Recently I decided I ought to delve deeper into the realm of early modern theatre and read some more plays. While Shakespeare isn’t exempt, my main focus is other playwrights. Lyly has been checked off the list, and so I turned my attention this time to Thomas Kyd.
Chances are if you’ve heard of Kyd it’ll be for his Spanish Tragedy – you know the one with the bloke who’s name can only be said Dr Who style, Hieeerrrrronnnnimooooo, other wise known as the play which had some influence on Hamlet. It is of course a play in its own right, and an excellent one at that, I might even prefer it to Hamlet I think (Hamlet fanatics please don’t murder me). But that’s the one play I won’t be talking about today, mainly because I’ve written about it relatively recently here, which should give you the inside scoop on all things Spanish Tragedy (the extended edition).
But poor old Thomas Kyd didn’t just write The Spanish Tragedy, oh no, he also wrote The First Part of Jeronimo, Cornelia and The Tragedy of Solyman and Perseda and while I can’t claim to have read all of his works, I’ve now ticked several more off the list. Like many Early Modern playwrights, Kyd suffers from the probably-not-his or probably-not-all-his debates. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with collaboration, in fact it’s a very good thing and can add interesting and different dimensions to plays. However, it tends to be seen negatively at least if playwrights were ever caught short of “collaborating” with Shakespeare – those parts which are “not so good” are side-lined with the argument that they couldn’t possibly be by Shakespeare thus implying that those he collaborated with were in essence superior. Clearly that’s not always true. In fact, perhaps it’s not true at all.
But back to Kyd, who was a big cheese in the Early Modern period, or so says Frederick Boas – who compiled Kyd’s Complete Works (1955), and it was all down to The Spanish Tragedy.
For fifty years – the greatest years of the greatest dramatic movement the modern world has known – his chief work [ST] maintained a popularity, alike with theatre-goers amd readers, probably unrivalled by that of any other single play
Strange to think given it’s relatively unknown status today. In fact when I gave a paper on Spanish Tragedy a couple of month ago the only images I could find of a recent production were those from a staged reading over at The Shakespeare Institute last year. As for professional productions by companies a guideline perhaps is the RSC who’s last production of the play was in 1997 at The Swan theatre (paired interestingly enough with Hamlet in the RST). Reviews of that production capture the perception many have of Kyd, Spanish Tragedy, and, more broadly, non-Shakespeare Early Modern Drama. Take Spencer’s for The Telegraph for instance:
The Spanish Tragedy is rarely performed and I feared this production might prove a dull exercise in theatrical archaeology. In fact it turns out to be a genuinely compelling experience
Either way, even if it is Kyd’s best known work, and even if it was a great success for 50 years, the stage story today is one of absence.
I started with The First Part of Jeronimo I know that prequels get bad press, but I’d enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea (aka a Jane Eyre prequel, or the backstory of Bertha), and with this working in a similar vein I looked forward to hearing Jeronimo’s, better known as Hieronimo’s, back story. Kyd, as ever, didn’t disappoint. It’s full title is: The First Part of Jeronimo. With Warres of Portugall, and the life and death of Don Andrea (1604). Now, to someone familiar with Spanish Tragedy both Don Andrea (a ghost in Spanish Tragedy) and Jeronimo will be familiar figures. The play opens with the titling of Jeronimo as Marshall of Spain, by the King, and news that Portugal refuses to pay tribute to Spain. The King is totally unimpressed with Portugal’s laziness:
Dare he still procrastinate with Spain? (I.i.34)
I wonder if I ought to write “dare you still procrastinate?” and stick it somewhere appropriate so that any moment I find myself wasting time I can be scared into submission in true Early Modern dramatic fashion by the King of Spain.
