FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The Spanish Tragedy of Thomas Kyd (1587) is one of the touchstones of the Drama of the English Renaissance and well worth reading for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare, the evolution of English Drama and Literature and in the history and culture of the Renaissance and Elizabethan Age. The play is notable in the history of English drama in being the first innovative model of the genre of the “Revenge Tragedy,” and as such a precursor of better known works, most particularly Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
But why is such a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy of continuing interest to us today?
I would answer and positively recommend your reading of this compelling work by first observing that such revenge tragedy is about much more than revenge. It is laced with the acid and very modern existential consciousness of an underlying world in which the cant of both human and divine law, order and justice is found wanting at best, and which presents persons injured and abused with the dilemma of turning alternatively to either vengance, protest, faith in a continuously deferred questionable karmic or divine retribution, or quietest acceptance of a violently absurd and meaningless world.
The “Revenge Hero” is also a precursor and brother to our own modern and post-modern “anti-heroes” in books and cinema from Batman to film noir to Django, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Oblivion, who finding that corrupt institutions and the absent or impotent hand of a divine or natural order, feel called upon to rebel and take justice into their own hands. Even the modern Jihadist paints himself as a “revenge hero” against a perceived unjust social order of militarist repression from the West and Israel or a soulless and corruptive materialist modernity.
The Revenge Tragedy thus is of continuing interest, not only as a moving drama of crime and punishment, but also in its ability to call into question the wider functioning of social order and its relation to the individual as well as presenting to our mind the question of the existence or non-existence of any divine, natural or human order or justice in the universe and the consequence of such for our lives.
In Kyd’s tragedy, the revenge hero is Heironimo, a humanistic, educated judicial officer of the Spanish court and a loving husband and father who would be the last person one could imagine as possessed with the violent passion of blood vengeance. He, and the generic revenge hero of latter works such as Hamlet, contrary to expectation is not any kind of “blood” out for violent pay-back, but is the most reluctant of seekers of retribution. He is only driven to take action by the perfidious murder of his beloved son Horatio, a returned war-hero in the battles against the Portugese, a crime perpetrated by the corrupt royal princes of both warring nations out of lover’s jealousy and corrupt political expediency, resulting in his society’s betrayal and corrupt failure, particularly of its ruling class, to grant him and his dead son any form of justice. Like Hamlet he hesitates, questions and doubts himself, doubts the evidence, and pushes himself to the brink of madness arising from his dispair before in the end turning to reluctant action. As in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he also uses the convoluted device of a “play within a play,” a court masque performed by noble personages, to bring about the undoing of the villians through his participation as writer, director and actor, leading in the end to their death by his hand.
The Spanish Tragedy ends bathed in an orgy of blood, and on such a note of pessimism as to human or divine order and justice, that it may have contributed to the historical Kyd himself at a later time being arrested and charged with “atheism and heresy,” along with his friend and colleague Christopher Marlowe, author of Faustus. Who in our modern time can view the savage and bloody videos of the mass slaughters, beheadings and mutilations of the Zetas and drug cartels in Mexico, the genocide in Rwanda, the ceaseless sectarian bombings and retributions from Boston to Chechnya to Syria, Palestine and Bombay without some visceral questioning of their faith in any human or divine justice on earth? It is a commonplace of Rennaissance scholarship to invoke the terminology of “Early Modern” in discribing Kyd’s age, and Kyd’s tragic vision and pessimism in retrospect do look increasingly “Modern” far before its time.
For most of us, we come to Kyd through Shakespeare, and my initial attention in reading Kyd’s drama was focused on the many similarities and influences of the play on Hamlet. Though we romanticize Shakespeare as one of, or perhaps the ultimate original genius of English and World Literature, by reading Kyd’s play we can also recognize how Shakespeare was a shameless borrower of stories, content and treatment in producing his own works. Indeed, not only was the Spanish Tragedy a powerful model from which The Bard drew, but Kyd had also produced his own version of Hamlet years before, of which the text was unfortunately lost to modern scholars, lending him the very subject matter itself. But any modern reader of Kyd’s play will be forcefully struck by such similarities as Heironimo’s “Hamletian” hesitation and madness, the “play within a Play,” the corruption in the fabric of society, especially in the ruling class and the catharsis and purgation of sin by blood which are common with Shakespeare’s work. One is forced to rethink what was original to Shakespeare and what derived from the conventions of the genre itself. T.S. Eliot also wrote on Kyd’s work, and it is well to call to mind his invocation of “The Tradition” from his essay “Tradition and the Indivudual Talent” even with regard to so great a talent as Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare visibly borrowed from and added force to his work from prior models including Kyd as well a classical precursors such as Seneca.
I and World Literature Forum thus positively recommend looking into Kyd’s cathartic tragedy of blood and anomie as a moving read, a re-perspectiving of Shakespeare, and as a revisiting of the early roots of Modernity.
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved