Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy & Plays

Instructor: Pylaar Solomon

Middle/Secondary teacher with college experience. Master's degree in Bilingual Education. Fluent in Spanish and English.

Learn about The Spanish Tragedy, and the different plays written by Thomas Kyd. Draw knowledge from a short biography about his life and times. Finally, quiz yourself to see how much you've learned about this preeminent author.

Life of the Author

The Spanish Tragedy, a play from the late 1500's, is attributed to Thomas Kyd. This play is also known as Hieronimo, the name of the main character, and is a classic example of a revenge tragedy. Thomas Kyd was an important English playwright during Elizabethan times, mainly because of this very popular play. He also is said to have written Cornelia, a Senecan tragedy, in 1594. Kyd also worked with and influenced Shakespeare, who is said to have used ideas from Kyd to write his great play, Hamlet.

Portrait of Thomas Kyd
Thomas Kyd in his youth

Until the late 19th century, little was known about Thomas Kyd. It was in 1773 that The Spanish Tragedy was finally recognized and proven to be written by him. He was the son of a London scrivener, and appears to have had a formal primary education. He may have also studied at a tailor's school in London, thus acquiring a learning of the classics, although he never attended the university. Among some of his other plays was a translation of Torquato Tasso's Padre di Famiglia, published as The Householder's Philosophy (1588). Robert Garnier's Cornelia (1594) was also partly written by Kyd. Soliman and Perseda,King Leir, Arden of Feversham and Edward III were four of his other principal works. He worked alongside a number of different playwrights while doing these, but they are considered to be his work based on historical evidence and writing style. He was associated with another playwright, Marlowe, later in life. Unfortunately, they were both accused of heresy and Kyd was tortured and imprisoned. He died in poverty shortly thereafter, unable to recover. He also wrote poetry and some monologues, though none became as famous as The Spanish Tragedy.

Revenge Tragedy

The type of play known as a revenge tragedy originated with Roman tragedies, in particular the play Thyestes. It was written in by Seneca, stoic playwright of the era. Revenge tragedies emphasize the inconsistency of fortune, and tell stories of crime and murder. To be exonerated from a cruel fate, the guilty criminal is either forced to repent or deal with the consequences of previous actions. Typically, the ghost of the murdered party exacts or requests revenge. This device is known as the revenge tragedy. We can see this in Shakespeare's Hamlet, but also in The Spanish Tragedy. In fact, it was The Spanish Tragedy that brought revenge tragedy to Elizabethan audiences first, in 1587. It became wildly popular with many spin offs and even parodies. Previous to this play, Gorboduc, written in 1561 by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, set the precedent for the popularity of tragic plays in England at the time.

Plot Details of The Spanish Tragedy

This play takes place between two different countries, Spain and Portugal. There are a multitude of characters and a highly complex interplay between them. Hieronimo is the protagonist, although he appears first as a minor character. There are numerous other characters, including Bel-Imperia and Andrea, who play the roles of antagonist and revenge-seeking ghost. The play in fact begins with the death of Andrea at the hand of Balthazar. Andrea is a Spanish nobleman, and is fighting against Portugal when he dies at the hand of the Portuguese Balthazar. Don Andrea returns to tell his story and to exact revenge for his untimely death. His ghost exemplifies the elements of the revenge tragedy, which includes the role of a vengeful ghost as a trademark.

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