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Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Father of Revenge Tragedy:

If Lyly was the father of Elizabethan comic plays, Thomas Kyd deserves to be called one of the two fathers (along with Christopher Marlowe) of Elizabethan tragedy. Kyd's reputation rests almost solely on one play which is extremely popular and influential The Spanish Tragedy. Elizabethan Age scholars have found that this play was one of the three most frequently mentioned plays along with Shakespeare's Hamlet and Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Moreover, Kyd's play created a new and widely popular literary genre, the “revenge tragedy” and he was also named as Father of the Revenge Tragedy. Numerous playwrights, including Shakespeare in his Hamlet, subsequently copied Kyd's format, and dozens of revenge tragedies appeared on the English stage in the 1590s and early 1600.

Yet rather surprisingly, despite Kyd's notable achievement, none of the surviving copies of The Spanish Tragedy bear his name. And for a long time, later scholars were not sure who wrote it. It was not until 1773 that a scholar named Thomas Hawkins, who unearthed a passing remark made by Elizabethan playwright Thomas Heywood in his 1612 essay, Apology for Actors. Heywood named Kyd as the undisputable author of the play. And later exhaustive scholarly studies of the text have verified this assertion.

Tragedy in Kyd’s life:

The fact that in the century following Kyd's death people forgot about him and no longer connected his name with one of the most important English plays is, in and of itself is a tragedy. In that respect, tragedy follows a pattern that began during Kyd’s own lifetime. Indeed, tragedy in one form or another seemed to follow Kyd. On the one hand, he was fascinated by ancient Roman tragedy and he wrote the first great tragedy of his era. On the other, his sad final years and untimely death at age thirty-six constitute a tragedy in their own right, one that robbed the world of a unique talent.

Kyd's early life:

Relatively little is known about Kyd’s early life. The records of the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth, in London, shows that he was baptized there on November 6, 1558. So he was likely born a few days before. The same register names his father as Francis Kyd, a scrivener (kind of scribe who copied letters and notarized documents). The family must have been of above-average means and social status. In addition, the Kyds lived on Lombard Street, London. Two of their neighbors were prosperous publishers, one of whom, Thomas Hacket, would later end up printing some of Thomas Kyd's literary translations. The only other firmly documented fact about Kyd’s early years is his entry into nearby respectable Merchant Taylor’s School in November 1565 at the age of seven. Based on the knowledge he displayed in his later writing, Kyd must have learned a great deal in his school days. He studied Latin and read from the works of the ancient Roman authors; that he was impressed by them is evident from his later literary references to the works of the playwright Seneca, orator Cicero, and poets Virgil, Tibullus, Propertius, Statius, Lucan, and Ovid. Kyd also learned a fair amount of French and Italian, which he would use later as a translator.

It is unknown exactly when Kyd left the Merchant Taylor’s School. But one of his schoolmates, playwright Thomas Lodge, who was about the same age, left around 1573; so it is reasonable to assume that Kyd also departed around this time. Unlike Lodge, Marlowe, Greene, and most of the other university wits, Kyd apparently did not attend college. (Nevertheless, scholars still include him in their number because to a great degree he shared their background and training). Instead, like Shakespeare, following grammar school Kyd was largely self-taught and learned by reading the classics and other literature.

A New Approach to Tragedy:

Roughly two years after the death of his friend, Bentley, Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy. "It is one of those rare works", says noted scholar Philip Edwards, “in which a minor writer, in a strange inspiration, shapes the future by producing something quite new”. Indeed, Kyd’s masterpiece represented a virtual quantum leap over what had come before in the tragic genre. This play also contains several violent murders and includes one of its characters as a personification of Revenge.

English writers had turned out tragedies before, especially during a period of unusual popularity in the 1560s. Many of these writers, like Kyd, had felt the influence of Seneca. The structure of Seneca’s play is very formal, and he drew his stories and characters from classical mythology and legend. His plays are extremely serious in tone, emphasizing throughout such grave and weighty themes as murder, vengeance, and betrayal. Some early English playwrights attempted to imitate Seneca’s style. Their works were slow moving, talky, kept most violence offstage and excluded comic characters and interludes. They were also presented in academic setting, not in the public productions in town squares and inn yards that reached only limited audience. But Kyd’s new approach was to combined the academic and popular traditions on the public stages and to improve on both of them in the process “From Seneca’” Thomas Parrott explains,

He drew a sense of structure, a division of the play into acts and scenes, no mere dramatized narrative, but a plot carefully built up with beginning, middle, and end, motivation, suspense, counter-action, and catastrophe. Kyd borrowed also some characteristic bits of Senecan technique, the revengeful ghost who opens the play, [and] the chorus……From Seneca, too, Kyd gets his sense of style. He sternly excises [deleted] the old popular horse-play and buffoonery: what humor remains is grim and quite in keeping with the action……..From popular practice, on the other hand, Kyd drew his sense of the need for action on the stage; the most important events of his play are not reported, but represented before the eyes of the audience.

