Dramaturg Mary Ann Koory blogs about THE SPANISH TRAGEDYMary 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 ove

ong been fascinated by the way THE SPANISH TRAGEDYhaunted Shakespeare and the Jacobean dramatists. She will be working with the cast ofTHE 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.

Blog Post #12

Come enjoy the intersection of dramaturgy, poetry and birding for an evening in Forest Meadows. Join me and birder Linda Swanson Saturday night, September 14, 2013, for a bird walk, dinner and talk about birds in Shakespeare, and then, of course, enjoy the rollicking production of A Comedy of Errors. Reservations for dinner need to be made in advance.https://www.marinshakespeare.org/pages/dinner.php download the Bird flyer (pdf)

Blog Post #11

Author Brand Name

j.k RowlingYou may have followed the recent story about J.K. Rowling’s new, non-Harry Potter novel, called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Published in April under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, it dropped like a stone and disappeared into the murky depths of the commercial fiction market, presumably to bob up again, distended by deep discounts, on a remainder table somewhere, as almost all novels by unknown authors tend to do.

Then, in July, an anonymous someone leaked – or sneakily announced – the real author’s identity to a journalist at the London Times. The newspaper hired two experts to analyze the novel using software, and they concluded that there were significant stylistic similarities between Rowling and the pseudonymous Galbraith, including “short words, like articles and prepositions, in distinctive patterns that amount to a kind of authorial fingerprint.” (TIME Magazine) Confronted with statistical analysis, Rowling caved and admitted that she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The Cuckoo’s Calling promptly became an international best-seller, without changing a published word. The only change was our understanding that the words “Robert Galbraith” on the cover now signified “J.K. Rowling.”

I don’t know the specifics of the analyses the London Times paid to have run on The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I imagine they are similar in principle to what Professor Brian Vickers and others have done to the Additions to The Spanish Tragedy to prove that they may have been written by Shakespeare.

And both groups performed these analyses and made these claims, however scrupulously, for surprisingly similar, 21st century reasons: to exploit an author’s brand name, J.K. Rowling and William Shakespeare, respectively.

One intellectual, professional reason for expanding Shakespeare attributions is to expand the frontiers of the academic empire.

The world of Shakespeare criticism is not exactly stem cell research. There are not a universe of radical discoveries waiting to be made. The chances that a moldering manuscript of Cardenio, for instance, will turn up in the walls of a thatched cottage in Stratford are steadily decreasing from slim to none. These 320 lines represent new text to analyze; new contexts for old tropes; new understanding of writing and performing practice; new material on which to build reputations.

A second reason for scholars to be inclined to attribute these lines to Shakespeare is to expand, if you will, the Shakespeare product line to include a superb speech. Hieronimo’s speech beginning “It is neither as you think . . .” is ironic, psychologically complex and moving: qualities we especially value and would feel comfortable attributing to Shakespeare. It’s a kind of circular logic: this speech is great, Shakespeare is great, therefore, these lines must be Shakespeare’s.

This inclination is in marked contrast to the discussion around Donald Foster’s attribution of a poem called “A Funeral Elegy” to Shakespeare in 1996, a claim he based on computerized stylometric analysis. It was a fairly pedestrian poem, and critics objected more or less on those grounds.

By 2003, Foster humbly withdrew the claim. The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, and published in 1997, in the meantime, included “A Funeral Elegy” in an appendix as possibly by Shakespeare. That editorial choice now appears as a kind of publishing curiosity.

The old arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus Andronicus showed the same bias in reverse: how can this brutal, over-the-top revenge tragedy be part of the Shakespeare Brand? It really doesn’t complement the rest of the line. (It turns out that Titus Andronicus may in fact, according to Vickers, be a collaborative effort, though Shakespeare nonetheless wrote most of it.)

Another, far more cynical reason to attribute an anonymous or pseudonymous text to a famous author — like J.K. Rowling — is to sell more books.

It would be a boon to publishers of Shakespeare’s Complete Works to add another 320 lines to the canon. It makes every previous edition of the Complete Works more accurately The Incomplete Works and therefore obsolete.

I imagine a wholesale product replacement similar to what happened after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. New world maps and globes were needed to reflect the new borders and names of Eastern Europe. Rand McNally couldn’t have been happier.

The Bankside (nee Riverside) Complete Works is due to come out in 2016 and these 320 lines represent a marketing coup. (Heed Greenblatt’s example, Bankside editors: no matter how you hedge your Spanish Tragedy bet, you will run the same risk.)

