Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587?)

Horatio (Tristan Sturrock)

[Image source: . From Michael Boyd's 1997 RSC production at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.]

So, in Act II Scene 4 they move in on Horatio, interrupting his love duet with Bel-imperia. They stab him to death, and then they make the murder into a spectacle by hanging him from a tree in his father's garden. The considerably upsetting impact lies in this gratuitous spectacle, not in the stabbing. Both in Kyd's play and in the later anonymous additions, Hieronimo keeps returning to the image of his son hanging from a tree, and so do we. It isn't just a death but a desecration.

From the killers' point of view, it doesn't make much logical sense. Lorenzo and Balthazar have drifted into murder by the simple means of never considering any alternative. It will cost them their own lives.

Well it wasn't supposed to go down that way.
But they burned his brother you know and they left him lying in the driveway...
(Neil Young, "Tired Eyes")

From a prudential perspective, why would Lorenzo and his boys confront a potential avenger with an execution spectacle -- rather as if they were threatening a rival gang -- when a mere huddled stabbing would achieve their main object, i.e. of clearing the way to Bel-imperia? But from a poetic perspective, this "stylized violence", as the Shmoop author rightly calls it, is crucial, it makes the play tick.


There's another spectacle in Act III Scene 3: Pedringano has been despatched to kill Serberine, and he now appears on stage carrying a pistol. He uses it too. As far as we know, this is the first time a firearm had appeared on the English stage. The audience must have been thrilled.

It still gives theatre audiences a little jolt now, because in the more familiar world of Shakespeare's plays firearms are conspicuously absent: there's a couple of mentions, but none appear on stage -- though, of course, a character called Pistol does. Chekhov complained about the dramatic necessity of a pistol shot, but in Tudor plays pistols were a rare thing. (The English word pistol only dates from around 1570.)

Probably Pedringano was carrying a wheel-lock pistol. It was the first kind of handgun that you could load in advance and then conceal until the time came to use it, the first that could be aimed and fired with one hand, and the first that did its work the instant you squeezed the trigger. This was the type of gun that was used to assassinate William the Silent in 1584. In The Spanish Tragedy there's already been one imputed assassination by pistol (I.3), though it turns out to be fabricated.  Now Pedringano shows it to us for real.  Compared to stabbing, the advantage is that he can kill an unsuspecting Serberine from a distance. The disadvantage is that a pistol took ages to reload. So when the Watch surround Pedringano, he blusters but he's effectively unarmed.


Kyd's play was very up to date. Kyd didn't attend university, but he made The Spanish Tragedy a display of his impressive learning: classical, linguistic and technological. His warfare was modern; for example, the "cornet" (cavalry company) led by Don Pedro (I.2.41). His Spain and Portugal, with their "western Indies" (III.14.7), were contemporary.  Yet he seems to have invented the plot of The Spanish Tragedy. It was a counterfactual history, but not too unlike the real one. Kyd was presumably well aware that Portugal was currently ruled by a Viceroy, and that the Spanish had defeated the Portuguese at the battle of Alcântara in 1580. That battle resulted from a dynastic crisis in Portugal, just like the dynastic crisis that looms over the end of The Spanish Tragedy.

Kyd's rulers are un-named. Still, in Kyd's own life-time there had only ever been one king of Spain: Philip II. And from 1585 onwards, England was at war with him. The English theatre of the 1580s gave vent to plenty of xenophobia and, in particular, hispanophobia  (e.g. in the play A Larum for London, about the 1576 Siege of Antwerp). This xenophobia incorporated a certain fascination with the foreigners, and an oscillation between respect and disrespect: material power but buffoonish hubris, for instance. Kyd's portrayal of Iberian courts and potentates is sometimes a bit like the portrayal of the French in early history plays like Edward III.


The Spanish Tragedy starts with a self-introduction, "My name was Don Andrea..." (I.1.5). That's the old dramatic mode: it tells the audience what they are seeing. So too the soliloquies in which characters confide their thoughts and plans; and the frequent habit of addressing themselves by name within their speeches -- this was a Senecan feature, to remind the reader of closet-drama who the current speaker is.

What's really new is this kind of thing:


     Now, Pedringano.

PEDRINGANO          Now, Hieronimo.

     Where's thy lady?

PEDRINGANO          I know not; here's my lord.


     How now, who's this? Hieronimo?

HIERONIMO                                      My lord.

PEDRINGANO [to Lorenzo]
     He asketh for my lady Bel-imperia.

     What to do, Hieronimo? The Duke my father hath
     Upon some disgrace awhile removed her hence,
     But if it be aught I may inform her of,
     Tell me, Hieronimo, and I'll let her know it.

     Nay, nay, my lord, I thank you, it shall not need.
     I had a suit unto her, but too late,
     And her disgrace makes me unfortunate.

     Why so, Hieronimo? Use me.

     O no, my lord, I dare not, it must not be.
     I humbly thank your lordship.

LORENZO                                 Why then, farewell.

