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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.

Post #6 - July 8, 2013

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

On stage in The Spanish Tragedy, as you’ll see, the villain Lorenzo keeps a supply of drawstring purses under his doublet to pay for dirty deeds. Lorenzo also has a copious supply of words that, like his gold coins, he uses to corrupt, coerce and manipulate others. At dress rehearsal last week, I was particularly struck by the way Lorenzo mouths Petrarchan love poetry to further his schemes.

1. Beware of Metaphor

Often when characters in The Spanish Tragedy use figurative and eloquent language, it’s a red flag of insincerity. For instance, after Viluppo falsely accuses Alexandro of murder, one of the Portuguese noblemen says to Viluppo:

I had not thought that Alexandro’s heart
Had been envenom’d with such extreme hate.

Villuppo, that liar, agrees and tops the gossiping courtier’s poison metaphor with a cosmic comparison in perfect iambic pentameter: “Far more inconstant had I thought the sun.” (3.1) The comparison is borrowed from Petrarchan love poetry, where the beloved’s beauty and virtue is compared to the light of the sun, e.g., “It is the East and Juliet is the sun.”

The constant sun rises and sets predictably, every day. The next time we see them, Alexandro will rise and Villuppo will fall. Villuppo unintentionally uses an image that dooms him to the next turn of Fortune’s wheel, like the next rotation of the Copernican earth.

When Lorenzo replaces Viluppo as the principal Machiavellian villain in the play, we see that not only is he a better villain, he is a better poet.

English poets learned to write sonnets and courtly love poetry through translating and imitating the 14th century Italian poet Frances Petrarch. Such poetry in the 1580s was fashionable, fancy, ambitious stuff. It was as part of a public performance, a self-display of the poet as a serious artist as well as a witty courtier (one sense of the term “Renaissance man”).

When Balthazar speaks like a clichéd Petrarchan lover (a slave to love, his heart taken by his beloved, etc., conventions that mark this kind of poetry as surely as pick-up trucks and beer mark Country and Western music), we understand that he is a poseur, a prince who thinks of himself as another Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Thomas Wyatt, but who hasn’t the wit.

“My lord,” Lorenzo tells Balthazar after Bel-Imperia brutalizes the Portuguese Prince in wordplay, “let go these ambages.” (“Ambages” means roundabout expressions – significantly, a fancy French word, rather than a straightforward Anglo-Saxon term.) “And in plain terms,” Lorenzo advises him impatiently, “acquaint her with your love.”

You might expect that “plain terms,” a Puritanical value, would indicate solid morality, simple values and a truthful character. In fact, Lorenzo uses mostly plain speech to further his evil plans.

Words, poetic or plain, are levers and Lorenzo uses whichever style works best in the moment.

2. The Language of Love and Watson’s Sonnet

Balthazar is pretentious and incompetent in his courting of Bel-Imperia, especially in contrast to her intelligence and resolution. But Balthazar does not need to woo Bel-Imperia nor do they need to be well-matched: the marriage between them is so politically advantageous that, like it or not, she will be “ruled by her friends,” as the King puts it. Balthazar’s lovesickness and Bel-Imperia’s hostility are equally irrelevant to the political forces operating around them.

The language of love is frosting on the wedding cake that both bride and groom will have to eat.

Lorenzo opens Act 2, scene 1 with a direct quote from a sonnet written by Thomas Watson, a well-known playwright and poet of the 1580s and possibly a colleague of Kyd’s from the Queen’s Men. Lorenzo advises Balthazar to have patience in seducing his sister, and then recites four lines from one of Watson’s 18-line sonnets (Hekatompathia 47, published in 1582):

In time the savage bull sustains the yoke,
In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure,
In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak,
In time the flint is pierced with softest shower.

Balthazar responds with a version of the couplet that follows in Watson’s poem:

No, she is wilder, and more hard withal,
Than beast, or bird, or tree, or stony wall.

Uttered by a male lover about a female beloved, Watson’s lines mix genders and animals and inanimate objects (a male bull, a female hawk, a phallic tree, and a stone, Dante’s usual description of his beloved’s heart). The images are a metaphorical hodge-podge of domination and physical damage. It is, from my perspective, difficult to see why Watson’s poems were so widely admired in his time.

I think Shakespeare reacts to the difficulties of Watson’s poem when he quotes the first line of this sonnet – or, just as likely, quotes Kyd quoting this sonnet – in the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare applies the bull image to Benedick, thus straightening out the gender confusion, and has Benedick bitterly object to the emasculating implications of the image. Benedick, like Lorenzo, understands that this poem actually describes desire as a series of inevitable and reluctant submissions to force.

