The Spanish Tragedy


The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again[1] is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Thomas Kyd between 1582 and 1592. Highly popular and influential in its time, The Spanish Tragedy established a new genre in English theatre, the revenge play or revenge tragedy. Its plot contains several violent murders and includes as one of its characters a personification of Revenge. The Spanish Tragedy was often referred to (or parodied) in works by other Elizabethan playwrights, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe.

Many elements of The Spanish Tragedy, such as the play-within-a-play used to trap a murderer and a ghost intent on vengeance, appear in Shakespeare's Hamlet. (Thomas Kyd is frequently proposed as the author of the hypothetical Ur-Hamlet that may have been one of Shakespeare's primary sources for Hamlet.)


In the "Induction" to his play Bartholomew Fair (1614), Ben Jonson alludes to The Spanish Tragedy as being "five and twenty or thirty years" old. If taken literally, this would yield a date range of 1584–89 – a range that agrees with what else is known about the play. However, the exact date of composition is unknown, though it is speculated that it was written somewhere between 1583 and 1591. Most evidence points to a completion date before 1588, noting that the play makes no reference to the Spanish Armada, and because of possible allusions to the play in Nashe's Preface to Greene's Menaphon from 1589 and The Anatomie of Absurdity from 1588–89. Due to this evidence, the year 1587 remains the most likely year for completion of the play.[2]


Lord Strange's Men staged a play that the records call Jeronimo on 23 February 1592 at The Rose for Philip Henslowe,[3] and repeated it sixteen times to 22 January 1593; it was their big hit of the season. It is unlikely, however, that the performance in February 1592 was the play's first performance, as Henslowe did not mark it as 'ne' (new).[3] It is unclear whether Jeronimo was The Spanish Tragedy, or The First Part of Hieronimo (printed in 1604), the anonymous "prequel" to Kyd's play, or perhaps either on different days.

The Admiral's Men revived Kyd's original on 7 January 1597, and performed it twelve times to 19 July; they staged another performance conjointly with Pembroke's Men on 11 October the same year. The records of Philip Henslowe suggest that the play was on stage again in 1601 and 1602. English actors performed the play on tour in Germany (1601), and both German and Dutch adaptations were made.[4]

The Spanish Tragedy was performed at London's National Theatre, first in 1982 at the Cottesloe Theatre, then in 1984 at the Lyttelton Theatre.[5]

The Royal Shakespeare Company performed The Spanish Tragedy in May 1997 at the Swan Theatre, with Siobhan Redmond as Bel-Imperia, Robert Glenister as Lorenzo and Peter Wright as Hieronimo. The production later transferred to The Pit at London's Barbican in November 1997.[6]


Kyd's play was entered into the Stationers' Register on 6 October 1592 by the bookseller Abel Jeffes. The play was published in an undated quarto, almost certainly before the end of 1592; this first quarto was printed by Edward Allde — and published not by the copyright holder Jeffes, but by another bookseller, Edward White. On 18 December that year, the Stationers Company ruled that both Jeffes and White had broken the guild's rules by printing works that belonged to the other; both men were fined 10 shillings, and the offending books were destroyed, so that Q1 of The Spanish Tragedy survives in only a single copy. Yet the Q1 title page refers to an even earlier edition; this was probably by Jeffes, and no known copy exists.[7]

The popular play was reprinted in 1594; in an apparent compromise between the competing booksellers, the title page of Q2 credits the edition to "Abell Jeffes, to be sold by Edward White." On 13 August 1599, Jeffes transferred his copyright to William White, who issued the third edition that year. White in turn transferred the copyright to Thomas Pavier on 14 August 1600 and Pavier issued the fourth edition (printed for him by William White) in 1602. This 1602 Q4 featured five additions to the preexisting text (see below). Q4 was reprinted in 1610, 1615 (two issues), 1618, 1623 (two issues), and 1633.[4]


All of the early editions are anonymous. The first indication that the author of the play was Kyd was in 1773 when Thomas Hawkins, the editor of a three-volume play-collection, cited a brief quotation from The Spanish Tragedy in Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (1612), which Heywood attributes to "M. Kid".[3][8] The style of The Spanish Tragedy is considered such a good match with Kyd's style in his other extant play, Cornelia (1593), that scholars and critics have universally recognised Kyd's authorship.