The major difference between the motivation for the style analysis of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling and J.K. Rowling, and the similar style analysis of the author of the printed Additions to The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s plays is that Rowling is alive and, under pressure of such evidence, can be made to admit to her authorship.

That admission, forced or hypocritical, is selling lots of books

Shakespeare, of course, cannot admit or deny anything.


“Rowling Thunder: Harry Potter’s Creator Rocks The Book World, Again,” Lev Grossman, TIME Magazine, July 29, 2013

Jennifer Schuessler , Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare?,” New York Times, August 12, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/13/arts/further-proof-of-shakespeares-hand-in-the-spanish-tragedy.html

Brian Vickers, “Shakespeare and Authorship Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 62:1, Spring 2011, 106-142 DOI: 10.1353/shq.2011.0004

Blog Post # 10 – August 15, 2013

Literary Cold Case

sahkespeares handwriting , maybeMonday, the New York Times ran a story about an authorial fingerprint in the 320 lines of The Spanish Tragedy that we know Thomas Kyd did not write: the so-called Additions that appeared in the 1602 Quarto, 8 years after Kyd’s death.

That Kyd did not write these Additions is the factual anchor in roughly 200 years of an otherwise fluid collection of scholarly research, analysis, hopeful speculation and fantasies about William Shakespeare and his relationship to The Spanish Tragedy.

The New York Times reported that Professor Douglas Bruster compared the pattern of Shakespeare’s idiosyncratic spelling from the five pages of his handwriting that we possess and the errant typography of the printed Additions and concluded that the typesetters for the Additions might in fact have been working from a manuscript written in handwriting similar to Shakespeare’s.

Bruster is building on a more global argument advanced by Professor Brian Vickers last year. Vickers applied software analysis of three-word phrases, an algorithm that incorporates the linguistic theory that we tend to compose in “chunks” of language, that individuals use repetitive phrases in particular contexts in unique patterns. Vickers also, unlike other analysts, compared the Additions to the texts of a substantial number of Early Modern dramas to eliminate the logical possibility that linguistic patterns may be similar to Shakespeare’s but even more similar to someone else’s.

The analyses are fascinating and a case of scrupulous, imaginative literary detective work. The results, however, are still only indicative, not conclusive.

Some Evidence For and Against Jonson

Ben JohnsonBen Jonson has been the leading candidate for these Additions for some time.
I personally have inclined toward Jonson as the author of these Additions because of these lines from the printed Additions:

Why might not a man love a calf as well?
Or melt in passion o’er a frisking kid,
As for a son?

This is from a superb soliloquy by Hieronimo that begins, “Tis neither as you think, nor as you think . . . 

You may remember this from the Marin Shakespeare Company’s production, when Julian Lopez-Morillas enters with Horatio’s slippers in his hands. It was one of several highlights of Lopez-Morillas’ performance as Hieronimo.

Now, imagine that you are a playwright who’s been asked to ginger up Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy for a revival. Might you not include a sly and slighting reference to the original author, as a way of showing off? You might, especially if you are Ben Jonson, known for the high opinion you have of your own work.

I read that phrase, “frisking kid,” as a wink at the name of Thomas Kyd by whomever wrote the Additions.

Johnson's poemI also read that phrase as a potential sign of Jonson’s handiwork, because in a poem by Jonson in the front of the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, he praises Shakespeare for outdoing his contemporaries with these words: “how far thou didst our Lily outshine,/Or sporting Kid, or Marlowe’s mighty line.”

“Sporting Kid” echoes “frisking kid,” and, I think, might represent Jonson’s recycling of a phrase he used in an Addition to Kyd’s play some twenty years previously.

But, of course, it could also be an echo of someone else’s phrase from the Addition, perhaps even an intentional, ironic echo of Shakespeare’s phrase in a poem praising Shakespeare.

Up to this point, one persuasive piece of evidence for Jonson is that in 1601, impresario Philip Henslowe paid Jonson for writing additions to The Spanish Tragedy. The Additions came out a year later in 1602. It has seemed likely, even obvious, that the additions Henslowe paid Jonson for are the Additions printed in 1602.

Vickers, however, moves the date of the Additions from 1601 to 1599 on the basis of a reference to the Additions in another play (Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston). If true, that means that either Jonson wrote more than one set of additions to The Spanish Tragedy, or that someone else wrote the printed Additions. The 1602 printed Additions, in other words, do not represent the only additions ever made to the play or the only ones Jonson ever wrote.

