Murder conspiracies, a descriptive descent into a torturous hell, bloody revenge, and a protagonist who bites off his own tongue. No, this is not a Quentin Tarantino film. It's Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, and it's no overstatement to call Kyd "The Godfather of Hyper-Violence."
Kyd penned this bloodbath sometime in the late 1580s (we're not exactly sure when), ushering in a popular genre that has yet to grow stale: the revenge drama. Some twenty years later, William Shakespeare would borrow heavily from Kyd's tragedy while writing a little play called Hamlet (you might've heard about it). The Spanish Tragedy is Kyd's only surviving play, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more influential work. If most of the cast dies at the end of a play or movie you're watching, go ahead and thank Kyd.
The Spanish Tragedy tells the story of a young soldier who comes home from war only to be brutally murdered while chatting his girlfriend up in an otherwise romantic setting. When his father discovers his son's bloodied body hanging from a tree, he then devotes the rest of his time finding his son's murderers and executing them in a shockingly theatrical way.
Just about every playwright of the English Renaissance borrowed from Kyd's innovative form of stylized violence and dramatic intrigue, but the playwright had already taken his cue from Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.). Seneca was Nero's tutor (a Roman emperor who also knew a bit about violence), but in his spare time he was a stoic philosopher who wrote bloody plays that imitated Greek classics like Oedipus, Thyestes, and Medea.
In addition to essentially inventing the kind of violent entertainment that still has movie going couples jumping into each other's arms for safety, The Spanish Tragedy is a pretty ponderous play in its own right. It takes on timeless topics like the ethics of revenge, justice, the afterlife, and how the living remember and take actions for the dead.
If you ever have to write a paper on Hamlet, know that you'll score major points by including The Spanish Tragedy in your analysis. Or, you can read the play just to enjoy the sadistic pleasure in learning how revenge is a dish best served cold—like gazpacho, which is also Spanish and blood red.
Have you ever listened to a cool new band only to have some older (and more out-of-it) person say, "that sounds just like [insert some band that old folks care about here]"? Well, when Hamlet was a shiny, new play in 1603, some O.G. Renaissance dude was probably ranting about how The Spanish Tragedy was the real deal in the late 80s, and that Shakespeare was just biting the style of Thomas Kyd.
Aren't old people charming?
This crusty old theater lover would probably talk about how Shakespeare stole the idea of a ghost coming back from the dead to get revenge, ripped off the idea that avengers go looney tunes while plotting violence, and brazenly recycled the central theme from Kyd's play, which goes a little something like, "How does one bring very powerful people in government to justice?"
Finding out that Shakespearestole from The Spanish Tragedy is like hearing that the Hollies (an early 60s Brit-Pop band) actually wrote Radiohead's hit song, Creep. Oh wait, they did. (And yes, it is a good thing that Radiohead didn't steal the Hollies' hairdos.)
What happens between the Hollies and Radiohead is basically what happens between The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet (without the law suit): the latter play is slicker, more sophisticated, and has greater depth of emotion, but Hamlet probably never would have happened without Kyd paving the way. By the way, before you get down on Shakespeare, know that plagiarism was no biggie in Renaissance England. Ahhh, the good ol' days.
But The Spanish Tragedy wasn't just a prime source for Shakespeare. Just about every tragedy in the period owes credit to Thomas Kyd. Before Kyd wrote his seminal masterpiece, classical tragedy had grown stale, only suiting the bookish type. But Kyd took the ingredients from moldy old classics to cook up plots and actions that evoked and magnified the real violence happening in London's sketchier neighborhoods—so yeah, kind of like gangsta rap for the Renaissance.
By doing this, Kyd breathed rough realism into bookish topics, making this type of theater a hit with both the illiterate and the educated. And when playwrights learned that staged bloodbaths make oodles of money, a new theatrical trend was born.
All of this matters because Kyd's formula in The Spanish Tragedy sill works today. Films like Django Unchained, Kill Bill (Vols. 1&2), Memento, The Crow, Taken, Unforgiven, and even Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan capitalize on Kyd's old yet reliable formula: criminal action, an avenging hero, and a staggering body count. Somehow we all get emotionally involved and entertained as the bodies pile up. It's really pretty creepy if you think about it. Are we all passionate about justice? Or are we just thirsty for blood?
To think more about why you're somehow okay with crazed violence, keep reading. But before you get on with it, we suggest you get in the mood for revenge with the Godfather of Soul—that's right, it's time for "The Big Payback."
Luminarium's Thomas Kyd Page
This is a great one-stop place to get information on the life of Thomas Kyd, insight into his other works, and links to scholarly articles. Oh yeah, there's also a discussion forum. What more could you ask for?
For the Life and Times of Thomas Kyd
Need to know more about Thomas Kyd? You know, more about the time he spent in Jail. And how he snitched on Christopher Marlowe to get out? This site will do you right.
Under Pain of Torture
Kyd was apparently tortured while he was in jail. If you want to know exactly what he said about Christopher Marlowe under pain of torture, check this site out.
A Preview of Nothing to Come
Can you believe that nobody has ever made a feature film based on The Spanish Tragedy? It's a sad truth, but here's an amateur trailer for a movie to come. But apparently the movie never came. Is it still a trailer if nothing trails it?
Beyond the Bard
We've already given you a ton to read and think about. But maybe you're in the mood for some face time learning. If so, check out this cool mini-lecture on The Spanish Tragedy. Your lecturer even has experience directing the play. Great insight.
A Behind the Scenes Look
Despite the old play's obvious awesomeness, The Spanish Tragedy hardly ever gets performed. As such, there's scant video of the play in performance. It's worth checking out these professional actors in the early stages of rehearsal just so you can hear Kyd's emotive language coming to life.
Give it a Listen
It may be hard to see the play today, but listening to a fun dramatic interpretation of The Spanish Tragedy is just a click away. Read along with it. Or turn down the lights and get a bit spooked out.
Woodcut from the Original Title page
This woodcut from the title page of the first printed edition of The Spanish Tragedy nicely represents the drama of Horatio's murder scene. You can even see Horatio's hanged body—talk about cutting to the chase on the cover of the book.
Take a Page from the 1615 Edition
Well, you can't take the page. But, you can look at it. Or even print it out. Notice how the 1615 title page gives away the ending of the play. Suspense much?