BORN: 1558, London, England
DIED: 1594, London, England
Ur-Hamlet (c. 1589)
The Spanish Tragedy (1592)
The Truth of the Most Wicked and Secret Murdering of John Brewen (1592)
Although little is documented in the historical record of Thomas Kyd’s life and work, it is clear that he was a playwright who made important contributions to the repertoire of the public playhouse during the Elizabethan era and beyond. Kyd is best known for The Spanish Tragedy, a great popular success that established the genre of ‘‘revenge tragedies’’ and greatly influenced the course of English drama.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Mysterious Beginnings. There exists very little evidence of Kyd’s life as context for his influence on Elizabethan drama. Except for one spectacular event—his arrest for libel in 1593—the biographical record is uncertain.
Kyd lived his entire life during the Elizabethan era, the time period during which Queen Elizabeth I ruled England and Ireland. The era lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603, and was most notable for two great accomplishments: The rise of British sea superiority, demonstrated by both the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the extensive oceanic explorations of Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh; and the advancement of English theater to a popular and enduring art form, demonstrated by the works of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
Historians believe that an infant named Thomas Kyd, baptized on November 6, 1558, is the playwright; if so, then he would be the son of Francis Kyd, a London secretary of some standing, and his wife, Anna. Thomas was enrolled in 1565 at Merchant Taylors’ School, and there is no evidence of college attendance. There is also little trace of his name in the theatrical records. There is one notice that associates him with the Queen’s Company during the period 1583-1585. The Spanish Tragedy was first published in 1592, anonymously. Scholars can trace its authorship only because of three lines quoted and attributed by Thomas Heywood in his Apology for Actors (1612). For all its popularity, the play was never printed under Kyd’s name until the eighteenth century. Kyd is also often attributed a 1588 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Il Padre di Famiglia. Scholars are certain, however, that Kyd produced a translation of Robert Garnier’s Cornelie in 1594.
A Brief Flash of Fame. This almost invisible life suddenly flared in May 1593 with Kyd’s arrest for the publication of a group of anonymous libels and alleged atheistic statements. Kyd denied the charges and shifted the blame to his one-time housemate, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, claiming that some of their papers got shuffled together. Marlowe was summoned by the law soon after Kyd’s arrest, then released on the condition that he report back daily, but soon afterward Marlowe was killed in an apparent dispute over a tavern bill. Kyd was released, but he never fully recovered his health or his literary reputation. In one of his letters, Kyd refers to his ‘‘pains and undeserved tortures,’’ presumably suffered during interrogation. He died one year later at the age of thirty-five, in poverty, leaving no trace of his burial.
The Elizabethan era saw many struggles between the various European powers as they fought over trade routes across the ocean. One notable event was Spain’s victory over Portugal in 1592, which is the historical setting for The Spanish Tragedy. Using an unusual method for an Elizabethan dramatist, Kyd seems to have worked from no particular source for the play, so he was free to invent his characters and situations. It would probably be misleading, however, to look for too much influence from history or Kyd’s personal life in the content of The Spanish Tragedy. Neither the main plot nor a somewhat tangential Portuguese subplot is based on any specific event. Some details show a casual acquaintance with military history and Spanish geography, and a few incidents may or may not have been inspired by English politics. For the most part, however, Kyd should be given credit for his originality and invention.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Kyd's famous contemporaries include:
John Ward (1553-1662): One of the most notorious English pirates, Ward, at the height of his powers, commanded a large fleet of stolen ships and terrorized merchant ships throughout the Mediterranean.
Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632): King of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1587 to 1632, he attempted to bring about a political union between Poland and Sweden. His efforts resulted in decades of warfare between the two states that lasted until the 1660s. This outbreak of violence ended a long period of cultural and economic progress in Poland known as the Polish Golden Age.