The Spanish Tragedy:

A new theatrical genre the ‘revenge play’ was born. A typical revenge play portrayed a hero seeking bloody justice for the wrongful acts of one or more "villians”. The prototype of the style, The Spanish Tragedy, opens with the appearance of the two ghastly characters, the ghost of a slain Spanish Courtier and Revenge. After they set the scene and foreshadow the tragic events to come, a meeting takes place at the Spanish court. Horatio, son of Hieronimo, chief marshal to the Spanish king, loves and expects to marry Beilmperia, daughter of Spanish duke. But Beilmperia’s brother, the evil, scheming Lorenzo, wants the young woman to wed Balthazar, a Portuguese Prince. Balthazar and Lorenzo stab Horatio to death and leave him hanging from a garden arbor. On hearing of his son’s brutal murder, Hieronimo becomes mad with grief. At first he is unable to determine who has committed the crime, but he eventually discovers that Lorenzo and Balthazar are the culprits. Hieronimo decides to achieve his revenge by staging a play before the king and some visiting guests, including the fathers of Lorenzo and Balthazar. Hieronimo, Belimperia, Lorenzo, and Balthazar all take parts in the presentation. During the performance, Hieronimo stabs Lorenzo for real, but the audience assumes it is just part of the plot. Also Belimperia kills Balthazar. Only when the play is over the spectators realize what has happened. Belimperia commits suicide, then Hieronimo does the same after slaying Lorenzo's father.

Works inspired by The Spanish Tragedy:

The influence of this story is immediately apparent in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the ghost of the title character’s father asks him to get revenge for his murder and Hamlet traps the guilty party, his own uncle, by staging a play before the royal court. Also in Hamlet, as in Kyd's play, numerous other characters are drawn into the action and end up dead. And Shakespeare was only one of many Elizabethan playwrights who sought to emulate The Spanish Tragedy. The story of John Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1602), for example, tells how the ghost of the title character’s father entreats the son to avenge his murder. Antonio does so through the device of a play staged at court, just as in The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet. A similar situation occurs in George Chapman's Revenge of Bussyd' Ambois (ca. 1610). Bussy's ghost, who had reached that unwanted state through foul murder, and his brother, Clermont, to achieve revenge for the crime. Other prominent examples of Elizabethan revenge tragedy inspired by Kyd's Spanish Tragedy include Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1593), Henry Chettle's Tragedy of Hoffman (1602), and Thomas Middleton's popular Revenger’s Tragedy (1607)

Kyd's Final Tragedy:

The events of Kyd's life immediately following the appearance of The Spanish Tragedy are uncertain. He may have written other play, either on his own or in collaboration with other writers, but if so, the works are either lost or cannot be firmly connected to him. A remark in a letter by playwright Thomas Nashe asserts that Kyd gave up writing plays in 1588 to become a translator of Italian. And other evidence suggests that in the late 1580s Kyd went to work for a wealthy nobleman, perhaps as a tutor. The identity of this employer is unknown; possible candidates include Robert Radcliffe; Lord Fitzwalter; Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and Lord Strange, patron of a company of players, LordStrange's Men. More certain is that about 1591, Kyd shared lodgings with fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe.

As it turned out, Kyd’s Connection with Marlowe contributed indirectly to the former's untimely and tragic end. In May 1593, government authorities arrested Kyd on suspicion that he had taken part in some recent attacks on London's forcing craftsmen (a charge that was almost certainly false). Making matters worse, a search of Kyd’s rooms revealed a manuscript containing atheistic statements, which the government frowned on at the time. He claimed the essay belonged to Marlowe and had somehow gotten into his own papers when they had roomed together. After undergoing severe torture Kyd was released; but his employer was not convinced of his innocence and dismissed him.

Desperate, the playwright wrote to a high government official, Sir John Puckering, begging him to use his influence once to help this job back, but to no avail. Disgraced and poverty-stricken, Kyd died in obscurity the following year. A few months later, his parents refused to administer his estate, probably to escape having to pay his considerable debts. Over the course of the next few generations, people forgot that Kyd had written The Spanish Tragedy. And by the mid eighteenth century, he himself had been forgotten. Fortunately, the diligent efforts of scholars eventually revealed his contributions to English drama illuminated his twin tragedies - the one he had written and the one he had lived.


A History of the Elizabethan Literature- George Saintsbury

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