The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

Spanish Tragedy

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that one of my favourite early modern tragedies was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and I thought I’d do a whole post about it today.

Spanish-tragedy (1)The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Thomas Kyd. It is a difficult play to date and scholars usually give a date range between 1582 and 1592 for the play’s composition. It’s also one of the earliest English revenge tragedies.

The Spanish Tragedy entered the Stationer’s Register in 1592 and quarto one was printed in the same year. It was then printed in 1594 (Q2), 1599 (Q3), and 1602 (Q4). Q4 was reprinted in 1610, 1615 (two issues), 1618, 1623 (two issues), and 1633. All of the early editions of the play are anonymous, despite Kyd being alive for the 1592 (and possibly the 1594) edition. Thomas Heywood, in An Apology for Actors (1612), attributed The Spanish Tragedy to “M. Kid” and the style of The Spanish Tragedy matches Kyd’s other extant play, Cornelia (1593).


Plot Summary

Before the play begins, the Viceroy of Portugal rebelled against Spanish rule and the Portuguese were defeated in a battle. Their leader, Balthazar, killed Don Andrea, a Spanish officer, and Balthazar is then captured by the Spanish army. This is important to know because it frames the entire play. Although this play is mainly about Hieronmio (as indicated by the subtitle), the play is only possible because Andrea’s ghost wants revenge for the injustices against him. Andrea’s ghost and the personification of Revenge are present onstage throughout the entirety of the play, presumably on the little stage balcony that most theatres had, and they serve as the play’s chorus.

In the first act, Lorenzo (the Spanish king’s nephew) and Horatio, Andrea’s best friend, argue over who captured Balthazar but it’s clear that Horatio captured him and Lorenzo is just taking the credit for it. Bel-imperia, my main girl, is grieving Andrea’s death because she was in love with him even though her family disapproved and she is comforted by Horatio. Horatio and Bel-imperia fall for one another but Bel-imperia is, at least partially, motivated by revenge because she intends to torment Balthazar who is falling in love with her. The Spanish king decides that Balthazar and Bel-imperia should marry because, obviously, their marriage would help broker peace between Spain and Portugal.

At the beginning of the second act, Lorenzo, Bel-imperia’s brother, thinks that Bel-imperia has a new lover (which would obviously ruin the king’s plans) and he bribes her servant, Pedringano, to find out who her new lover is. He then convinces Balthazar to help him murder Bel-imperia’s lover. Horatio’s death is incredibly gruesome beause he is not given the opportunity to fight back. He’s ambushed by Lorenzo and Balthazar and they ‘hang him in the arbour’ before stabbing him to death. Hieronmo and Isabella, Horatio’s parents, find their son’s body still hanging in the arbour and Isabella is driven mad.

Lorenzo locks Bel-imperia away but she writes a letter to Hieronimo, in her own blood, informing him that Lorenzo and Balthazar were Horatio’s murderers. Hieronimo attempts to seek justice legally by petitioning the King but Lorenzo convinces the King that Horatio is actually alive and he prevents Hieronimo from seeing the King by claiming that the King is ‘busy’. This drives Hieronmio over the edge and he begins of rant incoherently. He does, eventually, regain his senses and, along with Bel-imperia, he pretends to reconcile with Lorenzo and Balthazar in order to get close to them. He asks them to join the play, Soliman and Perseda, which he is putting on to entertain the court. They agree and a plan is set into motion.

The play is performed in the fifth act, and this is an example of a play-within-a-play, and it’s an odd play to say the least. Bel-imperia’s lines are supposed to be spoken in French, Hieronimo’s in Greek, Lorenzo’s in Latin, and Balthazar;s in Italian. It could be Lorenzo’s lines in Italian and Balthazar’s in Latin. Hieronimo’s instructions aren’t clear. I love the stage direction/note given before the play starts which states:

Gentlemen, this play of Hieronimo, in sundry languages, was thought good to be set down in English more largely for the easier understanding to every public reader.

Hieronimo also gives the cast real daggers instead of prop daggers and this results in Lorenzo and Balthazar being stabbed to death in front of the King, Viceroy, and Duke (Lorenzo and Bel-imperia’s father). Unfortunately, Bel-imperia’s character commits suicide in the play so she also dies. It’s a sad ending for a wonderful character. It isn’t clear whether or not Bel-imperia knew that that Hieronimo had exchanged the daggers but she does agree to ‘consent’ to and ‘conceal’ Hieronimo’s plan for revenge, whatever that plan may be.

After everyone is dead, Hieronimo reveals behind the murders and then he bites out his own tongue to prevent himself from talking under torture. He then kills the Duke and then he kills himself.

The final scene of the play shows the audience that the ghost of Don Andrea and Revenge are satisfied with the events of the play. Andrea is allowed to doom the guilty parties to eternal torture and Revenge agrees to oversee their ‘endless tragedy’ and the play ends.