Alonso de Guzman El Bueno (1550-1615): Commander of the Spanish Armada, this relatively inexperienced naval officer took most of the blame for the crushing defeat of the Armada in 1588, an event that elevated Britain's Queen Elizabeth to a position of unprecedented and unchallenged power throughout Europe. In reality, El Bueno fought courageously despite tempestuous weather and poor military strategy devised by the king's advisers.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): English philosopher who argued that information from our senses is the basis of all knowledge, not intuition or spiritual revelation. In his controversial Leviathan (1651), human nature is portrayed as essentially selfish.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637): English poet and dramatist. Jonson, along with Shakespeare and Marlowe, dominated the Elizabethan theater. Jonson's ''comedies of humour'' were particularly popular with their technique of assigning characters with one dominant personality trait (or ''humour''). Jonson also wrote in almost every available verse form of the time and made significant contributions to literary criticism.
Works in Literary Context
Influence on Hamlet. Thomas Kyd’s place in the history of English Renaissance drama is secured by one surviving play, The Spanish Tragedy. But Kyd’s most lasting influence has come from a play that no longer exists— even the title is unknown.
There is evidence that Kyd wrote a play known simply as the Ur-Hamlet, which was the immediate source for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There is no sign that Kyd’s play was ever printed. Reconstructions of the play rely heavily on the strong similarities between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy and how they each differ from the Danish source material for the original Hamlet story. The device of the play-within-a- play, a key feature of Hamlet and many other Elizabethan dramas, probably began with Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy. It seems reasonable as well to credit Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet with introducing the character of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, and the addition of Hamlet’s own death was also probably Kyd’s innovation. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has gone on to be the most performed, admired, adapted, and studied play in the history of world drama, and many have claimed it to be one of the greatest—if not the greatest—single pieces of English literature.
The Revenge Tragedy. Kyd helped to formulate and popularize revenge tragedies, the dominant mode of drama throughout the Elizabethan period. Loosely inspired by the bloody tragedies of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca (4 BCE-CE 65), revenge tragedies tended to feature a hero driven by vengeance, a ghost of a murdered kinsman who appears and demands justice, characters going mad or feigning madness, at least one scene in a graveyard, plenty of sword fighting and imaginative uses of gore (mutilation, severed limbs, cannibalism, etc.), and scenes of physical or mental torture. Just as horror movies are often blockbusters today, Kyd’s formula for revenge tragedy proved to be box office dynamite. The more the Puritans objected to its immorality and bad influence, the more people packed the theaters.
From 1660 into the eighteenth century, fashion championed ‘‘heroic tragedies’’ that showed high-minded heroes choosing between their responsibilities to their loved ones and their duty to their country (the correct choice for the men was always duty to country; for the women, it was responsibilities to loved ones). Even in their stark differences to the violence and madness of the revenge tragedies, these plays show the influence of The Spanish Tragedy—by trying to establish their own originality and cultural relevance for a new ‘‘enlightenment’’ age. These plays self-consciously used Kyd’s work as a model for everything they tried not to be. Revenge was often a theme in nineteenth-century drama, although the context was more often domestic and sentimental.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Psychologists and critics alike often study the question of why audiences often turn to extreme violence for entertainment. Perhaps it is because horror is one of the most intense human emotions, perhaps it is because disgust has its own kind of fascination, or perhaps because there is a kind of dark humor in the originality and creativity of the villains. The following are works that use extreme violence to drive plot and create meaning:
Titus Andronicus (1594), a play by William Shakespeare. Considered by some to be Shakespeare's least successful play, Titus is filled with overt violence: The hero, insane after the rape and dismemberment of his daughter, decapitates the criminals and bakes their heads in a pie that he feeds to their mother.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), a treatise by Edmund Burke. In this influential work, Burke makes the first cogent argument for the artistic merit of horror in literature.
The Road(2006), a novel by Cormac McCarthy. This book, one of the most violent novels ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, is the postapocalyptic survival story of a father and his son traveling across a wasteland populated by desperate marauders. McCarthy uses these vividly described, amoral villains as points of contrast with human instincts for decency and civilization.
Works in Critical Context
Recent scholarship on Kyd often falls into the categories of either theatrical performance studies or sociopolitical interpretations. The Spanish Tragedy is a revealing choice to examine what Elizabethan performance may have looked like. Richard Kohler has found the play’s language to give valuable evidence for staging methods, and the popularity of the play and its violent special effects illuminate the experience of play going during the period.
New Historicism and cultural studies have often turned to Renaissance literature in recent years, following the lead of Stephen Greenblatt, a founder of New Historicism and noted Shakespeare scholar. This approach often searches for ways in which literature influences culture as much as culture influences literature, breaking down the barriers between ‘‘text’’ and ‘‘context.’’ For example, New Historicists have pointed out a parallel between the violence of The Spanish Tragedy and the form of public executions in sixteenth-century London. Greenblatt, along with Molly Smith, demonstrates how power has a distinctly theatrical function during Elizabeth’s reign, and Kyd more than any other dramatist set the form for how power relates to vengeance, madness, and personal tragedy. James Shapiro, on the other hand, points out how The Spanish Tragedy can also be used to challenge many of those assumed relationships.
Political theorists have often observed the British nationalism of The Spanish Tragedy in the form of its Spanish and Catholic prejudices. Scholars such as Eric Griffin and Carla Mazzio and have studied the play for how it reveals the anxiety and ambiguity that goes along with increasing nationalism, as was the case in Elizabeth’s England, particularly after her navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.
While a majority of recent critics focus on the play within its historical moment, critics from earlier in the twentieth century tended to look at The Spanish Tragedy as a stand-alone piece of literature. Kyd was claimed as a master of dramatic technique, carefully weaving together plots and subplots to develop dramatic action. Others appreciated his powerful use of rhetoric and blank verse (perhaps influenced by, and influencing, his friend Christopher Marlowe). These views were controversial, however, as critics such as Fredson Bowers have argued just as persuasively that Kyd’s work is technically immature, his characters do not have explainable motivations, and the use of subplots dilutes the impact of the tragedy.
Responses to Literature
1. Evaluate the rhetoric of The Spanish Tragedy. What are some of the great speeches and monologues from the characters, particularly Hieronimo? How are they structured, what rhetorical devices do they use, and how exactly do they achieve their effect? If you like, research what an educated Elizabethan would have known and expected about rhetoric in the theater and elsewhere.
2. Evaluate Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet as revenge tragedies in light of their debt to The Spanish Tragedy. What do these two Shakespeare plays share, and how are they different? Can the elements of both these similarities and differences be found in The Spanish Tragedy?
3. Do you think that The Spanish Tragedy endorses or condemns the idea of taking the law into your own hands and finding justice through violent revenge? Why?
4. Do some research on the nature of ‘‘special effects’’ on the Elizabethan stage, and look for the places in The Spanish Tragedy where they would have been used. How would Elizabethan actors have handled the appearance of ghosts, severed limbs and heads, bleeding wounds, explosions, and so on?
Barber, C. L. and Richard P. Wheeler. Creating Elizabethan Tragedy: The Theater of Marlowe and Kyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Bowers, Fredson T. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940.
Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger’s Privilege. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
Clemen, Wolfgang. English Tragedy before Shakespeare: The Development of Dramatic Speech. Translated by T. S. Dorsch. London: Methuen, 1961.
Erne, Lukas. Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Freeman, Arthur. Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Hallett, Charles A., and Elaine S. Hallett. The Revenger’s Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
Murray, Peter B. Thomas Kyd. New York: Twayne, 1969.
Prior, Moody Erasmus. The Language of Tragedy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947.
Spurgeon, Dickie. ‘‘Thomas Kyd.’’ In The Predecessors of Shakespeare: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Edited by Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973, pp. 93-106.