Kyd’s quotation may have been a contemporary shout-out to an esteemed colleague, a tribute that also makes Kyd look well-read and up-to-the-minute. It might have been praise, from one poet to another, putting Watson on the same level as Petrarch whom Kyd also quotes (in Hieronimo’s great speech, “eyes, no eyes”).

It might also have been a sly critique of Watson, a demonstration of the villainous dramatic possibilities of Watson’s love poetry.

When Romeo and Juliet speak alternating quatrains of a sonnet together (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand”), we see that they have fallen in love. Shakespeare uses a love sonnet (his own) in the conventional spirit of that form. It’s still, in other words, a love poem. When Balthazar and Lorenzo trade lines from Watson’s sonnet, we see that the two men have fallen into an evil dependency to force marriage on Bel-Imperia.

Romeo and Juliet’s sonnet proposes that the lovers are, at some level, pilgrims searching for a spiritual, mutual love. Directly after the allusions to Watson’s sonnets, Lorenzo says to Balthazar, “My lord, for my sake, leave these ecstasies,” a snide comment on the spiritual pretensions of Petrarchan poetry (like Bel-Imperia’s sarcastic, “the Prince is meditating higher things”). Kyd uses Watson’s love poetry in a dramatic context that emphasizes forced submission and the absence of spiritual love.

If love poetry isn't working, then, Lorenzo implies, let’s stop this sonneteering, which is annoying anyway, and do something practical, like bribe your beloved’s servant and find out why she isn’t interested. He moves from words as tools to coins as tools in matter of a few lines.

Kyd uses Watson’s book of love sonnets as his dramatic coin purse; the playwright pulls lines out of it and uses them as any Machiavel would: to serve the purposes of his plot.


Watson’s Poetry:

An interesting discussion of Kyd’s life and his quotation of Watson in The Spanish Tragedy.

Andrew Gurr’s notes to The Spanish Tragedy in the New Mermaids edition (London: Methuen Drama, 2009)

June 27 2013- Post #5

Mind The Gap

When I arrived at our first rehearsal in the Amphitheater the other week, I expected to experience Peter Brook’s Empty Space. “I can take any empty space,” he says, “and call it a bare stage.” (Brook, 9) But what I actually saw was an ordinary work space; it was full, and the seats in the audience were empty; we were on a stage but not on stage.

We sat on the thrust, or the front part of the stage, the edge resting on the first few rows of seating. Looking out, I saw bench seats angling up to the fence that divides the theater from the college campus, and over that, to the backlit trees and the dimming sky. Behind us, a dumpster, a tool shed, carpenters’ benches, power tools, assorted pulleys, and a stack of painted flats from previous shows were set on dirt, and behind them were shadowy bushes and berry brambles.

The stage, usually enclosed by sets and isolated by intense light, felt bigger to me than in a production: my eyes moved from the stage to the campus to the woodsy meadows of inland Marin County. The stage, curiously, also felt smaller, because it looked exactly like what it was, an ordinary part of a larger outdoor space, a clearing of dirt and scuffed plywood.

Signs in the London Underground advise passengers to “Mind the gap.” The “gap” refers to the empty space between the train and the platform (a stage-like structure). On the first night of rehearsal, we occupied that kind of empty space; we sat in the place that is neither stationary nor in motion. In performance, the company and the audience have stepped over the gap and into the train, as it were; the empty space stays at the margins, surrounding center stage, invisible at the edge of the thrust and behind the sets.

That first night, one actor cautioned the assembled troupe to pay attention to the edge of the stage. People fall off the stage, he said, much too often. Of course actors fall off the stage: it’s tricky to move between two worlds, the imaginary and the physical, like changing trains.

Theatre flat depicting CleopatraPainted on the top of the flats behind us was an ancient Egyptian queen. She looked at us sideways from under her black bangs, a regal cartoon from the 2010 set of Marin Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. This flat was a relic from a palace in Shakespeare’s version of Alexandria and it was about to become part of a palace in Kyd’s version of 16th century Spain.

The painting had that characteristically ancient Egyptian dual perspective: one eye in profile while the torso faces out squarely. I thought of her as a kind of Janus figure (hoping she’d forgive the Roman irony). Two-faced Janus looked forward and backwards simultaneously; he presided over gateways and beginnings (hence our name for the first month of the year). He was, we might say, God of the Gap.

Cleopatra, as Shakespeare imagined her, was a creature of theater. Shakespeare’s actual Queen, Elizabeth I, also understood politics as theater. “We princes,” Elizabeth declared, “are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world.”

