Explain The Structure and Meaning of The Spanish Tragedy

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd is a captivating play that revolves around the themes of revenge and the supernatural. The central action of the play is driven by the ghost of Don Andrea, a Spanish courtier who was killed in battle by Balthazar, the son of the Viceroy of Portugal. As a spirit serving the king of the underworld, Don Andrea witnesses the unfolding events, including the death of Balthazar at the hands of Bellmperia, with whom he was in love.

The structure of “The Spanish Tragedy” can be described as a play-within-a-play on a grand scale. This aspect has been acknowledged by most critics, but the significance of the chorus characters has not been thoroughly examined. While some argue that the ghost and Revenge are unnecessary to the core of the play, others believe they serve as a link between the audience and the actors, defining the relationship between reality and illusion.

The presence of the ghost and Revenge at the beginning of the play has a profound effect on the audience. It immediately reveals the play’s focus on revenge and the ultimate death of Balthazar, thus shifting the audience’s attention to the process leading up to the ending rather than the ending itself. To ensure the audience remains engaged, the playwright must fill the process with elements that capture their interest. Simply progressing towards Balthazar’s death would risk boring the audience. Therefore, the murder of Horatio and Hieronimo’s subsequent revenge are integral parts of the overall process, intensifying the irony of the play rather than casting doubt on its ending.

Kyd employs a technique that alienates the audience’s consciousness from the play’s action, making it more comedic than expected. The characters involved in the central action, such as Lorenzo and Balthazar, engage in villainous deeds that contrast with the audience’s knowledge of their impending downfall. This creates a sense of amusement and heightens the irony throughout the play. Kyd’s approach aligns with the theories of playwright Bertolt Brecht, who emphasized the importance of focusing on the process rather than the outcome.

“The Spanish Tragedy” explores two main themes: the righteousness of revenge and the relationship between human action and free will. Elizabethans held conflicting views on revenge, questioning whether it was acceptable for individuals to seek vengeance or if it should be left to divine justice. Hieronimo’s actions and his adoption of Machiavellian tactics are subject to different interpretations, with some considering him a villain and others viewing him as following a religious duty. The play’s ambiguity extends to the problem of human action and free will, as seemingly coincidental events play a crucial role in the unfolding of the plot. The presence of Revenge throughout the play implies a predetermined justice, suggesting that human actions are controlled by external forces.

The chorus characters in “The Spanish Tragedy” play a unique role that sets them apart from other plays featuring a chorus. Don Andrea’s ghost, in particular, functions as both a spectator and a character in the play-within-a-play. The events occurring on the stage are profoundly real to him, blurring the boundaries between the different levels of the play.

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Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy unfolds as a haunting tale of revenge, where the ghost of Don Andrea, a Spanish courtier, serves as the central focus of the play. In his lifetime, Don Andrea was in love with Bellmperia, the niece of the King of Spain, but he tragically lost his life in battle at the hands of Balthazar, the son of the Viceroy of Portugal. As the play begins, the ghost of Don Andrea watches as Bellmperia seeks vengeance and plans the death of Balthazar. The audience is drawn into the action through the perspective of the ghost and the spirit, witnessing the unfolding events.

The structure of The Spanish Tragedy can be described as a play-within-a-play on a grand scale. This observation has been made by many critics. However, the significance of the presence of the two chorus characters, the ghost and Revenge, has not been thoroughly examined. Some critics, like Fredson Bowers, argue that the ghost and his theme become unnecessary and superfluous after the second act, suggesting that they could have been omitted altogether.

While the initial focus of the play is on Bel-Imperia’s quest for revenge, her imprisonment and the murder of her new lover Horatio by Balthazar and his accomplices shift the audience’s interest to how Horatio’s father, Hieronimo, will exact his revenge on the murderers. The play’s center of attention shifts, and therefore, according to Bowers, the presence of the chorus becomes unnecessary.

Anne Barton partially agrees with Bowers but adds that the usefulness of the ghost does not solely rely on its connection to Hieronimo’s revenge. Instead, the ghost serves as a bridge between the two worlds of the audience and the actors, combining elements from both. This perspective is more aligned with the essence of the play, but further analysis is still required to fully understand the role of the chorus.

In essence, what effect does the appearance of the ghost and Revenge at the beginning of the play create? The answer is simple: the audience learns the eventual outcome of the play right from the start. They understand that the play revolves around revenge and will culminate in the death of Balthazar. As a result, the audience pays more attention to the process leading to the end rather than the end itself. Consequently, the playwright must engage the audience throughout the process to maintain their interest. It is important to remember that simply progressing towards Balthazar’s death would likely bore the audience. Claiming that the play changes direction after the third act or that the real play begins only then is incorrect because the audience is already aware of the story’s end. The murder of Horatio and Hieronimo’s subsequent revenge may seem like events that delay the eagerly awaited ending, but they are crucial components of the entire process that leads to the foretold conclusion. The realization of the ending itself is never in doubt. Although the ghost, representing the audience, expresses occasional doubt, it is essential to understand the psychology of the audience watching these scenes. The doubt itself is part of the pleasure derived from watching the play. The audience both believes firmly in the realization of the promised end and doubts it simultaneously. The ghost’s irritation and indignation enhance the pleasure and add complexity to the viewing experience. This dynamic is made possible because the play’s events and characters are relatable to the audience, thanks to Kyd’s technique at the beginning of the play, which some critics unfortunately find distracting.

The ghost’s responses, becoming irritated and indignant as the action progresses, introduce a comic element to the play. However, the comic aspect is more prominent in the characters central to the play’s action. The love affair between Bel-Imperia and Horatio unfolds alongside the plotting by Bel-Imperia and Lorenzo against Balthazar. These events appear ironic and comedic to the audience, who possess knowledge of the characters’ inevitable downfall. The audience’s perspective and awareness of the tragic ending lend an air of amusement to the unfolding events and enhance the overall irony. Kyd effectively incorporates comedic elements without sacrificing the seriousness of the play’s themes.

The Spanish Tragedy explores two major themes: the morality of revenge and the relationship between human action and fate. The Elizabethan era saw a debate over the ethics of revenge, questioning whether individuals should take justice into their own hands or leave it to divine retribution. The play’s characters provide different perspectives on this issue, with Hieronimo’s actions and his embrace of Machiavellian tactics subject to various interpretations. Some view him as a villain who is consumed by vengeance, while others see him as fulfilling a religious duty. The play also raises questions about the role of human agency and free will. Seemingly coincidental events play a crucial role in the unfolding of the plot, suggesting that human actions are influenced or controlled by external forces. The presence of the chorus characters, particularly Revenge, implies a predetermined justice, blurring the line between human action and fate.

In conclusion, The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd is a captivating play that delves into themes of revenge, human agency, and the interplay between action and fate. The play-within-a-play structure, coupled with the presence of the supernatural chorus characters, adds depth and complexity to the narrative. Kyd’s use of irony and comedic elements enhances the audience’s engagement and enjoyment while exploring profound moral and philosophical questions. The Spanish Tragedy continues to be a timeless and thought-provoking work of Elizabethan drama.



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