The Structure and Meaning of The Spanish Tragedy


Tetsuo Kishi

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy [ 1] unfolds itself as the ghost of Don Andrea and revenge, the spirit who serves the king of the underworld, watch the central action of the play. Don Andrea was a Spanish courtier while he was alive and was in love with BelImperia, the niece of the King of Spain, but was killed in battle by Balthazar, the son of the Viceroy of Portugal. His ghost is about to watch the death of Balthazar at the hand of Bel-Ilmperia and the realization of his revenge, and the audience will watch the whole action through the eyes of, or rather with, the ghost and the spirit. Thus the structure of The Spanish Tragedy is that of a play-within-play in a large scale.

What I have said so far is noticed by virtually every critic of the play, but I doubt if the significance of the presence of the two characters as chorus has been examined carefully enough.

Fredson Bowers, for instance, says, “From (the finish of the second act) the ghost and his theme, which was to be the core of the play: are superfluous; and, indeed, need never have been introduced”.[ 2 ]
The play begins as the story of Bel-Imperia’s revenge for Andrea’s death, but she is imprisoned and her new lover Horatio who was Andrea’s friend is murdered by Balthazar and his accomplices. From this point the audience will be primarily interested in how Horatio’s father Hieronimo will take revenge on the murderers. While the play remains to be centred around the story of revenge, the focus changes, and so, Bowers seems to argue, the presence of the chorus becomes superfluous.

Anne Barton partly accepts Bowers ‘s opinion but adds, “The usefulness of the ghost, however, does not really depend upon its intimate connexion with Hieronimo’s revenge.... (Andrea) is a link between the two worlds of audience and actors, combining within himself certain elements drawn from each. As such, he helps to define the relationship of reality and illusion”[3]. Her opinion certainly sounds more to the point, but the presence of the chorus still leaves room for more detailed examination.

To put it, very simply, exactly what kind of effect does the appearance of the ghost and Revenge at the very outset of the play produce? The answer of course is very simple: the audience learns how the play will end as soon as it begins. The first thing he learns is that the play deals with revenge and that it will end with the death of Balthazar. As a result he will pay more attention to the process leading towards the end than to the end itself. If this is so, the playwright will be required to fill the process with what will not fail to hold the audience’s interest. Many critics seem to forget that moving straight towards the death of Balthazar is likely to bore the audience. To say that the play changes its direction after the third act or that the real play begins only after the third act is clearly wide of the mark since the audience is told the end of the story well in advance. The murder of Horatio and Hieronimo’s revenge may seem to be the events which unnecessarily delay the eagerly waited ending, but actually they are part of the whole process which leads to that ending, and the realization of the foretold ending itself is never doubted.
Some people might argue that to say the realization of the ending is never doubted is not altogether valid. One half of the two-man chorus, namely Andrea’s ghost, himself expresses such doubt on several occasions. Both at the end of the first act and that of the second act he accuses the spirit and says that what he has been watching hardly justifies the long travel from “depth of underground”. Toward the end of the third act he is even indignant at the spirit who to his dismay seems to be sleeping.
In these scenes the ghost is speaking for the audience who may doubt the realization of the revenge. We should bear it in mind, however, that the psychology of the audience watching these scenes far from simple. To the audience the doubt is itself part of the pleasure of watching the play. In other words the audience both firmly believes in and doubts the realization of the promised end. The irritation and indignation of the spirit will make the pleasure greater and more complicated. This is possible because the events and the characters of the play are somewhat distantiated from the audience due to the technique Kyd uses at the beginning of the play which unfortunately some critics seem to feel is rather distracting.

The response of the ghost who becomes irritated and indignant as the action proceeds is at least partly comic. But the comic element is perhaps more prominent in the characters who belong to the central action of the play. For instance, the progress of the love affair between Bel-Imperia and Horatio is depicted concurrently with the plotting by Bel-Imperia’s brother Lorenzo and Balthazar to thwart the relation between the lovers as well as the negotiation between the Spanish King and the Ambassador of Portugal as to the proposed marriage of Bel-Imperia and Balthazar. The audience knows these events which the poor lovers do not dream of, and their excitement would be grasped somewhat coolly by the audience. More importantly, however, the villainy of Lorenzo and Balthazar is definitely to be laughed at. The more successful their plan turns out to be and the more innocently they enjoy their “success” the more acutely we would be reminded of the beginning of the play where the fall of the villains was irrevocably prophesied. Therefore such events as the murder of Horatio and the imprisonment of Bel-Imperia function as something that intensifies the irony of the whole play rather than the doubt about its ending.