In 2013, scholar Douglas Bruster theorised that some awkward wordings in the "Additional Passages" of the 1602 fourth edition resulted from printers' errors in setting type from the (now lost) original manuscript. Furthermore, after examining the "Hand D" manuscript (widely accepted as in Shakespeare's handwriting) from the play Sir Thomas More, Bruster opined that the speculated printers' errors could have resulted from reading a manuscript written by someone with Shakespeare's "messy" handwriting, thus bolstering the likelihood that Shakespeare wrote the Additional Passages.[9]


Many writers influenced The Spanish Tragedy, notably Seneca and those from the Medieval tradition. The play is ostensibly Senecan with its bloody tragedy, rhetoric of the horrible, the character of the Ghost and typical revenge themes.[10]:27 The characters of the Ghost of Andrea and Revenge form a chorus similar to that of Tantalus and Fury in Seneca's Thyestes.[10]:27 The Ghost describes his journey into the underworld and calls for punishment at the end of the play that has influences from Thyestes, Agamemnon and Phaedra.[10]:33 The use of onomastic rhetoric is also Senecan, with characters playing upon their names, as Hieronimo does repeatedly.[11] Hieronimo also references the Senecan plays, Agamemnon and Troades, in his monologue in Act 3, scene 13. The character of the Old Man, Senex, is seen as a direct reference to Seneca.[12]

The play also subverts typically Senecan qualities such as the use of a ghost character. In Kyd the Ghost is part of the chorus, unlike in Thyestes where the Ghost leaves after the prologue. Also, the Ghost is not a functioning prologue as he does not give the audience information about the major action on stage nor its conclusion.[10]:33 The Ghost is similar to those in metrical (meaning in meter form) medieval plays who return from the dead to talk about their downfall and offer commentary on the action. Revenge is akin to a medieval character that acts as a guide for those on a journey.[13]


The Spanish Tragedy was enormously influential, and references and allusions to it abound in the literature of its era. Ben Jonson mentions "Hieronimo" in the Induction to his Cynthia's Revels (1600), and quotes from the play in Every Man in His Humour (1598), Act I, scene iv. In Satiromastix (1601), Thomas Dekker suggests that Jonson, in his early days as an actor, himself played Hieronimo.

Allusions continue for decades after the play's origin, including references in Thomas Tomkis's Albumazar (1615), Thomas May's The Heir (1620), and as late as Thomas Rawlins's The Rebellion (c. 1638).[14]

In modern times, T. S. Eliot quoted the title and the play in his poem The Waste Land.[15] The play also appears in Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow.

Dramatis personæ
Figures in the Frame
  • The ghost of Don ANDREA
  • An embodiment of REVENGE
  • The Spanish KING
  • The Duke of CASTILE, Don Cyprian, the King's brother
  • Don Lorenzo, the Duke of Castile's son
  • Bel-imperia, the Duke of Castile's daughter
  • PEDRINGANO, Bel-imperia's servant
  • CHRISTOPHIL, Don Lorenzo's servant
  • Don Lorenzo's PAGE boy
  • Don Hieronimo, Knight Marshal of Spain
  • His wife, ISABELLA
  • Don HORATIO, their son
  • A SERVANT to Don Hieronimo
  • Isabella's MAID
  • Don BAZULTO, an elderly man
  • GENERAL of the Spanish army
  • Three WATCHMEN
  • Three CITIZENS
  • The Portuguese VICEROY
  • Prince BALTHAZAR, his son
  • Don PEDRO, brother to the Viceroy
  • ALEXANDRO and VILLUPPO, Portuguese noblemen
  • The Portuguese AMBASSADOR
  • SERBERINE, Balthazar's serving-man
  • Two NOBLEMEN of Portugal
  • Two PORTUGUESE citizens (Portingales)

Before the play begins, the Viceroy of Portugal rebelled against Spanish rule. A battle took place in which the Portuguese were defeated and their leader, the Viceroy's son Balthazar, killed the Spanish officer Andrea before being taken captive by the Spanish. Andrea's ghost and the spirit of Revenge are present onstage throughout the entirety of the play and serve as chorus. At the beginning of each act, Andrea bemoans the series of injustices that have taken place and then Revenge reassures him that those deserving will get their comeuppance. There is also a subplot concerning the enmity of two Portuguese noblemen, one of whom attempts to convince the Viceroy that his rival has murdered the missing Balthazar.

The King's nephew Lorenzo and Andrea's best friend Horatio dispute over who captured Balthazar. Though it is made clear early on that Horatio defeated Balthazar and Lorenzo has essentially cheated his way into taking partial credit, the King leaves Balthazar in Lorenzo's charge and splits the spoils of the victory between the two. Horatio comforts Lorenzo's sister, Bel-imperia, who was in love with Andrea against her family's wishes; despite her former feelings for Andrea, Bel-imperia soon falls for Horatio. Her courtship with Horatio is motivated partially by her desire for revenge. Bel-imperia intends to torment an amorous Balthazar, who killed her former lover.

