Act 1, Scene 1
The Ghost of Andrea enters the scene to deliver a monologue and put forth the premises of the play. When he was alive, the Ghost states, he served as a courtier in the Spanish court. In the prime of his youth he engaged in a secret love affair with the Duke of Castile's daughter, Bellimperia. Spain's war with Portugal, however, ended his blissful days and separated him from his love. The Ghost recounts how Don Andrea was slain in battle and his soul descended to the gates of the underworld, where it had to wait three days for the Marshall's son Horatio to perform the rites of burial.
Andrea's body properly buried, his soul made its way past Cerberus (the three-headed dog guarding the gate to Hades), only to find itself in front of the three judges of the underworld: Minos, Aeacus and Rhadamanth. Minos declared that Don Andrea lived and died in love, prompting Aeacus to vote to send him to the "fields of love." Rhadamanth dissented, however, claiming that Don Andrea died in war and should thus go to the "martial fields" instead. Minos finally deferred judgment to Pluto, lord of the underworld. The soul of Andrea proceeded through the underworld, passing by many horrifying sights before arriving at Pluto's tower in the middle of a fair Elysian field. He encountered Pluto, but it was the queen of Hades Proserpine who passed his final judgment.
As it turns out, the Ghost was addressing the character Revenge as much as the audience. Once the Queen bade Revenge to lead Don Andrea's soul through the gates of horn, he found himself in his current place. Rather than an explanation for the turn of events, Revenge responds with a promise: the Ghost will see Balthazar - who took Andrea's life - killed by Bellimperia. The two then sit down as spectators to a play. Revenge states: "Here sit we down to see the mystery, / And serve for Chorus in this tragedy."
Act 1, Scene 2
The King of Spain enters with his brother the Duke of Castile, the Marshall Hieronimo, and a General. The King asks for a battle report, and the General declares that Spain achieved victory with little loss to itself. Portugal will honor Spain and its tribute. The King then requests a more detailed account of the military success and the General gladly obliges. After painting a picture of the battlefield in its poetic glory as well as its grim details, the General says that Don Andrea and his men fought so bravely as to push the Portuguese soldiers into retreat. The Portuguese prince, Balthazar, challenged Andrea and killed him, but Hieronimo's son Horatio, in turn, defeated Balthazar and took him prisoner, effectively assuring the Spanish victory.
After hearing the good news reconfirmed, the King rewards the General with a chain. The latter states that a "peace conditional" has been reached with Portugal, whereby the Spanish forces will keep their peace so long as Portugal pays its tribute. The King then turns to Hieronimo and promises him and his son a reward. At this point a trumpet sounds, and the army files through the King's hall. Balthazar marches between Horatio and the Duke's son Lorenzo. The King calls for Balthazar to be brought before him and dismisses everyone else, granting every soldier two ducats and every leader ten as a reward.
The Portuguese prince presents himself meekly before the Spanish King, who receives him magnanimously: Balthazar shall be kept in Spain, well and alive, though not at liberty per se. At this point the King asks whether it is Horatio or Lorenzo who holds Balthazar prisoner. The two argue over the privilege, each vaunting his own accomplishment in capturing the prince. While Balthazar submits himself to both of the young men, Hieronimo speaks in his son's favor. The King finally pronounces his decision: Lorenzo will hold Balthazar captive and receive his weapons and horse; Horatio will receive the prince's armor, as well as his ransom. Before retiring, the King encourages Horatio to visit Balthazar, as the prince seems to think very fondly of him.
Act 1, Scene 3
The scene shifts to Portugal, where the Viceroy laments his misfortune in front of two noblemen, Alexandro and Villuppo. After confirming that an ambassador has been sent to Spain with the required tribute, the Viceroy prostrates himself on the ground. This way, he declares, his fortunes can no fall no further. The Viceroy continues to grieve over his misfortunes and in particular over the loss of his son - if only he himself could have been killed, instead of Balthazar! Alexandro hastens to inform the King that his son is most likely still alive: the prince has been taken prisoner, and his ransom will probably assure his life.
