Authors: Thomas Kyd (1558-1594)

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works


The Spanish Tragedy, pr. c. 1585-1589

Soliman and Perseda, pr. c. 1588-1592

Cornelia, pr. c. 1593 (translation of Robert Garnier’s Cornélie; also known as Pompey the Great: His Fair Cornelia’s Tragedy, pb. 1595)


The Householder’s Philosophy, 1588 (of Torquato Tasso’s Il padre di famiglia)


The Works of Thomas Kyd, 1901 (Frederick S. Boas, editor)


Thomas Kyd (kihd) was born in London in 1558. Son of a scrivener, he was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School, where he was probably contemporary with Edmund Spenser. He did not proceed to a university, and little is known about the rest of his life, except that in the early 1580’s he probably was associated with a London theater company and in 1593 he was arrested and charged with libel against the state. When his rooms were searched and allegedly atheistical papers were found, he claimed, under torture, that they belonged to Christopher Marlowe. He died in 1594, apparently in penury and disowned by his parents.{$I[AN]9810000542}{$I[A]Kyd, Thomas}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Kyd, Thomas}{$I[tim]1558;Kyd, Thomas}

The Kyd canon is hopelessly indeterminate. Certainty attaches to two translations, The Householder’s Philosophy and Cornelia, and it is highly probable that The Spanish Tragedy is wholly his. A sensational pamphlet, The Murder of John Brewen, has been ascribed to Kyd on ambiguous evidence; he may have written the tragedy Soliman and Perseda; one critic regards him as at least part author of the domestic tragedy Arden of Feversham. A punning allusion by Thomas Nashe in 1589 suggests that Kyd wrote a play about Hamlet from which William Shakespeare derived his tragedy.

The Spanish Tragedy, on which Kyd’s reputation and importance alike depend, was frequently revived, and Hieronimo became the most popular tragic character on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages. It is no wonder, then, that the play had considerable influence upon subsequent tragedies. Kyd’s drama of the revenge of Hieronimo and Bel-imperia, with its piling up of deaths and atrocities, is the influential predecessor of such later tragedies as Hamlet, The Changeling, The Duchess of Malfi, and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, plays in which revenge is the force that motivates characters and propels the action. Further, many of his devices–the increasingly isolated stoic hero, the Machiavellian villain, the ghost of revenge, madness, procrastination, the play within a play, and frequent soliloquies–became part of revenge dramatists’ stock-in-trade, most notably in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Perhaps Shakespeare alone appreciated the broader implications of The Spanish Tragedy: its presentation of revenge as a fine art and its extension of tragedy from the individual to the state. Kyd’s rhetoric and bombast, popular with the groundlings, were ridiculed by later dramatists, but in fact he advanced dramatic poetry by demonstrating that blank verse could be written in a language and imagery compatible with presenting emotions on the stage. Another significant innovation, building upon the Senecan rhetorical model, is his substantive development of an isolated and alienated character almost entirely through soliloquies.

The Spanish Tragedy is more than a roaring melodrama. It is a complex and deeply affecting tragedy, and Kyd’s development of the character of Hieronimo raises ethical and moral questions. This chief law officer (the marshal of Spain) subverts the normal course of justice by taking matters into his own hands and exacting personal vengeance. Some critics argue that he thereby becomes a villain, whereas others say that, on the verge of becoming a victim himself, he is moved by a desire for self-preservation and is the instrument of divine justice.

The 1602 edition of The Spanish Tragedy contains additional passages which may have been intended to replace dated scenes depicting Hieronimo’s madness or to have been used to embellish his role. Henslowe’s diary reveals that Ben Jonson was paid for supplying certain additions in 1601 and 1602, but authorship claims also have been raised on behalf of John Webster and William Shakespeare.

BibliographyArdolino, Frank R. Apocalypse and Armada in Kyd’s “Spanish Tragedy.” Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1995. Ardolino looks at Kyd’s major work, finding it to be a Reformation play, complete with apocalyptic symbolism. Contains bibliography and index.Ardolino, Frank R. Thomas Kyd’s Mystery Play: Myth and Ritual in “The Spanish Tragedy.” New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Though somewhat specialized in focusing on a specific aspect of a particular play, this book places Kyd’s best-known tragedy in the context of previous, not subsequent, plays, looking at allegorical and mystery-play elements in The Spanish Tragedy. Includes index.Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. List, with commentary, of the authors’ choices for the best or most influential examples of crime fiction. Kyd’s work is included and evaluated.Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. “Preface to Blood on the Bosom Devine.” New York: Garland, 1976. Preface by two preeminent scholars of mystery and detective fiction, arguing for the novel’s place in the annals of the genre.Boas, Frederick S. The Works of Thomas Kyd. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1901. Though the commentary is dated, the general introduction to this still-standard edition of Kyd’s works remains a valuable resource, and the introductions to individual plays are in some cases the best starting point. Explanatory notes provide valuable help to the reader unfamiliar with Kyd’s works.Bowers, Fredson. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Classic work. Indispensable for understanding the genre and Kyd’s work.Edwards, Philip. Thomas Kyd and Early Elizabethan Tragedy. London: Longmans, Green, 1966. The brevity of this booklet makes it an ideal first source for students, for its scope is general enough. Edwards identifies imagery and idea patterns essentially classical and pagan and argues against over-Christian interpretation of Kyd’s dramas. Includes an illustrated title page from a Kyd play.Erne, Lukas. Beyond “The Spanish Tragedy”: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd. New York: Manchester University Press, 2001. An in-depth study of The Spanish Tragedy and its influence on Tudor drama.Freeman, Arthur. Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. As its title suggests, this book concerns itself mostly with the factual matters of dating, biography, and authorship, yet it contains some limited analysis of structure, style, and performance history of Kyd’s plays.Leggatt, Alexander. English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration 1590-1660. New York: Longman, 1988. An extensive critical overview of the plays of the period.Murray, Peter B. Thomas Kyd. Boston: Twayne, 1969. Of all the full-length works on Kyd, this volume is perhaps the easiest for the beginner to digest. Piecing together what little biographical information is available on Kyd, this study proceeds to an analysis of each of the dramatic works attributed to Kyd. Includes a well-annotated bibliography.Panek, LeRoy Lad. The American Police Novel: A History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Traces the evolution of the police procedural and helps place Kyd’s work within the subgenre. Bibliographic references and index.Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel–A History. 3d ed. New York: Mysterious Press, 1993. Symons, a successful mystery author in his own right, argues that mystery fiction evolved over time from being concerned with the figure of the detective and the methods of detection to a primary focus on the nature of crime and criminality. Provides perspective on Kyd’s work.Waugh, Hillary. “The Police Procedural.” In The Mystery Story, edited by John Ball. San Diego: University of California, 1976. A study of the police procedural, written by one of its famous practitioners, that sheds light on Kyd’s work.
Categories: Authors