The Spanish Tragedy

It was Oxford’s method to create a story, often with more than one plot, out of a mix of sources.  These included stories he remembered from his childhood with Smith, what he happened to be reading at the time, the events and personalities at Court or that surrounded him at the moment, and his own circumstances and emotions at the time of writing.  Evidence of later revision is often found in an added frame tale or scenes that have little to do with the rest of the play, but the original and most basic part of the plot is usually fairly obvious.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The Spanish Tragedy was one of the first plays he wrote during his 1581-83 exile.  He needed to vent to his feelings of betrayal by those “backfriends” who dropped him as soon as he got in trouble.  Thus, while it would be his grief over Sussex that fueled Hamlet, with Spanish Tragedy it’s himself who, as Andrea, betrayed and murdered (by Knyvett’s men), requires revenge before his soul is free to go where it belongs in a sort of pagan afterlife.

Another reason for placing Spanish Tragedy early in his years of exile is that it seems to have been written while he was still under the impression that Ann Vavasor had turned against him.  The portrayal of Bel-Imperia as shallow and fickle (much like Cressida, another condemnation of Ann from this early period) is one more example of the default interpretation of a nubile female as invariably fickle that haunts his early poetry and plays.  To these personal drives was added Walsingham’s mandate to give the Queen’s Men something that would help rouse the nation against the Spanish.

Authorship of The Spanish Tragedy

The certainty displayed by writers of introductions to The Spanish Tragedy that it was written by Thomas Kyd is based on nothing more substantial than their interpretation of a pun in Nashe’s preface to Robert Greene’s 1589 Menaphon and a passing comment by playwright Thomas Heywood in his pamphlet An Apology for Actors published in 1612.  As Oxfordian scholars Robert Brazil and Barbara Flues point out, no one at the time believed that Kyd wrote it, since title pages of the play published after 1612 continue to describe it as anonymous.

Had Kyd a real presence as a playwright, had he produced anything else even close to the level of Spanish Tragedy, had not so many besides himself shown similarly questionable credentials, had not this been a time rife with anonymity and pseudonyms, this late and passing mention might be sufficient to support the orthodox attribution, but given these problems, neither of these references, one made in passing 23 years after the other, is sufficient to make Kyd’s claim as author stick.

As Philip Edwards shows in his introduction to the Revels edition, although the play was registered with the Stationers in October 1592, the similarity of a sonnet in Act II to one in Hekatompathia, registered in March 1582 (xxi) not only gives us a date of composition, it shows an early connection to the Fisher’s Folly group.  In defiance of almost everyone else, the respected T.W. Baldwin agrees with 1582-’85 as the most likely period of composition (Edwards xxvi).  Most interesting is a link to the notable tragic actor John Bentley, for whom the role of Hieronymo was probably written.  Baldwin quotes Thomas Dekker who wrote in 1607 that Bentley was “molded out of the pens of Watson, Kyd and Achelow,” University Wits whom we’ve identified as members of Oxford’s 1580s Fisher’s Folly team.  Bentley’s death in August 1585 would require that the play be written at some point before that date.

Since most of Oxford’s protagonists at this time were young men his own age (Hal, Mercutio, Ironside, Hotspur, Lacey, James IV, Henry V, Richard II), that the progagonist in Spanish Tragedy was old enough to have a grown son seems an anomaly.  But not if Bentley was a member of the Queen’s Men, and due to his stature as London’s foremost tragedian, deserving of a leading role.  If so, he got a whopper.  Following his death, Edward Alleyn became famous for his interpretation of Hieronymo, a man tortured into madness by grief.

What about Kyd then?

Not that we ever know enough about these folks, but we actually know enough about Thomas Kyd to come up with something believable, certainly more than we know about Thomas Watson.  Kyd was the son of a London scrivener.  Since there’s no record of Kyd at either of the universities, his most likely path to working for the commercial stage probably began at the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he was enrolled in 1565, a period when Headmaster Richard Mulcaster had the boys performing plays for audiences.  Revels records for the 1570s show them performing for holidays at Court for over a decade.  This could have led to his working as a secretary for Oxford at Fisher’s Folly in the early 1580s.