Villuppo, however, tells a different tale. After insuring against the King's wrath for being the messenger of bad news, Villuppo claims that he saw Balthazar engaged in battle with the Spanish General, whereupon Alexandro shot the prince in the back. Despite Alexandro's vehement protest, the Viceroy is inclined to believe Villuppo. His nightly dreams, the Viceroy says, have confirmed Villuppo's claim that the Spanish dragged Balthazar's body to their tents.
The Viceroy thus turns to Alexandro and accuses him of treachery, speculating that he was blinded by either the Spanish gold or his eventual claim to the throne. The Viceroy takes his crown off and puts it on again, declaring that he will wear it until Alexandro's blood has been spilled. He sends Alexandro to prison and promises Villuppo a reward. The latter delivers a short soliloquy to conclude the scene, revealing desire for a reward as his motive for treachery.
Act 1, Scene 4
Back in Spain, Bellimperia entreats Horatio to explain to her the circumstances of Don Andrea's death. Horatio states that Andrea was engaged with Balthazar in a fierce duel when the goddess Nemesis, envious of Andrea's "praise and worth," came to Balthazar's aid. The Portuguese prince, thus at an unfair advantage, was able to kill Andrea before Horatio could come to his rescue. Horatio then explains that he honored the corpse with a proper funeral, only taking a scarf as a keepsake. Bellimperia, whose last gift to her lover was the very same scarf, promises Horatio her gratitude and friendship. Horatio in turn promises to serve the lady and leaves to look for Balthazar. Alone on stage, Bellimperia admits her "second love" for Horatio and resolves to seek out proper vengeance on the Portuguese prince.
Lorenzo and Balthazar enter to find Bellimperia all alone in a melancholic mood. In a series of short exchanges, Balthazar professes his love for the fair Bellimperia. Just as Bellimperia drops her glove, however, Horatio enters the scene to pick it up for her. Lorenzo promises to dispel his sister's cloudy mood, and the three men head to the feast welcoming the Portuguese ambassador.
Act 1, Scene 5
The King of Spain welcomes the Portuguese ambassador. The ambassador is glad to see that Balthazar is alive and well, contrary to his expectations. All sit down to the banquet, whereupon Hieronimo enters to stage a masque.
Three knights enter the stage and take three kings captive by removing their crowns. Hieronimo takes the first knight's escutcheon ("scutcheon") and gives it to the first king; according to Hieronimo's narration, the knight plays the Earl of Gloucester, who once conquered Portugal and made it bear the English monarchy's coat of arms. The same performance takes place for the second knight and king, between England and Portugal, respectively. The third pair, however, represents the Duke of Lancaster conquering the King of Spain.
History shows, therefore, that neither party need be insulted by the outcome of the recent battle. After the masque, the King praises Hieronimo for pleasing both the Portuguese ambassador and himself.
Act 1, Scene 6
Finding nothing pleasant in the sight of Balthazar feasting merrily, the Ghost of Andrea asks Revenge why they have been watching the above events unfold. As a response, Revenge concludes the act with an ominous presage:
I'll turn their friendship into fell despite,
Their love to mortal hate, their day to night,
Their hope into despair, their peace to war,
Their joys to pain, their bliss to misery. (I.i.6-9)
F. S. Boas believes that "few passages in Elizabethan literature were so often quoted and caricatured" as the opening lines of The Spanish Tragedy (393):
When this eternal substance of my soul
Did live imprison'd in my wanton flesh,
Each in their function serving other's need,
I was a courtier in the Spanish court:
My name was Don Andrea. (I.i.1-5)
"Caricatured" is a misleading word. As Arthur Freeman suggests, the parodies may be akin to the innumerable burlesques on Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" (81). The corollary of such a parallel is that Kyd's opening lines may reflect a profound truth about human existence. In the world of the play, at least, the soul and the flesh exist as separate entities, each dependant on the other. Though the soul may be eternal, it cannot escape the prison of the flesh. The two exist therefore in a sort of mutualism, but one in which conflicts certainly arise: the passions of the "wanton flesh" may at times lead the soul in undesirable directions.
