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.
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.