In 1587, when Oxford could no longer support so many supernumeraries, Kyd probably followed Marlowe and Alleyn in their flight to Bankside.  This helps makes sense of Nashe’s swipe in Menaphon, coming as it does with stabs at Marlowe and Alleyn.  That he worked as a copyist for the Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose, possibly doing a little translating on the side makes a lot more sense than including him as a member of the writing crew.  “Sporting Kyd,” he was called later by Jonson; perhaps along with a good hand for a fair copy he was fun to be with.  Unlike the inflated biography in which academics claim for him the authorship, or partial authorship, of dozens of other plays, this scenario actually fits the facts.

Assuming that the “lord” he mentions in his letter to Lord Keeper Puckering, written from prison in 1593 during the Marlowe sting, was Lord Strange, Marlowe’s patron and patron of the acting company at the Rose, Kyd’s statement that he has been serving this lord “almost these six years now,” confirms 1587 as the year he joined Strange’s company, the same year that Alleyn and Marlowe left Oxford for Henslowe.  Then in 1589, in Menaphon, a work largely devoted by both Greene and Nashe (Oxford and Bacon) to excoriating the renegade crew at the Rose, we read in Nashe’s preface:

But herein I cannot so fully bequeath them to folly as their idiot art-masters, that intrude themselves to our ears as the alchemists of eloquence, who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) think to outbrave better pens with the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse.  Indeed, it may be the engrafted overflow of some kill-cow conceit that overcloyeth their imagination with a more than drunken resolution (being not extemporal in the invention of any other means to vent their manhood) commits the digestion of their choleric encumbrances to the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllabon.

. . . and so forth.  This is followed by the apparent reference to Kyd who was born into “the trade of noverint (scribe or notary):

It is a common practice now-a-days amongst a sort of shifting companions, that run through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of noverint whereto they were born and busy themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as Blood is a beggar, and so forth, and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.  But O grief!  Tempus edax rerum, what’s that will last always?  The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be dry, and Seneca, let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage, which makes his famished followers to imitate the kid in Aesop, who, enamoured with the fox’s newfangles, forsook all hopes of life to leap into a new occupation . . .

The reference to Seneca is far from a certain reference to The Spanish Tragedy; Nashe could easily have had some work in mind that’s slipped from historic memory.  Nor is the passing reference to Hamlet necessarily connected with Kyd––rather simply as an example of a play that has a lot of “tragical speeches.”  Clearly what Nashe has in mind is a group of newly-risen writers, of which Kyd is only one, who, like the youthful goat in Aesop, have leapt into the “new occupation” of writing for the Stage.  Mayhap Kyd, weary of his role as secretary to Oxford, was promised the opportunity to do some writing of his own for Henslowe.  Or promised more money.  Or promised money.

As for evidence of performance, not surprisingly there isn’t any until the 1590s.  Henslowe reveals it as one of the earliest of the performances at the Rose noted in his diary (February 1592) and regularly thereafter for decades.  (It was always a great moneymaker. ) That in 1614 it was 25-30 years old, as Ben Jonson’s character comments in the Induction to Bartholomew Faire, places it at 1584-1589, right on target with our scenario.

Dating The Spanish Tragedy

Perhaps to satisfy Walsingham’s need to demonstrate Spanish perfidy, Oxford used as background a situation that was current at the time, the failed effort by the Portuguese pretender, Dom Antonio, to prevent the Portuguese throne from falling to Philip II.  In 1581, not the Court alone but most of the country was aware of the situation, since the Dom himself had been in England from April to September that year in an effort to get Elizabeth to back his plans for retaking the throne of Portugal.