Dangerous to be set in the view of all the world; but more dangerous to move off stage and out of sight of the world, to negotiate the gap between having power and losing it. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, on stage among the ruins of her world, asks: “Know you what Caesar means to do with me?” (A&C, 5.2.105)

It is a purely rhetorical question. She knows.

Caesar intends to parade her, the relic of Egypt’s greatness, through the streets of Rome to demonstrate -- publically, spectacularly, theatrically -- the triumph of his empire over hers. (In the end, the diva Cleopatra refuses to play that part.) Caesar’s triumph will be, in the long run of history, temporary. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, after all, sets the Roman Empire on stage after its fall, for the entertainment of another expansive empire, this one British. We set Shakespeare’s – and Kyd’s – plays, relics of the Early Modern British Empire, on our stage. And we do so, at least in part, to assert the high cultural triumph of another expansive global empire, this one ours.

At the edge of the Forest Meadows stage, the cartoon queen waits for this summer’s monarch to be painted over her scepter and her face. Until then, our Janus, she aptly presides over the beginning of The Spanish Tragedy.


Brook, Peter. The Empty Space (New York: Touchstone, 1968)

June 20 2013- Post #4

The Safety Meeting

Last Tuesday evening, about 30 of us sat outside on white plastic patio chairs around rectangular heavy-duty folding tables, the kind you see in student centers everywhere, arranged in a square on a plywood platform. The wood was bare except for scuffs, smears of paint, and cryptic marks in florescent spray paint, like the ones that appear on the street before the jackhammers. Three-ring binders and water bottles were at each seat, along with a few box dinners and reading glasses.

It was the first rehearsal of The Spanish Tragedy on the stage in the Forest Meadow Amphitheater. To me, it seemed genteel and workman-like, more like the end-of-year picnic and parent-teacher meeting for, say, a Marin County co-op, than the start of an extended run of theatrical illusion.

First on the agenda, after introductions and welcomes, was the prosaic business of the company, an Actors Equity Association meeting and a California State-mandated safety meeting.

As a trade organization, Actors Equity might have made sense to the beleaguered professional actors of Kyd’s time. But what, I wondered, would the Admiral’s Men, for example, working in a scarcely de-criminalized profession, have made of Philip Henslowe calling a meeting to encourage safety-consciousness in the assembled cast and point out the emergency exits?

“Remember to keep hydrated, because, as the poet says, ‘sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.’ Ha, ha. But seriously, help yourselves to the keg of small beer in the corner, thanks to our sponsor, the Elephant Inn down the street. Speaking of which, mind the swords, gentlemen, they’re weapons grade. Best not touch props that don’t belong to you. Noli me tangere, get it? And, in conclusion, if you’re ever feeling peckish, let management know right away. We’re here to help.”

Not a likely scenario.

Dehydration, regular meal breaks and injuries from stage movement were the actors’ own lookout in Early Modern England. So were injuries from the “stones, apples, oranges and nuts” that “flew about most liberally” from certain audiences on certain occasions (Gurr, 151). (“Have a care, lads, apprentices out there tonight.”) Not to mention, of course, corporal punishment, torture and hanging, the legal consequences of noncompliance with government regulations in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Fire would have also been a real danger for actors and audiences, especially in wooden indoor theaters, because oil lamps were placed around the edge of the stage for stage lighting. (We think, by the way, that companies divided plays into acts starting in the 17th century, not for artistic reasons, but to create pauses to trim smoking wicks. Before 1600 or so, plays ran straight through without breaks and were not usually written in acts. See Tiffany Stern, below.)

Outdoor theaters were not exempt from fire, however. In 1613, the Globe Theatre burned to the ground when sparks from a real cannon, fired as part of the sound effects for Henry VIII, ignited the thatch on the overhanging roof.

The Globe management’s emergency plan was simple:

  1. run and save your necks;
  2. run and save the company’s valuable collection of play-books and costumes. (Such a loss might have bankrupted the King’s Men.)

This eye-witness account of the Globe’s destruction shows a somewhat detached attitude toward safety measures: “Only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would have perhaps have broiled him, if he had not, by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with bottle ale.” (in Greenblatt, 380-81.)

In case of fire, in other words, keep your wits about you and a bottle of ale.

To the best of my recollection, these were not Lesley Courier’s instructions during last week’s Safety Meeting.

More about our first rehearsals in the next entry.


Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004)
Gurr, Andrew, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574 – 1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970)
Stern, Tiffany, Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (London: Routledge, 2004)

1st rehearsal- Spanish Tragedy

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