Study Guide

The Spanish Tragedy Analysis

By Thomas Kyd

  • Tone

    Highfalutin, High-Flown, and Inflated Talk: Or, Bombastic Fantastic

    If you like big talk, you'll love The Spanish Tragedy. When characters speak, they don't mess around. For example, check out the first line of the play: "When this eternal substance of my soul/ Did live imprisoned in my wanton flesh, each in their function serving other's need, I was a courtier in the Spanish court (1.1.1-4).

    Sure, the ghost of Andrea could've simply said, "When I was alive, I was a member of the Spanish court." But what kind of tone would that set? For one thing, we here at Shmoop would have little to say about it. It would just be… there. But the language of The Spanish Tragedy is elevated to constantly remind you that the stakes are high and that you need to pay attention to detail.

    Remember, this is a tragedy, which means that the consequences extend far past the individuals in the play. Kings will die, the course of nations will change, and speech is just as important as action.

    Also, Elizabethan drama was all about indulging in high-flown language. People wanted to hear elevated speech that sounded different and meant more than everyday talk at the fish market or tavern. Wouldst thou toss me yon mackerel, sirrah!

    Let's Get Emo

    Okay, but not exactly the emo you're thinking. On that note, want to see some out-of-touch news reporters fretting over emo kids? Watch this.

    While emo kids also focus on the negative side of life, over-contemplate death, and love at the highest emotional pitch, 16th-century emo is much more than style. Because when Renaissance characters go emo there are severe actions and consequences.

    In The Spanish Tragedy, heightened emotions directly lead to three suicides and four murders. This tally doesn't even account for the peeps who get killed off as characters try to clean up after their emotionally driven violence. Let's try and remain calm, people.

    But there is zero calm language in this tragedy. As you read, notice how language literally fuels violent action. Characters use emotionally strained language to psych themselves up to commit suicide and murder. Think of a high school football team psyching themselves up with some well-chosen words and you'll get an idea about how language inspires action. Never been in a locker room before a high school football game? Friday Night Lights to the rescue. See how these emotional words get Coach Taylor's players ready to knock heads? The same effect is almost continuously in play throughout The Spanish Tragedy.

    But sadly, we're not dealing with high school football here. Words lead to tragic consequences, and none more so than in Isabella's final speech before killing herself. She returns to the place where her son was hanged, where she curses and cuts down the trees that shaded the crime:

    Down with these branches and these loathsome boughs
    Of this unfortunate and fatal pine!
    Down with them, Isabella, rend them up,
    And burn the roots from whence the rest is sprung!
    I will not leave a root, a stalk, a tree,
    A bough, a branch, a blossom, nor a leaf,
    No, not an herb of this garden plot.

    And after she verbally whips up her frenzy against the garden, Isabella turns her words and knife against herself:

    And as I curse this tree from further fruit,
    So shall my womb be cursed for his sake,
    And with this weapon will I wound the breast,
    The hapless breast that gave Horatio suck.

    The connection she makes between the garden and her body enables her to take her own life in a misdirected act of vengeance. And the play abounds with moments where emotional language spurs action, so watch carefully as Kyd connects emotive language with destructive behavior.

    One of the big quotes of the play is "where words prevail not, violence prevails" (2.1.110). The idea is that words can only take you so far before you have to act. Time and time again, words are a bridge to violence. Maybe we should all think more about how language inspires both good and bad in our lives.

    And then talk nice.

    Darkly Tragic, Darkly Humorous

    Ever see the movie Donnie Darko? Well, it's dark—hence, the name "Darko." Did you notice how the music, the lighting, the language, and the actions of the actors come together to create a dark tone? That's precisely the effect Kyd goes for in The Spanish Tragedy, but he accomplishes darkness with words alone.

    In addition to being dark in the Donnie Darko sense, Kyd employs dark humor to set a darkly cynical tone. This dark cynicism tells us that funny isn't even very funny in the play. Let's shed some light on all this darkness. And in the process, you'll also see how many more times we can use the word "dark."

    What better way to establish a dark tone than by beginning the play in Hell? Check out this darkness:

    In keeping on my way to Pluto's court,
    Through dreadful shades of ever-glooming night,
    I saw more sights than thousand tongues can tell,
    Or pens can write, or mortal hearts can think.

