What type of play is the Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd?

“The Spanish Tragedy, also known as Hieronimo is Mad Again, is a renowned Elizabethan tragedy penned by Thomas Kyd between 1582 and 1592. This influential play not only gained immense popularity during its time but also introduced a new genre to English theatre, known as the revenge play or revenge tragedy. Filled with violent murders and featuring Revenge personified as a character, The Spanish Tragedy is often hailed as the first mature Elizabethan drama. However, its status as the first remains contested by Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Nevertheless, it served as a source of inspiration and parody for numerous playwrights of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, including Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson.

Many elements found in The Spanish Tragedy, such as the use of a play-within-a-play to ensnare a murderer and a vengeful ghost, can be seen echoed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Thomas Kyd is often proposed as the potential author of the hypothetical Ur-Hamlet, which may have been one of Shakespeare’s primary sources for his famous play.

Early performances of The Spanish Tragedy took place at The Rose on 23 February 1592, staged by Lord Stranger’s Men under the title Jeronimo. This performance was repeated sixteen times until 22 January 1593. However, it is unlikely that the February 1592 performance marked the play’s premiere since it was not labeled as ‘ne’ (new) by Philip Henslowe, the producer. It remains unclear whether Jeronimo referred to The Spanish Tragedy or The First Part of Hieronimo (printed in 1604), an anonymous ‘prequel’ to Kyd’s play, or possibly both on different occasions.

The Admiral’s Men revived Kyd’s original play on 7 January 1597, staging it twelve times until 19 July. They also performed it jointly with Pembroke’s Men on 11 October of the same year. Philip Henslowe’s records suggest that the play was staged again in 1601 and 1602. English actors even toured Germany with the play in 1601, and adaptations were made in both Germany and the Netherlands.

In more recent times, The Spanish Tragedy was performed at London’s National Theatre, starting in 1982 at the Cottesloe Theatre, with Michael Bryant portraying Hieronimo and under the direction of Michael Bogdanov. The production later transferred to the Lyttelton Theatre in 1984.

The Royal Shakespeare Company staged The Spanish Tragedy in May 1997 at the Swan Theatre, directed by Michael Boyd. The cast included Siobhan Redmond as Bel-imperia, Robert Glenister as Lorenzo, Peter Wright as Hieronimo, and Jeffry Wickham as the King of Spain. The production later moved to The Pit at London’s Barbican in November 1997.

Amateur productions of The Spanish Tragedy were performed by students from Oxford University in June 2009 at Oriel College, Oxford, and by the Hyperion Shakespeare Company in October 2010 at Harvard University’s New College Theatre. 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 presented the play in a near-uncut state, with period costumes and effects, at Richard Garriott’s Curtain Theatre, a miniature replica of the Globe Theatre. Another amateur production was presented by the Experimental Theatre Board of Carleton College from 27-29 May 2015.

Among the professional performances, a modern-dress production directed by Mitchell Moreno took place at the Arcola Theatre in London in October-November 2009, with Dominic Rowan portraying Hieronimo. Additionally, a Belle Époque era costume production was staged by Theatre Pro Raid in Minneapolis in March 2010, directed by Carin Bratlie.

It is worth noting that The Spanish Tragedy has never been adapted for film or television.

Regarding its publication, The Spanish Tragedy is first referred to in Ben Jonson’s “Induction” to his play Bartholomew Fair (1614), where he mentions it as being “five and twenty or thirty years” old. If taken literally, this would place its composition between 1584 and 1589, which aligns with existing knowledge about the play. The exact date of composition remains unknown, but scholars speculate that it was written between 1583 and 1591. Most evidence suggests that it was completed before 1588, as the play does not reference the Spanish Armada. Furthermore, potential allusions to The Spanish Tragedy can be found in Nashe’s Preface to Greene’s Menaphon from 1589 and The Anatomie of Absurdity from 1588-1589. Consequently, 1587 is considered the most probable completion year for the play. The first entry of Kyd’s play in the Stationers Register occurred on 6 October 1592, and it was published in an undated quarto, most likely before the end of the same year. This first quarto was printed by Edward Alde- and published by Edward White, instead of the copyright holder Abel Jeffes. The Stationers Company ruled on 18 December that year that both Jeffes and White had violated the guild’s rules by publishing works that belonged to the other. Both individuals were fined, and the infringing books were destroyed, leaving only a single surviving copy of the first edition (QI) of The Spanish Tragedy. Interestingly, the title page of QI refers to an even earlier edition, likely printed by Jeffes, but no known copy exists.

The popular play was reprinted in 1594, and the title page of the second quarto (Q2) credits “Abell Jeffes, to be sold by Edward White,” seemingly as a compromise between competing booksellers. On 13 August 1599, Jeffes transferred the copyright to William White, who published the third edition the same year. White then assigned the copyright to Thomas Pavier on 14 August 1600, and Pavier published the fourth edition (printed by William White) in 1602. The fourth quarto (Q4) featured five additions to the existing text. Q4 was reprinted in 1610, 1615 (two issues), 1618, 1623 (two issues), and 1633.

All the early editions of The Spanish Tragedy were published anonymously. The first indication of Kyd’s authorship appeared in 1773 when Thomas Hawkins, the editor of a three-volume play collection, quoted a brief passage from The Spanish Tragedy in Thomas Heywood’s Apology for Actors (1612). Heywood attributes the quote to “M. Kid.” The style of The Spanish Tragedy bears such a strong resemblance to Kyd’s writing in his other surviving play, Cornelia (1593), that scholars and critics universally attribute authorship to Kyd.

In 2013, scholar Douglas Bruster theorized that certain awkward wordings found in the “Additional Passages” of the 1602 fourth edition could be the result of printers’ errors when typesetting the (now lost) original manuscript. Additionally, after examining the “Hand D” manuscript (widely accepted as being in Shakespeare’s handwriting) from the play Sir Thomas More, Bruster suggested that the speculated printers’ errors may have arisen from reading a manuscript written by someone with Shakespeare’s “messy” handwriting. This further bolsters the likelihood that Shakespeare wrote the Additional Passages.

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To continue, Bruster’s examination of the “Hand D” manuscript, believed to be in Shakespeare’s handwriting, provided additional support for the idea that Shakespeare had a hand in the Additional Passages of The Spanish Tragedy. The similarities in handwriting and the presence of potentially related errors strengthen the case for Shakespeare’s involvement in the play.

However, despite these theories, the question of authorship still lingers, and definitive evidence linking Shakespeare to The Spanish Tragedy remains elusive. Nevertheless, the consensus among scholars and critics remains that Thomas Kyd is the rightful author of this influential Elizabethan tragedy.

Over the years, The Spanish Tragedy has captivated audiences and maintained its significance in the realm of English drama. Its exploration of revenge, tragic elements, and dramatic devices continues to resonate with theatergoers and scholars alike. The enduring legacy of The Spanish Tragedy can be seen in its numerous stage performances, both professional and amateur, as well as its lasting influence on other renowned works, most notably Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

While The Spanish Tragedy has not yet made its way to the silver screen or television, its impact on the theatrical world cannot be understated. As one of the earliest and most notable revenge tragedies, it stands as a testament to the power and enduring appeal of Elizabethan drama.

In conclusion, The Spanish Tragedy, authored by Thomas Kyd, holds a significant place in the history of English theater. Its establishment of the revenge play genre, its influence on subsequent works, and its continued performances on stages around the world all contribute to its status as a timeless and influential piece of dramatic literature.



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