The descent into the underworld narrated by the Ghost of Andrea recalls that of Aeneas's descent in Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid. It is noteworthy, however, that Revenge takes the Ghost through the gates of horn. The gates refer to the following famous passage in the Aeneid:
There are two gates of Sleep, one said to be
Of horn, whereby the true shades pass with ease,
The other all white ivory agleam
Without a flaw, and yet false dreams are sent
Through this one by the ghosts to the upper world. (vi. 1211-1215)
Aeneas passes through the ivory gates of "false dreams." What does it mean, then, for the Ghost to have come through the gates of horn?
The question seems to be intimately bound up with the "theatricality" of the main play. In other words, the Ghost and Revenge sit down to watch a play that unfolds before their eyes. While the exposition progresses from the second to the fifth scene, they are spectators invisible to the characters as well as to the audience. But as spectators, they also walk on the same stage as the characters in the first and last scene of the act. To complicate matters further, Revenge indicates that he has foresight as well as control over the events of the play. All of this is suggestive of a parallel between the actual audience and the two spectators. The audience, after all, could potentially fulfill the roles of Ghost and Revenge - as actors, a playwright, or simply one who knows how the play will end. The gates of horn, then, may attest to the proximity of the play to reality - at least in a symbolic sense.
It is not clear, however, whether an objective "reality" can exist even in the world of The Spanish Tragedy. The events surrounding Balthazar in the battle, for example, are hopelessly confused in the opening act. The Lord General tells a poetic but vague story of a "single fight" between Horatio and Balthazar; both Horatio and Lorenzo each tell a version that contradicts the General's version, and in Portugal Villuppo invents an entirely different version altogether. When recounting the turn of events to Bellimperia, furthermore, Horatio claims that the goddess Nemesis granted divine aid to Balthazar in defeating Andrea. Perhaps it makes the most sense to first follow the General's version, and then to assume that Lorenzo and Horatio both fought Balthazar. But it may also be a mistake to believe that everything should make sense.
In a play that's premise is a seemingly whimsical decision passed by the Queen of Hades, the plot may not necessarily follow a clear linear progression. The existence of a "higher" (inaccessible) order finds a loose parallel in Hieronimo's masque. The Marshall pleases both his king and the Portuguese ambassador by showing that both of their countries have been previously conquered by English forces (the history told is only partly accurate, but surely would have pleased an English audience). History, in a large sense, is composed of small stories. With such a perspective, neither Spain nor Portugal should worry about the recent battle. But this larger history usually remains inaccessible; the King "sound[s] not well the mystery" until Hieronimo explains the significance of the masque. Plays-within-plays, most of them simply dumb shows, will be important throughout the play.
In light of the above, the world of The Spanish Tragedy becomes unstable and volatile. The King, who so spontaneously rewards the General with a chain, does not quite know how to deal with Horatio and Lorenzo. Before issuing an awkward partition of their reward for capturing Balthazar, he must first reaffirm his authority: "Will both abide the censure of my doom"? Across the border, the Portuguese Viceroy finds himself on even more unstable sands. The evidence that inspires him to believe Villuppo's story instead of Alexandro's is nothing but his oneiric visions. And his dreams, as the audience perceives, are simply false. Moreover, his interpretation of the vision as confirming Villuppo's accusation remains entirely whimsical. Or perhaps not only does "evil news fly faster still than good"; it also flies with more credibility. In any case, the Viceroy undermines his own authority in the opening act of the play. This is symbolically reflected in his removal of the crown - which he immediately puts back on. The sovereign who abdicates his own power, if such a thing is possible, should not have the authority to take back the same sovereignty.
The exposition, then, has set up an explosive potential for murder, hate, and revenge, coupled with love. With Bellimperia, love and revenge will merge together in a sub-plot surrounding Horatio. The action of the play, however, has just only begun. As the Ghost duly notes, the promised death of Balthazar is still nowhere in sight. But Revenge promises much more than his initial statement - indeed, a massively chaotic event that will turn the order of things upside down.