That Oxford was privy to the situation is historical fact.  That September, though still under house arrest, he had been ordered by the Queen––along with Philip Sidney and Henry Howard, of all people––to accompany Dom Antonio to Dover where the Pretender was to due to sail to France (Nelson 274).  As an example of Elizabeth’s methods for enforcing harmony on a Court always ready to fracture on some personal grievance, no doubt she hoped that, by travelling together, these enemies would be compelled to come to terms.  Did Oxford actually make the trip?––we know only that he was ordered to go, not that he actually went, as did Sidney and Howard.  It would have been a sad journey in any case, as the proud Dom had gotten exactly nowhere with Elizabeth, and was basically retreating to the French Court where he must have hoped for better luck.

Thus we can easily connect the origins of The Spanish Tragedy to the period when the Pretender himself was, or had recently been, present: April-September 1581, a period that coincided with the early months of Oxford’s banishment.  It had to have been this period, or over the following six months or so, that the play was written, since Dom Antonio and his difficulties faded rapidly from public attention with the onset of more troubling developments.

David Bevington, editor of the 1999 edition of the play, also urges an early date, pointing out that Spain defeated Portugal in the bloody battle of Alcantara in 1580, which was then ruled by a Portuguese Viceroy.  When the Portuguese island of Terceira fell to the Spanish in 1583 it caused a wave of anxiety among the Protestant nations.  Since The Spanish Tragedy begins with the defeat of the Portuguese viceroy, and alludes to the loss of Terceira in Act I Scene 3, its logical that the background setting was current when the play was first written.

Jerome Cardan

The leading character in The Spanish Tragedy is named Hieronymo, an odd name for a character in a play that takes place in Spain and Portugal.  The name suggests that the story refers to the autobiography of Italian philosopher Girolamo (Hieronymo) Cardano (Jerome Cardan in English), De consolatione, first published in Latin, in Venice, in 1542.  The intensity of Cardan’s grief over what he regarded as the political execution of his eldest son could easily be the model for Hieronymo’s grieving madness over the murder of his son Andrea.

Oxford would have known Cardan’s story from his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, whose philosophy and interests closely reflected Cardan’s: astrology, philosophy, alchemy, psychology.  Smith, who had (at least) two of Cardan’s books in his library, could easily have met the famous mathematician/astrologer in person during Cardan’s 1553 visit to the English Court when he stayed with Smith’s former Cambridge colleague, John Cheke, at Cheke’s lodgings in London.  Oxford himself had been involved in the publication of the English translation of Cardan’s De consolatione, having written a prefatory letter to the translator, his close friend Thomas Bedingfield.  Published in 1576, this book, Cardanus Comforte, would still have been fresh in his mind in 1581.

Another possible link is to Jeronimo Bassano, a member of the family of Italian musicians who made up Elizabeth’s recorder consort, “bounden to give daily attendance upon the Queen’s Majesty” (Lasocki 152).  According to the DNB, Jeronimo’s fantasias were the most important recorder consort music written before the twentieth century.  Another important character in Spanish Tragedy, Andrea, has the same name as another  Bassano brother, Andrew, who, during the 1580s was living in Norton Folgate near the Folly.

That these two were among the Bassanos closest to Oxford in age brings the Bassanos into Oxford’s Shoreditch circle.  Possibly he owed them something, perhaps working for him for free while he was in financial straits, perhaps writing music for his plays, perhaps performing music for his audiences.  It seems it was his habit to name his more likeable characters after patrons and others who helped him in some way.  Unable to reward them with money, or with enough money, this was one way he could acknowledge them.

“Hieronymo is mad again”

The part of Hieronymo, probably written originally for London’s leading tragedian, eventually became the kind of star turn whereby an actor showed his emotional range by going mad onstage.  Renaissance audiences were obsessed with madness.  Visitors to London would pay to watch the crazy folks behind bars at the Bedlam hospital across the road from Fisher’s Folly.

