Books and Reading Reviews

Revenge Overload: The Spanish Tragedy (1592), by Thomas Kyd

Spanish TragedyPlease note: there are spoilers ahead. Mostly of the who-kills-whom variety. If you’re a fan of mystery, I’d recommend you get comfy with a copy of Kyd before you read on with my review.

Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.

A comedy?
Fie, comedies are fit for common wits:
But to present a kingly troupe withal,
Give me a stately-written tragedy,
Tragedia cothurnata, fitting kings,
Containing matter, and not common things.

(IV:i, ll. 155-161)

The Spanish Tragedy is one of those plays that shows up very frequently on college courses and Shakespeare-related reading lists. Yet despite its popularity with Theatre Studies professors the world over, it’s very rarely the first thing to pop into someone’s head when they think of Elizabethan theatre. Or the second thing, for that matter.

I have to admit, this puzzles me a little. After all, The Spanish Tragedy pretty much does exactly what it says on the can: it’s set in Spain; it’s about revenge; and there’s enough tragedy to make even Romeo and Juliet take a break from their incessant adolescent whining to sit up and take notes.

Romeo and Juliet 1968
“*Gasp* Did you hear what she just said about us, Romeo?” “Don’t worry, baby – she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. We’re adorable.”

The Spanish Tragedy tells the very tragic story of the tragic death of Don Andrea, and of his lover Bel-Imperia, who tragically vows to revenge herself on Andrea’s murderer. She’s aided in her plan by Hieronimo, whose son Horatio is murdered in truly tragic circumstances. The height of all this tragedy arrives when Hieronimo stages a play with Balthazar and Lorenzo, the men who had Horatio tragically and brutally killed. Hieronimo pretends to make up with his son’s murderers and then has them tragically stabbed to death without anybody even realising that it’s not a part of the play. The height of this classic revenge tragedy comes when Hieronimo very tragically kills himself before anyone can accuse him of killing Balthazar and Lorenzo.

You can’t say that Kyd doesn’t deliver on the tragedy front. But don’t let my melodramatic summary put you off; The Spanish Tragedy is an impressive piece of playwriting, full of suspense and surprises. The story begins with the ghost of Don Andrea emerging from the underworld with his new friend, Revenge. Don Andrea, a little miffed that he’s been killed by the sneaky Balthazar in the heat of battle, begs Revenge to show him how his enemies meet their own gruesome ends. You always know you’re in for a good time when you go to the theatre and see a ghost pop out in the very first scene, so I began my reading with high hopes.

An entirely accurate depiction of the scene. (Image Source)

The ghost and Revenge continue to disappear and reappear, keeping track of the murders and double-crossings that are taking place between the Spanish and Portuguese courts. And believe me, there are plenty. It’s difficult to keep up, sometimes, with the amount of revenge that goes on in this play. In fact, I’ve compiled a quick list of just some of the revenges that take place:

  1. Horatio is murdered by Balthazar and Lorenzo, Bel-Imperia’s brother.
  2. Lorenzo locks up Bel-Imperia to keep her from telling (anyone with siblings knows how often this happens – the locking-up part, of course, not the murder part. I hope.)
  3. Hieronimo avenges his son by killing Lorenzo.
  4. Bel-Imperia avenges Andrea and Horatio by killing Balthazar.
  5. Isabella avenges Horatio by killing a tree (it was a particularly offensive tree).
  6. Hieronimo concludes his revenge by biting off his own tongue, killing the king’s brother, and then hanging himself.

As you can probably tell, it isn’t exactly an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. But by all accounts it was very popular in the Elizabethan theatre; it was re-staged a number of times, even after the author’s death. And if some of these scenes are beginning to sound a little familiar, that’s because many Elizabethan playwrights were influenced by Kyd’s play. Including, of course, our old friend – Shakespeare. Yes, it’s said that many scenes in Hamlet were inspired by The Spanish Tragedy. Most famous, of course, is the play-within-a-play scene; although there might also be something to the fact that one of the only people to survive at the end of Hamlet is named Horatio. Coincidence? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Hamlet 1996
In a way, you could say that we have Kyd to blame for Kenneth Branagh’s marathon version of Hamlet.

Don’t be put off by the gruesome murders or the melodramatic storyline; The Spanish Tragedy is quite a read, and it’s one of those plays I think would look fabulous on the modern stage. It’s a classic, and quite possibly the first revenge drama in the English language. And if you’re still not sold, have a peek at this beautifully produced clip, showing one of the most significant moments in the play: the murder of Horatio.

Rating: 4.5 Stars



4 replies on “Revenge Overload: The Spanish Tragedy (1592), by Thomas Kyd”

Only knew of this from references, never saw a copy when we studied Elizabethn theatre at school. Now, The Duchess of Malfi, that’s a bloodthirsty revenge play as I remember…
I second the compliment above, by the way!

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