The Spanish Tragedy


Thomas Kyd

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The Spanish Tragedy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thomas Kyd

Thomas Kyd was born in 1558 to Francis and Anna Kyd. Little is known about Kyd’s life, but his father was a successful scrivener, so it is likely the Kyds were a comfortable middle-class family. In the late 1560s, Kyd enrolled in the Merchant Taylors’ School, a new private boys’ school in London that opened in 1561 and is still in operation today. It is not known if Kyd ever attended university, but there is evidence to suggest that he worked as a scrivener for a short time. In the 1580s, Kyd found fame as a respected playwright whose talent rivaled that of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Like Kyd himself, little is known about his work; however, a handful of plays have been positively attributed to him, including The Spanish Tragedy, which was initially published anonymously. While the exact time during which The Spanish Tragedy was written is not known, it is suspected to have been written in the mid- to late 1580s, with the earliest surviving edition printed in 1592. It is also known that Kyd wrote The Householder’s Philosophy—a translation of Torquato Tasso’s Italian play, Padre di Famiglia—in 1588, and in 1594, he published a translation of a French play by Robert Garnier entitled Cornelia. It is strongly suspected that Kyd was also the author of two other important Elizabethan plays—King Leir and the Ur-Hamlet—which were wildly popular in Kyd’s day and served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet, respectively. In 1587, Kyd was commissioned by a nobleman, as Christopher Marlowe later was as well, to work as a secretary and write plays. The two playwrights shared living quarters for a time, until May 12, 1593, when Kyd was arrested on suspicion of heresy. The room that he shared with Marlowe was searched by authorities and heretical papers were discovered. Kyd was imprisoned and tortured, and he eventually told authorities that the papers in fact belonged to Marlowe and that Marlowe was indeed an atheist. Marlowe was killed just weeks later on May 30, 1593, under mysterious circumstances involving government officials. Kyd was eventually released from prison and fervently maintained his innocence, but he was never able to recover his reputation. Kyd died of unknown causes, alone and deeply in debt, sometime in December of 1594. He was just 35 years old.     
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Historical Context of The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy takes place after an unnamed war between Spain and Portugal, at the end of which Spain is victorious and hopes to combine with the royal house of Portugal into one powerful force through the marriage of Balthazar and Bel-Imperia. Historically speaking, the King of Portugal, King Sebastian, died during battle in 1578 without a living heir. Portugal was subsequently ruled by Sebastian’s great-uncle, Henry of Portugal, until he died in 1580, also without a living heir. Henry’s death resulted in a succession crisis, in which both King Phillip II of Spain and Anthony, Prior of Crato—the grandson of the Portuguese King Manuel I—vied for the crown of Portugal during the War of Portuguese Succession. Phillip II of Spain was ultimately crowned King of Portugal in 1581, but the war lasted until 1583. The kingdoms of Spain and Portugal were combined until the Portuguese Restoration War was sparked in 1640, after Phillip II’s son, Phillip III, ascended the throne. Under Phillip III’s rule, Portuguese aristocrats started to lose power and status, resulting in an uprising of Portuguese nobility and bourgeoisie. The Portuguese Restoration War ended in 1668 with Portugal’s independence, at which time the royal House of Braganza—a dynasty of Portuguese rulers—was officially restored.      

Other Books Related to The Spanish Tragedy

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is a classic example of Renaissance literature, which typically refers to literature written in Europe during the Renaissance—a period of history that spanned the 14th to the 17th centuries and marked Europe’s transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity. This period, particularly within art and literature, is often defined as a return to classical Antiquity. Within literature specifically, there was an overall return to the tragedies of ancient Greece and Rome, like those by Sophocles—a Greek tragedian born in 496 BCE who wrote such classics as Electra and Philoctetes—and Livius Andronicus, a Greco-Roman dramatist from the 3rd century BCE who translated Greek works, like Homer’s Odyssey, into Latin. Famous works of the Renaissance during Kyd’s time include Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, a play first staged in 1590 that is based on Timur, a Central Asian emperor. Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy are generally considered the first successful productions of the Elizabethan stage, which was later dominated by William Shakespeare. In 1592, the same year in which The Spanish Tragedy was first staged, Shakespeare staged Henry VI (parts one, two, and three), a trilogy about the reign of King Henry VI of England and the War of the Roses.
Key Facts about The Spanish Tragedy
  • Full Title: The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again
  • When Written: Unknown; likely in the mid- to late 1580s.
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: Unknown; earliest surviving edition was published in 1592.
  • Literary Period: The Renaissance
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Setting: Spain and Portugal
  • Climax: Hieronimo’s play-within-a-play, in which he and Bel-Imperia exact their revenge on Lorenzo and Balthazar for the murder of Horatio.
  • Antagonist: Lorenzo

Extra Credit for The Spanish Tragedy

Famous classmates. Kyd attended the Merchant Taylors’ School in the late 1560s with Edmund Spenser, who later became the famous English poet best known for his epic poem The Faerie Queene, first published in 1590.

Return to the classics. Kyd’s plays are modeled after classical tragedies, especially those by Seneca, a Roman dramatist from the first century AD. Kyd was the first to successfully bring modern adaptations of classical works to the Elizabethan stage, and his original works, such as The Spanish Tragedy, are infused with this classical influence.