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