Thomas Kyd

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Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy” Essay, Research Paper Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) is generally considered the first of the English Renaissance “revenge-plays.” A rich genre that includes, among others, Hamlet. These plays tend to be soaked in blood and steeped in madness. The genre is not original to the period, deriving from a revival of interest in the revenge tragedies of the Roman playwright Seneca. Nor is it exclusive to the past, as anyone who has seen the “Death Wish” or “Lethal Weapon” films can attest. The revenge-play satisfied a deep longing in its audience for simple black-and-white rough justice that seems to be universal. (Watson, 317) While the brutal quest for vengeance drives Kyd’s play, justice is ultimately its main

thematic concern: what is it, who has the right to administer it, and is any sacrifice too great for its final attainment? (Hunter, 217) Central to these questions is the pair of hangings that occur in the middle acts of the play. Poisenings and stabbings happen throughout the piece but hanging was revloutionary. Hanging, decapitation, and burning at the stake was forbidden to be shown in a play. The reason for this is simple: the use of the official methods of execution as part of an entertainment would rob those methods of their value as deterrent to crime. (Shapiro, 100) The same argument is made today over the desensitization to violence caused by television. The Spanish Tragedy is unique in its onstage use of hanging as a device of murder. Why did Kyd risk public censure and

official punishment by having two of his characters meet their demises at the end of a rope? It is precisely because the noose is a symbol of temporal justice, and Kyd wishes to demonstrate just how fickle such justice is when placed alongside the cosmic. Both hangings in the play are perverse, Horatio’s because it is a murder rationalized by a contrived social order, and Pedringano’s because it is state justice wrongly applied. The murder of Horatio in the arbor is abhorrent and terrible, but it is also quizzical. He is hanged and stabbed by Lorenzo, Balthazar, Pedringano, and Serberine. It seems that stabbing him would be not only sufficient but more expedient to the killers than what must be the arduous task of subduing him and hauling him up on the tree branch, a curious

way to kill a man unless one considers that Lorenzo and Balthazar are making a point. Horatio is the son of Hieronimo, the Knight Marshal, functionally a civil servant; Lorenzo is the son of the Duke of Castile, and Balthazar the Prince of Portugal. Early on in the play, the King of Spain notes the difference in portfolio: But nephew, thou shalt have the prince in guard, For thine estate best fitteth such a guest: Horatio’s house were small for all his train. (I.ii. 185- 7) Once the conspirators discover that Horatio is Bel-imperia’s suitor, Balthazar comments, “Ambitious villain, how his boldness grows!” (II. ii. 41) Horatio had earned the enmity of both of these men, Balthazar by subduing him in battle, and Lorenzo by contesting his claim to Balthazar’s capture. These

reasons, coupled with Balthazar’s desire for Bel-imperia, drive them to murder Horatio, but they hang him for the crime of reaching beyond his station. Bel-imperia pleads for his life, claiming that she bore him no love, to which Balthazar replies, “But Balthazar loves Bel-imperia” (II. iv. 59) with a simplicity that implies that the mere desire of the Prince of Portugal excuses whatever depredations they inflict upon Horatio. Lorenzo tops it off by mocking his dead rival: “Although his life were still ambitious proud,/ Yet is he at the highest now he is dead” (II. iv. 60-1; Watson,323). The implication is clear: this is the justice of the ruling class against one who would seek their prizes. Lorenzo in effect commits a second hanging murder by orchestrating the