Did Shakespeare write The Spanish Tragedy?

There they go again!   Several days ago the New York Times announced that a Texas U English prof has “discovered” Shakespeare’s hand in the early modern play by Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, with the British newspaper, The Guardian, adding its tuppence.  And so the world watches (well, some of it watches) while a gaggle of academics and media geese chase each other around yet another well-worn track in the race to identify Shakespeare’s hand, as though it hasn’t all happened so many times before.

Yet each time the trail gets more muddied, and things once known now seem utterly forgot.  Since when, for instance, did the British Library succeed in proving that Hand D in the manuscript “The Play of Sir Thomas More” is in fact Shakespeare’s own?  Through what new discovery or process of analysis has this now been determined?  The media perps don’t say, of course, probably because they don’t know that neither this nor anything else in any play manuscript is in Shakespeare’s hand because, first, except for this and one or two others in manuscript, there simply aren’t any manuscript plays from that era for comparison; and second, there’s no existing document of any sort confirmed to be in William’s hand with which to compare them even if there were.

So professor Bruster’s great discovery, as with most of the Shakespeare discoveries that emerge from Academia, is based on something that is based on something that exists only as a theory.  To rely on Dover Wilson’s notions about Shakespeare’s handwriting, again, based not on any solid evidence of his handwriting (which again, does not exist), only on the results of several levels of transmission, from author (or his amanuensis) to stage manager (who created the stage director’s copy) to editor to typesetter, is, frankly, absurd.  Only someone in Wilson’s position, regarded as an expert and so desperate for conclusions (and certain that anything he says will be believed) would attempt to state as fact anything based on such a shaky foundation.

In fact, the common assumption by scholars who have spent their lives studying the matter has always been that the additions to the 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy were created by Ben Jonson for stage owner Philip Henslowe, as noted twice in Henslowe’s Diary: on the 25th of September 1601, Henslowe lent Edward Alleyn 40 shillings to give Jonson for “writing of his additions in ‘geronymo’” (Hieronymo was Henslowe’s term for what today we call The Spanish Tragedy); and again on June 22, 1602, more money for “new additions for ‘Jeronymo’” (R.A. Foakes, 182, 203).  As for Shakespeare, neither here nor anywhere else in his diary does Henslowe ever use the name, or anything that sounds remotely like it, even though it’s clear he produced several of his plays.

In fact, although it’s clear that Ben Jonson, not Shakespeare, made those additions to the play in 1602, the play itself was not only NOT WRITTEN by Thomas Kyd, it was surely written by Shakespeare, that is, by the man who used the name Shakespeare, and who then went on to write Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and so forth.  The attribution to Kyd is based on a pun made by Thomas Nashe in 1593 and a statement made by Thomas Heywood in 1612, in his Apologie for Actors.  Only a couple of other published works bear Kyd’s name, equally questionable, none of them worthy of the term literature.  By the time the twenty-something Heywood began working for the Lord Admiral’s Men in the mid-90s, Kyd was dead, destroyed by the same government sting that rid the Crown of Christopher Marlowe.  Attributing works of literature to the dead was a standard means of getting questionable works into print.

For those who have steeped themselves in the master’s language and how it grew from early (Titus Andronicus) to late (King Lear), there can be no doubt that The Spanish Tragedy was one of Shakespeare’s early plays, one that is, or should be, tremendously valuable to scholars since it was never rewritten as were most of his other plays from the 1580s.  A number of reputable analysts have noted the many similarities that place it close to Hamlet, probably just preceding it.  The only reason that Academia refuses to admit this is that it’s too early for the Stratford biography.

Whatever the reason, if this should lead to a major company introducing a good production of Spanish Tragedy it will be worth the kafuffle.  For no matter what nonsense gets written about Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still “the thing.”

26 thoughts on “Did Shakespeare write The Spanish Tragedy?

  1. Yes, @steve steinburg, right you are – and every time a creative situation to make our own thinking sharper and more exact. Let us, however, most of all extend our thanks to our dear Stephanie Hopkins Hughes for her sharpness and will to educate me and a few other lazy – and more slow – students of the authorship question.