The strongest argument against Jonson as the author of the printed Additions is the hardest to prove: many critics over the years, whose stylistic judgment is considerably more organic, intuitive and accurate than linguistic software analysis has yet to achieve, find the Additions to be written in a style uncharacteristic of Jonson and suggestive of Shakespeare.

Without being a Jonson expert myself, I tend to see the point. But I wonder if, given Jonson’s contempt for old-fashioned plays, especially The Spanish Tragedy, he might not have written more roughly (in meter and rhetorical structure) and more emotionally than his usual style? I grant absolutely that we have unique linguistic voices – but we do not also have the capacity to vary that voice, in mimicry or parody? The Additions might have been a witty parody, a personal protest against hack work that became a highly effective speech that he would never have been able to write in his own voice.

Why Would Shakespeare Write the Additions in 1599?

Vickers clarifies the investigation by changing the timeline, but does not resolve a crucial objection that I have to Shakespeare as the author.

Why would Shakespeare, a partner in the Chamberlain’s Men, write speeches for The Spanish Tragedy? Only, I think, if the Chamberlain’s Men were reviving it, and he and they might profit from an updated version. But we have no evidence that they did.

The evidence that we do have suggests that in the 1590s and early 1600s, The Spanish Tragedy was closely associated with Edward Alleyn and the Admiral’s Men who performed at the Rose, not at the Globe. Vickers cannot show evidence that Shakespeare’s company performed The Spanish Tragedy in 1599, or in any other year. He shows only that, at some point in his career, Richard Burbage, the leading actor of the Chamberlain’s Men, played Hieronimo. Burbage’s career was under way whenThe Spanish Tragedy premiered and Burbage might have played Hieronimo at some point in the seven years before he formed the Chamberlain’s Men.

In 1599, the Globe Theatre, the showcase venue for the Chamberlain’s Men, was built. In 1599, Shakespeare and Burbage had been sharers in the Chamberlain’s Men for four years. In 1599, Shakespeare’s name was being printed on the title page of his own plays. Why would he anonymously provide lines for another company’s performance of Kyd’s play?

It may be that the Chamberlain’s Men revived The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare wrote Additions for it and we simply do not have records to prove it.

But it also may be that they did not, and Shakespeare did not.

This new work by Vickers and Bruster moves us forward, but not – yet – to a conclusion.


Jennifer Schuessler , “Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare?,” New York Times, August 12, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/13/arts/further-proof-of-shakespeares-hand-in-the-spanish-tragedy.html

Douglas Bruster, “Shakespearean Spellings and Handwriting in the Additional Passages printed in the 1602 Spanish Tragedy,”Notes and Queries (July 29, 2013)

Brian Vickers, “Identifying Shakespeare’s Additions to The Spanish Tragedy (1602): A New (er) Approach.” Shakespeare, 8:1, 13 -143 (May 8, 2012) http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17450918.2012.660283

Brian Vickers, “Shakespeare and Authorship Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 62:1, Spring 2011, 106-142 DOI: 10.1353/shq.2011.0004

“Seeing the Fingerprints of Other Hands in Shakespeare,” William S. Niederkorn, New York Times, September 2, 2003

Post #9 – July 31, 2013

A snoodA Note On Liming Birds

Lorenzo gleefully rejoices in the manipulation of his dupes Pedringano and Balthazar with a metaphor based on trapping songbirds:

I set the trap, he breaks the worthless twigs
And sees not that wherewith the bird was lim’d.
Thus hopeful men, that mean to hold their own,
Must look like fowlers to their dearest friends.


“Fowler” in this speech refers to a bird-hunter who traps birds using “birdlime.” Pedringano, the victim in Lorenzo’s metaphor here, earlier describes himself as a bird-hunter, too, when he stands in wait with his pistol to shoot Serberine in the back: “Here comes the bird that I must seize upon!” (3.3.28) The fowler shortly thereafter becomes the trapped bird, a role reversal that happens frequently – and always violently – in The Spanish Tragedy.

In contrast to the practice of catching birds with lime, shooting the victim in the back seems significantly more humane.

The fowler sets sticks covered in “birdlime,” very sticky glue, where birds perch. As Dan Rhoad, wild life advocate, describes it, “Any bird landing on a lime-stick becomes stuck, falls upside down, and as it flutters to free itself it becomes progressively more attached to the stick. The birds do not usually die quickly: this is a long, lingering death, which may only occur when the trapper arrives to cut their throats or crush their heads.” http://migration.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/limesticks-and-mist-nets/

Can you see that Lorenzo is rejoicing in a cruel deception, one that causes its victims a “lingering death” and uses their own efforts to escape to increase their suffering and tighten the trap?

