The most popular Elizabethan play was not by Shakespeare, but by someone who would have a profound influence on him.
The most popular play to come out of the Elizabethan theatre was not written by William Shakespeare or even Christopher Marlowe, but by an author who for many years remained in obscurity.
The Spanish Tragedy is a complex revenge drama in which Hieronimo, the Marshal of Spain, despite many obstacles, finally, under the cover of a presentation of a play before the King of Spain, exacts bloody revenge for the murder of his son. Though critics find it lacks the poetry of a play by Shakespeare or Marlowe, they recognise that its high flown rhetoric matches the play’s contents of revenge, dissemblance and surprise. The play demonstrates a firm command of structure and characterisation and although the author is strongly influenced by Seneca, rather than adhering to the classical unities, he opens up the play, employing effective and original stagecraft.
The earliest surviving edition of the play, whose full title is The Spanish Tragedy, Containing the lamentable end of Don Horatio and Bel-imperia: with the pitiful death of old Hieronimo, was published anonymously in 1592 and remained in print until 1633. The play may have been written as early as 1582 but first became a hit in 1587 as England was being inexorably drawn into war against Spain. As can be inferred from Henslowe’s Diary, its lead role was one of Edward Alleyn’s favourites and he performed it regularly. (see Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe) In 1602 a new edition of the play was produced with additions which may have been written by Ben Jonson at Alleyn’s behest.
The Spanish Tragedy remained a hit right through to the reign of Charles I and not only in England but also in Europe where it was popular in translation in Germany and the Netherlands. The play’s success created a new genre, the Revenge Tragedy, which was a favourite of the Jacobean stage and reached its apogee with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Yet for all the play’s popularity and influence, its author remained unknown to modern audiences until 1773 when a scholar came across a passing reference that finally attributed the play to Thomas Kyd, until then known only for Cornelia, a translation of a mediocre French play. Since then further research has brought more information to light so that now Thomas Kyd stands alongside his younger contemporaries Shakespeare and Marlowe as one of the pioneers of the English Drama.
Born in London in 1558, Thomas Kyd was the son of Francis Kyd, Warden of the Scrivener’s Company. He was educated at the progressive Merchant Taylors’ School where the future authors Edmund Spenser and Thomas Lodge were his schoolfellows. He did not attend university but examples of his handwriting suggest he was trained as a scrivener and may have continued in that profession while pursuing a career as a playwright. From about 1590 he worked, possibly as a secretary, for an as yet unidentified nobleman.
As well as translating plays and tracts from French and Italian, he also wrote several original plays and pamphlets. Apart from The Spanish Tragedy, several other plays have been attributed to him. These include Arden of Fevershem, a grim true crime story of adultery and murder, as well as Soliman and Perseda and Fair Em, both historical romances. He is also believed to have collaborated on Edward III with either Marlowe or Shakespeare.
Whether or not they ever worked together, Thomas Kyd’s influence on Shakespeare was profound. Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus was certainly written under his sway, if not with his assistance, and Kyd’s influence can also be seen in The Comedy of Errors. However, there are even more direct links with some of Shakespeare’s later plays.
Kyd is believed to be the principal author of King Leir, a precursor to Shakespeare’s own King Lear. Published anonymously in 1605, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella was in the repertoire of the Queen’s Men (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies) and like many of their plays incorporates a liberal dose of clowning and a happy ending which might not have been in Kyd’s original text.
Meanwhile many of the elements from The Spanish Tragedy, such as the vacillating avenger and the play-within-a-play which exposes the guilty, appear in Hamlet. So close is the relationship between the two plays that Kyd is believed to have written a lost early version of Hamlet (or the Ur-Hamlet) on which Shakespeare may have built his own play.
The evidence for Kyd’s Hamlet, is circumstantial at best. However, while it is generally believed that Shakespeare wrote his Hamlet around 1600, there are references to a play by that name much earlier. In 1589 Thomas Nashe mentions ‘whole Hamlets’ full of ‘tragical speeches’. In 1596, Thomas Lodge refers to a ghost in the theatre crying ‘Hamlet, revenge!’ Meanwhile Henslowe’s Diary records a performance of a ‘Hamlet’ on June 9, 1594, most likely by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company.
Thomas Kyd’s own fate is as tragic as any portrayed in his plays and is inextricably linked to that of Christopher Marlowe.
In April and May 1593, social unrest in London, targeted at the Protestant refugees who had fled persecution in France and Spanish Flanders, was expressed not only in violence, but in the raising of anti-immigrant placards one of which, known as the ‘Dutch Church Libel’, was written in a blank verse parody of Marlowe’s work and signed ‘Tamburlaine’.
Whether it was because of his connection with Marlowe with whom he shared rooms for a time or under the suspicion that he had written the placards as scrivener is not known for certain, but Thomas Kyd was arrested in connection with the Dutch Church Libel. In a search of his rooms allegedly heretical writings were discovered. Under torture Kyd maintained the papers were Marlowe’s who was then summoned before the Privy Council. A few days later an inquest in Deptford found that Marlowe had died as the result of a fight. (see A Fateful Day in Deptford)
Neither Thomas Kyd’s health nor his reputation ever fully recovered from this ordeal. Kyd lost his position as secretary and, despite officially repudiating Marlowe and appealing to the authorities, he was never exonerated. He died a year later, a broken man burdened with debt. Even today he is considered to have acted in a ‘not altogether creditable manner’ towards Marlowe, though given the circumstances this judgment strikes me as unnecessarily harsh. (see Christopher Marlowe’s History of Violence)
Whatever later generations might think of Kyd’s character, we cannot deny him his place in the development of the English theatre and the debt owed to him by William Shakespeare.
© Pauline Montagna 2020
Gassner, John and William Green (edited by) Elizabethan Drama, Applause Theatre Book Publishers (1990)