  2. There’s a nice rhetorical figure, gradatio, or climax, where the captive but well-treated Portugese Prince Balthazar is complaining to Lorenzo that his rival, Horatio of Spain, is doing better than he at wooing Princess Bellimperia:

    I think Horatio be my destin’d plague:
    First, in his hand he brandished a sword,
    And with that sword he fiercely waged war,
    And in that war he gave me dangerous wounds,
    And by those wounds he forced me to yield,
    And by my yielding I became his slave.
    Now in his mouth he carries pleasing words,
    Which pleasing words do harbour sweet conceits,
    Which sweet conceits are lim’d with sly deceits,
    Which sly deceits smooth Bellimperia’s ears,
    And through her ears dive down into her heart,
    And in her heart set him, where I should stand.

    This chainlike figure is one that Sister Miriam Joseph, a scholar of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, declares him to have mastered, and J.T. Looney, Charlton Ogburn, and others, have found at least one brief burst of gradatio in Oxford, which they compare to a similar passage in The Comedy of Errors.

    Others (Ben Jonson, for one) used the gradatio figure; but there are other signs that this “Kyd” play is likely early “Shakespeare”: the verse, with its speed of exposition (the comment on the unseen battle, though overextended, prefigures Macbeth), the pounce of its verbs, the alliterations and assonances. would sound anywhere from good to grand, characteristic of the developing Shakespeare. The frustrating thing for the modern audience would be so many end-stopped lines, which paralyze the listening mind, unless the actor commands brilliant timing and turning maneuvers. This difficulty mars the earliest history plays, but by Richard II, the author has learned to bend some of the lines around corners, with enjambments, and the rhythms are more subtle and pleasing.

    1. Yes indeed. Tom, have you read Albert Feuillerat’s The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays? Of course it’s necessary to weed out the comments based on the Stratford bio, but he’s very clear on Shakespeare’s usage. Perhaps as a Frenchman he hears English in a different way.

  3. I sent the following email to Prof. Bruster, with the subject line “Yikes! An insane anti-Shakepearean!”

    “Okay, I’ve got a grip on myself now. I was delighted to learn of your new N&Q article in today’s New York Times. I want to be among the first to congratulate you, and to point out that the spelling variants you have identified all occur in the 70-odd surviving letters of Edward de Vere.

    Berkeley’s Alan Nelson (Emeritus, English) drew attention to this (arguing that de Vere couldn’t spell well enough to have written the canon); he cited de Vere’s dozen ways of spelling half-penny as an extreme example.

    De Vere also spelled “satisfies” five different ways, and “small” four different ways.

    As you say, Elizabethan spelling was notoriously variable, so nothing can be proved with this. Nor can de Vere’s authorship be disproved by his penchant for variable spelling.

    Tangentially, I might mention that William Sherman observed regular use of the same sort of manicule for each early reader. De Vere violates this pattern in his 14 manicules in his Whole Book of Psalms. Each of the 14 is distinctively unique.

    Alan generously provides the full list of all of de Vere’s spellings on Alan’s website.

    Have you heard of Elizabethan spelling bees? Neither have I. My surmise, though, is that the only possible way they’d work is to give the prize to the person who could invent the largest number of plausible but previously unused spellings.”

    End of email. No reply thus far. I highly recommend to all of you that you play the enjoyable game of “match those spelling variants.” Just take Bruster’s list and check it against Alan Nelson’s comprehensive list of de Vere’s spellings.

    For example, Bruster claims Shakespeare tends to use “oo” when others use only a single “o.” De Vere’s letters have agoo (4 times); broother; soo (18x); and goo (15x).

    He also says Shakespeare uses “ow” instead of the more usual “ou.” De Vere wrote fownd; fowre (36x); cowrse; cowrt; couwld (17x); and cowncil.

    All in all, Bruster has unwittingly helped de Vere.

  4. Excellent! Richard, If I were you I’d put this comment on the NYTimes and Guardian websites, if there’s still time. It’s this kind of detailed communication that has a chance of getting through to somebody who still has a functional right brain.