Thus Kyd tried to alienate the audience’s consciousness from the action of the play and by doing so made the whole play more comic ‘than an unsophisticated member of the audience might anticipate. As it happened there was a twentieth-country playwright who tried to do exactly the same thing. The man in question was; as anyone with the minimum knowledge of the subject would guess, Brecht. It is remarkable that The Spanish Tragedy put into practice the Brechtian theory of drama more than three centuries before Brecht, and possibly more dexterously than the German dramatist ever did. Just as Brecht preached, Kyd’s audience is required to pay more attention to the process than the outcome. In other words, The Spanish Tragedy is an amazingly “modern” play in spite of its archaic appearance, and to attribute only a historical significance to the work as nothing more than a conspicuous milestone in the “development” of English tragedy is, to say the least, sophomoric.

What then are the problems that are examined and explored in the “process” of this intriguing play? In my opinion there are at least two of them, which are, first, the rightness of the act of revenge, and, secondly, the relation between human action and free will.

As for the former, it would be appropriate to mention that Elizabethans were in two minds about the act of revenge and thought on one hand that it is perfectly acceptable for man to ad as a revenger and on the other that man should leave the act to the almighty god. The second attitude is unequivocably expressed at the beginning of Act III Scene xiii of The Spanish Tragedy. Hieronimo who has been troubled by the thought about the idea of revenge enters with a book in hand and begins his speech thus:

Vindicta mihi!
Ay, heaven will be reveng’d of every ill,
Nor will they suffer murder unrepaired:
Then stay, Hieronimo, attend their will,
For mortal men may not  appoint their time. (III.xiii.l-5)[4]
“Vindicta mihi” or “Vengeance is mine” in English is a (quotation from “The Epistle to the Romans” and this passage is preceded by another passage which says, “Dearly beeloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath”. In a long soliloquy in this scene Hieronimo debates with himself about the rightness of the act of revenge and decides that, while he will never give up ‘the revenge for his son, he will patiently wait for an appropriate oppportunity and continue pretending to be friendly with his enemies:
Wise men will take their opportunity,
Closely and safely fitting things to time:
But in extremes advantage hath no time:
And therefore all times fit not for revenge.
Thus therefore will I rest me in unrest,
Dissembling quiet in unquietness,
Not seeming that I know their villainies,
That my simplicity may make them think
That ignorantly I will let all slip… (III.xiii.25-33)
 It is extremely intriguing that scholars are not in total agreement about the meaning of Hieronimo’s conclusion. For instance, Fredson Bowers thinks that Hieronimo changes from a hero to a villain pursuing private revenge when he adopts “dissembling action”, and says, “Once Hieronimo adopted the Italianate Machiavellian tactics, he immediately lost the absolute admiration of his audience”[5] .Eleanor Prosser does not exactly call Hieronimo a villain as Bowers does, but she too thinks that he irrevocably rejects patience and that his subsequent actions do not follow what the words “Vindicta mihi” dictate [6]. On the other hand, S. F. Johnson (whom Prosser tries to refute) interprets Hieronimo’s dissembling as an act to imitate God who never forgets revenge even if he seems to be sleeping. According to Johnson, Protestants accepted private revenge as a religious duty enjoined by the Old Testament, and the fact that Hieronimo is Knight Marshal of Spain more than justifies his action.[7]

 Some critics seem to think that Hieronimo does accept patience after all. Others do not. This is confusing enough. What is even more confusing is that their evaluation of what Hieronimo does, which is never absolutely clear, seems to differ considerably. But they all seem to take the meaning of “Vindicta mihi” more or less for granted. But to me the expression is fairly ambiguous. Does this mean man should do absolutely nothing? Or does it mean man should be patient and await Heaven’s decree, as Bowers argues? If it means the latter, then how can man recognize Heaven’ s decree when it is finally revealed to man? If man thinks the appointed opportunity has arrived, is he totally free from being presumptuous?

The Spanish Tragedy is almost unbearably ambiguous in regards to the fundamental interpretation of the work. How else can W( explain such diversity of interpretations? It may be more plausible to take this ambiguity as something which Kyd intended 1:0 incorporate in the piece. I say this because the second problem which is examined throughout the “process”, that is, the problem about human action and freewill, is not free from ambiguity either.

A Portuguese nobleman is about to be executed under a false accusation. Just then the ambassador who knows the truth returns from Spain. The nobleman’s innocence is proved, and the villain who tried to implicate him is punished (III.i.). Is this accidental? The grief over his son’s death drives Hieronimo to a doubt: about heavenly justice, and he is about to solicit help from the devil. Just then a letter is dropped under his feet. It is from Bel-Iimperia and tells him that Lorenzo and Balthazar murdered Horatio. Hieronimo does not immediately believe the contents of the letter, but he refrains from soliciting the devil’s help (III.ii.) Is this accidental? The sorrow-stricken Hieronimo doubts heavenly justice again. Just then he gets a letter from Bel-imperia’s servant who was an accomplice in the murder of Horatio, and learns the truth (III.vii.) Is this accidental?

