The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy Study Guide

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

The Spanish Tragedie:
Hieronimo is mad againe.

In its day, The Spanish Tragedy was anonymous. Only in 1773 did the theatrical historian Thomas Hawkins discover, in Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (1612), the play's assignment to Thomas Kyd. No other external evidence has been able to corroborate this link. Scholars generally agree, however, on the intimate relationship between The Spanish Tragedy and Kyd's Cornelia, which strongly suggests a common author. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, very few-if any-scholars have seriously doubted Kyd's authorship of The Spanish Tragedy.

The exact date of the play's composition is uncertain. Estimates generally oscillate within the ten-year frame of 1582-1592. Arthur Freeman points out the particular importance of The Spanish Tragedy's date in the study of Elizabethan drama. It is a question of whether the play was the first to stage certain dramatic elements. Freeman writes:

If the play precedes The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris it contains the first Machiavellian villain; if it precedes John a Kent and John a Cumber, it contains the earliest modern play-within-play; and if it precedes Titus Andronicus it may also be styled the first modern revenge tragedy. Given a date before 1587 and Tamburlaine, one might incontrovertibly call Kyd's play the first extant modern tragedy, without qualification. (70-1)

Freeman himself proposes tentatively the dates 1585-1587. Based on almost identical evidence, the French scholar Felix Carre puts forth 1587-1588. Another editor, Philip Edwards, prefers to date the play simply at the "upper limit" of the years 1582-1592 (xxvii).

Carre believes that the play, known simply as Hieronimo at the time, was the most successful dramatic work of all Elizabethan theater. Not only did myriad authors constantly allude to the play, but between its publication and the reign of Charles I, the work was printed in no less than ten editions-more than twice the number of Shakespeare editions printing during the same time frame. Carre also cites the famous story (recorded in 1631 by Richard Brathwaite) of a dying woman who exclaimed on her deathbed: "Hieronimo, Hieronimo, O let me see Hieronimo acted!" (41). Whether The Spanish Tragedy was the single most successful play or not, its immense popularity remains indisputable.

Much of the play's popularity undoubtedly derives from its modernity, or simply, its innovative qualities. Kyd employs dramaturgical devices that are subtle, varied, and at times shocking-the most memorable including the play-within-play and the on-stage revelation of Horatio's body. Kyd's use of language serves as an appropriate counterpart to such imaginative theatricality. One might characterize his style as generally well-balanced. As opposed to Marlowe's sensational prose or Shakespeare's rich verbal foliage, Kyd's language is at times delicate, at times direct; as Freeman notes, he refrains from overtaxing images and metaphors (81). Kyd's language, then, seems particularly well-suited to a play so packed with vivid action.

Apropos of the language, the play's frequent Latin phrases may strike the contemporary reader as unusual. In an extended analysis of The Spanish Tragedy, Peter Murray observes that Kyd borrows a significant amount of material from the Roman philosopher and poet Seneca (circa 4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.). The play's opening is modeled on Seneca's Thyestes, for example, and many phrases are citations or adaptations of Senecan lines (12). This sort of borrowing was common practice among playwrights at the time. For weaving in a good amount of material in Latin, however, Kyd has been called pretentious and has sometimes been ridiculed. A common audience certainly would have been lost by Hieronimo's fourteen-line monologue at the end of Act 2, though Freeman suggests that "it is a mistake to suppose that even an unlettered audience would be altogether alienated by a few appropriate reflections in so familiar a second language" (83). All phrases in Latin and other foreign languages, in any case, are translated with annotations in the section "Marginalia of The Spanish Tragedy" of this ClassicNote.