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Mary Ann Koory : The Spanish Tragedy

Dramaturg Mary Ann Koory blogs about THE SPANISH TRAGEDY

Mary Ann Koory

Dr. Mary Ann Koory, an award-wining teacher at the University of California Berkeley Extension and San Francisco State University, introduces students to Shakespeare as a cultural icon in our time, but also as a successful producer of commercial entertainment in Renaissance England. She's long been fascinated by the way THE SPANISH TRAGEDY haunted Shakespeare and the Jacobean dramatists. She will be working with the cast of THE SPANISH TRAGEDY as dramaturg for this summer's production. Read her musings about the play, the theatrical process, and why you won't want to miss this rare chance to enjoy this very special production.

June 4, 2013 - Post # 3

The Life of Thomas Kyd

In the 1580s, Elizabethan London made Thomas Kyd and in the 1590s, it unmade him.

I tell Thomas Kyd’s story, a story that is also the story of commercial theater in Elizabethan London, in three parts.

Part I
Reading, Writing and Rhetoric

Latin Teacher in Class
here is a great image from the Bodleian: this is a schoolboy's doodle on his textbook from the 17th century: he has drawn his Latin teacher at his desk, with quill and ink pot. Above his head is the word "naso," which is another name for Ovid and a form of the word for "nose." The more things change

Thomas Kyd was born in 1558, the year Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England. Elizabeth’s government made possible the industry in which his work found commercial success, broad influence and, eventually, literary eminence; the same government also ruined him, his reputation, his livelihood, and his health.

Thomas was born into his father’s profession, one especially suited to a man who’d become a playwright, poet, translator and secretary. Notaries (or scriveners) like Francis Kyd and his son Thomas produced, by hand, in a specialized and official calligraphy, legal documents for a world quite as litigious as ours but where roughly 30% of the male population (and only 10% of the female) was literate.

Kyd attended grammar school from the time he was 7 years old until (we think) 1575, when he was about 17, at the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. Kyd did not go on to University, a distinction from other major contemporary playwrights, like Cambridge-educated Christopher Marlowe, but one he shares with Shakespeare.

That Shakespeare’s education went no further than grammar school can be perceived either as a limitation overcome through native genius or as an ignorant excuse to propose a University-educated man as the “real Shakespeare.” But the grammar school education that shaped Shakespeare and Kyd (among others: Edmund Spenser, for instance, was 4 years ahead of Kyd at the Merchant Taylors’ School) was simply extraordinary by our standards, especially for writers.

The humanist curriculum at the Merchant Taylors’ School immersed boys in the structure and style of language and the rhetoric of argument, story-telling and poetry. Students read, recited, composed, translated and conversed in Latin and English 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. “It is often said,” note two contemporary Oxford University Shakespeare scholars, “without exaggeration, that by the time a grammar-school boy left school, he had as much classical education as a university student of Classics today.” (Smith and Maguire, 12)

Merchant TaylorThe Merchant Taylor’s Headmaster Richard Mulcaster also used drama as an educational practice to foster self-confidence. His students presented plays in English and Latin at Elizabeth’s court at least once a year and, starting in 1574, performed at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall for a paying audience. In all likelihood, Thomas Kyd began his career in the theater as a teenage actor performing with his grammar school in front of the Queen and her court.

End of Part I.

Part II
Thomas Kyd: Theater and Thomas Kyd Come of Age Together

The next eight years or so years of Kyd’s life, from 1575 to 1583, are relatively undocumented, but we think that after grammar school, Kyd worked as a notary while also working as an actor and playwright in the first wave of commercial Tudor drama in London.

Schools (grammar schools and universities) were one emergent competitor – and training ground for actors and playwrights -- in the rapidly expanding market of commercial theater in 1570s London. But they were by no means the only ones. Brand new adult acting companies, of loose construction and entrepreneurial energy, played in improvised spaces at inns and in courtyards all over London.