Shakespeare uses this image several times.

For instance, Iago, a direct descendant of the Machiavellian Lorenzo, explains to Desdemona why he takes so long to come up with a witty response: “my invention/Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze;/It plucks out brains and all.” (Othello, 2.1.127) Iago means that he pulls ideas out of his head (“pate”) with as much difficulty as birdlime (and its limed victim) comes off the woolen cloth wrapped around the stick; when he pulls out the idea, his brains come out with it.

Why would Iago use such a harsh and awkward image while bantering with Desdemona? It’s a deliberate irony: he is about to trap her in a set of lies designed so that the more energetically Desdemona tries to do the right thing, the worse she looks.

Shakespeare obviously had seen birds caught in this trap and, even if he lacked our cultural objection to such practices and enjoyed eating the results, his imagination nonetheless appreciated the suffering it inflicted and the deception it employed. Shakespeare and Kyd use images of birdliming to describe suffering and cruel deceptions; like harmless songbirds, innocent women or their melancholy lovers were often the metaphorical victims of these traps.

My colleague, Linda Swanson, a composition instructor at SFSU and longtime birder, attended Friday’s performance with me. Intrigued by Lorenzo’s metaphor, she researched birdliming. She discovered that birdliming is still current today, especially in Cyprus, where migrating songbirds are decimated every year.

Remember that the second half of Othello takes place in . . . yes, Cyprus.

Judging from the numerous bird images in their plays, Kyd’s and Shakespeare’s London was filled with birds. While I sit in the audience of the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, I am aware of the natural surroundings; at rehearsal once, I saw a doe and her fawn spring across the creek and run backstage. The trees, of course, are part of the setting, and the moon and the stars, but the birds, too, are present, in the air and in Kyd’s words.

Horatio compliments Bel-Imperia in a gallant couplet:

Hark, madam, how the birds record by night
For joy that Bel-Imperia sits in sight. 

Nuttall's Woodpecker“Record” here means birds singing a tune quietly; my guess is that the verb is related to the flute-like instrument called the “recorder.” I have heard birds “record” during performances of the play. They do not seem to care at all that Kyd uses birdsong as ironic foreshadowing, the poetic equivalent of minor chords in a movie soundtrack.

Linda tells me she heard a Nuttall’s Woodpecker just before the play began. She says, “The creek makes for good bird habitat. Patrons may want to visit the wooden bridge at the creek as they arrive and look for various bird species and wildlife. September is songbird migration time, when birds travel south.” She says you may see Oak Titmouse, Brown Creeper, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, nuthatch, wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow Warbler, and Song Sparrow, among other species.

Birds and Early Modern Drama are a natural combination. Enjoy.

Other resources:

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, wrote an article for the National Geographic on the annual slaughter of songbirds crossing the Mediterranean. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/songbird-migration/franzen-text

The plague of starlings in North America are a direct result of Americans reading Shakespeare: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Pesky-starlings-endanger-planes-damage-crops-3217891.php

Post #8 – July 28, 2013 [F.A.Q]

A snoodLesley and I were at Book Passage (www.bookpassage.com) on Monday night talking about The Spanish Tragedy. We had a great audience, about 30 people, half of whom had already seen the production; they asked some good questions. I’ll share a couple of the questions I’ve received over the last few weeks and attempt a few answers.

1. If The Spanish Tragedy was so popular, then why, after the theatres closed in 1642, did it drop off the face of the earth until the 1970s?

People who haven’t seen the production yet, who are perhaps drinking some wine with me before the show and feeling anxious about various events I have dragged them to over the years, will put this question as a polite way of asking whether this play, one that profoundly influenced Shakespeare and pleased audiences continuously for over 50 years, simply outlived its entertainment value, like snoods or bull-baiting.

Significantly, after the show, I have heard the same question, asked very differently, “Why isn’t this play produced more often? That was great!”Neo Classical Architecture

I think Kyd’s play stayed off stage because, after the Restoration, people wanted art to reflect their belief – or hope – in a meaningful order underlying reality, one that is beautiful, well-balanced and follows a set of rules, a Neoclassical aesthetic suited to a culture that restored a monarchy.

