Thomas Kyd (1558 – 1594) was an English dramatist who gained great popularity in his own day but faded into almost complete obscurity after his death until, centuries later, he was rediscovered. He is now considered by scholars to be one of the most influential dramatists of the early Elizabethan period.
Through his play Spanish Tragedy, Kyd introduced the genre of "revenge tragedy" to English literature. This drama would go on to influence dozens of other playwrights, among them William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, addressing the universal problems of jealousy and revenge.
Kyd was not educated at university and came from a relatively humble background; nonetheless, he was well-acquainted with the classics and most likely was fluent in Latin and Greek. For centuries .other writers—belonging to the community of so-called "university wits"—had attempted to translate the style of Latin drama for the English stage; Kyd was the first to do so successfully. Kyd was the first to revitalize the classical tragic form, with all its violence and tension, using English that was neither obscure nor melodramatic but penetratingly real. Perhaps because of his humble origins—a trait he shared with Shakespeare—Kyd was the first dramatist to not only interpret the masterworks of the past, but compose masterworks of his own for his own times.
Very little is known of Kyd's of life. Documentation for his early life exists, but during the most important years of his life, when he was writing and composing plays, almost no record of him remains other than a letter he wrote following his imprisonment and torture on the charge of heresy. Because of this, some of Kyd's life has given way to legend and conjecture. Nevertheless, some facts can be related with certitude:
Kyd was the son of Francis and Anna Kyd. He was baptized in the church of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London on November 6, 1558. The baptismal register carries the entry: "Thomas, son of Francis Kidd, Citizen and Writer of the Courte Letter of London." Francis Kyd was a scrivener—a professional scribe, whose job was to duplicate documents by hand—serving as warden of the Scriveners' Company in 1580.
In October 1565 Thomas Kyd was enrolled in the newly-founded Merchant Taylors' School, whose headmaster was Richard Mulcaster. Fellow students included Edmund Spenser and Thomas Lodge. Here, Kyd received a well-rounded education, thanks to Mulcaster's progressive ideas. Apart from Latin and Greek, the curriculum included music, drama, physical education, and "good manners." There is no evidence that Kyd went on to either of the universities. He may have followed for a time his father's profession; two letters written by him are extant and his handwriting suggests the training of a scrivener.
Evidence suggests that in the 1580s, Kyd became an important playwright, but little is known about his activity. Francis Meres placed him among "our best for tragedy" and Heywood elsewhere called him "Famous Kyd." Ben Jonson mentions Kyd in the same breath as Christopher Marlowe and John Lyly in Shakespeare’s First Folio.
The Spanish Tragedie was probably written in the mid to late 1580s. The earliest surviving edition was printed in 1592; with the full title of, The Spanish Tragedie, Containing the lamentable end of Don Horatio, and Bel-imperia: with the pittifull death of olde Hieronimo. However, the play was usually known simply as "Hieronimo," after the protagonist. It was arguably the most popular play of the "Age of Shakespeare" and set new standards in effective plot construction and character development. In 1602 a version of the play with "additions" was published. Philip Henslowe's diary records payment to Ben Jonson for additions that year, but it is disputed whether the published additions reflect Jonson's work or if they were actually composed for a 1597 revival of The Spanish Tragedy mentioned by Henslowe.
Other works by Kyd are his translations of Torquato Tasso's Padre di Famiglia, published as The Householder's Philosophy (1588); and Robert Garnier's Cornelia (1594). Plays attributed in whole or in part to Kyd include Soliman and Perseda, King Leir and Arden of Feversham, though all these attributions have been disputed. A burlesque of The Spanish Tragedy called The First Part of Jeronimo is almost certainly not his. However, it is widely accepted that Kyd was the author of a play entitled Hamlet, a lost precursor to Shakespeare's version of the play. It is perhaps one of the most regrettable losses in English letters that no copy of Kyd's version of Hamlet exists; scholars continue to debate how much of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy may have simply been an adaptation of Kyd's existing work.
The success of Kyd's plays extended to Europe. Versions of The Spanish Tragedy and his Hamlet were popular in Germany and the Netherlands for generations. The influence of these plays on European drama was largely the reason for the interest in Kyd among German scholars in the nineteenth century.
On or about 1587 Kyd entered the service of a noble, possibly Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, who sponsored a company of actors. He may have worked as a secretary, if not also as a playwright. Around 1591 Christopher Marlowe also joined this patron's service, and for a while Marlowe and Kyd shared lodgings.
On May 11, 1593 the Privy Council ordered the arrest of the authors of "divers lewd and mutinous libels" which had been posted around London. The next day, Kyd was among those arrested; he would later believe that he had been the victim of an informer. His lodgings were searched, but instead of evidence of the "libels" the authorities found an Arianist tract, described by an investigator as "vile heretical conceits denying the deity of Jesus Christ our Saviour found amongst the papers of Thos Kydd, prisoner ... which he affirmeth he had from Marlowe." It is believed that Kyd was tortured to obtain this information. Marlowe was summoned by the Privy Council and, while waiting for a decision on his case, was killed in an incident involving known government agents.
