I know I’ve only just posted my review of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (check that out here) but I’m on a bit of a role with my reading at the minute, and I’m even already half-way through my next book, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (look out for my post on this in the next few days). So here we have my review of The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd.
Although The Spanish Tragedy was published and much-liked in the later 1500s, it wasn’t actually attributed to Kyd until nearly more than two decades after it was first produced. The play is a short-ish revenge tragedy, which may have given Shakespeare some influence in writing his plays, particularly Hamlet.
I’m going to go right ahead and say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this play, right up until the last Act. I found it engaging, interesting and I was really keen to keep reading, and then it got a bit weird and unnecessary for my liking. But that is often the way with me and revenge tragedies, although I am absolutely certain that I shall be bawling my eyes out as I watch Benedict Cumberbatch die on the 25th September! (See my post here for an explanation of this very strange remark.) As always I’ll start by describing the plot of the story, so watch out, readers, spoilers are headed your way!
The play opens on the ghost of Andrea, a man slain in a battle between Spain and Portugal. Killed by Balthazar, Prince of Portugal, Andrea was given leave to return as a spirit to watch the lives of his former friends and enemies play out. Which is what he does.
Balthazar is captured as a prisoner of war by both Lorenzo, nephew to the King of Spain, and Horatio, (I’m assuming you all recognise that name 😛 ) son of the Knight Marshal, Hieronimo. It is decided that Lorenzo will be in charge of guarding the prisoner/guest while he is there, but Horatio will receive the ransom that they send for.
While Lorenzo and Balthazar discuss Bathazar’s, very rapidly, growing feelings for Bel-imperia, Lorenzo’s sister and Andrea’s former fiancée, Horatio and Bel-imperia are discussing their love for one another and arranging to meet in the bower, or garden, at Horatio’s house later that night.
When they meet, there is lots of talk back and forth which all basically centres around sex and orgasms and that sort of thing, but they are spied upon by Lorenzo, Balthazar, and two servants who have been roped in to help. They seize Horatio and hang him, and then kidnap Bel-imperia so that she can’t report them.
Later, after Hieronimo has discovered his dead son’s body and Bel-imperia has been released in order that she can marry Balthazar, the Viceroy of Portugal, Balthazar’s father, comes to stay with the Spanish King to bless the marriage of his son and Bel-imperia. Bel-imperia and Hieronimo hatch a plot to avenge their dead loved one, and so they stage a play (thought to be Soliman and Perseda also attributed to Kyd, although in much shorter form) with a very similar plot to the original play and Balthazar, Lorenzo, Bel-imperia, and Hieronimo as the players.
To steal his lover, Perseda (Bel-imperia) away from him, Soliman (Balthazar) has his Bashaw (Hieronimo) kill Erasto (Lorenzo), and then in revenge Perseda kills Soliman and then herself, before the Bashaw kills himself.
In order to exact their revenge, Hieronimo actually kills Lorenzo when he is meant only to mime it, and Bel-imperia does the same with Balthazar and herself. Though Hieronimo intends to hang himself, he is caught before he can.
What follows is an exposition of the reasons for the deaths and final laments from everyone before they are all stabbed by various other people. So basically, everyone dies. Do you see what I mean about liking it up until the very end? Again, revenge tragedies really aren’t my cup of tea (Hamlet aside) so it may be perfectly enjoyable for everyone who actually enjoys revenge tragedies. The last act did feel very rushed though, almost as if Kyd had thought about the play in great detail until he got to the end and realised that he hadn’t really thought about how he was going to end it past killing everyone. So he just killed everyone in the most efficient manner he could think of. Maybe I’m just being silly or obtuse and it’s actually a really profound and insightful ending. I doubt it though…
There are interesting points about the plot and about the writing itself, so it’s not all bad! For instance, throughout the entire play, Andrea, and Revenge, are sat watching the drama unfold. This is quite hard to remember at points as the reader, but for an audience they would be a powerful reminder of the catalyst for the events that occur in the play itself.