Of course they seem accidental and too well-contrived. But if we accept the existence of the will of providence, these events follow a certain logic and are the results of necessity. The audience is likely to accept this latter view since the presence oil the spirit of revenge is never out of sight during the play. In connexion with this, G. K. Hunter says, “(Revenge’s) presence guarantees that the human action will work out justly, but he is not seen to make it do so”. Then he goes on to say—

The play may be viewed.., as what Andrea dreams, as an allegory of perfect justice... .the human beings who appear in Andrea’s dream... are not to be taken by the audience as the independent and self-willed individuals they suppose themselves to be, but in fact only as the puppets of a predetermined and omnicompetent justice that they (the characters) cannot see and never really understand.[8]

It is true that the device of play-within-a-play makes dramatic characters look like puppets. They think they act according to their free will, but they are watched by an audience who grasps the whole event as a play. Their action which apparently is chosen with freewill is in fact predetermined by someone else’s will, arid that someone in this case is the playwright. The implication or the device of play-within-a-play is that what we do in this world is in fact a play watched by an audience who remains invisible to us. There is no room for free will.

But as for The Spanish Tragedy I doubt if human free will is so irrevocably denied as Hunter seems to claim. The spirit of revenge attains his goal through the desire and emotion of the dramatic characters, and we can perhaps think that there is room for free will –to some extent at any rate-- for the characters in this play. I say so because Revenge falls asleep during the course of the action.
The irritated ghost awakens Revenge who answers—

Content thyself, Andrea; though I sleep.
Yet is my mood soliciting their souls:
Sufficeth thee that poor Hieronimo
Cannot forget his son Horatio.
Nor dies Revenge although he sleeps awhile,
For in unquiet, quietness is feign’d,
And slumb’ring is a common worldly wile. (III.xv.)
Hunter thinks “The menace and even horror of Revenge’s outlook a. needs to be stressed” [9]. He would be absolutely right if these words are spoken by the reel spirit of revenge. But this spirit is played by an actor and falling asleep is after all part of the performance.

Do we really feel horror (and nothing else) at such an enacted menace? Perhaps we do when we watch a play which is not tainted by that modern malady of self-reflexivity. But as we will see later, Kyd deliberately draws our attention to the rather dubious nature of dramatic reality.

The meaning of Revenge’s sleep and the degree Revenge interferes with human action are, I think, ambiguous. Similarly the degree free will works in Hieronimo and other characters is also ambiguous. Thus we are presented with two different views about the rightness of revenge as well as the relation between human action and free will. Altogether there will be four different interpretations about the whole play. Did Hieronimo choose the right action with free will? Or was he forced to choose the right. action by Revenge? Or did he choose the wrong action with free will? Or was he forced to choose the wrong action? Perhaps the fourth possibility is not acceptable since it denies the existence of heavenly justice itself. One could go on to say that it is rather pointless to discuss whether or not one is responsible for an action he was forced to choose and whether or not the action in question is right, since one cannot be responsible legally and theologically for an action chosen by someone else.

This confusion is the direct result of the special nature of the play’s chorus. There is nothing unusual about the presence itself of a choric character (or characters) in a play, but there is an indisputable difference between Andrea’s ghost and Revenge in this play and, for instance, Christopher Sly and the Lord in The Taming of the Shrew. I am not concerned with the fact that Sly and the Lord disappear rather mysteriously half way through the play. What matters is that they are mere bystanders to the events of the play-within-the-play and can no way influence what waits for Petruchio and Katherina. Sly and the Lord belong to one world, Petruchio and Katherina to another, and the two worlds are totally separate.

The situation is remarkably different in The Spanish Tragedy. It is true that Andrea’s ghost is a spectator of the play-within-the-play which involves Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia, but he belonged to the same world as they when he was alive. What Petruchio and Katherina encounter is irrelevant to the Lord and Sly, but the fortune of Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia is more than relevant to Andrea. In other words Andrea as chorus functions as both spectator and character in the play-within-the-play. To put it more accurately, the-play-within-the-play is not really a play-within-a-play and the whole event takes place on the same level. According to Anne Barton, “For Don Andrea ... the events occurring on the stage below are painfully real, in no sense a rehearsal at second-hand”.[10]

It is the same with the other member of the chorus, Revenge. Unlike the Lord in The Taming of the Shrew Revenge is not simply a spectator of the play-within-the-play but the director (or the author) of that play as well. In this sense he is an active participant of the events. As I said before, the degree of the participation is ambiguous. In a way this is not surprising because Revenge is a character beyond our understanding. We can fully grasp what Sly and the Lord do and feel, but as soon as Revenge appears as part of the chorus, the device of play-within-a-play loses clarity which we can expect under normal circumstances.