    You say that he is actually helping our cause. But that’s true of so many genuine scholars. Most of our important material has come from them, however they may misinterpret it. You couldn’t have made the comparison without quoting Alan Nelson. It’s actually funny to watch how they will labor to fit their genuine results with the Stratford bio.

  5. Good. When it comes to Shakespeare, The Guardian is probably more important than the New York Times. If we’re ever to get help from a progressive university affiliated historian, he or she will have to be located in London.

  6. Hi Stephanie, You wrote: “In fact, the common assumption by scholars who have spent their lives studying the matter has always been that the additions to the 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy were created by Ben Jonson for stage owner Philip Henslowe.”

    Can you tell us which scholars you have in mind? Though I haven’t spent my life studying this question, when I did look into it, I was surprised to see how many scholars have doubted that Henslowe’s diary gives us accurate information. The lines just don’t seem to fit Ben’s style.

    When I wrote a paper on “Ben Jonson & The Tempest”, I quoted Anne Barton, (“Ben Jonson, Dramatist”, 1984) who sincerely believed that he’d written those additions. But even then, she was on the defensive, aware that many of her colleagues didn’t find Ben’s voice in the lines.

  7. Thanks, Marie. Helpful input. Obviously, as you point out, there’s a problem here.

    It’s true that Jonson’s style can’t be so easily confused with Shakespeare’s as can Marlowe’s (in his early plays) for instance. Yet it’s ridiculous to think that Henslowe either lied––to himself in his own personal diary––or was ignorant of with whom he was dealing (Jonson was doing a fair amount of writing for Henslowe during that period). What may make sense might be that in the matter of adding material to Spanish Tragedy Jonson acted, without Henslowe’s knowledge, not as writer but as agent.

    During this period Jonson was involved with both Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and with the Lord Admiral’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose. Jonson would certainly have known that Oxford was the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and so, wishing to remain on the right side of the Master, and himself a prideful writer who probably resented having to fiddle with someone else’s text, turned it over to Oxford without letting Henslowe know who actually penned it. (It must go without saying, based on the history of the period, that Henslowe and Oxford would not have been on cordial speaking terms.)

    Of course Oxford could have said no, but he could not help but have some pride in the fact that ST was the first genuine superhit of the London Stage. If anyone was going to tamper with it, it should be himself. The many versions of Richard III published in quarto show how he would tinker with an already produced play whenever he got the chance.

    Why Henslowe wanted to bring back an old play like ST in 1601 (the date he first gave Jonson an advance for his additions) may have had to do with the projected return of Edward Alleyn to the Rose as an actor. Alleyn was, until his retirement in October 1597 (during Oxford’s showdown with Cecil over RIII), Henslowe’s shining star, the most popular actor in London, with Hieronymo possibly his most famous role. Getting the audience back for such an old play would have been an issue, thus the need to enhance it by advertising that it was “newly corrected and amended and enlarged with new additions.”

    I believe that towards the end of the 1590s, after his showdown with Robertus Diabolus, Oxford’s lack of enthusiasm for providing entertainment for the Court was daily increasing. Only his feeling for the company who depended on him for material, and his hope that the Queen would come through with her promise to give him the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, kept him writing anything at all for the Court. Because he was so bored with it, he tried to get out of it by bringing in other writers, among them his cousin Francis Bacon and the upcoming Ben Jonson, who wrote Every Man In and Every Man Out, for the LCMen, both based on Oxford and his circle.

    Oxford must have been really miserable by 1600 when he was pressed to write for the new children’s company that had been given the right to use the great new Blackfriars theater that the LCMen owned but were still denied. Thus the third of these early plays attributed to Jonson, Cynthia’s Revels, was written by a triumvirate, each taking those scenes where his muse was strongest, each satirized as one of the characters, Oxford the lordly Amorphus (without shape or form), Asotus (meaning a profligate spendthrift) Bacon, and Crites (the critic) Jonson. Needless to say, it was a flop.

