The Spanish Tragedy is a play written by Thomas Kyd that very closely follows the dramatic conventions of revenge in Elizabethan theater. All revenge tragedies originally stemmed from the Greeks, who wrote and performed the first plays. After the Greeks came Seneca who was very influential to all Elizabethan tragedy writers. Seneca who was Roman, basically set all of the ideas and the norms for all revenge play writers in the Renaissance era including William Shakespeare.
The two most famous English revenge tragedies written in the Elizabethan era were Hamlet, written by Shakespeare and The Spanish Tragedy, written by Thomas Kyd. These two plays used mostly all of the Elizabethan conventions for revenge tragedies in their plays. Hamlet especially incorporated all revenge conventions in one way or another, which truly made Hamlet a typical revenge play. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of many heroes of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage who finds himself grievously wronged by a powerful figure, with no recourse to the law, and with a crime against his family to avenge.”
Seneca was among the greatest authors of classical tragedies and there was not one educated Elizabethan who was unaware of him or his plays. There were certain stylistic and different strategically thought out devices that Elizabethan playwrights including Shakespeare learned and used from Seneca’s great tragedies. The five act structure, the appearance of some kind of ghost, the one line exchanges known as stichomythia, and Seneca’s use of long rhetorical speeches were all later used in tragedies by Elizabethan playwrights.
Some of Seneca’s ideas were originally taken from the Greeks when the Romans conquered Greece, and with it they took home many Greek theatrical ideas. Some of Seneca’s stories that originated from the Greeks like Agamemnon and Thyestes which dealt with bloody family histories and revenge captivated the Elizabethans. Seneca’s stories weren’t really written for performance purposes, so if English playwrights liked his ideas, they had to figure out a way to make the story theatrically workable, relevant and exciting to the Elizabethan audience who were very demanding. Seneca’s influence formed part of a developing tradition of tragedies whose plots hinge on political power, forbidden sexuality, family honor and private revenge. “There was no author who exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca.” For the dramatists of Renaissance Italy, France and England, classical tragedy meant only the ten Latin plays of Seneca and not Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. “Hamlet is certainly not much like any play of Seneca’s one can name, but Seneca is undoubtedly one of the effective ingredients in the emotional charge of Hamlet. Hamlet without Seneca is inconceivable.”
During the time of Elizabethan theater, plays about tragedy and revenge were very common and a regular convention seemed to be formed on what aspects should be put into a typical revenge tragedy. In all revenge tragedies first and foremost, a crime is committed and for various reasons laws and justice cannot punish the crime so the individual who is the main character, goes through with the revenge in spite of everything. The main character then usually had a period of doubt , where he tries to decide whether or not to go through with the revenge, which usually involves tough and complex planning. Other features that were typical were the appearance of a ghost, to get the revenger to go through with the deed. The revenger also usually had a very close relationship with the audience through soliloquies and asides. The original crime that will eventually be avenged is nearly always sexual or violent or both. The crime has been committed against a family member of the revenger. “ The revenger places himself outside the normal moral order of things, and often becomes more isolated as the play progresses-an isolation which at its most extreme becomes madness.” The revenge must be the cause of a catastrophe and the beginning of the revenge must start immediately after the crisis. After the ghost persuades the revenger to commit his deed, a hesitation first occurs and then a delay by the avenger before killing the murderer, and his actual or acted out madness. The revenge must be taken out by the revenger or his trusted accomplices. The revenger and his accomplices may also die at the moment of success or even during the course of revenge.
It should not be assumed that revenge plays parallel the moral expectations of the Elizabethan audience. Church, State and the regular morals of people in that age did not accept revenge, instead they thought that revenge would simply not under any circumstances be tolerated no matter what the original deed was. “ It is repugnant on theological grounds, since Christian orthodoxy posits a world ordered by Divine Providence, in which revenge is a sin and a blasphemy, endangering the soul of the revenger.” The revenger by taking law into his own hands was in turn completely going against the total political authority of the state. People should therefore never think that revenge was expected by Elizabethan society. Although they loved to see it in plays, it was considered sinful and it was utterly condemned.
The Spanish Tragedy written by Thomas Kyd was an excellent example of a revenge tragedy. With this play, Elizabethan theater received its first great revenge tragedy, and because of the success of this play, the dramatic form had to be imitated. The play was performed from 1587 to 1589 and it gave people an everlasting remembrance of the story of a father who avenges the murder of his son. In this story, a man named Andrea is killed by Balthazar in the heat of battle. The death was considered by Elizabethan people as a fair one, therefore a problem occurred when Andrea’s ghost appeared to seek vengeance on its killer. Kyd seemed to have used this to parallel a ghost named Achilles in Seneca’s play Troades. Andrea’s ghost comes and tells his father, Hieronimo that he must seek revenge. Hieronimo does not know who killed his son but he goes to find out. During his investigation, he receives a letter saying that Lorenzo killed his son, but he doubts this so he runs to the king for justice. Hieronimo importantly secures his legal rights before taking justice into his own hands. The madness scene comes into effect when Hieronimo’s wife, Usable goes mad, and Hieronimo is so stunned that his mind becomes once again unsettled. Finally Hieronimo decides to go through with the revenge, so he seeks out to murder Balthazar and Lorenzo, which he successfully does. Hieronimo becomes a blood thirsty maniac and when the king calls for his arrest, he commits suicide.
As well as the fact that Elizabethan theater had its rules about how a revenge tragedy had to be, so did Thomas Kyd. He came up with the Kydian Formula to distinguish revenge tragedies from other plays. His first point was that the fundamental motive was revenge, and the revenge is aided by an accomplice who both commit suicide after the revenge is achieved. The ghost of the slain watches the revenge on the person who killed him. The revenger goes through justifiable hesitation before committing to revenge as a solution. Madness occurs due to the grieve of a loss. Intrigue is used against and by the revenger. There is bloody action and many deaths that occur throughout the entire play. The accomplices on both sides are killed. The villain is full of villainous devices. The revenge is accomplished terribly and fittingly. The final point that Thomas Kyd made about his play was that minor characters are left to deal with the situation at the end of the play.
The Spanish Tragedy follows these rules made by Kyd very closely, simply because Kyd developed these rules from the play. The fundamental motive was revenge because that was the central theme of the play. The ghost of Andrea sees his father kill the men who murdered Andrea originally. Hieronimo hesitates first because he goes to the king and then he is faced with Isabella’s madness which is caused by Andrea’s death. The play is filled with all kinds of bloody action and many people die throughout the course of the play. The accomplices in the play also all end up dead. Lorenzo who is the true villain, is full of all kinds of evil villainous devices. The revenge works out perfectly, in that both Lorenzo and Balthazar get murdered in the end by Hieronimo. The minor characters were left to clean up the mess of all of the deaths that occurred during the play. The Spanish Tragedy also follows the conventions of Elizabethan theater very closely. The murder was committed and Hieronimo had to take justice into his own hands, because true justice just simply wasn’t available. Hieronimo then delays his revenge for many different reasons that occur in the play. The ghost of Andrea appeared and guided Hieronimo to the direction of his killer. Also at the end of the play, both Hieronimo and his accomplices die after they were successful in committing the revenge.