As the result of this complicated structure, the events involving Hieronimo and Bel-imperia which would have been merely fictitious acquire an unexpected reality. At the same time the world of the chorus who is engaged in a real action of watching  a play (just as the inherent reality and Spanish Tragedy is) loses its inherent reality and merges with the fictitious world of drama. The Spanish Tragedy is based on this paradox and the question it examines has to do with the realness and fictitiousness of drama the so-called reality. The paradox is at its most interesting the examination is at its most crucial in the play-withint-the-play-within-the-play of “Soliman and Perseda” which more or less concludes the central action, and more precisely, the speech spoken by Hieronimo before he kills himself as the only survivor among the four “actors” who took part.
To take revenge Hieronimo plans to perform a play based on an ancient story. According to the story, Soliman falls in love with Perseda who is married to Erastus whom Soliman orders “one of his bashaws” to kill. After her husband is murdered, Perseda kills Soliman and then kills herself. Hieronimo casts Lorenzo as Erastus, Bel-Imperia as Perseda, Balthazar as Soliman and himself as the bashaw. The performance takes place, and both Lorenzo and Balthazar are killed with the real swords Hieronimo prepared. Bel-Imperia kiIls herself. Then Hieronimo speaks to the courtiers who have been watching the play—

Haply you think, but bootless are your thoughts,
That this is fabulously counterfeit,
And that we do as all tragedians do:
To die today, for fashioning our scene,
The death of Ajax, or some Roman peer,
And in a minute starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.
No, princes, know I am Hieronimo... (IV.iv.76-83)
The play-within-the-play-within-the-play of “Soliman and Perseda” has at least three levels. The first is ‘that of the characters in this play, namely Soliman and so forth, and on this level the play is real. The second is that of the characters as actors who play Soliman and so forth, and on this level the play is fiction. The third is that of the characters themselves, and on this level the play is real, because, as Hieronimo rightly points out, both Lorenzo and Balthazar really die. Therefore the following remark is certainly valid so far as this third level is concerned—
  …while the members of Kyd’s audience view everything that happens on the stage as part of the fabulously counterfeit Spanish Tragedy, the action of his play forces them to ask how they might feel if the events seen on the stage suddenly turned out to be real. What if we knew that the actors would not survive their tragic roles?[11]

But the play of “Soliman and Perseda” has another level, which is that of the actor who plays Hieronimo who plays the bashaw. On this level the death of Hieronimo is merely counterfeit, and the actor will no doubt “revive to please tomorrow’s audience”. What Hieronimo denies in his speech will happen “in a minute”. It is this contradiction that makes this speech so dramatically effective.

On the fourth level the play of “Soliman and Perseda” can claim no reality. At the same time what happens on this level is more real than what happens on the other levels, because among what can happen on a stage what is more real than a group of actors playing their parts? The ultimate reality of The Spanish Tragedy exists on this level. But as soon as the audience realizes that role playing is role playing, the art of drama loses its basis. The play depends on the kind of logic that threatens its existence.

Similarly the play seems to deny what it teaches, or rather seems to teach. To tell the end of the story at the beginning of the play by means of the chorus would have dismissed any doubt the audience might have about heavenly justice, but ironically it drew the audience’s attention to the process leading to the promised end and produced even more deep-rooted and incurable doubt. What dominates the world of The Spanish Tragedy in the end may be justice. But what an absurd kind of justice it is! In spite of Hieronimo’s worry and in spite of the ghost’s doubt, the revenge has been realized as prophesied. But does this affirm the existence of justice? We are never free from the sense of unfathomable ambiguity which makes the play much more modern than critics tend to think.

©  Dr. Tetsuo Kishi
Kyoto University, Japan.


The Japanese-language version of this essay appeared in Essays in Honour of Yasuo Suga and Kazuso Ogoshi (Kyoto: Apollon-Sha, 1980).
2   Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1940), p. 68
3.  Anne Righter (Anne Barton), Shakespeare and the idea of the Play (1962; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p.71.
4.  All quotations from The Spanish Tragedy are taken from the Revels Plays edition, ed. Philip Edwards (London:  Methuen & Co. , 1959).
5.  Op. cit., p.80
6.   Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd ed. (Stanford: Standford University Press, 1971), pp. 49-50
7.   S.F. Johnson, " The Spanish Tragredy, or Babylon Revisited "  in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley ( Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1962) pp. 29-32.
8.  G.K. Hunter, Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (Liverpool University Press, 1978), p. 218.
9. Ibid. , p. 225
10. Op. cit., p. 72
11. Harriett Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama (London: Oxford University Press 1972)     p. 30.

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