The Spanish Tragedy – Kyd

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The opening is typically Senecan in character. The ghost of Andrea, a Spanish Courtier and Revenge are introduced at first and they are supposed to watch the development of the play. They serve as chorus in the typical Senecan style. The Spanish General who relates the death of don Andrea is the Prologue of the play. The play centers around the Marshal of Spain, Hieronimo and his son Horatio. Spain and Portugal are at war. In the end, Balthazar, the son of the Portuguese Viceroy is brought back to Spain as the joint captive of Horatio and Lorenzo, the Spanish Duke’s brother’s son (son of the Duke of Castille). To Horatio is allotted the ransom, to Lorenzo falls the privilege of guarding the political prisoner. Balthazar falls in love with Lorenzo’s sister Bel Imperia and he gets the full consent of Lorenzo to the match. Unfortunately, however, the lady is in love with Horatio. Lorenzo encourages Balthazar and suggests to him to get rid of Horatio by death. Thus when Bel Imperia and Horatio make love together in the night in a bower, Lorenzo, Balthazar and two servants (Serberine and Pedringano) surprise them. They hang Horatio to the tree and decamp with the lady and she is confined to a room thenceforward. Hearing the outcry, Hieronimo, rushes to the garden only to find a dead Horatio. For the rest of the play, from the beginning of the third Act, Hieronimo is occupied with revenge. The first information about the murder Hieronimo gets from a letter written by Bel Imperia with her blood. This, however, Hieronimo suspects to be a trap and he attempts to corroborate evidence by consulting her. Unfortunately, Hieronimo awakens suspicion in Lorenzo and to make the secret surer, Lorenzo bribes Pedringano to murder Serberine. At the same time, he arranges for a watchman to arrest Pedringano after the murder. Balthazar is drawn into the matter with a view to urge the execution of Serberine’s murderer. Pedringano is murdered. A political marriage between Balthazar and Bel Imperia is suggested much against the displeasure of Bel Imperia. Hieronimo plunges into despair as his revenge is delayed. He gets yet one more information regarding the murder, for Pedringano had written a confession which the hangman finds in his pocket and delivers to the Marshal. This ratifies the statement of Bel Imperia in blood and urges him to revenge. However, it is impossible for him to strike at Balthazar and Lorenzo. In his despair, he contemplates suicide and, like Hamlet, he is reminded that his enemies will remain unpunished. He hits upon a scheme and he decides to pretend to be mad and thereby return to the society of Lorenzo and Balthazar. He is egged onto revenge by Bazulto, another old man bereaved of his son by murder. Meanwhile the relation between the Spanish Marshal and Lorenzo deteriorates. Lorenzo’s father (the Duke of Castille, Don Cyprian) suggests bringing about a reconciliation between Hieronimo and Lorenzo. Hieronimo cordially agrees to this and feigns to approve of Bel Imperia’s marriage with Balthazar. Hieronimo plans to have a play within the play. Bel Imperia and Balthazar are to be actors in it. Lorenzo suspects no harm because he does not know the interview between Bel Imperia and Hieronimo. In this interview Bel Imperia chides the delay in revenge. Isabella, the wife of Hieronimo who has been driven to madness on account of his madness which she think to be real, commits suicide. The play is enacted in the presence of the Viceroy of Portugal, the Spanish King, the Duke of Castille, and all the followers who are closely connected with the action of the play. In the play, real daggers are substituted for wooden ones. Bel Imperia kills Balthazar and commits suicide. Hieronimo kills Lorenzo and the play comes to a pause where Hieronimo explains the terrible realism behind all this seeming action. Castile and the Viceroy learn that their children are dead. The curtain is drawn aside at the back stage and Horatio’s corpse is revealed. But after this, Hieronimo kills the Duke of Castille and commits suicide. The ghost of Andrea and Revenge close the play with a triumph.

The supernatural elements in The Spanish Tragedy are found in the human impulses – these mainly are Fear and Revenge. ‘Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta contain far more wonderful blank verse whereas this play does not rise to equal heights. But the verse that is handled by Kyd is perfectly suitable to the tragedy. Kyd, to a certain extent, uses rhyme and it is modeled on the original play Teronimo. It is not so mush the verse as the tragic inspiration that expresses the greatness of the play. Kyd’s verse is evolved out of the Senecan pattern and of the other classical plays. If the play Teronimo is also attributed to Kyd, he might well be called the father of blank verse. A comparative study of Marlowe and Kyd show that Kyd can scarcely rise to the heights of Marlowe. But in the tragic spirit, he is on a par with the greater dramatists.

Kyd and the classical Writers: (Boas) The Spanish Tragedy, according to Boas, is not the work of a poet, nor that of a thinker, but that of a born dramatist. He not only exploited the technical resources of the contemporary stage, but he borrowed profusely from the classical tradition. As he was born and bred in London, he was in full possession with the knowledge of his audience. At the same time he was aware of the classical influences that were in vogue then. No other Elizabethan play could exhibit more clearly the blending of the national and the foreign elements than this play. The Senecan machinery used by the authors of Gorboduc for an academic play, here is used for a tale of elemental human passion – the slow and sure revenge of Hieronimo. The originality of Kyd is seen in his intermingling of strains of poetry with the Senecan elements.