  8. Good comments all. Stephanie, yes, you’re right, I’d like to read Feuillerat’s book. He was a Lyly scholar too, wasn’t he? For Richard: I wonder if you’ve ever read a book on Oxford’s spelling written a long time ago. I think it was by early Oxfordian Gerald W. Phillips, and I think he narrowed the topic to similarities between Oxford’s letters (maybe poems) and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Circa 1936 or 7. I almost picked it up at a second-hand bookstore years ago, and devoutly wish I had now.

    And the Oxford (University) Shakespeare, Taylor and Wells editing, came out some time ago in an original spelling edition, horrifically (unfairly?) expensive. Again, years ago, but I do seem to remember lots of “oo” and “ow” formations, good for that Elizabethan spelling bee which, of course, neither Bacon nor Shakspere nor Oxford would win, no one being sure what winning would look like.

  9. I also went to The Guardian page, and took up the cudgels, I hope effectively, on behalf of Oxfreudian, and against his arch-enemy, SaxonRed…

  10. I hope the book can still be found, Richard. Too bad about SaxonRed and his dogmatism. The Hand D canard just seems to keep coming up (talk about re-invented wheels!), but unless injected with truth serum, SaxonRed sin’t about to admit the hand of Anthony Munday in the More piece, or what that signifies for Oxford. And to be tone-deaf enough to hear Oxford’s “plodding prose” in the letters…

  11. There’s no point in arguing with academic left-brainers. Focused by training and by nature on the trees, on the bark of the trees, on the bugs on the bark on the trees, they don’t even know there’s a forest. By keeping us engaged with minutia, creating a diversionary action, they keep us from our task, namely creating a true history of the period, one that accounts for the facts, that gives the details a place where they fit. This the academics can’t do, can never do, because they are so locked into a belief system based on a lie.

    So much important work remains to be done, why do we keep arguing with knuckleheads? They will never concede, no matter how many books we read, how dazzling our insight, how obvious our story. Perhaps we won’t prevail until we can agree among ourselves on a basic scenario, something ordinary folks find it easy to understand, a human story, in a single phrase (thanks to Maya Angelou) “I know why the caged bird sings.” It’s got to be there. Details are important, but only if they lead us to the truth. First the story, then the details.

  12. Thanks for your input on the Guardian’s website, Tom. I gather most Oxfordians have reached Stephanie’s conclusion that it’s ultimately pointless to argue with SaxonRed and his ilk.

    Quixotically, I like to think impartial readers will reach their own conclusions about who does and does not pay attention to the evidence after perusing those interchanges.

    Mercifully, the Guardian closed that discussion to further comments yesterday.

  13. Stephanie,
    You’re right, The Spanish Tragedy does sound like ‘Shake-speare’. I like it, but I would deliberate a little longer before asserting authorship. What I notice missing is the distinctive and ‘signature’ wordplay on ever/never, sigh no more, more would say, two port, gold too, Beau/Strange, Woodstock, etc. (“and such foolery”). This ‘surname wordplay’ and metonymy pervades genuine ‘de Vere’. The Spanish Tragedy also appears to lack a ‘supra-theme’ that might tie the story to de Vere’s life.
    My assessment is that it is probably not ‘de Vere’ before ~1584 because he wrote with the rhetorical excesses of Euphues through his association with Lyly; and is probably not de Vere after 1581 because he increasingly put emphasis on the signature or ‘authorization wordplay’ after his sojourn in the Tower, March-June 1581. Take a careful look at the ‘inferior’ Fidessa Sonnets, ostensibly by B. Griffin, and see the unmistakable ‘fingerprints’ of our friend.
    I don’t say TST could not have been de Vere’s, but it doesn’t have ‘everything’ to be conclusively his.

  14. I’ve “deliberated” for some twenty years––probably long enough. Spanish Tragedy is a play from the mid-1580s, a full decade before Oxford evolved into Shakespeare, and one of the few that were never revised during his Shakespeare period.

    It’s the comedies that are so filled with wordplay, and they were mostly what he wrote for the Court, most of them for the first time before he was banished (though all of them were polished during the Shakespeare period, some revised many times). Spanish Tragedy was one of the first plays written during his banishment. It was one of his first efforts at writing tragedy (that has survived) and one of only three written out of fury. The other two, Timon of Athens and Richard III, haven’t much wordplay either.

