient way for dramatizing human conflict and competition. The degree of revenge is not always supported by justice in the play.

Revenge is a more personal matter, a matter more of emotional satisfaction, to which justice may contribute, but which may not always involve the interests of law and society. When Hieronimo protests the seeming absence of heavenly justice he is protesting the failure of human courts to bring his son’s murderers to justice. Though heaven seems to listen to the wrongs rather than the good, it is not shown as completely of equity in favor of the more selfish and emotional satisfaction of revenge. Many critics are of the opinion that the play’s chief theme is not revenge but the problem of justice.

Hieronimo is a judge himself but instances of misjudgements occurs repeatedly in the play. But then justice and revenge are not really separate issues. Francis Bacon, the father of English prose was of the opinion that revenge is a kind of wild justice. His opinion holds very true in this context. A man decides to take revenge when he loses faith in the machinery of justice, or the degree of wrong done to him is acute and unbearable. So the revenge motif of the play can be justified to some extend. The introduction of a character named ‘Revenge’ in the Spanish Tragedy further certified the theme of revenge.

The play within the play in the Spanish Tragedy is presented within its own framing device: the essentials of its main character and plotter ‘Revenge’, in connection with the murdered Andrea, who has taken place on the stage throughout, and is offering a lively commentary on all the happenings on it and is in fact directing the whole thing. This adds to the great appeal of the structural qualities of the whole play. What offers uniqueness to this technique is that in true effect revenge becomes the author and director of the play, forced by something that is much beyond the so-called good and evil.

We see a painting of the murder scene ordered by Hieronimo being described so beautifully that it emerges before our eyes as a mental painting brought into life. He says: “Well, sir; then bring me forth, bring me through alley and alley, still with a distracted countenance going along, and let my hair heave up my night-cap. Let the Clouds scowl, make the Moon dark, the Stars extinct, the Winds blowing, the Bells tolling, the Owls shrieking, the Toads croaking, the minutes jarring, and the clock striking twelve.

And than at last, sir, starting, behold a man hanging, and tottering, and tottering, as you know the wind will wave a man, and I with a trice to cut him down. And looking upon him by the advantage of my torch, find it to be my son horatio. There you may [show] a passion. Draw me like old Priam of Troy, crying: ‘the house is a-fire, the house is a-fire, as the torch over my head! ’ make me curse, make me rave, make me cry, make me mad, make me well again, make me curse hell, invocate heaven, and in the end leave me in a trance – and so forth. ” (III. xii. 1038A-1053A)

Delicate, mottled and at times shocking are the dramatical devices used by in his ¬the Spanish Tragedy. Of all the scenes the most appreciated ones are the play-within play and the on-stage exposure of Horatio’s dead body. To add to the effect, Kyd uses the most appropriate language to invoke the muse of artistic theatricality. Being at times delicate and at times direct, the language of Kyd in the Spanish Tragedy is highly commended by critics all over the world as it adds to the charm of the structural beauty of the play. Overtaxing images and metaphors never tend to irritate the audience nor the readers in this play.

Hence we come across simple and direct language as the structure that is tailor made for a play that is so jam-packed with action. A great extent of the play’s recognition unquestionably comes from its most efficient structural qualities and its innovative modernity.

Works Cited

Braunmuller A. R. , and Michael Hattaway, The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003. Clemen, Wolfgang. English Tragedy Before Shakespeare, Methuen and company, London, 1955. Erne, Lucas. Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd, Manchester University Press, England, 2001

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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"The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd. (2016, Nov 28). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-spanish-tragedy-by-thomas-kyd-essay

"The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd essay
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