As Balthazar is in love with Bel-imperia, the royal family decides that their marriage would be an excellent way to repair the peace with Portugal. Horatio's father, the Marshal Hieronimo, stages an entertainment for the Portuguese ambassador. Lorenzo, suspecting that Bel-Imperia has found a new lover, bribes her servant Pedringano and discovers that Horatio is the man. He persuades Balthazar to help him murder Horatio during an assignation with Bel-Imperia. Hieronimo and his wife Isabella find the body of their son hanged and stabbed, and Isabella is driven mad. Revisions made to the original play supplement the scene with Hieronimo briefly losing his wits as well.

Lorenzo locks Bel-Imperia away, but she succeeds in sending Hieronimo a letter, written in her own blood, informing him that Lorenzo and Balthazar were Horatio's murderers. Hieronimo's questions and attempts to see Bel-Imperia convince Lorenzo that he knows something. Afraid that Balthazar's servant Serberine has betrayed the plot, Lorenzo convinces Pedringano to murder him, then arranges for Pedringano's arrest in the hopes of silencing him too. Hieronimo, appointed judge, sentences Pedringano to death. Pedringano expects Lorenzo to procure his pardon, and Lorenzo, having written a fake letter of pardon, lets him believe this right up until the hangman drops Pedringano to his death.

Lorenzo manages to prevent Hieronimo from seeking justice by convincing the King that Horatio is alive and well. Furthermore, Lorenzo does not allow Hieronimo to see the King, claiming that he is too busy. This, combined with his wife Isabella's suicide, pushes Hieronimo past his limit. He rants incoherently and digs at the ground with his dagger. Lorenzo goes on to tell his uncle, the King, that Hieronimo's odd behaviour is due to his inability to deal with his son Horatio's newfound wealth (Balthazar's ransom from the Portuguese Viceroy), and he has gone mad with jealousy. Regaining his senses, Hieronimo, along with Bel-Imperia, feigns reconciliation with the murderers. The two plan to put on a play together, Soliman and Perseda. Under cover of the play they stab Lorenzo and Balthazar to death in front of the King, Viceroy, and Duke of Castile (Lorenzo and Bel-Imperia's father); Bel-Imperia kills herself, and Hieronimo tells his audience of his motive behind the murders, but refuses to reveal Bel-Imperia's complicity in the plot. He then bites out his own tongue to prevent himself from talking under torture, after which he kills the Duke and then himself. Andrea and Revenge are satisfied, delivering suitable eternal punishments to the guilty parties.

The 1602 additions

As noted above, the White/Pavier Q4 of 1602 added five passages, totalling 320 lines, to the existing text of the prior three quartos. The most substantial of these five is an entire scene, usually called the painter scene since it is dominated by Hieronimo's conversation with a painter; it is often designated III,xiia, falling as it does between scenes III,xii and III,xiii of the original text.

Henslowe's Diary records two payments to Ben Jonson, dated 25 September 1601 and 22 June 1602, for additions to The Spanish Tragedy. Yet most scholars reject the view that Jonson is the author of the 1602 additions. The literary style of the additions is judged to be un-Jonsonian; Henslowe paid Jonson several pounds for his additions, which has seemed an excessive sum for 320 lines. And John Marston appears to parody the painter scene in his 1599 play Antonio and Mellida, indicating that the scene must have been in existence and known to audiences by that time. The five additions in the 1602 text may have been made for the 1597 revival by the Admiral's Men. Scholars have proposed various identities for the author of the revisions, including Dekker, John Webster, and Shakespeare—"Shakespeare has perhaps been the favorite in the continuing search..."[16]

(It can seem surprising to find Shakespeare, house playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, as a putative reviser of a play associated with their rival company the Admiral's Men. Yet Sir Thomas More provides a precedent of Shakespeare working as a reviser in a surprising context. It is also quite possible that the play remained, in different versions, in the repertoire of more than one company, and that the Jonson additions for Henslowe refer to the adaptation of one script while the additions in the 1602 Quarto represent those to another version, not for Henslowe but for the Chamberlain's Men. It is notable that Richard Burbage, the Chamberlain's lead actor, was a celebrated player of Hieronimo's part.)

Themes and motifs

A long time dispute among scholars has been the moral status of revenge. Because revenge is the most obvious theme of the play, a lot of debate has been made over it. One can make judgments on the morality of Hieronimo based on his revenge-focused goals but the question many scholars face is whether the fault of his intentions is truly his. Steven Justice theorises that the judgment of the play falls less on Hieronimo than on a society in which the tragedy results from a way of life.[17] It is argued that Kyd used the revenge tragedy to give body to popular images of Catholic Spain.[17] Kyd tries to make Spain the villain in that he shows how the Spanish court gives Hieronimo no acceptable choice. The court turns Hieronimo to revenge in pursuit of justice, when in reality it is quite different.