The Rose Theatre, opened in 1587. The Spanish Tragedy was performed on this stage in the 1590s.In 1576, the year after Thomas Kyd left Merchant Taylors’, James Burbage erected a purpose-built theater called, in a Classical flourish, “The Theatre.” It was in fact the -- as in the only – theater in London and its suburbs. But within a year a second theater was erected, called “The Curtain,” and others followed. (See note below on recent excavations in London.) Starting in the 1570s, plays, players and their profits changed both the cultural and the architectural landscapes of the largest metropolis in Europe.

Like the playing spaces, the opportunistic groups of actors also evolved into more viable structures. This was a consequence – probably unintended -- of the Vagrancy Act of 1572. Aimed at containing the growing population of unemployed men in London, the Act declared that “all persons above the age of 14 years being taken, vagrant and wandering misorderly, should be apprehended, whipped, and burnt through the right ear with a hot iron for the first time so taken, the second time to be hanged.”

Thomas Kyd was 14 years old in 1572. Acting in plays was not a recognized profession, and fell within the definition of “wandering misorderly.” Ironically, however, the very law that threatened actors with whipping, ear-burning and hanging forced them, with the encouragement of Elizabeth and her government, into stable organizations.

Members of Elizabeth’s court stepped forward to patronize companies of actors, claiming them as part of their household; the story offered City officials was that these acting companies, performing 5 or 6 days a week in inns for paying audiences across the City, were “rehearsing” for court performances at Christmastime. Everyone knew that Queen Elizabeth loved plays, especially at Yuletide, and no one would publically interfere with that royal pleasure. But this was also part of the court’s strategy to try and bring this powerful new entertainment medium under official management.

AldermanElizabeth’s court, though as suspicious of unemployed men and social disorder as the City aldermen, wished to control and exploit -- rather than criminalize -- actors.

In 1583, when Kyd was 25, Elizabeth and her advisors, specifically Sir Francis Walsingham made another, rather brilliant, move to appropriate the popular theater. The Master of the Revels cherry-picked the most popular actors from existing companies and created a star-studded troupe sponsored by the Queen herself. Using its glamor and talent, the Queen’s Men promoted the image of Elizabeth and a Tudor version of English history on stages all over the country; it also may have slowed the willy-nilly expansion of the London theater by gutting the top companies of their stars.

Thomas Kyd worked for the Queen’s Men from its inception to 1585 and possibly beyond. Whatever he wrote for them does not survive, though we know they performed plays called “A Pastoral: Phyllida and Corin” and “The History of Felix and Philomena” at court in those first years. Were the seeds of Horatio’s devotion for Bel-Imperia planted in the love of Corin, presumably a shepherd, for Phyllida? Did Felix’s name (Latin for “happy” and “lucky”) prove ironic? We’ll probably never know, as none of these early plays for the Queen’s Men survive, nor any others that Kyd might have written before The Spanish Tragedy.

Kyd witnessed the emergence of commercial theater at close range and his perception of the conflicting forces that shaped it may be reflected – albeit in a perverse and violent way -- in The Spanish Tragedy’s climactic play-within-a-play. From 1572 forward, commercial theater in England defined itself against various contradictory pressures: the profit motive of impresarios and actors, the pleasures of its diverse audience, competition from other entertainments, like bearbaiting and public executions, the humanist aesthetic of its playwrights, the moral apprehension of the religious right, and the Tudor government’s regulation and appropriation of its work. In The Spanish Tragedy, the play-within a-play serves its fictional plebian playwright as a secret weapon, literally, one that Hieronimo turns against his aristocratic audience, his actors and his patrons, all of whom were involved in the deadly performance for their own purposes.