Revenge is the main theme within the play with many characters seeking revenge for various things. Don Andrea wants revenge for his death and (lack of) burial, Bel-imperia initially wants revenge for Andrea’s death and then she wants revenge for Horatio’s death, Hieronimo wants revenge for Horatio’s death, and Balthazar, oddly, seeks revenge against his wounded pride.

Social mobility is also another major theme within the play. Lorenzo and Pedringano are driven by their ambition and desire for more power, Pedringano especially so because he is a servant. He seeks an opportunity to rise above his curent status but his attempts to do so, by using Lorenzo’s status, leads to his downfall. He is merely a tool for Lorenzo to use and discard as he sees fit.



It seems that Kyd’s main influence for The Spanish Tragedy was the works of Seneca. From Seneca, the play borrows its bloody tragedy, the revenge themes, and the character of the Ghost. However, Kyd did play with Seneca’s use of the Ghost because, for Kyd, the Ghost is part of the chorus whereas in Senecan tragedies, the Ghost merely functions as the prologue.

It could be argued that the ghost of Andrea in Kyd’s play is a mixture of the Senecan ghost and the ghosts of metrical medieval plays who usually return from the dead to talk about their downfall and offer commentary on the action.



Antonio's RevengeThe Spanish Tragedy was very influential and it sparked interest in a new genre, the revenge tragedy. Plays such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Cyril Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy, and John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge all drew inspiration from Kyd’s play. Marston even parodies one of Kyd’s scenes in his own play, ensuring that his audience would connect his revenge tragedy to Kyd’s.

There are also allusions to The Spanish Tragedy in other works. Ben Jonson mentions ‘Hieronimo’ in the Induction to his Cynthia’s Revels (1600) and he has a character disguise himself in ‘Hieronimo’s old cloak, ruff, and hat’ in The Alchemist (1610). Jonson also quoted from the play in Every Man in His Humour (1598).


Since this is one of my favourite early modern plays, I thought I’d conclude this post by sharing some of the things I love about it.

Aeneas_and_Charon_by_Wenceslas_HollarFirstly, the weird mix of Catholicism and Paganism is very interesting to me. In fact, I actually wrote an entire essay about it for my MA. The play is clearly set in Catholic Spain but Don Andrea is sent to the Greek/Roman underworld when he dies. He states that when he died his ‘soul descended straight / To pass the flowing stream of Acheron’ where he was greeted by Charon. Andrea is not allowed to sit among the passangers of the boat because his burial rites have not been performed and, instead, he travel through the underworld (bribing Cerebus with ‘honey’d speech’) until reaches ‘Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanth’. It’s all very reminiscient of the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. The three judges cannot agree on Andrea’s fate and so he wanders the underworld until he finds Pluto and Proserpine who grant him the opportunity of revenge. Also, the ‘torture’ that Andrea sentences the villains to is rooted in Greek and Roman mythology:

Let loose poor Tityus from the vulture’s gripe,
And let Don Cyprian supply his room;
Place Don Lorenzo on Ixion’s wheel,
And let the lover’s endless pains surcease
(Juno forgets old wrath, and grants him ease);
Hang Balthazar about Chimæra’s neck,
And let him there bewail his bloody love,
Repining at our joys that are above;
Let Serberine go roll the fatal stone,
And take from Sisyphus his endless moan;
False Pedringano, for his treachery,
Let him be dragged through boiling Acheron,
And there live, dying still in endless flames,
Blaspheming gods and all their holy names.

I also love Bel-imperia. She’s cunning, determined, educated, and completely unafraid to take action in order to achieve what she wants. She plays such a huge role in the play, and in the revenge plot, even though women in early modern tragedies are usually used as props (sometimes literally) by men. Bel-imperia is such a refreshing character (if you can say that about a character in a play that was written about 434 years ago) and I truly wish that more playwrights had followed Kyd’s lead and created more complex female characters.

Finally, Kyd’s metatheatrical references are some of my favourite aspects of the play. There’s the play within the play, the fact that Don Andrea and Revenge are watching the events unfold like a play, and exchanges like this:

What, would you have us play a tragedy?

Why, Nero thought it no disparagement,
  And kings and emperors have ta’en delight
  To make experience of their wits in plays.

Nay, be not angry, good Hieronimo;
  The prince but ask’d a question.

And this:

Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.

A comedy?
Fie! comedies are fit for common wits:
But to present a kingly troop withal,
Give me a stately-written tragedy;
Tragadia cothurnata, fitting kings,
Containing matter, and not common things.
My lords, all this must be perform’d,
As fitting for the first night’s revelling.
The Italian tragedians were so sharp of wit,
That in one hour’s meditation
They would perform anything in action.

I just love it all. Metatheatre just makes me a happy scholar and a happy viewer.


Where to read it:

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1. Title page of The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (1615)
2. Title page of Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston (1602)
3. Aeneas and Charon by Wenceslas Hollar (17th century)

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