Biography of Thomas Kyd

Thomas Kyd was born in 1558, six years before Shakespeare and Marlowe. Parish records indicate that he lived in London with his parents and two other siblings-of which one died in 1602. His father, Francis Kyd, was a scrivener. Eminent biographer Arthur Freeman observes that while scriveners garnered little respect from contemporary writers, they profited considerably from their monopoly on many official documents. Francis Kyd's official title read "Writer of the Court Letter" (3). As a member of a comfortable middle-class household, Thomas was enrolled in the Merchant Taylors' School at the age of seven.

As opposed to St. Paul's or Eton, Merchant Taylors' was a decidedly middle-class school. Nevertheless, even the admission requirements speak to the school's educational capabilities: as Freeman notes, the young Kyd was required to know the "the catechism in English or Latyn," and be able to "read perfectly & write competently" (6). No records indicate how long Kyd remained at Merchant Taylors' School, nor are there any records that indicate that he matriculated in Oxford or Cambridge, as did his schoolmate and predecessor Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). It seems clear, in any case, that Kyd emerged with a solid knowledge of Latin literature and fluency in French and Italian-as manifest in later compositions and translations attributed to him.

Very little is known about Kyd's life in his early twenties. Evidence suggests that he was involved with the Queen's Company of Players, formed in 1583. By 1587, he seems to have entered the service of an unspecified lord. We know that Kyd's lord patronized a company of players for which Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) also most likely wrote. Furthermore, Kyd dedicated his translation of the French Cornelia to the Countesse of Sussex, suggesting his tie to that specific house. The most likely candidate for Kyd's patron, then, emerges as the fourth Earl of Sussex, Henry Radcliffe, with the alternate possibility of the Lord Strange.

The best-documented events of Kyd's life concern his dealings with Christopher Marlowe. In early May 1593, Kyd was arrested by the Queen's Privy Council for possession of heretical and blasphemous papers. On 12 May 1593 he was certainly in prison, to be interrogated thoroughly about the origins of his papers. Kyd confessed that he had received the papers from Marlowe. He later wrote to Sir John Puckering of the Privy Council, disclaiming any intimate relationship with the heretical playwright. But more than anything else-as Freeman duly points out-the humble tone of the letter bears witness to the brutal treatment Kyd received in prison (28). As such, the accuracy of its portrait of Kyd's relationship to Marlowe remains questionable. Marlowe, in any case, had already died of a stabbing wound through the eye on 30 May of the same year.

Kyd himself did not live very long after Marlowe's gruesome demise. The local parish register records his burial on 15 August 1594. His parents chose not to administer his estate. Indeed, Thomas Kyd left precious little legacy to the world: apart from The Spanish Tragedy, only a small handful of plays and poems (the majority of which were merely initialed by or attributed to him) are left. The Spanish Tragedy, however, remains one of the most successful works of the Elizabethan era. Thomas Kyd's name also arises in relation to the ur-Hamlet, the alleged lost source of Shakespeare's Hamlet, dating from before 1589. In addition, some scholars have even argued that he was the true writer of Shakespearean works such as King Lear and Titus Andronicus.

Study Guides on Works by Thomas Kyd

The title page of the 1615 edition of Kyd's celebrated play reads:

The Spanish Tragedie:or, Hieronimo is mad againe.

In its day, The Spanish Tragedy was anonymous. Only in 1773 did the theatrical historian Thomas Hawkins discover, in Thomas...