Don Andrea is sent to the Portuguese court as tribute (in an Early Modern take on The Hunger Games). More specifically he is “volunteered” by Don Rogero. Don Andrea at this point is involved with Bel Imperia (another familiar face – in Spanish Tragedy she’s the one who pretends to be in love with Horatio but is really just after revenge for Don Andrea and eventually aids Hieronimo in his mission for revenge). She’s devastated that he has to go, but he’s arranged a surrogate-husband (what a sensible idea..) for his absence: Horatio. It seems is the last moment when Bel Imperia is to see Don Andrea alive as Lorenzo (brother of Bel Imperia) hires Lazarotto to murder Andrea upon his return. He acts as though this is normal behaviour horrifying Horatio:
What blood sucking slave/Could choke bright honour in a scabbard grave (I.iii.104-5)
But, the plot is overheard (by Hieronimo and Horatio). Meanwhile Andrea’s tribute is rejected and he declares war, challenging Balthazar to meet him head on in battle. In a desperate Romeo and Juliet-esque will-the-letter-make-it-in-time moment Lorenzo suggests that Alcario should dress as Andrea and woo Bel Imperia, but Horatio and Hieronimo write to her to warn her of this plan. In an almost slapstick moment Lazarotto murders Alcario (thinking it to be Andrea), he’s discovered and later murdered by Lorenzo. Andrea returns ready for battle and says goodbye to Bel Imperia again. This time for good. Andrea is killed by Balthazar in battle but Horatio revenging Andrea’s death captures Balthazar and wins the battle for Spain. The ghost of Andrea begs to speak to Horatio but death refuses. The funeral occurs and the play ends with Horatio, Lorenzo, the army, and their prisoner poised to return to Spain. Phew. This neatly sets the stage of course for The Spanish Tragedy where many of these characters re-appear (or rather the prequel, probably written after Spanish Tragedy, writes the backstories which solidify why the stories are at the point they are at when Spanish Tragedy opens). I enjoyed seeing many of the characters I already knew develop, and there were many “oooh so that’s why that happens moments”. While this is a play of contested date, authorship, and quality, I enjoyed hanging out with Hieronimo, Horatio, and learning why characters fuelled by revenge in Spanish Tragedy came to be so (besides the murders that happen therein). It was also good to see the pre-ghostly-state of Don Andrea. All in all well worth a read, especially if you like Spanish Tragedy (this time you get some Portuguese tragedy thrown in for free).
Next up was Cornelia or, to give its title in full, Pompey the Great, his faire Corneliaes Tragedie, Effected by her Gather and Husbandes downe-cast, death, and fortune (1595). Clearly Early Modern dramatists weren’t scared of throwing in all the spoilers in the title.. When I first read the title the Pompey the Great mention reminded me of Pompey’s appearance in the worthies scene of Love’s Labour’s Lost which co-incidentally shares the same release year as Cornelia. Perhaps it was the year of Pompey. I should say this wasn’t written by Kyd, well it was, but not originally, Cornelia is in fact a translation (by Kyd) from the original French to English. There’s a lot of death in the play with (as the title page tells us) the death of both Cornelia’s husband and then her father, she also frequently wishes death for herself though it continues to evade her:
Fayne would I die, but darksome Ugly Death
With-holds his darte, and in disdaine doth flye me (II, 13-14)
Lines which reminded me of Death in Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic (1983) which in contrast frequently chases Rincewind who, against the odds manages to evade it.
The extremeness of grief expressed by Cornelia recalls the hyperbolic tongue of Petrachan infused Renaissace verse such as we see parodied in Donne’s ‘The Canonization’ (John Donne, Songs and Sonets) with lines like:
Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
What merchants ships have my sighs drown’d?
Who saies my tears have overflow’d his ground?
Or more explicitly Petrarchan perhaps in his ‘A Nocturnall upon St Lucie’s Day’ (John Donne, Songs and Sonets):
… Oft a floor
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two
The extreme expression of grief we find in the figure of Cornelia appears more real than the self-indulgent breed of melancholy we perhaps associate more with Renaissance drama, sparked by the figure of Hamlet.
This is accompanied by night-time horrors for Cornelia, there is no break from the pain it seems.
Cornelia: God grant these dreames to good effect be brought
We dreame by night what we by day have thought (III.i.65-66)
I’d also been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ the day I read Kyd and so it was the echo of his words on night-time visions that I read of Cornelia’s dreams.
The imagination may be a private place for events, ‘only witnessed in that small theatre of the brain which we keep brightly lighted all night long, after the jets are down, and darkness and sleep reign undisturbed in the remainder of the body’. (Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ repr. in Strange Case of Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 151-161 (p. 151))
But while for Stevenson the Brownies of his dreams do him great service and bring us such tales as Strange Case of Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde (1886), describing himself as a mere spectator occasionally breaking up their action in order to write it down: simply sitting ‘at these nocturnal dramas, with such outbursts like Claudius in the play [Hamlet], he [the dreamer] scatters the performance in the midst.’ (Stevenson, p. 156). However dreams for Cornelia bring her only more pain, she cannot escape the torment even when she closes her eyes to sleep.
But drifting back from late-Victorian fiction and back to the Early Modern period, the experience of melancholy depicted in Cornelia is in exact alignment with the medical texts of the period which highlight, for instance, hallucinations as symptomatic of one suffering with melancholy. So intrinsically linked with the imagination was it seen to be, that the minds response to bodily humoural state was one of the symptoms of melancholy that was seen to be the most dangerous in worsening rather than curing the condition. The Chorus makes this clear, it its description of these visions and Cornelia’s behaviour:
These are vaine thoughts, or melancholic shows (III.i.128)
The play begins following the defeat of Pompey (and his troops) and his subsequent fleeing to Egypt follow by some treason and assassinating. Cicero looks on on Rome’s self-destruction as Civil War rages, the Chorus blame the gods for what’s happening in Rome, meanwhile Cornelia (Hamlet style) contemplates suicide but of course that’s for the gods, not her, to decide. Cornelia has seen a ghost (that of Pompey) but the Chorus claims she’s hallucinated. Cicero realises one day Caesar will have his blood and there’s no escape. Meanwhile Philip brings a lovely gift to Cornelia – her husbands ashes. She grieves and cries for the fall of Caesar. Caesar rejoices that he’s beat his enemies but is warned by Mark Anthony of a plot to kill him (Ides of March, beware!), Caesar is again victorious and there’s another death to finish off the play: Scipio’s suicide. Cornelia is by this point almost beyond grief living her live simply to mourn and bury the deceased. A cheery play then!