Some critics claim that Hieronimo’s attitude is what central Christian tradition calls the Old Law,[17] the Biblical notion of an “eye for an eye”. Hieronimo’s passion for justice in society is revealed when he says, “For blood with blood shall, while I sit as judge, / Be satisfied, and the law discharg’d” (–36).

The nature of murder and death, performed and as natural phenomena, is also questioned. Smith considers the decade of the play relevant to the use of hangings, murders, and near deaths throughout the play.[18] Multiple characters are killed or nearly killed throughout the play. Horatio is hanged, Pedringano is hanged, Alexandro is nearly burnt at the stake, and Villuppo is assumed tortured and hanged. Kyd consistently refers to mutilation, torture, and death, beginning early in the play when the ghost of Don Andrea describes his stay in the underworld: “And murderers groan with never killing wounds, / And perjured wights scalded in boiling lead, / And all foul sins with torments overwhelmed” (I.i.68–70). He vividly describes in these lines as well as others the frequency of murder and torture in the underworld. Murder and death make up the tragedy theme that holds true through the last scene of the play.

The central theme is essentially revenge. The given title explains that there is some sort of harm that has been put on the main character to make him want to seek revenge. Revenge, however, is not the only theme. One key theme is that of Wealth and Power. This theme is clear in the sole actions of Balthazar.[19] He kills Horatio in the beginning to gain power that in turn gives him wealth. This is also clear with the character of Lorenzo. Toward the end of the play he tries to convince the king to get rid of Hieronimo. Lorenzo knows that in the absence of Hieronimo, he will become more powerful and closer to the king.

The play also has a theme of revenge in historical context. The play in a way re-enacts the conflict between Spain and England.[20] Kyd takes this opportunity to patronise the Spanish Armada and to make a political joke. This is very popular in Elizabethan and Greek tragedies. The play is used as a sort of defence mechanism for the English.[20]


The structure in essence is a 'play within a play'. The play begins with the background of why Hieronimo wants to seek revenge. He is seen as a minor character and eventually leads up to being the protagonist to add to the revenge plot. When he becomes the main character, the plot begins to unfold and become the revenge story that it is. Kyd incorporates the buildup to the revenge as a way to show the internal and external struggles of the characters. The actual revenge takes place during the play that Hieronimo stages, making this the climax of the play.[19] The resolution is essentially the explanation to the king of what has happened. The play within the play is not described until the actual play is performed, intensifying the climax, and the resolution is short due to the explanations that have already occurred.

Critics say that The Spanish Tragedy resembles a Senecan Tragedy. The separation of acts, the emphasised bloody climax, and the revenge itself, make this play resemble some of the most famous ancient plays.[21] Kyd does acknowledge his relations to Senecan Tragedies by using Latin directly in the play but also causes Christianity to conflict with pagan ideals. We also see Kyd’s use of Seneca through his referencing three Senecan plays in The Spanish Tragedy. It is said that this play was the initiator of the style for many “Elizabethan revenge tragedies, most notably Hamlet”.[21]

Modern performances

The play was staged at the National Theatre (Cottesloe) in 1982, with Michael Bryant in the role of Hieronimo, directed by Michael Bogdanov. It transferred to the Lyttelton stage at the National in 1984.[22]

The Royal Shakespeare Company staged a production of the play in 1996–1998, directed by Michael Boyd.[23] The cast included Peter Wight as Hieronimo, Jeffry Wickham as the King of Spain, Paul Bentall as the Duke of Castille, Siobhan Redmond as Bel-imperia, Robert Glenister as Lorenzo and Deirdra Morris as Isabella. Originally performed at the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon May to August 1997, it transferred to The Pit at the Barbican in London in November 1997.[24]

An amateur production of The Spanish Tragedy was performed 2–6 June 2009 by students from Oxford University, in the second quad of Oriel College, Oxford.[25] Another amateur production was presented by the Hyperion Shakespeare Company 21–30 October 2010 with students from Harvard University in Harvard's New College Theatre.[26] In November 2012, Perchance Theatre in association with Cambridge University's Marlowe Society staged a site-specific production in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. In October/November 2013, the Baron's Men of Austin, TX performed the work in a near-uncut state, with period costumes and effects, at Richard Garriott's Curtain Theater, a mini replica of the Globe Theater. Another amateur production was presented by the Experimental Theater Board of Carleton College 27–29 May 2015.[27]

Other professional performances include a modern-dress production[28] staged at the Arcola Theatre in London in October–November 2009, directed by Mitchell Moreno,[29] with Dominic Rowan as Hieronimo, as well as a production in Belle Époque era costume, staged by Theatre Pro Rata[30] in Minneapolis in March 2010, directed by Carin Bratlie.