Infuriated at the way he was being treated by the Queen and by those courtiers who had fawned on him until he stumbled and who were now pretending he didn’t exist, Oxford poured all his wrath and his grief over Sussex’s death into Hieronymo’s mad scenes.  Yet even this wasn’t enough for later audiences.  In 1601, Philip Henslowe had Ben Jonson add several more, and longer, mad scenes to Hieronymo’s part.

Most unusually, none of the leading characters are obviously modeled on Oxford himself, perhaps because the play was written for the Queen’s Men, a travelling company, not a personal audience like the Court or the West End.  The one to whom he most relates in this play would be the ghostly bystander, the murdered Spanish prince Andrea, who observes the action from the vantage point of Heaven, whither he’s been sent by the wicked Lorenzo, brother of his lady love, the princess Bel-Imperia, both easily identified as Henry Howard and his cousin, Ann Vavasor, Oxford’s lover.  Bel-Imperia is essentially a cardboard figure, so stereotypical as to be unrelated to anyone real, a sure sign that this is an early play (another indicator of its early origin is the inclusion of a medieval-style personification, the character Revenge).  It took our boy some time to get good at creating believable women.

Tucker Brooke has identified Lorenzo as “the first of a long line of Machiavellian villains . . . the original progenitor of the villain of modern melodrama . . . who, utterly soulless and heartless, could composedly intrigue out of his way the innocent obstacles to his ends . . . .” (211), another first for Oxford since Lorenzo, like Edricus in Ironside, Ateukin in James IV, Iachimo in Cymbeline, and Iago in Othello, was born of Oxford’s experience with his brilliant but wicked cousin Henry Howard.  Here however Lorenzo is a conflation of Howard with Sir Thomas Knyvett, Ann Vavasor’s uncle, who at the time the play was written was actively seeking to do Oxford serious harm.

The play within a play

Andrea is frustrated that, as a ghost, he can’t revenge himself on Lorenzo.  Being dead, he must rely on heavenly intervention, here provided by the old-fashioned deus ex machina, the type-character Revenge, a medieval trope that helps to confirm Spanish Tragedy as a very early play.  With Oxford as Andrea it’s possible to see echoes of his personal situation in the plot.  However fragile the connections (this is far from the most effective combination of his own story with something from history and something from current events), they gave his imagination the impetus it needed to set the action in motion towards the emotionally satisfying bloodbath that ends the play.  In this, the Lord Chamberlain, Hieronymo, whose function, like Oxford’s, is to provide entertainment for the Court, wreaks his revenge on all parties by getting them to participate in a play in which everyone gets killed.

All of these things connect Spanish Tragedy to the Queen’s Men and to Oxford’s situation and his feelings in the early 1580s.  Most compelling of all may be the use of the stage as the means his protagonist chooses to exact his revenge, a gimmick he had used earlier in Thomas of Woodstock and would shortly be using again, much more powerfully, in Hamlet.

Scholars have noted the many connections between the themes, plots, and characters of The Spanish Tragedy and the earliest versions of Hamlet.  But it’s unlikely that Hamlet was written for the Queen’s Men.  The strong evidence that Claudius and Gertrude personified Leicester and Elizabeth makes it almost impossible that Hamlet was ever shown at Court during Elizabeth’s, Leicester’s or Burghley’s lifetimes, or if so, not in the versions we know from the quartos and the First Folio.  Its deeply philosophical and personal tone suggest that it was written for personal reasons and intended originally only for a private West End audience.  Clearly it jumped the fence at some point in the mid-to-late 1580s, but in what form we now can only guess.

3 thoughts on “The Spanish Tragedy

    1. Eliot says that only because he follows the Stratford dating scheme, and must find someone else to whom to attribute the early Hamlet mentioned by Nashe and Lodge. Kyd is one of those names that the “critics” pin on those works that, for whatever reason, are obviously too early to have been written by William.

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