“Andrea, O Andrea, that thou sawest/ Me for thy friend Horatio handled thus,/ And him for me thus causeless murdered!” (3.ix.9-11)
When heard with Andrea and Revenge sat visible on the stage, this line likely would have evoked an even stronger feeling of sympathy for poor Bel-imperia as Andrea does see what is happening, and yet is powerless to stop it. This constant presence of the initial wronged party and Revenge, who actually isn’t that revengeful a character. Andrea’s lines are full of how he would like to see comeuppance come to those who deserve it, and Revenge basically just tells him to sit tight and watch for it to happen. It almost seemed a bit like Andrea was watching a film for the first time with Revenge who has seen it hundreds of times. (You know the kind, when the person new to the film won’t stop asking questions or trying to guess what’s going to happen and you get to the point where you just yell “Dude! will you please just shut up and watch it?!” If you have never shouted this, you are the culprit 😛 )
Anyway! The other most interesting point about the play was the language and the way the language corresponded to the character’s situation. For example, Balthazar has been imprisoned, both physically and mentally (with his love for Bel-imperia) and his language reflects this. There’s one particular scene where Balthazar first describes his annoyance at Horatio:
“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 limed with sly deceits,/ Which sly deceits smooth Bel-imperia’s ears,/ And through her ears dive down into her heart,/ And in her heart set him where I should stand.” (2.i.119-129)
I’m not even going to go into why it’s ridiculous that he pretends any sort of claim over Bel-imperia at all given that they have literally met once and she hates him because he killed her fiancee. If I get started I’ll never stop, so you can just think about why it’s ridiculous on your own. But still, notice how circular and repetitive his words are. He is trapped in his language as his is physically captive and emotionally enthralled by Bel-imperia. And Balthazar is not the only one. There is a ridiculous exchange, which actually had me rolling my eyes, between Horatio and Bel-imperia while planning their clandestine meeting. Lorenzo and Balthazar, who are spying on them, join in:
Bel-imperia: But whereon dost thou chiefly meditate?
Horatio: On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue.
Balthazar (aside): On pleasures past, and dangers to ensue.
Bel-imperia: What dangers and what pleasures dost thou mean?
Horatio: Dangers of war, and pleasures or our love.
Lorenzo (who honestly at this point I can only imagine is mad because Horatio wants to bang his sister, but then why is he totally okay with Balthazar wanting to??? Who the hell knows…) (aside): Dangers of death, but pleasures none at all. (2.ii.24-31)
That is basically the gist, but they carry on in this vein for a little while… Still later, Bel-imperia and Horatio engage in an exchange of rhyming couplets, each claiming that the other is better in someway (I’m going to point out here that earlier in the play, Balthazar was complaining about Bel-imperia not loving him and basically saying that she didn’t see what she was missing. See Act 2, scene 1, lines 19-28 for this prime example of pigheadedness) :
Bel-imperia: Ay, but if Flora spy Horatio here,/ Her jealous eye will think I sit too near.
Horatio: Hark, madam how the birds record by night,/ For joy that Bel-imperia sits in sight. (2.iv.26-29)
They carry on like this, until they share each couplet, moving closer and closer together. If I were to produce this play, I would have the two players moving physically closer on stage at this point, until they kiss and there is no space between them. The way the language mirrors the imagined physical movement of the players adds power to the words and you can imagine the love held between these two characters.
My point really is that Kyd has used the language of his young, love-lorn characters to show how truly entranced by the object of their affection they are. So too does he do this with Hieronimo. Although Hieronimo is, towards the end of the play, the only character possessed of all the facts, he is prone to some moments of repetitious chatter and mindless rambling. While in the other characters this is sometimes a sign of being unaware of the truth of the situation, in Hieronimo is a sign of the grief he feels after the loss of his son.
I found Kyd’s overall use of language to be masterful and very interesting. There is also a small subplot involving two characters from the house of the Viceroy of Portugal whose circumstances mirror somewhat the circumstances of Lorenzo and Horatio.
Anyway, I really enjoyed this play, even if I did find the ending to have an unnecessary number of deaths!
As always, let me know if you’ve read or are going to read The Spanish Tragedy. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
’til next time, readers…