Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy

July 3, 2020

The Spanish Tragedy
Thomas Kyd
(Methuen, 2009) [c.1585]
187 p.

Where words prevail not, violence prevails.
(II, i)

The Spanish Tragedy was an Elizabethan hit, earning the admiration of contemporary playwrights and audiences, and establishing, in hindsight, a new dramatic genre for the Elizabethan stage: the revenge tale.


The action takes place mostly in the Spanish court in the aftermath of a battle between Spain and Portugal in which Spain was victorious and the Portuguese prince, Balthazar, was taken captive.

The seeds of the bloody spectacle that will eventually engulf the court were sown in that battle. It’s a bit complicated, but it goes like this:

Immediately before his capture, Prince Balthazar had killed a Spanish nobleman named Don Andrea, on whom a young Spanish noblewoman, Bel-imperia, had doted. She consequently conceived in her heart a hatred for Balthazar. Yet, as part of the peace plan between Spain and Portugal, she is offered to Balthazar in marriage. Her wits distracted, she begins to take a shine to the brave, young Spaniard, Horatio, who had captured Prince Balthazar in battle. But when Balthazar learns of this attachment, he brutally murders Horatio.

Thus far we have two dead men, both admired by Bel-imperia, who herself remains intended in marriage to the killer.

It is when Horatio’s father, Hieronimo, learns of his son’s murder, and of who committed it, that the revenge plot really kicks into gear. He and Bel-imperia form a compact to revenge themselves on Balthazar and everyone connected to him. Hieronimo adopts an affable demeanour in the court, but plots mercilessly, and eventually, in the play’s blood-soaked climax, exacts his revenge. Bodies litter the stage.


It’s an entertaining story. The tragedy that eventually swallows whole all the principal characters emerges naturally from the dramatic tensions of the tale — unlike, for instance, the tragic downfall of Tamburlaine, which had an arbitrary quality about it. Here the basic ingredients — a lover’s passion, a father’s grief — are elemental and powerful, and they propel the drama forward.

The verse in The Spanish Tragedy is not always top-tier. Kyd makes frequent use of parallel constructions in his lines, and though this sometimes works, more often I found it had a leaden quality. Consider this passage, in which Bel-imperia confesses her burgeoning love to Horatio; she interrupts an exchange in which the ‘love as war’ motif had been bandied about, and she says:

BEL-IMPERIA. Let dangers go; thy war shall be with me,
But such a war as breaks no bond of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Send thou sweet looks, I’ll meet them with sweet looks;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss:
Be this our warring peace, or peaceful war.

Perhaps that could have a winsome simplicity about it, if delivered by the right actress, and the final line does tie it up rather nicely with a bow, but I felt like I could guess the lines before having read them.

A worse example is this one, an exchange between the ghost of Don Andrea (killed in battle by Balthazar, recall, just before the play begins, and himself seeking revenge) and a personification of Revenge. They’ve just seen Andrea’s friend Horatio killed by Balthazar:

ANDREA. Brought’st thou me hither to increase my pain?
I look’d that Balthazar should have been slain;
But ’tis my friend Horatio that is slain,
And they abuse fair Bel-imperia,
On whom I doted more then all the world,
Because she lov’d me more then all the world.

REVENGE. Thou talk’st of harvest, when the corn is green;
The end is crown of every work well done;
The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe.
Be still, and, ere I lead thee from this place,
I’ll show thee Balthazar in heavy case.

Andrea’s lines are about as bad as any I’ve yet encountered in my tour of Elizabethan drama. Thud. Admittedly, Revenge’s lines make a decent recovery.

On the other hand, there are some really fine sections in the play as well. In this passage Hieronimo, father to the murdered Horatio, is asked by a minor character where to find Lorenzo, who had assisted Balthazar in Horatio’s murder, and Hieronimo, in a distracted state, talking more to himself than the questioner, answers:

But, if you be importunate to know
The way to him and where to find him out,
Then list to me, and I’ll resolve your doubt:
There is a path upon your left hand side
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear,—
A darksome place and dangerous to pass,—
There shall you meet with melancholy thoughts
Whose baleful humours if you but behold,
It will conduct you to despair and death:
Whose rocky cliffs when you have once beheld,
Within a hugy dale of lasting night,
That, kindled with worlds of iniquities,
Doth cast up filthy and detested fumes,—
Not far from thence where murderers have built
A habitation for their cursed souls,
There, in a brazen caldron fix’d by Jove
In his fell wrath upon a sulfur flame,
Yourselves shall find Lorenzo bathing him
In boiling lead and blood of innocents.
(III, xi)

I could see that working very well as a set piece. The same could be said of a later speech of Hieronimo, delivered when he witnesses a play in which a grieving father avenges his son’s death. It provokes from Hieronimo a passionate outburst of self-accusation for the patience with which he himself proceeds in his bloody plotting:

HIERONIMO. See, see, oh, see thy shame, Hieronimo!
See here a loving father to his son:
Behold the sorrows and the sad laments
That he deliv’reth for his son’s decease.
If love’s effect so strives in lesser things,
If love enforce such moods in meaner wits,
If love express such power in poor estates,
Hieronimo, as when a raging sea,
Toss’d with the wind and tide, o’er-turneth then
The upper-billows course of waves to keep,
Whilst lesser waters labour in the deep,
Then sham’st thou not, Hieronimo, to neglect
The swift revenge of thy Horatio?
(III, xiii)


The play has a few interesting elements that were, possibly, borrowed by Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet. One is the use of a vengeful ghost on stage; in this case Don Andrea’s, and in that King Hamlet’s. Both want to see their killers punished. Kyd’s ghost has none of the Catholic elements that Shakespeare’s does; he simply wanders the stage (perhaps always present?) and comments on the action at the end of each Act, functioning something like a Chorus in Greco-Roman drama.

Another, very striking similarity to Hamlet is the use of a play-within-the-play. In this case Hieronimo stages a play for the king and court that becomes the means by which he avenges himself on Balthazar. I would be curious to see how well this would work on stage, because, although the idea is a good one, it felt abrupt to me on paper.

But I’ll probably never have a chance to see it staged. Revivals have been very occasional, and the play is more often read than seen, and to say it is “often read” would be an exaggeration.

This relatively low profile has limited its influence. T.S. Eliot made a reference to it in The Waste Land, a modest efflorescence of glory. Insofar as it fathered imitators, it could be said to stand behind a long string of revenge tales, from The Count of Monte Cristo to, well, almost all of Tarantino’s films, but then it itself owes a debt to Seneca in that respect. To cite Eliot again, there is behind any individual talent a tradition, and Kyd was no exception.

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