After about a decade of relative obscurity as a scrivener, actor and playwright, Kyd hits our literary radar screen around 1587 (see note on dating below) with The Spanish Tragedy, a play that has been called, with some critical hyperbole, “Quite the most important play in the history of English drama” (quoted in Erne, 55). It became a big hit, on stage and in print; it was continuously imitated, ridiculed, revived and/or reprinted until 1642, when Parliament closed the theaters, and it remains one of the most well-known and influential plays from this period. Kyd followed it in around 1588 with Hamlet, another revenge tragedy and another hit. (Unfortunately, Kyd’s Hamlet, the ur-Hamlet of Shakespeare criticism, has disappeared, though we have records of it.)

Shakespeare’s career, for example, is bracketed on either side by Kyd’s Hieronimo and Kyd’s Hamlet.

When Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580s, he probably saw The Spanish Tragedy on stage and it would have been, I think, a revelation. Kyd’s tragedy showed Shakespeare that a play could be more than a rambling pastoral romance, a creaky series of rants with Classical names, or a parade of cartoonish allegorical figures. Shakespeare’s break-out play, Titus Andronicus, makes numerous allusions to The Spanish Tragedy, and can be read as an extravagant attempt by Shakespeare to outdo Kyd’s play. Ten years later, when he wrote his Hamlet, Shakespeare again reaches back to Kyd to reinvent the revenge tragedy, using a play-within-a-play, a ghost and a father-and-son revenge dyad.

From around 1587 to 1593, Kyd worked for an aristocratic patron, probably as a secretary, though we think he would have also continued to write plays and poems. The lord who employed him remains a mystery, though two possible candidates are Henry Radcliffe, the Earl of Sussex and Henry Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke.

End of Part II

Part III
Bitter Times and Privie Broken Passions

Now, in 1593, at the height of his professional career, in a secure position in an aristocratic household, known as the “first for tragedy” in his literary world and planning a major poetic work on the life of St. Paul, we come to the well-documented end of Thomas Kyd.

In 1593, bodies crowded every part of London. Over 10,000 were dead or dying from the plague; hundreds of thousands more survived, but were menaced by the combined effects of monetary inflation and massive unemployment. The urban ills that prompted the Vagrancy Act in 1572 had grown worse as the population increased and the economy faltered.

Englishmen, in a time-honored global tradition that continues today, blamed their troubles on the influx of immigrant workers, in this case mostly Flemish, French and Dutch. Anonymous threats against immigrants, protests against government policy, satire, and incitements to violence were published by posting handwritten or printed documents on walls for all to read. The government called these documents “libels” and in the spring of 1593, libels blossomed on walls across the City.

Dutch ChurchIn May, a libel posted on the wall of the Dutch Churchyard – a Church established in 1550 by King Edward VI for Dutch Protestant refugees, and a center for the Dutch immigrant population in London over the next 50 years -- exasperated Elizabeth’s already anxious Privy Council. A crackdown followed. The Council instructed its officers to go out and search any “chambers, studies, chests and other like places for all manner of writings or papers” that might expose the provocateur.


An unknown person for unknown reasons denounced Thomas Kyd.

Why would Thomas Kyd, steadily employed, sober and industrious, a man without, as far as we can tell, unorthodox religious beliefs or suspicious political associations, be denounced? We have absolutely no idea. But Thomas Kyd, playwright, might have appealed to the Privy Council in any case as a libeler, beyond the government’s urgent need to find a scapegoat, any scapegoat.

Cutbert Simson on the rackThe theater in late sixteenth century London was not the Renaissance equivalent of a Shakespeare production on PBS. It was not regarded with that sort of equanimity, or sometimes boredom, by either the government or the audience. A playwright produced rhetoric meant to arouse the public’s hearts and minds. That power was, in and of itself, dangerous in a state that concerned itself with the contents of its subjects’ hearts and minds. To the Privy Council, the titillating entertainments performed on stage and the scandalous compositions posted on walls might well have belonged to the same disreputable category.