     My grief no heart, my thoughts no tongue can tell.       Exit.

     Come hither, Pedringano, seest thou this?

     My lord, I see it, and suspect it too.

     This is that damned villain Serberine
     That hath, I fear, revealed Horatio's death.

     My lord, he could not, 'twas so lately done;
     And since, he hath not left my company.

     Admit he have not, his condition's such
     As fear or flattering words may make him false.
     I know his humour, and therewith repent
     That e'er I used him in this enterprise.
     But, Pedringano, to prevent the worst,
     And 'cause I know thee secret as my soul,
     Here, for thy further satisfaction, take thou this.
          (Gives him more gold.)
     And hearken to me. Thus it is devised:    ...

(III.2.53-81, 1592 version)

Hieronimo wants to talk to Bel-imperia, but his neutral question to the servant Pedringano "Where's thy lady?" has momentous consequences. The last person he wishes to involve is Lorenzo. Lorenzo immediately scents trouble, he is kindly insistent on being of service, and Hieronimo slams into reverse. After he's gone, Lorenzo compares notes with Pedringano, then somewhat randomly points the finger at Serberine. Pedringano thinks that's a bit of a stretch, so some money changes hands. It doesn't occur to Pedringano, however, that  Lorenzo's remark to him, "I know thee secret as my soul", is just what he isn't thinking.

It's modern drama of a kind never seen before: a fluid, fast-moving, naturalistic series of exchanges, from which (without being told) we develop an idea of the characters' thoughts and intentions, in just the same way as when we witness exchanges in real life.


     O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears!
     O life, no life, but lively form of death!
     O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs,
     Confused and filled with murder and misdeeds!
     O sacred heavens, if this unhallowed deed,
     If this inhuman and barbarous attempt,
     If this incomparable murder thus
     Of mine but now no more my son,
     Shall unrevealed and unrevenged pass,
     How should we term your dealings to be just,
     If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?
     The night, sad secretary to my moans,
     With direful visions wake my vexed soul,
     And with the wounds of my distressful son
     Solicit me for notice of his death.
     The ugly fiends do sally forth of hell,
     And frame my steps to unfrequented paths,
     And fear my heart with fierce-inflamed thoughts.
     The cloudy day my discontents records,
     Early begins to register my dreams,
     And drive me forth to seek the murderer.
     Eyes, life, world, heavens, hell, night and day,
     See, search, show, send some man, some mean that may—
                (A letter falleth.)


The heart of The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo's and Isabella's grief at their son's death, Hieronimo's anguish at being denied a hearing, his transformation from lawful judge to unlawful avenger, these are still essentially in the older mode: rhetorical, patterned, static, a character declaiming but not exactly conversing. These "complaints" were what early audiences fell for; and, eventually, what later audiences mocked. But in 1587 they were recognized as doing a very deep thing, shining a searchlight into the individual spirit and its dealings with a spiritual order, compared with which the new mode of naturalistic action deals only with the unimportant and deceptive surface of worldly things.

The contrast between this old mode and the newer, more rapid mode within the play produces Hieronimo's sense of standing still. Within the new mode, he is denied a voice, Lorenzo sidelines him with consummate ease, Hieronimo is framed as obsessed, deranged, a ditherer.

But wherefore waste I mine unfruitful words,
When naught but blood will satisfy my woes?


Why, is not this a strange and seldseen thing,
That standers-by with toys should strike me mute?


Hieronimo's eventual triumph results from muzzling Lorenzo's and Balthazar's discourse, or rather, from compelling it to conform with his own. It's a reassertion of formal language.


     ... But what's the cause that you concealed me since?

     Your melancholy, sister, since the news
     Of your first favourite Don Andrea's death,
     My father's old wrath hath exasperate.

     And better was't for you, being in disgrace,
     To absent yourself and give his fury place.

     But why had I no notice of his ire?

     That were to add more fuel to your fire,
     Who burned like Etna for Andrea's loss.


Bel-imperia was so melancholy, her brother Lorenzo tells her, that it angered their father, so Lorenzo locked her up to keep her out of sight. But he couldn't tell her why, because it would have made her melancholy worse.

In other words, her judgment was impaired by her excessively emotional state. (Lorenzo's real, though unstated, intention is to make Bel-imperia doubt her own appalled reaction to the killing of Horatio.)

A classic piece of gaslighting. Happily (at least for the audience) it doesn't work. Bel-imperia's commitment to revenge is absolute.


Date of The Spanish Tragedy:

The only hard dates are July 1582 -- the Battle of Ponta Delgada (Azores), the very earliest date that the name Terceira (cf. I.3.82) is likely to have become known to Kyd;  and October 1592 (play registered -- and printed very soon after). But there's a range of other indications that we are probably talking about the mid-to-late 1580s. One discussion point is whether we can conclude that the play is earlier than the Spanish Armada (July-Aug 1588) on the basis that Kyd would surely have referred to the Armada if it had already taken place.

[But perhaps Kyd's "alternative history" might not have been able to sustain a direct reference to something so recent and so associated with Philip II as the Spanish Armada ...]