Shakespeare’s plays, not at all Neoclassical, were staged immediately after the Restoration, but not in versions that we would recognize. The plays called “Shakespeare’s” were revised to reflect the 18th century taste for happy endings and poetic justice, even in tragedies. Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, for instance, held the stage for 150 years and ended with Cordelia, very much not hanged, marrying Edgar, with the blessings of her (heart ticking along just fine) father.

Sacrilege from our point of view, but one that kept Shakespeare’s plays in circulation until audiences were ready to watch versions of the originals.

And perhaps no amount of revision could make The Spanish Tragedy suitable for the 18th and 19th centuries.

Think of Balthazar’s objection to putting on a tragedy as royal entertainment for his wedding. “Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.” (4.1.155)

Balthazar, in his conventionality and desire for happy endings, may very well speak for 425 years of mainstream theatre audiences’ reaction to The Spanish Tragedy.

2. You talk a lot about the history of the play. Am I going to The Spanish Tragedy because it has historical significance or because it has some aesthetic value for us today?

Lesley answered this question succinctly: “I hope you’ll go and enjoy the show because of what it is right now, without knowing anything about the history!”

I agree. I think audiences have been enjoying The Spanish Tragedy this summer because our cultural moment “rests in unrest;” our sense of the structure of reality matches Kyd’s perspective on the 1580s. 425 years later, we have cycled away from symmetry, back to an aesthetic preference for violence, ambiguity and irony. “Kill Bill” anyone? “Pulp Fiction”?

High profile criminal trials reach verdicts that seem to many Americans to be completely unjust; our government has reached new lows of dysfunctionality. Financial markets and politics are manipulated by exceptionally intelligent, greedy, and power-hungry villains. The new series “House of Cards” pits a cast of Machiavellian politicians against each other, and we love it.

The villain Lorenzo gives his servant instructions for some piece of deviousness and warns him: “But sirrah, see that this be cleanly done.” (4.4.77) The Neoclassic aesthetic, like Lorenzo’s, prefers art that is “cleanly done.”

We, on the other hand, have far less faith in providence and the power of human intellect to impose order on reality. We seem to prefer that art be messy, arranged according to a disorderly order, which, though it may result in beauty at times, does so almost accidentally.

This chaotic moment in history and culture is perfect for appreciating The Spanish Tragedy.

3. Why is Revenge cast as a young girl?

For the Greeks, revenge was a goddess named Nemesis (the daughter of Night and the primal god of the underworld); for the Romans, Nemesis became the goddess Revenge, in a couple of different incarnations. Lesley noticed that Classical representations of Revenge showed her as a young girl, and she wanted to play with that idea.

Post #7 – July 15, 2013

New-Fangled Things

Opening Night Press Party

Friday was Opening Night for The Spanish Tragedy. As I stood around, sipping a nice California Sauvignon Blanc at the tailgate press party, I was asked what I did as a dramaturg (besides stand around and sip free wine was the unspoken implication, but drama critics as a whole, I discovered, are a polite bunch). As I began my usual explanation – the company’s pocket lit professor, a resource for questions about the text – I considered the differences between the “press” on Opening Night of The Spanish Tragedy in 2013 and The Spanish Tragedy’sassociation with the “press” in the Renaissance.

In 1587, it goes without saying, there would have been no tailgate party for the press, as neither trucks with tailgates nor the press existed. (And goodness knows, no California wine. A pity.)

Commercial news-type publications produced on paper by printing presses would not emerge for another 100 years. The word “press” metaphorically transfers the name for the actual machine that reproduces words on paper, the printing press, to the professionals who create the words that are printed by the machine. The members of the “press” at the tailgate party work for publications that, after 300 years or so, are no longer produced by mechanical printing presses. The name for members of the profession persists today after the machine and its products have become obsolete.

In 2013, publishing operates on digital information technology and as a result, the news media, as a business and a social function, are on the cusp of radical change. In one of the historical intersections that make this moment so apt for watching The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd’s play also premiered at a moment when information technology and the business of publishing were on the cusp of radical change.

When The Spanish Tragedy premiered on stage in around 1587, the mechanical printing press enabled brand new information technology, much as digital publishing and social media do for us: the printed book, broadsides, and pamphlets were all novel, powerful media.And the new printed media were greeted by Londoners with a familiar mixture of hype and suspicion.

Down at the Bull and Bear

Perhaps under the influence of the aforementioned Sauvignon Blanc, I imagined a scene down at the local Bull and Bear, circa 1595, where a group of older men lift a few pints together and complain about the younger generation and its new reading habits.

