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The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd
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The Spanish Tragedy (1585)

by Thomas Kyd

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This is--literally--the mother of all English revenge plays. It was such a spectacular hit in London in the 1580s that it likely inspired the young Shakespeare to write Titus Andronicus in an effort to outdo Kyd's talent for bringing violence and the grotesque onstage. I just finished the play with my students, and they were quick to pick up on what Shakespeare had also borrowed for Hamlet: the ghost of a wrongfully murdered man walking the earth; a righteous revenger who doesn't trust the information he is given and goes to great lengths to prove it true before taking action--including writing a play-within-a play; the revenger pretending to be mad (or IS he pretending?) while a woman close to him most certainly goes mad from grief; and, of course, a pile of bodies onstage in the final scene. (Kyd beats Shakespeare; final score 6 to 4 in the last scene, and the total body count comparison is 11 to 9.)

Kyd adds a double dose of blood, gore and spectacle to the play. First, he gives us an onstage audience--a kind of chorus--who comment on events between acts. These are the ghost of Andrea, a soldier dishonorably slain in battle, accompanied by Revenge; their purpose is to see justice served to his murderer, Balthazar. When Andrea's friend Horatio (yes, something else for Shakespeare to borrow) reveals the details of his demise to his sweetheart, Bel-imperia, she vows revenge against Balthazar, who has fallen in love with her--and promptly decides that she will love Horatio for his loyalty to Andrea. But in the midst of a rendezvous, Horatio is overtaken by his rival and a company of followers, hanged in the arbor, and stabbed multiple times. Bel-imperia calls for help but is whisked away and locked up. Hieronimo, Horatio's father, responds to the call, only to find the body of his son. This murder--and this body--become the focal points of the play. Hieronimo dips a handkerchief in his son's blood and carries it next to his heart, periodically bringing it out to spur his revenge; and he vows that Horatio shall remain unburied until justice is served.

As we're propelled through Act 3, more chaos erupts. I'll spare you the details, in case you're inspired to read the play. In short: suicide threats, people going mad, betrayal and murder among the murderers, a large dose of gallows humor, an execution, a suicide . . . all leading up to Act 4, in which Bel-imperia and Hieronimo join forces to enact their revenge through a play that is supposed to celebrate the peace treaty between Portugal and Spain and the engagement of Balthazar and Bel-imperia. And the body count is on the rise, Horatio's body arriving just in time for the encore.

It was a little hard to read my students' reactions to the play (they are always a bit reticent for the first few weeks); I'll know more when I read their written responses over the weekend. But I enjoyed reading the play again after many years, especially as I'm teaching Titus Andronicus in another class. Kyd was certainly less subtle than Shakespeare, but he knew his way around the stage and clearly had his finger on the pulse of the groundlings. I'd love to see The Spanish Tragedy in performance some day. ( )
2 vote Cariola | Sep 6, 2013 |
The Spanish Tragedy is the best known play by Thomas Kyd, one of Shakespeare's chief predecessors & early contemporaries. It brings to life intrigues of Spanish court, vividly juxtaposing romantic passion, sudden death & clandestine politics.
  Roger_Scoppie | Apr 3, 2013 |
Warning this book is not a tragedy. So don't let the title scare you. It's extremely funny and very odd. Still though entertaining. Just make sure you know what is going on in history during this time. It will help. ( )
  paulskiy2k | Feb 22, 2011 |
Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. A & C Black, London, 1989.
  BrianDewey | Jul 30, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas Kydprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Edwards, PhilipEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prouty, Charles T.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
ROSS, T WEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shakespeare, WilliamContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When this eternal substance of my soul
Did live imprisoned in my wanton flesh,
Each in their function serving other's need,
I was a courtier in the Spanish court.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0713667923, Paperback)

The first fully-fledged example of revenge tragedy, the genre that
became so influential in later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, The
Spanish Tragedy (1589) occupies a very special place in the history of
English Renaissance drama. Hieronimo, Knight-Marshal of Spain during
its war with Portugal, fails to obtain justice when his son is murdered
for courting Bel-Imperia, the Duke of Castile's daughter, and decides
to take justice into his own hands. In a scene replete with
meta-theatrical implications, Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia stage a playlet
with Portuguese and Spanish nobles as actors, stabbing them with real
'fake' daggers before they kill themselves. This edition, which appends
the scenes that were added in 1602, discusses Elizabethan attitudes to
revenge, the Senecan features of the play and the significance of the
Anglo-Spanish conflict in the 1580s.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:39 -0400)

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