Finally, I read Solyman and Perseda (1592) – a play based on a novella – the full title of which is The Tragedye of Solyman and Perseda: Wherein is laide open, Love’s constancy, Fortunes inconstancy, and Deathe’s triumphe. For those familiar with Spanish Tragedy you’ll know that the entire play’s narrative is framed by Revenge and Don Andrea’s Ghost, similarly in Solyman and Perseda Love, Fortune, and Death are all at play and attempt to exert the greatest power over the play in a complex framed narrative.
The title of course gives away who will be victorious, as does the seventh line of the play, spoken by death, ‘what are tragedies but acts of death’ (I.i.7). There is a very real sense running throughout the play that the characters, the humans, are mere pawns in the workings of wider forces. Essentially it’s hopeless from the start. Imagine a kind of Early Modern gruesome Meet the Parents (2000) scenario (by which I mean the experience Greg Focker has of meeting his girlfriend’s parents) and you’ll be pretty close.
This play has everything, even a jealous lover called Basilisco who’s full of melancholy: ‘I am melancholy: an humour of Venus belegereth me’ (I.iii.127), while Saturn was the planet most associated with melancholy, it is to love melancholy which Basil here refers and Venus of course is the goddess of love and desire.
An indication of the strength of Basil’s love for Perseda may be seen in his reaction to Erastus calling Perseda “his” in Act 1 Scene 3 which Basil sees to be worse than blaspheming. Erastus gives Perseda a chain and a ring (as with the tokens exchanged in Love’s Labour’s Lost these are to be important later).
Basil goes to fight Erastus and it doesn’t go well for him he returns with every bone in his body broken, Erastus meanwhile fights many and wins but loses the chain Perseda had given him. He laments. Scene flips to the court of Solyman where we witness the death of two of Solyman’s brothers. Brutal. Next Act Ferdinando finds the missing chain and gives it to his love Lucina. Bad news, she’s also friends with Perseda who upon seeing the chain suspects Erastus to be a cheater. She doesn’t believe his cries of innocence and asks Basil to avenge her.
They are all as false as thy self (II.i.166)
Erastus manages to gain the chain from Ferdinando who becomes jealous but is killed by Erastus. He flees from his crime to Constantinople and begs sanctuary from Solyman. Erastus is welcomed after a friendly scuffle (Piston – his servant relays this to Perseda). The Turks invade Rhodes (where Perseda and Lucina are) and the ladies are taken captive, but Rhodes is saved because Solyman is truck by Erastus’s love for the place, Basil “turns Turkish”. Perseda doesn’t submit to Solyman’s wooing but when she sees Erastus Solyman is struck by their innocent love. He dispatches them to get married but regrets almost immediately. So strong is his love for Perseda. Since a condition of Erastus’s freedom was that he was at Solyman’s beck and call Solyman immediately exercises this power, aided by Lucina and Brusor. Meanwhile there’s a hialiorus conversation about pricking between Basil and Piston. Lucina and Brusor call Erastus back to Solyman’s court where he is accused of treason and executed. Piston relays this to Perseda who’s anger at Lucina’s part in this pushes her to wish her dead. She asks Basil to do this but he’s a coward and refuses so she kills her herself. Solyman travels to Rhodes to win Perseda but in the battle to enter (the gates are shut) he accidentally kills the disguised Perseda. He’s so distraught he decides to kill three men: Basilisco, Brusor, and Piston. He kisses Perseda (who had put poison on her lips) and dies himself (this recalled the role of poison in both Hamlet and The White Devil with the portrait and the helmet) as the play closes with the victory of Death.
Death: Mark well what followes, for this historie
Prooves me cheefe actor in this tragedie (IV.iii.17-18)
As I said, plenty of Death – clearly something Kyd went in for, it seems ironic that Webster ended up with the reputation for brutality, tragedy, and murder when Kyd’s drama is just as macabre.
While Spanish Tragedy and The First Part of Jeronimo remain my favourite of Kyd’s works, they are all well worth reading and, if you are lucky enough to get the chance, seeing. Though sadly side-lined, Kyd deserves championing as an excellent painter of characters, deathly situations, and his framing of plots through chorus-like figures who spur on the action in ways which enliven and invigorate already engaging plots. It’s not all tragic but it seems tragedy was his forte, I Kyd you not.