Following his denunciation, Thomas Kyd was arrested and his rooms searched. Though lacking anything associated with the Dutch Churchyard libel, one room, a room he used for his writing and shared with Christopher Marlowe, provided evidence of something worse: blasphemy. Officers found papers with “vile heretical conceits denying the deity of Jesus.” Those “vile conceits” kept Kyd imprisoned in Bridewell. And the Privy Council, not satisfied with his answers, put him on the rack.

His roommate Christopher Marlowe was brought in for questioning and released. Before he could be brought back for further questioning, however, Marlowe was murdered in a tavern brawl. Kyd remained in Bridewell, innocent of the Dutch Churchyard libel and probably of the blasphemy, too. (The papers turned out to be printed pages from a book concerning Unitarianism and might in fact have belonged to Marlowe.)

Kyd was released later that year, his reputation destroyed by his arrest and his body crippled by “undeserved torture” on the rack. His employer refused to take him back and Kyd’s eloquent attempts to reinstate himself or find another patron failed. He died in 1594 at the age of 36.

The Spanish Tragedy dramatizes the ruin of a gifted, industrious commoner, a judge and playwright who served the state. Kyd’s description of the last year of his life might have been written for Hieronimo, two undeserving victims of injustice, both undone by “so bitter times and privie broken passions.”

Kyd’s tragedies spoke to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s words may speak to us on behalf of Thomas Kyd. “Remember me,” says the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This summer, on stage at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, we’ll see why we should.

Sources for “The Life of Thomas Kyd” (all three parts)

Lukas Erne, Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester University Press, 2001)
Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (Clarendon Press, 1967)
Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith, “Myth #2: Shakespeare Was Not Well Educated,” Thirty Great Myths About Shakespeare (Wily-Blackwell, 2013)
Scott McMillan and Sally MacLean, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (Cambridge, 1998)

Other Notes

The first purpose-built theaters in London: recently both The Theater and The Curtain have been excavated. You can read about these archeological discoveries here: . and here:

The dating of The Spanish Tragedy is a controversial scholarly inference; we don't have indisputable documentary evidence. We have a firm grasp on the earliest possible date (1582) and the latest possible date (1592). An argument has been made for every year in between. Personally, I am persuaded by Arthur Freeman’s and Lucas Erne’s arguments made about the significance of an absence. For a play that takes place in Kyd’s version of the contemporary Spanish court, and that includes an incongruous masque about English military victories, the fact that Kyd doesn't include an overt reference to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 suggests that the play was written before 1588. As Erne says, “It seems unlikely that Kyd would have brought forward half-invented stories about past English victories over Spain if he could have alluded to the real and recent glory.” (Erne, 56)

Elizabeth I, Tudor EnglandMay 22, 2013 - Post # 2

The Invincible and Fortunate Armada

Thomas Kyd’s biography opens an intriguing window into Tudor England in the 1570s, 80s and 90s.

Kyd was born in 1558, the year Elizabeth became Queen of England; a professional notary, he worked in London theatre as it became a commercial industry in the 1570s, a new and powerful cultural medium comparable in some ways to the emergence of the motion picture industry in Hollywood; The Spanish Tragedy was probably written in 1587, the year Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, was executed for sedition by Elizabeth; The Spanish Tragedy became a big hit, on stage and in print. Kyd was anonymously denounced as a heretic in 1593, arrested, questioned, tortured and released by Elizabeth’s government; he died, a broken man, a year later at the age of 36.

Before I discuss the details of Kyd’s life and the entertainment industry in which he worked, though, I’d like to begin with an overview of the world off-stage, as it were, outside the brand-new purpose-built theatres popping up around London starting in the 1570s.

That world, curiously, reflects a few aspects of our political reality today and makes me think that we’ll find ourselves a responsive audience for Kyd’s play, 400 years after the height of its popularity and influence.