Kyd was eventually released but was not accepted back into his lord's service. Believing he was under suspicion of atheism himself, he wrote to the Lord Keeper, Sir John Puckering, protesting his innocence, but his efforts to clear his name were apparently fruitless. After his ordeal, Kyd did not have many days left. His final play, Cornelia was published in early 1594. In the dedication to the Countess of Sussex he alludes to the "bitter times and privy broken passions" he had endured. Kyd died later that year, and was buried on August 15 in London. In December 1594 his mother legally renounced the administration of his estate, probably because it was debt-ridden.
First printed around 1592, The Spanish Tragedy is one of the most important single plays in all of Elizabethan literature. Modeled after classical Latin tragedies—most notably those of Seneca— the play is largely responsible for the resurgence of tragic drama in sixteenth-century literature. Countless playwrights would imitate the play's themes of jealousy, revenge, and divine retribution, as well as its intricately-crafted plot. The play is a watershed for plot-development in English literature, having one of the most complex and most compelling storylines for any drama of its period, rivaling even those of Shakespeare. Almost all of Kyd's present-day fame rests on this single play, and records from his own time suggest that The Spanish Tragedy has always been his most popular and influential work.
The play opens during a period of strife between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. The first scene introduces the ghost of Don Andrea, a Spanish nobleman killed in a recent battle by Balthazar, a prince of the Portuguese. Don Andrea tells the story of his death to the spirit of Revenge, who accompanies him to the underworld: he and Balthazar had been caught up in a dispute over a beautiful woman, Bel-Imperia, with whom many men had fallen in love. Out of anger, Balthazar had sought out Don Andrea in the battle and killed him. The spirit of Revenge promises Don Andrea that, before the play's end, he will have his vengeance.
Meanwhile, at the scene of the battle, the Portuguese have been defeated, and Balthazar has been taken prisoner by Horatio, son of Hieronimo, and Lorenzo, son of the duke of Castile. The two noblemen get into an argument over who truly captured Balthazar, and to resolve their dispute they visit the king of Spain. The king devises a compromise, giving Horatio the ransom money, and allowing Lorenzo to keep Balthazar as a prisoner in his home.
Once he is imprisoned, Balthazar is infuriated to discover that Bel-Imperia has fallen in love with Horatio. Balthazar learns that Lorenzo is also furious with Horatio for having flirted with his sister. Using this to his advantage, Balthazar conspires with Lorenzo to murder Horatio, so the two noblemen kill him with the assistance of two servants, Pedringano and Serberine.
Shortly after the murder, Hieronimo, Horatio's father, arrives at the scene of the murder and is outraged, though he has no conclusive evidence on who committed the crime. Hieronimo descends into almost complete insanity as he tries to find the killers of his son. Frightened by Hieronimo's behavior, Lorenzo attempts to conceal all traces of evidence. He hires Pedringano to kill Serebine, and then has the police arrest Pedringano and hang him as soon as Serebine is dead. Hieronimo receives a letter from Bel-Imperia that accuses Lorenzo and Balthazar of his son's murders, but Hieronimo is not sure whether he should believe it. Following Pedringano's death, the police discover a letter on his body that provides conclusive evidence of Lorenzo's death, but Lorenzo is able to prevent Hieronimo from having an audience with the King, effectively preventing him from having access to royal justice. Undaunted, Hieronimo swears he will undertake his revenge with or without the aid of the king.
Pretending to recover from his bout of grief and insanity, Hieronimo puts on a false show of friendship and kindness to Lorenzo and Balthazar. When it is announced that Bel-Imperia will be married to Balthazar, Hieronimo convinces the groom to let him manage the wedding's entertainments. Hieronimo devises a play to be performed for the wedding guests, convincing Balthazar and Lorenzo to act in it. This play-within-a-play mirrors the plot of the The Spanish Tragedy itself, centering on the story of a sultan murdered by a close friend over the love of a woman and is the same technique that Shakespeare would use to great advantage in his version of Hamlet.
During the course of the play, Hieronimo's character stabs Lorenzo, while Bel-Imperia stabs Balthazar and then herself. After the play ends, Hieronimo reveals to a horrified audience that all the daggers used in the production were real, and that all the murder scenes were in fact real murders. Hieronimo then leaps into the audience, kills the duke of Castile and then kills himself. The final scene of the play shows the return of Don Andrea and the ghost of Revenge, who survey the carnage and predict how all of its characters will be spending eternity in the afterlife. Don Andrea assigns the "noble" Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia to eternity in paradise, while he condemns Lorenzo and Balthazar to hell.
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