    Oxford was never copying Lyly. If Lyly actually wrote anything published under his name it was by following the style that Oxford created and made famous, beginning long before he (Oxford) brought it to its acme in the Euphues novels. Somewhere I’ve got a list of the characteristics that one finds in almost every Shakespeare play. With an unknown, at least half of these have to be present, but certainly not all, particularly with plays written before the 90s. I’ll see if I can find it.

    If you haven’t read Albert Feuillerat’s Shakespeare in Composition, you would find it very interesting.

  15. Sorry about the misunderstanding! I wasn’t very clear, was I. There is good reason to believe the anonymous works ascribed to Lyly were written by de Vere. The period of de Vere’s association with Lyly seems to demarcate his use of Euphuistic rhetoric; sometime in 1585 Lyly moved on from his troubled relationship with de Vere, and about that time Sydney’s ‘An Apology for Poetry’ – apparently aimed at de Vere and his adherents – may be credited with moderating ‘Euphues’ ornate antithesis and replacing it with far more subtle syllogisms. If you’ve ever seen my web-site, you’ll find de Vere-as-Lyly is a fundamental. So I’m in complete agreement with you on this.
    I’ll think on ‘Spanish Tragedy’ a while longer. ‘Surname fragments’ and ‘surname wordplay’ are the ‘sine qua non’ of de Vere, and I’m having difficulty finding examples in TST. ‘Our writer’ is censored and he wants us to know it; such wordplay becomes obsessive in his later plays as he suffered his ‘Damnatio Memoriae’. What I term the ‘supra-theme’ – truly the primary text of each play – is the word for word transposition from the superficial story to authentic de Vere history. Though the tragedies are light in overt wordplay, they are saturated with ‘his story’ wordplay.
    I suppose TST could be an early experiment – perhaps pre-Euphues?

    1. It’s unlikely that Sidney’s attitude had anything to do with Oxford turning from euphuism. At this stage, Oxford had only scorn for Sidney, who wouldn’t come out from under the repressive influence of his step-father, Leicester, to join the the Literary Renaissance to which he and Bacon were devoted. More likely is that he simply got tired of the slick, precious style, particularly when it became so popular that others were using it, and not so well as himself.

      Euphuism was a style created for the Court. When Oxford was banished from Court in 1581 he stopped writing for the Court audience. ST, written in fury out of how he’d been treated by “Bel-Phoebe,” was probably the first play he’d written strictly for the public audience. The team of adult actors who worked out of Burbage’s Theatre from 1576 on were hungry for works they could perform for the public. He couldn’t eliminate all his courtier habits, but the effort was to create something that the public would understand. If he turned to anything it was to Seneca. Euphuism continued in the plays that Lyly wrote for the Court, but Oxford was through with it.

      Again, the “sine qua non” that you seek may be true of the works written or revised after 1590, but these are not necessarily to be found in his early works. The entire output up to the 90s, when he finally found the style we call Shakespearean, was one experiment after another, each sharing something with the rest, but each unique in some way. Again, ST was written in anger and framed as a tragedy. If today it seems more like bathos than pathos, that’s because we’ve become sophisticated, but by 1582, when I believe he first wrote it, Oxford was still a long way from his Shakespeare phase.

  16. Sidney’s ‘The Defense of Poesy’ is a fascinating piece. Considering the de Vere/Sidney rivalry, I’m surprised it isn’t referred to more often. Thought to have been written in late 1579: that date should be squared with a careful reading of the work; if it isn’t an attack (circa 1581) on de Vere I’ll eat my hat.
    Sidney ended up getting unprecedented public recognition for a man of like accomplishments. He was the hope of the Leicester ‘War Party’ and the cloten bane of de Vere. Who is he referring to here(?):

    “The cause why [English] is not esteemed… is the fault of poet-apes, not poets”.

