Forerunners of Elizabethan Tragedy: Thomas Kyd

Today, I am taking a step away from my beloved Regency England to visit a time period, which also fascinates me. With a minor in theatre, I have studied the development of the drama of the period. With Kyd and Marlowe the Elizabethan tragedy took flight.

5784358_f260Thomas Kyd (baptised 6 November 1558; buried 15 August 1594) was an English dramatist, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and one of the most important figures in the development of Elizabethan drama.

Although well known in his own time, Kyd fell into obscurity until 1773 when Thomas Hawkins (an early editor of The Spanish Tragedy) discovered that Kyd was named as its author by Thomas Heywood in his Apologie for Actors (1612). A hundred years later, scholars in Germany and England began to shed light on his life and work, including the controversial finding that he may have been the author of a Hamlet play pre-dating Shakespeare’s.

Kyd was the son of a London scrivener. He attended Merchant Taylors’ school, and although there is no evidence of Kyd having a university education, he was well versed in the classics. He was also known to possess an affinity for French and Italian. When The Spanish Tragedy was published (likely in 1586), the play did not carry Kyd’s name. The only other play known to be associated with Kyd is a translation of Garnier’s CornélieThere are, however, other plays thought to be part of Kyd’s writings: Soliman and Perseda (a romantic tragedy involving a murderous Sultan), Arden of Feversham (the oldest and most powerful of the Domestic Tragedies), and Hamlet (upon which Shakespeare’s play is likely founded).

Tragedies had known popularity in England, but they were academic plays of the Senecan school, plays like Gorboduc, or parodies of tragic actions (see Cambises or Horestes). However, true Elizabethan drama began with Kyd and Marlowe.

spanishtragedy2In the last year of Kyd’s life, his papers were seized by the Privy Council, with the PC believing him the author of anti-alien propaganda. One of the documents reportedly denied the divinity of Christ. Under torture, Kyd swore the document was not his, but rather the property of Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was arrested and later released upon parole, but Thomas Kyd was a ruined man. Kyd wrote a very public letter to the Lord Chancellor, Kyd’s patron, asking the Lord Chancellor to restore his patronage, but no assistance was forthcoming. In poverty, Kyd died the following year.

150px-Spanish-tragedyThe Spanish Tragedy was published before Kyd’s death, coming into print in 1592. The last quarto appeared in 1633. Strange’s company performed the play again and again to packed houses in 1592. The Admiral’s company added it to their repertoire in 1597. Henslowe paid Jonson for additions to the play. The play was known to have a bit of everything: something for the classically taught and something for the general populace. It contains the proud and passionate heroine, Bel-imperia, and the first Machiavellian villain, the lady’s brother, Lorenzo. The most important events of the story are not “reported” and taking place off stage. Instead, Kyd add the action required to entertain those in the audience who lacked an education.

The murder of Horatio is quite graphic, as is the hanging of the tool villain and the murder of a second youth.


About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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