For some, especially the British in the late 19th and early 20th century, Renaissance England was a Golden Age of highly wrought culture, imperial expansion, trade and exploration, a rising merchant class, an emerging nation state with an efficient central government nurturing extraordinary achievements in literature, art and science.

Well, true enough, to a degree. But this image of a peaceful and prosperous England ruled wisely by its first Queen, Elizabeth, grew more ideal and less complicated in retrospect, not coincidentally, as the British Empire, embodied in its second Queen, Victoria, began the process of losing its world dominance.

What we see of London through the window of Thomas Kyd’s life and The Spanish Tragedy is emphatically not a nostalgic vision of the Early Modern origins of British imperial power and culture.

In the 1580s, Elizabethan England made Thomas Kyd and in the 1590s, it unmade him.

The contradictory and dangerous character of Elizabethan England may bear some resemblance to the complicated nature of Bel-Imperia, the aristocratic lover of lower class heroes in The Spanish Tragedy. Her name means the beauty of an empire, but her lovers are murdered for their devotion to her and to the Spanish kingdom; she is driven by restless ambition and revenge until she chooses, finally, a splendid and imperious act of self-destruction on a royal stage.

Bel-Imperia does not represent Queen Elizabeth I; she is not an allegorical character in any simple way, but she may embody some aspects of Thomas Kyd’s perception of the economic, political and cultural forces in Tudor London.

Let’s consider a few of the political developments first. England in the 1580s asserted its imperial ambitions against a formidable set of external and internal threats including terrorism.

Yes, terrorism – our world did not invent this particular kind of warfare. The paranoia this inspires, the reality of implacable enemies and the possibility that you may not recognize them, the fragility of justice, the trauma of violence and loss – all of this was part of the world inhabited by the audience and playwright of The Spanish Tragedy.

Internally, Protestant England feared violence plotted by Jesuit spies (English priests from English families) who, people thought, were legion. The Pope promised spiritual rewards for Catholics who helped overthrow Elizabeth’s government; it was, in other words, a holy war, prosecuted on the English shore by Jesuit cells and abetted by recusant (illegally Catholic) aristocrats in England. Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin, represented the convenient Catholic replacement for Elizabeth and remained a focus for the British insurgency -- as long as Mary was alive, anyway.

Externally, the emerging nations and empires of Europe, Asia, and Africa formed alliances and antagonisms that worked similarly to the tectonic forces that shaped their continents: nations shifted, collided, submerged, broke off and ground past each other -- always in motion -- as the political surface of the world was remade.

For example, on the Mediterranean, Asian and African navies (and pirates) and European navies (and pirates) took turns plundering and slaughtering each other throughout this period. In 1571 (when Kyd was 13), in one of the most important naval battles in history, a European alliance – called, naturally, the Holy Alliance -- defeated the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. In the aftermath, a witness remembered, the ocean was covered with sailors, pieces of ships and – gratifying for the Christian witness – turbans floating among the waves.

17 years later, England faced a terrifying military threat from Spain, an original member of the Holy Alliance. Spain launched its fleet, the “Invincible and Fortunate Armada,” to invade England in 1588, one year after The Spanish Tragedy was written. The two antagonistic military powers of The Spanish Tragedy are Spain and Portugal, united, though, in 1588 against the English enemy. The Armada paused in Spanish-occupied Lisbon to prepare for its final approach to England. In Lisbon, papal representatives blessed the Armada’s banner in a ceremony designed to resemble the blessing of the banner of the Holy Alliance before the Battle of Lepanto. The Spanish thus cast the Protestant English in the role of the Muslim Turks.

15 years after the Armada set sail for England, James I, the Protestant son of the executed Mary Stewart, succeeded Elizabeth as England’s monarch. He pointedly recalled Lepanto in a poem for his Accession Day in 1603, casting himself in the role of triumphant European Christian King. The symbol of the victory of a unified front of European Christians over Ottoman Muslims in 1571 becomes, over the next three decades, a token in a global game of “Capture the Flag,” a standard claimed by a succession of European nations fighting among themselves.