The play has never been filmed or staged on television.

  1. ^ Kyd, Thomas; Schick, Josef (20 October 1898). "The Spanish tragedy, a play". London, J.M. Dent and co. – via Internet Archive. 
  2. ^ J. R. Mulryne, "Kyd, Thomas (bap. 1558, d. 1594)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 4 Nov 2013
  3. ^ a b c J. R. Mulryne, ‘Kyd, Thomas (bap. 1558, d. 1594)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 4 Nov 2013
  4. ^ a b Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 395–7.
  5. ^ "The Spanish Tragedy - National Theatre 1982".
  6. ^ "The Spanish Tragedy - Professional Productions".
  7. ^ Edwards, pp. xxvii–xxix.
  8. ^ Heywood, Thomas (1841 reprt). An Apology for Actors in Three Books, pp. 45, 65. F. Shoberl, Jr. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  9. ^ Schuessler, Jennifer (12 August 2013). "Further Proof of Shakespeare's Hand in 'The Spanish Tragedy'" – via 
  10. ^ a b c d Baker, Howard. "Ghosts and Guides: Kyd's 'Spanish Tragedy' and the Medieval Tragedy". Modern Philology 33.1 (1935).
  11. ^ Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. J.R. Mulryne, ed. London: A&C Black, 1989.
  12. ^ McMillin, Scott. "The Book of Seneca in The Spanish Tragedy." Studies in English Literature 14.2 (1974): p. 206
  13. ^ Baker, p. 28, 31
  14. ^ Edwards, pp. lxvii–lxviii.
  15. ^ Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land, line 431: "Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe."
  16. ^ Edwards, p. lxii.
  17. ^ a b c Justice, Steven. "Spain, Tragedy, and The Spanish Tragedy". Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 25, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1985), pp. 271–288. Published by: Rice University. 1 April 2009.)
  18. ^ Smith, Molly. "The Theater and the Scaffold: Death as Spectacle in The Spanish Tragedy". Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 32, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1992), pp. 217–232. Rice University.
  19. ^ a b Kishi, Tetsuo. "The Structure and Meaning of The Spanish Tragedy." 15 April 2009 <>.
  20. ^ a b Carman, Glenn. "Apocalypse and Armada in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy." 1997. The Free Library. Renaissance Society of America. <'s+Spanish+Tragedy-a019793549>.
  21. ^ a b Dillon, Janette. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare's Tragedies. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  22. ^ "National Theatre 1982 - Rehearsal Photographs".
  23. ^
  24. ^ "The Spanish Tragedy - Professional Productions".
  25. ^ "The Spanish Tragedie - Daily Info". Daily Info
  26. ^ "The Spanish Tragedy - Arts - The Harvard Crimson".
  27. ^ "The Spanish Tragedy - Student Activities - Carleton College".
  28. ^ "Theatre review: The Spanish Tragedy at Arcola Theatre".
  29. ^
  30. ^ "Theatre Pro Rata". Theatre Pro Rata


  • Kyd, Thomas The Spanish Tragedy (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) ISBN 9781904271604. Edited with an introduction and notes by Clara Calvo and Jesús Tronch.
  • Maus, Katharine Eisamann Four Revenge Tragedies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-19-283878-4. Contains The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, and The Atheist's Tragedy.
Further reading
  1. Broude, Ronald. "Time, Truth, and Right in 'The Spanish Tragedy'". Studies in Philology, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Apr. 1971), pp. 130–145. Published by: University of North Carolina Press. 1 April 2009.
  2. Justice, Steven. "Spain, Tragedy, and The Spanish Tragedy". Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 25, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1985), pp. 271–288. Published by: Rice University. 1 April 2009.
  3. Kay, Carol McGinnis. "Deception through Words: A Reading of The Spanish Tragedy". Studies in Philology, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan. 1977), pp. 20–38. University of North Carolina Press. 1 April 2009.
  4. Smith, Molly. "The Theater and the Scaffold: Death as Spectacle in The Spanish Tragedy". Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 32, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1992), pp. 217–232. Rice University
External links
  • The Spanish Tragedie from Project Gutenberg
  • The Spanish Tragedy Shorter version of the play for a modern audience
  • The Spanish Tragedy public domain audiobook at LibriVox

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