A brief Analysis of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy


“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd is a revenge tragedy play that explores themes of justice, revenge, and the moral complexities of human nature. It is considered one of the most influential plays of the Elizabethan era, shaping the development of English Renaissance drama.

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd is a remarkable revenge tragedy play that delves into themes of justice, revenge, and the intricate moral complexities of human nature. Regarded as one of the most influential works of the Elizabethan era, it played a crucial role in shaping the development of English Renaissance drama.

Although lesser-known compared to the works of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, The Spanish Tragedy had a significant impact on later plays within the revenge tragedy genre, most notably Shakespeare’s renowned masterpiece, Hamlet. In fact, Kyd, who tragically met his demise following torture for information about his friend Kit Marlowe, is widely considered the leading candidate for the authorship of the ‘Ur-Hamlet,’ which served as the prototype for Shakespeare’s play. (For a detailed exploration of the ‘two Hamlets,’ refer to our book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.) Here, we present a concise introduction to the play, accompanied by an analysis of its prominent themes and distinguishing features. Please note that readers seeking to avoid spoilers should skip the next few paragraphs.

Estimated to have been written and initially performed around 1587, The Spanish Tragedy narrates the story of Hieronymo, the marshal of Spain, whose son Horatio is ruthlessly murdered by Balthasar, the son of the viceroy of Portugal, and Lorenzo, the son of the Duke of Castile. The motive behind the murder is Balthasar’s infatuation with Bellimperia, Lorenzo’s sister, who reciprocates the love of Horatio. As a witness to the brutal slaying of her beloved, Bellimperia sends a letter to Hieronymo, revealing the identities of the culprits—Balthasar and Lorenzo—and their role in Horatio’s death. Consumed by an overwhelming desire for vengeance, Hieronymo swears to avenge his son’s murder. However, mirroring Hamlet’s predicament in Shakespeare’s later play, he becomes fixated on proving the authenticity of Bellimperia’s letter and the guilt of both Balthasar and Lorenzo before enacting his revenge. Hieronymo’s pursuit of justice is plagued by a series of delays that ultimately drive him to madness.

After confirming the letter’s legitimacy through a conversation with Bellimperia, Hieronymo devises a plan to avenge Horatio’s death. When Balthasar requests him to stage a play for the viceroy’s amusement, Hieronymo seizes the opportunity and presents a play with a plot closely resembling the events surrounding Horatio’s murder. (This play-within-a-play serves as a clear precursor to the ‘Murder of Gonzago’ in Hamlet.) In this performance, the characters portrayed by Hieronymo and Bellimperia murder those played by Balthasar and Lorenzo, with both Hieronymo and Bellimperia going beyond mere pretense and genuinely ending the lives of the two men. Subsequently, Bellimperia inflicts a fatal wound upon herself, and Hieronymo reveals the truth about Horatio’s murder to the Duke before committing suicide, following which he slays the Duke. Throughout the play, the ghost of Don Andrea, who had previously been killed by Balthasar in battle, observes the events alongside Revenge and serves as a kind of Chorus.

Superficially analyzing The Spanish Tragedy as a crude and undeveloped example of the revenge tragedy genre, as opposed to the far more refined and subtle portrayal found in Hamlet, would be an oversimplification. Kyd’s dialogues often exhibit intriguing subtleties, even if the characters themselves may appear somewhat two-dimensional. One notable aspect of the play’s style is Kyd’s use of repetition-as-rhyme, which lies between unrhymed blank verse (e.g., tree/man) and strict rhyming couplets (e.g., tree/see). This repetition evokes a sense of stasis.

Hieronymo’s inability to take action or move forward, his obsessive nature, can be observed through this stylistic device:

I look’d that Balthazar should have been slain:

But ’tis my friend Horatio that is slain,

And they abuse fair Bellimperia,

On whom I doted more than all the world,

Because she lov’d me more than all the world.

With what dishonour and the hate of men,

From what dishonour and the hate of men,

And all this sorrow riseth for thy son:

And selfsame sorrow feel I for my son. C

losely and safely, fitting things to time;

But in extremes advantage hath no time;

The plot is laid of dire revenge:

On, then, Hieronymo, pursue revenge:

For nothing wants but acting of revenge.

Bid him come in, and paint some comfort,

For surely there’s none lives but painted comfort.

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Hovering between the precise structure of a rhyming couplet and the relative disorder of blank verse, these ‘non-couplets’ embody Hieronymo’s dilemma, as he strives to navigate the fine line between madness and sanity, chaos and order, and revenge and justice.

The Spanish Tragedy not only holds significance due to its prefiguration of a more renowned and consummate work of art—Shakespeare’s Hamlet—but also stands as an exceptional Elizabethan tragedy in its own right, deserving of close analysis and discussion. Kyd’s language is often subtle, surprising, and brimming with what F. R. Leavis referred to as ‘life.’ It represents the genesis of greatness within Elizabethan drama.

In addition to its thematic depth, “The Spanish Tragedy” played a pivotal role in shaping English drama. It popularized the revenge tragedy genre and left a lasting impact on subsequent playwrights, particularly William Shakespeare. The play’s structure, themes, and dramatic techniques served as a blueprint for numerous revenge tragedies that followed.

Kyd’s masterful characterization shines through the diverse ensemble of “The Spanish Tragedy.” Hieronymo, the grieving father in pursuit of justice, embodies a complex and multi-faceted persona. His descent into madness and internal struggle between duty and personal emotions make him a compelling figure on stage. Bellimperia, the object of desire for multiple characters, showcases inner conflict as she grapples with her desires and societal expectations.

Secondary characters within the play contribute to the intricate web of relationships and motivations. Lorenzo and Balthasar, the conspirators behind Horatio’s murder, embody deceit and villainy, while the ghost of Andrea, another victim seeking justice, introduces a supernatural element to the narrative.

“The Spanish Tragedy” explores themes that transcend time and culture, delving into the repercussions of revenge, the complexities of human nature, and the blurred boundaries between justice and vengeance. Kyd poses moral dilemmas, challenging the audience to contemplate concepts of right and wrong, the limitations of human agency, and the costs of personal vendettas.

The enduring popularity and influence of the play can be attributed to Kyd’s exceptional storytelling, memorable characters, and thought-provoking themes. While it represents only one facet of Kyd’s overall body of work, “The Spanish Tragedy” remains his most celebrated play and an invaluable contribution to the realm of English Renaissance drama.

In conclusion,

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd stands as a seminal work within the revenge tragedy genre, showcasing Kyd’s remarkable talent as a playwright. Its exploration of justice, revenge, and human nature, combined with its dramatic intensity and memorable characters, continue to captivate audiences and solidify its enduring legacy in the realm of English Renaissance drama.



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