The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd, was the first "blockbuster" of the Elizabethan stage and here at Salt and Sage, we are beginning our Sex Tragedy Saturday reading series with this classic on November 9th at 2 pm at The Backdoor Theater. I hope you'll join us! Here's a little taste of what to expect:
The Spanish Tragedy is an action play for poets, a sensational story told in vigorous verse. The plot is pure mayhem: a dead soldier, Don Andrea, calls on Revenge to protect his friends and punish his foes and his prayers seem answered as his former girl-friend, Bel-Imperia, takes up his best friend, Horatio, for her new lover to piss off her wicked brother, Lorenzo. Bel-Imperia underestimates her brother's obsession with both her sexuality and their station. Lorenzo in the company of Balthazar, a Portuguese prince who wants Bel-Imperia for himself, slaughters Horatio before her very eyes. Now, Bel-Imperia and Horatio's father, Hieronimo, are the vengeance seekers; as Don Andrea watches impotently from the sidelines. Multiple double-crosses lead to the bloodbath of the final scene. Along the way, the violence only escalates, there are stabbings, hangings, and a shooting; one characters "runs lunatic" and another bites out their own tongue. It's spectacular!
Want more? Come to the reading. Want more right now? Me too! Warning, here begins a lot of geeking out:
I'm particularly excited to present The Spanish Tragedy hot on the heels of having directed Hamlet. Among revenge tragedies, a popular genre in Early Modern Drama, Hamlet is the paragon and The Spanish Tragedy is the exemplar. Indeed the parallels between Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy are so striking that some scholars suspect that Kyd also authored the so-called Ur-Hamlet, a lost play on the story of Hamlet which predated Shakespeare's by at least a decade. Douglas Bruster suspects Shakespeare actually had a hand in revising The Spanish Tragedy, additional passages appear in the 1602 quarto edition of the play. (You can read about his argument in the recent New York Times article "Much Ado About Who?: Is it Really Shakespeare?") Other candidates for authorship of the additional passages include the playwright and actor Ben Jonson, who played Hieronimo near the start of his career. Whether Kyd wrote the Ur-Hamlet or Shakespeare (or Jonson) revised The Spanish Tragedy is immaterial in establishing, to borrow a phrase from David Bevington, "its towering influence."
When I directed The Spanish Tragedy in 2010, it was not so much the parallels to Hamlet that struck me as its clear influence upon many other plays in Shakespeare's cannon. Lorenzo is an antecedent for Iago in Othello, Pedringano for Barnadine in Measure for Measure. Lorenzo is in no way like Benedict, however, what Shakespeare nerd can not think of Much Ado About Nothing when Lorenzo advises Balthazar that "in time the savage bull sustains the yoke?" This time I am sure that all the lines Shakespeare quoted for Hamlet will jump out and delight. I actually wrote on both Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy in my MLitt Thesis, "Brides, Wives, and Widows: Marriage and Murder in Early Modern Drama," however the plays appeared in separate chapters, now that I'm working on both so close together, I'm fascinated by the way the roles of both plays two female characters compare.
Of course in Hamlet (at least Q2 and Folio - Q1 well that's another story), neither Gertrude nor Ophelia have much agency in the revenge plot. Ophelia is mostly there to be crushed. She is the collateral damage of Hamlet's mistakes and it is in her demise that she fuels the final confrontation between Hamlet and the court. And Gertrude? Well she can contribute to Hamlet's vengeance by refusing to sleep with Claudius. Which she might do, though the text does not say. She is certainly no conspirator as Bel-Imperia is in The Spanish Tragedy, just how much Gertrude knows and when she knows it is shockingly ambiguous. In the infamous closet scene, Hamlet rebukes her for committing incest and reveals that his father was murdered. The fact of the murder goes by so quickly though, that one cannot be sure whether Gertrude absorbs the words of her sometimes-hyperbolic son as more than mere metaphor.
In The Spanish Tragedy, there is a mother who runs mad and an ingenue who conspires with and executes revenge alongside the protagonist. Plays like The Spanish Tragedy deserve to be read and staged because they are great plays and because they complicate the idea that all female characters in Early Modern drama behaved like those in the Shakespearean cannon. The stage needs Ophelias and Bel-Imperias. Actresses (and actors) deserve a stab at both.
- Asae Dean
As for me, I'm spending the month directing a 75-minute Romeo and Juliet at Ridgefield High School as part of Portland Playhouse's Fall Festival of Shakespeare. Ridgefield's mascot is the "Spudder," a regal, patriotic, and super-tough fighting potato, pictured left. Not sure what that has to do with anything, really, except that I repeatedly and continually find a kind of unexpected and unexplainable joy in this chaotic and self-described "impossible" process (akin to the unexplainable joy this potato man, who lives in Ridgefield's office, brings me). The Fall Festival comes from a model developed by Shakespeare and Co., based out of Lenox, Massachusetts, for which we directors received five days of training in person from the program's co-founders. The model is designed to bring Shakespeare's words to a visceral level and empower students to take real ownership of every part of the process in developing the play. And it culminates in a festival at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, at which all eight high schools involved perform their shows back to back over two days, to packed audiences full of their peers (and the general public) who cheer for each other as if they're at a sporting event. We're two and a half weeks away from performance, and we're at a point in the process where it feels impossible; there are too many balls in the air. And yet... I know it will come together. So for Monday, I'll put on my fighting potato face and dive back into the fray!
Jenny mentioned last week that she and I are spending October in different states, working with other companies. October finds me in Pennsylvania directing Hamlet for Pittsburgh Classic Players. I am treasuring the time and my appetite for Early Modern plays is only growing from this verbal feast. Fortunately, there is more Early Modern drama waiting for me back in Portland. Salt and Sage is holding a staged reading series in November – Sex Tragedy Saturdays. We want to whet Portland’s appetite for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and are starting with three of my favorites: Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy, and John Marston’s The Insatiate Countess. I wrote on all three of these plays (among others, including Hamlet) for my Masters of Letters Thesis “Brides, Wives, and Widows: Marriage and Murder in Early Modern Drama.” In my thesis, I focused on the pattern in Early Modern drama of sexual subversiveness as a primrose path to murder and proposed that that script had to do with a new emphasis in early modern England on love and companionate marriage. I chose to write on these plays not just for what they might reveal about the past but because they fire my imagination. They are plays for Shakespeare fans who also dig True Blood; they feature amazing roles for women and some of the most delicious verse ever written. We will share more details about these readings as November draws a little closer, for now, here is a little taste of their bounty:
Let dangers go. Thy war shall be with me,
But such a war as breaks no bond of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss.
- Bel-Imperia, The Spanish Tragedy
I sooner will find out the bed of snakes,
And with my youthful blood warm their cold flesh,
Letting them curl themselves about my limbs,
Than sleep one night with thee. This is not feigned,
Nor sounds it like the coyness of a bride.
- Evadne, The Maid’s Tragedy
My blood, like to a troubled ocean
Cuffed with the winds, incertain where to rest,
Butts at the utmost shore of every limb.
My husband’s not the man I would have had.
- Isabella, The Insatiate Countess