“Apprentices these days,” complains one crusty gentleman. “Always hanging about those shady book-sellers. Doing what, I ask you?”

“Reading books,” answer his friends in a gloomy chorus. “Ay, and not like they can afford it neither,” remarks one.

“Not on what you pay them, Jem.” There is laughter and another round before someone else picks up the lament.
“You say a word to them when they have those things in their hands and they don’t even look up from the pages,” harrumphed a mostly illiterate fellow. “All this page-turning. It’s anti-social, I tell you.”

“And the things they read,” adds another. “Poetry? Ha. Snowy bosoms all over the place.”
“Sonnet book this, sonnet book that. A ballad, now, that’s poetry for you,” said another, humming “Sir Patrick Spens” to himself.

“And that’s not the worst of it.” The first man joins the discussion again, and lowers his voice. The others lean in across the table, looking forward to hearing the worst. “The lads are reading poetry in . . . French!” The group sits back, shocked. “French?”

“Ay, French. Or,” he adds, throwing out a previously unimaginable extreme, “even Italian sometimes.”

They drink in grim silence, their worst suspicions about the “sonnet book” world confirmed. This new-fangled book-reading was indeed the end of civilization as they knew it.

Meanwhile, Back in San Rafael

In a less dramatic style, let me explain how the history of Kyd’s play demonstrates a change in the media for plays.

Before the 1590s, complete copies of plays existed in one (perhaps two) handwritten manuscripts owned by the acting company; plays were available to the public only in performance. In the 1580s, Kyd and other playwrights literally wrote their plays by hand and wrote them out again, by hand, to make copies for actors and producers.

In 1591 or 92, some entrepreneurial printer had a brainstorm: let’s print a play and sell it as a book. After that, many popular plays were printed and sold as books to a brand-new market.

Actors functioned as human books of a sort during this transition. Some editions of Shakespeare plays, we think, are the result of an actor carrying his role in his head until a printer, smelling profit but without a precious handwritten copy, got hold of him and transcribed his memory.

(I wonder if plays eventually began to be written differently when they became objects that could be read slowly and carefully, rather than the material for a performance that was largely auditory and ephemeral. How would TV shows, for instance, change, if their scripts also became best-selling books? Will movies reflect our relatively new practice of watching them repeatedly and privately?)

The Spanish Tragedy 1615 QuatroIn 1592, the year before Kyd died, Abel Jeffes printed The Spanish Tragedy in a quarto edition, the first in the wave of plays printed as books in London. In fact, Jeffes’s edition pre-empted the pirated version of another printer, Edward White. The Spanish Tragedy was a hot property for the new printing presses, a sure fire best-seller, popular and profitable enough to warrant piracy and the fines that went along with it.

Thomas Kyd, however, did not profit from the opportunities represented by the printed book. Like his father, Kyd earned a living in the traditional profession of producing legal documents by hand: he was a notary or a scrivener. The printing press spelled the eventual demise of that profession (though not in his lifetime). The press did not provide any compensatory profit to him in his new profession as playwright, either. Though the printed editions of The Spanish Tragedy were the most numerous of any play in Tudor England, Kyd died, badly in need of funds, shortly after the second printed edition of the play.

As books, plays generated profit, but only for the acting companies who sold the manuscript to the printers, and for the printers who sold books to readers. Playwrights were paid once, when they turned the manuscript over to the company for performance.

Look at the image of the title page to the 1615 quarto edition that I’ve attached. The title of the play, a little performance blurb, a fine woodcut and below, three lines of who printed it and where to buy it. No author. Each of the ten editions of The Spanish Tragedy lists the printer’s name on the title page, but not one lists the author’s name. Printed plays were the property of the printers.

Once they became books, plays belonged to the “press,” the hard-nosed Early Modern printing entrepreneurs whose technology, eventually, enabled the existence of the polite members of the “press” sipping wine with me in San Rafael on Friday.

Lukas Erne, Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester University Press, 2001)
Scott McMillan and Sally MacLean, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (Cambridge, 1998)

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: http://www.elizabethanauthors.org/hek03.htm

An interesting discussion of Kyd’s life and his quotation of Watson in The Spanish Tragedy.http://mathewlyons.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/thomas-kyd-fragments-of-a-life/

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

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: . http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2008/aug/07/shakespeare.shoreditch?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 and here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/jun/06/shakespeare-curtain-theatre-shoreditch-east-lonfon

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 Tragedybecame 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: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Novak-How-Europe-Escaped-Speaking-Arabic.php)
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.