In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo, a faithful servant of the King of Spain, faces and is unnerved by that kind of slippery political reality: the instability of triumph and the arbitrary nature of friends and enemies.

Most of you already know, or have deduced from my sudden jump from the launch of the Spanish Armada to the accession of James I, that the Armada was, in fact, neither invincible nor fortunate.

A freakish storm on the Atlantic wiped out the Spanish fleet during its attack on England. It’s interesting to speculate about that historic turning point. If it were not for that particular weather system in 1588, England would have been invaded, probably occupied and possibly conquered by Spain and, in all likelihood, we would not, in Northern California in 2013, be attending the production of an English play called The Spanish Tragedy.

It might do to have a weather report in the Forest Meadows Amphitheater after each show: high winds offshore and a record cold front moving in.

The key to this portrait of Queen Elizabeth are the two scenes in the windows behind her: the armada sailing for England in the left, and the ships caught in the storm in the right. Note her hand on the globe in a gesture of casual dominance.


Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, Shakespeare: Staging the World (London: The British Museum Press, 2012)
Lukas Erne, Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)
Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon press: 1967)
Michael Novak, “How Europe Escaped Speaking Arabic,” (Orthodoxy Today, 2009:
Christopher Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 1095-1588, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)


May 6, 2013 - First Post

Introduction to The Spanish Tragedy

Last month, I spent a morning talking about Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy with someone who was not required to sit and listen in order to pass a class. That is not something that happens, even to a self-admitted Renaissance drama nerd like me, every day.

Even with people who know the difference between “you” and “thou,” not many care much about or for The Spanish Tragedy, except as a source for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Taming of the Shrew and, above all, Hamlet. Few see The Spanish Tragedy standing in its own harsh light, outside the shadows cast by Shakespeare’s plays and Christopher Marlowe’s glamorous life.

Specifically, I spent that morning last month working with Lesley Currier who believes in The Spanish Tragedy, a play revived numerous times in 16th and 17th century London since its money-making premiere in the 1580s.

Its perennial success probably exasperated companies like Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men. They were busy producing the next generation of sophisticated commercial drama while lines formed down the road to see yet another revival of The Spanish Tragedy. These were paying customers happy to agonize again with poor, mad Hieronimo, the reluctant avenger, who, by turns broken and ferocious, presided over old school theatrical mayhem.

Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and other, lesser known playwrights imitated Kyd’s play, learned from it and frequently made fun of it; The Spanish Tragedy, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, haunted the stages of London in various forms throughout the Renaissance.

After the Restoration, though, the play did not find favor with Neo-Classical sensibilities, who preferred symmetry and emotional reticence. Like Titus Andronicus, which most critics ignored or apologized for until the mid-20th century, The Spanish Tragedy fell out favor for about 350 years, all the way until the 1970s when it began to be produced sporadically in England.

Lesley believes, as I do, that The Spanish Tragedy is a play overdue for its latest revival.

As the dramaturg for this production (think of a dramaturg as the Company’s pocket literature professor), I’d like to explain over the next few weeks in this blog, why we believe in the value of The Spanish Tragedy as entertainment and as compelling, essentially post-modernist drama.

Among other topics, I’ll discuss why we, today, are in some ways an ideal audience for this play, the sympathetic figure of Thomas Kyd, whose unfortunate life bears a few uncanny similarities to his hero, Hieronimo, and the business of commercial drama in 1580s London.

I’d also like to share with you some of the excitement of being part of the Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of The Spanish Tragedy, so different from the classroom and the library where I usually spend my time. You might see some snapshots of rehearsal or eavesdrop with me on the actors’ processing of the text and Lesley reflecting on the challenges of staging The Spanish Tragedy in the 21st century.

In the next post, I’ll consider the violent and unsettled world we see through the window of Thomas Kyd’s life and works.

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