Thomas Kyd stamped his creative genius on the English drama as both an innovator and inventor of revenge tragedy- as a genre. This unit examines his contributions to the English drama during the Elizabethan period. In this unit, special attention is devoted to the idea of revenge tragedy and its elements. This discussion ends with the analysis of his influential play, The Spanish Tragedy.
Thomas Kyd, one of the most important figures in the development of English drama, was the son of a scrivener, Francis Kyd. Born in 1558 in London, he studied at Merchant Taylor School where he became acquainted with French, Spanish, and Italian literatures. Like William Shakespeare, Kyd did not have the opportunity to attend the university
where literary scholars were given training in classical literature. This was the reason the popularity of his play, The Spanish Tragedy sparked off bitter reaction from the ‘University wits’- notably Nashe and Greene. “Nashe and Greene expressed resentment at the rise of dramatists without classical training, who were proving more effective than the University wits”.
However, in spite of the bitter literary jealousy, The Spanish Tragedy enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the Elizabethan period and well beyond the age, its popularity spreading even to Holland and Germany. The idea of Kyd’s popularity in his days is supported by facts, including Ben Jonson’s statement that Kyd belong to the class of John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Thomas Heywood referred to him as “famous Kyd”; while Francis Meres said that his plays are among the best of “our tragedy”.
The Wikipedia states that The Spanish Tragedy” was the most popular play of the “age of Shakespeare and sets new standards in effective plot construction and character development”. Not only that, Kyd inaugurated revenge tragedy as specie of tragedy in England, he was deemed to have written a now lost Hamlet that pre-dated that of Shakespeare. Thomas Kyd wrote other plays and even poems; and some of the plays include Soliman Perseda, Jeromimo, and Arden of Fevershm.
In 1593, Kyd was arrested on suspicion that he was among the group who posted libels against foreigners. His apartment was searched for incriminating evidence, but instead of finding facts against libels, certain tracts considered by investigators as “vile heretical conceits denying the eternal deity of Jesus Christ” (Wikipedia) were found. Although he was eventually released on his testimony that the papers had been left among his effects by Marlowe in 1519, when the two of them used the same room, while in the service of an unidentified lord. Kyd died in August of 1594, perhaps as a result of official manhandling the previous year.
Overview of Tragedy
Before we examine the concept of revenge tragedy said to have been introduced in English drama by Thomas Kyd, it is necessary to take a cursory look at tragedy- of which the revenge type is an aspect. Alvin Schnupp (1993: 225) gives us a very exciting idea about tragedy, including what one may find in its different species when he states as follows:
Tragedy describes a play which deals with subject matter of a serious nature; the material is written in serious mood. Events that transpire within a tragedy have a profound and adverse affect upon a character or set of characters. Tragic figures may be victimised by their own actions, have their beliefs tested, the sincerity of their actions questioned, or the strength of their passions challenged. Although the specifics of a dramatic crisis vary from play to play, tragic characters struggle against overwhelming odds.
Usually as a result of the struggle, the central character suffers emotional or physical pain. In the end, a tragic character may experience a loss of reputation, power or freedom. Ultimately, tragic figures may be forced to adopt a new lifestyle or face death. The suffering experienced by the tragic figure is not relegated to that character alone. Other characters are affected adversely by the misfortune, as well. Unlike the characters, audience members are spared any physical discomfort but they experience emotional pain as they are caught up in the story.
Schnupp’s view on tragedy is quoted in detail because it captures much of what tragedy entails. It explains clearly the mood, subject-matter, character relations as well as the effect of tragedy on character and the audience. In tragic plays, tragic heroes or heroines frequently experience reversal of fortune; moments of recognition. Schnupp sees these moments of recognition as times when tragic figures “perceive themselves or their situation in a new light”. He further states that:
A deepened sense of self-knowledge may occur during these moments or a heightened awareness of people. An issue of human concern may be clarified. Whatever forms this enlightenment takes; it usually comes at the expense of pain. Audience members, privy to the insights perceived by the characters, may experience a similar realisation (228).
Scholars classified tragedy in different forms, including classical and modern, bourgeois, etc. However, for the purpose of this study, we will examine two types of tragedy as classed by Downer (1950). They are De Casibus and revenge tragedy.