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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

execution of Pedringano. This too is justified in his mind by assuming the prerogative of a social superior: “For die they shall, slaves are ordained to no other end” (III. iii. 119). Lorenzo has Pedringano kill Serberine, then he positions the Watch to catch Pedringano in the act. Furthermore Lorenzo promises Pedringano a pardon, but sends instead an empty box as a jest. In doing this, Lorenzo takes over and corrupts the judicial process, robbing it of meaning and turning it into rank theatre. The business of state execution is, as stated above, to act as a deterrant to crime and to reaffirm the authority of the state, which

felony injures. In order to accomplish either of these goals it must be clear that justice is served and that the condemned, at the center of the spectacle, provide fearful proof of the terrible power of official sanction. Pedringano, believing to the end that his execution is merely a show before his timely reprieve, not only shows no fear or remorse but mocks the hangman at the scaffold, subverting the ritual so that it is of no use to the agents of law and ultimately serves no one’s purpose but Lorenzo’s. Hieronimo, the justiciar, walks away in disgust, only to be apprised in the next scene of the letter Pedringano held, in which he reveals that he and Serberine were confederates in the murder of Hieronimo’s son, and that both murders were done at Lorenzo’s behest. The second requirement of official sanction is denied–Pedringano has

been hanged for the wrong crime, and justice has not been served (Shapiro, 102-3). Yet ironies abound in Kyd’s play. In his cunning, Lorenzo has unwittingly doomed himself and his allies, as Pedringano’s letter confirms an earlier letter from Bel-imperia implicating Lorenzo (Ardolino, 112-3). Thus he has given Hieronimo a target and a weapon. The effect of these events is to drive Hieronimo into a frenzy,

transforming him from an agent of law into a single-minded revenger. By the time he arranges the public massacre of all the play’s villains and the dissolution of the nascent alliance between Spain and Portugal, he has lost his son, his wife, his reason, and his identity. A moment later he will bite out his own tongue and commit suicide. These are the wages of vengeance, the price of becoming the instrument of the true justice administered from on high by the spirit of Revenge, in the name of the ghost of Don Andrea. In the end, all of the blood and madness in the

play comes down to one point: the false value of class that Lorenzo and Balthazar embrace, and the false value of the state which Hieronimo embodies, must ultimately give way to the true value of cosmic justice, before which all are expendable. Hence Kyd can afford to show the implements of official sanction, the noose and the stake, because in the

final analysis they are meaningless. Only in the dispensation of rewards and punishments in the afterlife have any real value, as only there are they deserved and everlasting.

————————————————————————

Works Cited

Ardolino, Frank R. Thomas Kyd’s Mystery Play: Myth and Ritual

in “The Spanish Tragedy”. New York: Peter Lang Publishing,

Inc., 1985.

Hunter, G. K. “Ironies of Justice in The Spanish Tragedy.”

Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. New York: Barnes & Noble

Books, 1978.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Edited by J. R. Mulryne. New

York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1989.

Shapiro, James. “‘Tragedies naturally performed’: Kyd’s

Representation of Violence.” Staging the Renaissance:

Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Edited

by David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. New York:

Routledge, 1991.

Smith, Molly. “The Theater and the Scaffold: Death as Spectacle

in The Spanish Tragedy.” Studies in English Literature 32:2

(1992), 217-32.

Watson, Robert N. “Tragedy.” The Cambridge Companion to English

Renaissance Drama. Edited by A. R. Braunmuller and Michael

Hattaway. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Ardolino, Frank R. Thomas Kyd’s Mystery Play: Myth and Ritual

in “The Spanish Tragedy”. New York: Peter Lang Publishing,

Inc., 1985.

Hunter, G. K. “Ironies of Justice in The Spanish Tragedy.”

Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. New York: Barnes & Noble

Books, 1978.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Edited by J. R. Mulryne. New

York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1989.

Shapiro, James. “‘Tragedies naturally performed’: Kyd’s

Representation of Violence.” Staging the Renaissance:

Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Edited

by David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. New York:

Routledge, 1991.

Smith, Molly. “The Theater and the Scaffold: Death as Spectacle

in The Spanish Tragedy.” Studies in English Literature 32:2

(1992), 217-32.

Watson, Robert N. “Tragedy.” The Cambridge Companion to English

Renaissance Drama. Edited by A. R. Braunmuller and Michael

Hattaway. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


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