The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy Themes

Death Wish

Of the nine deaths that occur on stage (not including Villuppo's and Andrea's), three of them are suicides. Of the three, Isabella and Hieronimo's suicides are the realization of a death wish expressed throughout the play: they desire to join Horatio in death. But this wish is not repeated by the Viceroy, an equally loving father. This difference is intriguing, as Hieronimo and his wife have a reason to delay their deaths (they must exact revenge), whereas nothing holds back the Viceroy-or so it seems. The lack of a real death wish may reflect a politically-oriented part of his character that complicates his desire to live in solitude after he discovers that Balthazar is still alive. Finally, Bellimperia's suicide remains an unexplained aspect of the play. Why does she unnecessarily keep to her role in Hieronimo's play-within-a-play? Hieronimo's explanation that she loved Andrea too much is unsatisfactory at best. Her death thus shows a vague but strong link between the fulfillment of revenge and the death wish.


The Spanish Tragedy is a revenge tragedy. Its very premise is put forth by the character from the underworld named Revenge. But what exactly is revenge? A principle, an act, a desire for satisfaction, or something else altogether? The premise of the play may suggest that revenge is indeed an arbitrary matter. Andrea, after all, was slain in battle by Balthazar, and this does not seem reason enough for the large-scale revenge tragedy that follows. In any case, Hieronimo, Bellamira-and to an extent Balthazar-all act out of the desire for revenge. The play-within-a-play in the fourth act marks the culmination of this desire. The acting of revenge resolves all the tensions of the play in one blow. Incidentally, the term "avenge" did not carry the modern-day connotation of the act of inflicting punishment as retributive justice; like the connotation of "revenge" today, it also pointed to the infliction of pain in retaliation for a real or imaginary wrong.


Betrayal is an important force in the play. Villuppo's betrayal of Alexandro parallels Lorenzo's betrayal of Horatio-which ostensibly gives birth to the revenge tragedy. Revenge and betrayal therefore go hand in hand. But as opposed to revenge, betrayal can be questioned for its motives. In some cases the motives are clear: Villuppo betrays his fellow nobleman for gold and royal preference; Lorenzo betrays Serberine and Pedringano in order to silence them forever; Bellimperia betrays her brother and Balthazar for love and revenge. It is not so clear, however, why Lorenzo lures Balthazar into betraying Horatio (it would make more sense if Balthazar were the one who plotted the murder). Even more mysterious is Hieronimo's killing of the Duke-an act that betrays his country and must be called murder. Perhaps this final action must be understood in light of Hieronimo's silence, as the Duke attempts to make him betray the cryptic "thing which [he has] vowed inviolate." The play is testament, in any case, to the ubiquity of betrayal in places burdened by power and wealth.


Much of the play centers around questions of justice and injustice. The King must justly divide the reward for Balthazar's capture; the Viceroy punishes Alexandro for injustice (which is itself later revealed to be unjust); Hieronimo is called upon to grant justice as the Marshall of Spain, but the King does not serve justice when it comes to Horatio's murder. Through all of the above-as well as other instances-the play returns to the ancient question of justice. Perhaps most famously in The Republic, Socrates discusses its elusive nature: what exactly is justice? Although Hieronimo believes that it can be found in heaven, justice is inextricably linked to revenge in the play-and revenge comes from the underworld. As such, it remains an obscure principle.

Love and Hate

One of Revenge's claims is that he will turn "love to mortal hate." The two resemble the two faces of a coin: one is present where the other is absent. Andrea's love for Bellimperia, for example, instills in Bellimperia a hate for Balthazar. This in turn motivates her to find "second love" in Andrea's friend Horatio, as the young man will further her hate. But this second love itself soon transforms into hate, as Lorenzo and Balthazar murder Horatio. In a similar fashion, the various expressions of love in hate in the play can all be linked together. It is curious that two emotions so diametrically opposed should be found in such proximity. One must undergo a violent transformation to move from love to hate, and perhaps such movements give birth to the powerful drives called madness and revenge.


In anticipation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hieronimo and Isabella both become mad after Horatio is murdered - Hieronimo in an active, rampant manner, and Isabella in a passive, oppressed way. Hieronimo's case is particularly interesting, as his madness both propels and delays the tragedy. His paroxysms manifest in soliloquies, and his strange visions build tension, at the same time effectively pushing back the final act of revenge. The sickness therefore serves both as a psychological effect and as a dramatic device. In a similar vein, Hieronimo seems to sometimes forget his purpose over the course of the long third act - only to be reminded by the words "Horatio" or "murder." Is it possible for a memory so strong to be periodically suppressed? Perhaps the memory must protect itself against the death wish so clearly manifest in Hieronimo's dagger and halter.

Theatricality and Obscurity

Two dumb shows occur in the play: the first, one that Hieronimo stages for the King, and the second, one that Revenge stages for the Ghost. Dumb shows, at least in The Spanish Tragedy, are marked by their relative obscurity. They must be explained verbally to be understood. In this sense, both Hieronimo's frantic act of digging in Act 3 Scene and the play-within-a-play that he stages in Act 4 Scene 4 are like dumb shows. Accompanied by disjointed or foreign dialogue, they cannot be comprehended without further explanation. What is the purpose, then, of staging such shows? The first masque, at least, has entertainment value. The second could have just as easily been put into words by Revenge. In the third Hieronimo undermines his appeal to the King. And the play-within-a-play, though ostensibly logical in the plot, remains a decidedly strange way to exact revenge. However, it is precisely because of their strangeness and ambiguity that the four shows are central to the tragedy. They show that many events can be baffling - and so can words, as the royal audience's incomprehension of Hieronimo in the last act shows. Reality, perhaps, is not merely represented but presented on stage: it is something incomprehensible to the players, yet sensible from the vantage point of the chorus.