    ‘Poet-apes’ includes wordplay on (Latin) apis, Apis, and (Old English) apa. De Vere is the ‘ape’ poet: ‘an inferior imitator or mimic’; he is the ‘apis poet’: the ‘bee poet’, the Being Poet, the (L) Sum (to Be), Somer, Summer poet; and he is the ‘Apis’: ‘the ox worshipped by the Egyptians as a god’. If Sidney intended only ‘inferior mimic’, de Vere was happy to extend the significance in later works. (See my short essay on ‘Small Latin and Less Greek’)
    De Vere-as-Lyly was not yet the great writer he would become. Here’s another quote:

    “writing which is called verse – indeed but appareled, verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that never need answer to the name of poets.”

    ‘Swarm’, probably refers to the ‘poet Bees’ or ‘poet apis’. There is heavy criticism throughout ‘Defense’ of nearly every fault that has been leveled against the Euphuists, down to being ‘Herbarists’ (blame Sir Thomas Smith for that).
    De Vere famously responds to Sidney’s fussy ‘listing’ of poetic forms in the lampoon in Hamlet ll.2 339-42: “… tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,” etc.
    This subject can’t be covered here. It needs an essay if one hasn’t been written. Considering Sidney’s poetic finesse in ‘Astrophil and Stella’, de Vere had some catching up to do. It may be argued that he never did; many students still hear ‘Shakespeare’ as “a confused mass of words… barely accompanied by reason.”

  17. If Sidney had a literary axe to grind with Oxford, it wasn’t for his poetry, it was for promoting the works published by the University Wits, the coterie based at Oxford’s residence, Fisher’s Folly. Sidney saw Oxford as instigating a low form of entertainment, one that someone in his position at Court should not dirty his hands with. As for Oxford’s attitude toward Sidney, if anything it was aggravation because Sidney refused to contribute to his and Bacon’s efforts to get English poetry in print so that the English could stand up to the French and Italians as having a genuine vernacular literature. Of course he knew that Sidney was a genuine artist and poet. Sidney was only forced to turn a cold shoulder to Oxford (and Bacon) because of his role as Leicester’s heir.

    It seems fairly well established that Oxford was satirizing Sidney as Slender in Merry Wives and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. So, if, as I believe, there were early versions of these plays, Sidney would have had reason to be peeved with Oxford, but because Sidney would have been well aware of what a terrific poet he was, and also because Oxford outranked him by a mile, he would never have dared to call him an ape, nor would Oxford have taken the remark as referring to himself.

    When Sidney uses the term “poet” he means beautiful and meaningful writing, not necessarily verse. While Oxford and Bacon were creating the London Stage and commercial press, the term playwright had not yet come into use. Because they were writing imaginative literature, playwrights then were termed poets (or playmakers).

    The “catching up” that Sidney caused Oxford was not his writing, but his publishing. When Mary Sidney published her brother’s sonnet cycle in 1591, it became an instant best-seller, with Sidney lauded as the new Chaucer. This, I believe, is why Oxford felt pressured to publish Venus and Adonis when he did. He had to show the reading public who was the true “king of the paper stage.”

  18. Silly me! It’s useful to treat de Vere’s writings as if he has at least considered all possible wordplay. How did I miss this? The great misanthropic ‘fool’, or alter ego of de Vere must be Apemantus from Timon. Apemantus: (Latin) ape/r – ‘wild-boar’ + mante/lum – ‘a cloak’ + us – ‘make use of’; i.e. ‘made use of cloaked as a boar’. Therefore Sidney’s ‘poet-ape’ has another plausible interpretation: ‘Boar-cloaked Poet’. This, of course, is de Vere having fun with words and doesn’t imply Sidney’s intent with that phrase.
    Yes, Slender and Aguecheek are likely as Sidney… and how about Robert Faulconbridge with legs like “riding rods” and a narrow face like thin coins; but most of all Cloten (Cym.), whose physique might be mistaken for de Vere’s (even by his wife) except for that (missing) pock-marked face.
    I don’t think Cloten’s death can be accounted for by “aggravation” and literary disharmony between de Vere and Sidney. There is something much deeper. Maybe Leicester’s appropriation of much of the Oxford patrimony is a more likely cause. The general accolade for Sidney, however insubstantial, could not have helped. But to concede the Oxford patrimony to the Sidney/Leicester faction, merely in exchange for a greater title… what title might that be?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s