Induction – the ghost of Andrea with Revenge. This is suggested by the opening of Seneca’s Thyestes. The first 17 lines of this induction do the job of a classical chorus – informing the audience of the past events. The remaining 60 lines form a narrative of Andrea’s descent into the underworld. This is skillfully adapted and condensed from the 6th book of the Aeneid. Here Kyd’s blank verse is ineffective by the side of Virgilian hexameter. Still, these lines by a ‘dying fall’ produce a cadence and such dying falls in the lines are to be attributed to Kyd’s originality. (“born of the poignant sense of human tears.”)

Throughout Act I, the play is loaded with epic material. Subsequently a third narrative follows the prologue and this is assigned to Horatio who once again narrates the battle to Bel Imperia. A fourth is ascribed to Villuppo, who, while narrating, falsely announces the death of Balthazar at Alexandros’ hand. The epic model has increased the number of narratives, with the result that the action is slow moving and dull. The dramatic mechanism gets clumsy. Certain absurdities arise in the I Act as a result of the classical influence. Thus we see that before Horatio could narrate the death of Don Andrea, we see Balthazar pleading for the hand of Bel Imperia.

In Act II, Kyd begins to display more of his dramatic powers than to imitate the classical models. Horatio’s character is not developed because his is a short role and too passive. However, the other characters are drawn very firmly in the second act – the lovelorn sentimental Prince (‘the double captive’) is an admirable contrast to Lorenzo the cold-blooded villain. In Lorenzo we notice a foreign influence. One finds in him the Machiavellian politician and statesman. The maxims on which Lorenzo relies are those perverted from public to private ends. He represents the Italian Renaissance on its sinister side. Even in the characterization of Bel Imperia, Kyd uses the Senecan stichomythia or the filthy rejoinders. And these rejoinders make her a heroine of constancy and steadiness. The Second Act is full of references to the Gods and Goddesses of the Greek myth; particularly Boas draws our attention to the Marshal’s pleasant bower with Flora, Cupid, Venus and Mars – all of them must have been instruments of irresistible charm for the Elizabethan audience.

The revenge motif is borrowed in part from the Senecan stage. The Senecan plays were drawn from the Greek heroic cycles. And the ethics reflected in these plays is of a primitive type. Such ethics pleased the Elizabethan audience because they were still conscious of the Viking age which glorified wild justice and revenge. The later Acts concentrate more on the delay in revenge rather than revenge itself. It is this that makes the play dull in the later half and the great weakness of the play is found in Kyd’s failure in an adequate analysis of her Marshal’s motive for his delay. It is this that makes the play unworthy of ranking with ‘hamlet’. Inaction or delay only becomes dramatic material when it lays stress on some disease of character, but Hieronimo’s delay is mainly due to his ignorance of the murderers. A second reason for his delay suggested is his suspicion of Bel Imperia’s designs. ‘Kyd’s art is unequal to the handling of so subtle a dramatic problem’ (Boas) as the procrastination: It sheds no light on the tumult of the Marshal’s soul. It is the art of a playwright rather than of an introspective dramatist.

In his handling of situations, Kyd presses into the surface of his art many classical models from Seneca. In the closing scenes of the tragedy, however, he introduces something of the Sophoclean irony. This was considered to be one of eh glories of the Attic stage. In the handling of this irony, Kyd is a classic in a higher sense than he thought. For, by handling this, he attained effects that were novel at that time. A number of examples can be given for this irony. Hieronimo’s choice of a tragedy to be played; Balthazar’s ignorance of the incoming fate; the King’s unconscious applause for the murder of Balthazar by Bel Imperia, etc… It is customary to denounce the ‘Spanish Tragedy’ as a tissue of Horace because it abounds not be distinguished from melodrama from a comparative statistics of the number of deaths on the stage. Any number of murders can be introduced both in melodrama and tragedy, but it is the tragic spirit that counts more than the number of deaths. Whether there is any psychological justification for so many murders is a question to be raised. In so far as the number of murders is not increased just to create horror the tragedy of Kyd can be popular. But until the close of the Fourth Act, Kyd fully justifies every murder done. His instinct fails in Act V, for Hieronimo not only commits suicide but also kills the innocent Duke of Castile. Thus the revenge motive turns to mere massacre in Act V. The situation created by the true genius of tragedy fails to fructify the expected results in the Fifth Act. It collapses into a series of blood curdling incidents. This element of sheer savagery is further prolonged in the epilogue. The ghost of Andrea gloats over the sufferings of his enemies in Hell. Even here there is a Virgilian influence. At the very end it is suggested that Hieronimo’s friends and loved ones are happy in the Elysian fields. Some critics detect the strain of Virgilian music in this passage.