At any rate there's a pleasing fitness in finding The Spanish Tragedy right next to the first part of Tamburlaine (likewise "1587?").  The two authors knew each other (it would all go horribly sour six years later). These were, it seems, the biggest plays of the infant commercial theatre prior to Shakespeare's arrival around three years later. Both plays were brutal and spectacular.


Bel-Imperia (India Semper-Hughes)

[Image source: . From Dan Hutton's 2016 production at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington. Bags of turquoise-blue blood were suspended above the action.]


Shakespeare's debt to The Spanish Tragedy is great and yet limited.  The plays where it stands out are Titus Andronicus and Hamlet; both  the avenger-heroes develop different aspects of Hieronimo. I expect, too, that the Christopher Sly frame to The Taming of the Shrew (1590?)  owes its conception to The Spanish Tragedy's on-stage audience of Don Andrea and Revenge. The deepest debt, maybe, is to Kyd's multi-pronged deployment of blank verse, rhyme, rhetoric and prose. None of Shakespeare's other predecessors was so resourceful nor so close to his own practice.

Re Hamlet, we must credit Kyd with first recognizing the dramatic potential of an avenger's delay. A more surprising debt concerns the preparations for the play-within-a-play (ST 4.1, 4.3). Here we experience the strange effect of impassioned action suddenly being suspended while the participants talk mundanely about theatre matters. Hieronimo plans to kill Lorenzo and Balthazar, but just for a minute or two they are all just chatting about logistics. Shakespeare will turn this idea to huge account in Hamlet.


Jacket of the indispensable 2013 Arden edition by Clara Calvo and Jesús Tronch. (Roy Bishop's jacket design depicts Bel-imperia's writing materials.)

The Q4 (1602) additions.

The Arden edition helpfully incorporates the 1602 additions into the main text, but distinguishes them by using a different font.

These additions contain some startling poetry.

     ... This was the tree; I set it of a kernel,
     And when our hot Spain could not let it grow
     But that the infant and the human sap
     Began to wither, duly twice a morning
     Would I be sprinkling it with fountain water.
     At last it grew and grew, and bore and bore,
     Till at the length it grew a gallows, and did bear our son.
     It bore thy fruit and mine. O wicked, wicked plant!

[Wherever it was that I first studied The Spanish Tragedy, no-one mentioned Abel Meeropol's song "Strange Fruit"... I wonder if he had come across the old play, or was the trope of hanged bodies as fruit embedded in folk tradition?]

"Human sap"?? Didn't that merit a note, Clara Calvo and Jesús Tronch?.....

The authorship of the additions is unknown, but the name now most often mentioned is William Shakespeare, for instance by Brian Vickers on the basis of standard author tests. The frequent feminine endings certainly lend support to that, but other things don't, for instance the inversion "Would I". My impression is of a pervasively un-Shakespearean quality, but it could be that Shakespeare deliberately adjusted his manner to Kyd's play. Or maybe the additions were the work of several hands.

Though their poetry is sometimes fantastic, I feel the additions lead to a loss of dramatic concentration. They inadvertently demonstrate how well formed Kyd's original play was. Shakespeare, if he was involved, would have seen that too. When he wrote Hamlet (if it's based on a Kyd original, as many suppose) he went for a root and branch re-imagining.

["Kyd's" Hamlet is the play that Nashe referred to in 1589, was performed at Newington Butts on 11th June 1594, and at the Theatre in 1596, by the Chamberlain's Men in both cases. The word "probably" should be applied to all these statements. I'm taking these details from David Nicol's brilliant Henslowe blog:


Hieronimo (Peter Wright)

[Image source: . From Michael Boyd's 1997 RSC production at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.]


The Spanish Tragedy and Shmoop's notes for school students were made for each other. Don't deny yourself the fun of reading the Shmoop-author's deadpan account of the play -- I especially recommend the scene-by-scene plot summaries.

There's actually a deeper point here. This grimly bloody and anguished play tends to be taken not quite seriously, not quite as the tragedy it proclaims itself.  It has proved a popular choice for amateur or semi-professional productions. Reviewers complain playfully about how long it takes to get to the first murder. Balthazar is played for laughs, as a fop or coward or dimwit. This vague sense of a communal, festive entertainment possibly goes right back to 1587.

In my opinion this is to do with the play's denial of death; I feel an analogy with the mummer's play in which St George is killed and then revived by the Doctor. The Spanish Tragedy begins with the ghost of Don Andrea -- dead but not really dead. And it ends with the play-within-a-play in which the characters perform death but are actually supposed to be really dead... except that, since Kyd's play is really a play, they're actually not dead...  and anyway the play itself then describes them as continuing to exist in the not-meant-to-be-believed classical underworld. All of this loosens our hold on the inconsolable fact of death that was so powerfully realized in the laments of Hieronimo and Isabella over their dead son. The upshot, weirdly, is that the end of the play leaves us with a feeling of celebration.

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