Saturday, 16 June 2001

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1592)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 841

Given how many devices are new in The Spanish Tragedy, it is absolutely astounding how well it works. Written in the early 1590s, possibly not by Kyd, it was the innovative precursor of techniques used by Marlowe, Shakespeare (Hamlet might be based on another, lost, play by Kyd), and the Jacobean revenge tragedies.

The plot of The Spanish Tragedy is a complicated revenge story, which is set up by the characters of Revenge personified and the recently killed Don Andrea, watching from Hell the events which follow Andrea's death. They have little bits of dialogue between the acts, like a chorus; Andrea is keen for his death to be avenged, and continually accuses Revenge of falling down on his job. (There is good reason for the accusation - Revenge actually falls asleep during the third act.)

The Spanish Tragedy was one of the first plays in English to follow the ideas of Seneca, though it did not do so completely slavishly (its four rather than five acts are quite unusual, and it doesn't have the action off stage). It includes a favourite device of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, the play within the play (in addition to the Christopher Sly-like scenes for Revenge and Don Andrea). It also has the distinction of innovating iambic pentameter blank verse, which makes the play easier to read than some of its contemporaries and seems more familiar to us than alternatives through Shakespeare's use of it.

It is clear that The Spanish Tragedy is technically innovative and accomplished, but it is more than that. Even across the gulf of over four centuries it manages to be engrossing and exciting, putting it in a class with the best drama of its time.

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