    Even though "ever-glooming" night means absolute darkness, the ghost of Andrea still "saw more sights" than could ever be expressed—night vision, indeed. But despite the inexpressible darkness, the ghost expresses that his "downfall to the deepest hell" was full of souls "choked with melting gold," lovers "embraced with ugly snakes," murderers groaning "with never-killing wounds," and liars "scalded in boiling lead" (1.1.64-70).

    So yeah, pretty dark stuff. And this dark beginning of the play is just a setup for the darkness to come. In a way, Kyd puts us in the same position of Andrea's ghost. Because as we continue reading, we commit ourselves to explore the darkest thoughts of human kind. Good luck seeing through all the darkness.

    And while even the darkest plays give some comic relief, The Spanish Tragedy gives comedy but no relief. A great example of dark humor happens while a hangman banters wittily with a murderer he's about to hang. Oh, so funny. The setup is that the murderer, Pedringano, thinks he's about to be saved by a written pardon placed in a box within his view. The funny part? The box is empty. As they yuck it up, Pedringano is convinced he won't hang. Spoiler alert: he hangs. The scene is gallows humor at its literal best. But if hanging scenes don't tickle your funny bone, maybe you'll enjoy all the cynically dark irony in the play.

    In the end, there's no place for joyful humor in the play. This dark world isn't safe or comfortable for anyone, and when there is laughter it's disturbing. You might want a palette cleanser to cheer you up when you finish the play.

  • Genre


    The Spanish Tragedy is a drama. You know, a story composed for theatrical performance. We good with that? Awesome.


    But it's also a tragedy. A tragedy is a dead serious work that follows the downfall of a heroic character. Most typically, destined-to-fall heroes are super capable characters of high esteem whose actions affect not just themselves, but entire kingdoms. And their fall is usually the result of a tragic flaw.

    Here are some examples of tragic heroes and their flaws: Hamlet suffered too much wishy-washy thinking), Macbeth's problem was too much ambition, Oedipus was blinded by pride—and later blinded by blindness, and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader were too pissed about past events—and that theme song of his just makes doing bad feel so good.

    You might argue that Hieronimo has a tragic flaw of his own (we dare you to), or you might think that he fits the mold of another kind of tragic hero: a hero in conflict with an overwhelming force. What's the force? Well, first stop thinking of Darth Vader because we're thinking of another kind of force. We're thinking of a force like a corrupt system, the will of kings, or fate as determined by the gods.

    What's the Takeaway?

    Once you find a tragic flaw or overwhelming force, much of the meaning of the play will come into sharper focus. This is because tragedies are meant to teach us a lesson. Take Darth Vader, for example: if he had put his anger about the past aside, his fall from grace would've never happened. Of course we also would've missed out on awesome light saber duels, Princess Leia's cinnamon roll hairdo, and Han Solo's devil-may-care heroics.

    Okay, the point is that tragedies tell ordinary folks like us how to live well and avoid our own downfalls. What can you learn from a 16th-century Knight Marshal from Spain? Well, for one thing, you should probably have better hygiene than a 16th century European. We'll let you hash out the rest.

    Back to the Roots

    It's true that there would be no Kyd without Seneca, but The Spanish Tragedy has a vivacity that Seneca's closet dramas don't even try to achieve. And no, Seneca did not stage his plays in closets—a closet drama is a term for plays that are meant to be read, not performed. Because they are closet dramas, Seneca's plays read like a gathering of long, wordy speeches that ponderously moralize on tragic violence (yawn). Kyd on the other hand, uses Senecan over-the-top violence to create suspense, intrigue, and good old-fashioned entertainment.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The smart alecky response to this question is: The Spanish Tragedy is a tragedy largely set in Spain. But, we'd be remiss not to mention that the play originally had a longer title, which is The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again.

    Um, when was he mad before? The easy answer is we just don't know. Wow, that really was easy. And no, the play is not a sequel. So, it's not something like, "Hieronimo is mad again, and this time with a vengeance" (spoken in big-action-film-trailer-voice). But we do wish this were true.

    It could be that the longer title was merely intended to announce that there would be madness in the play. Madness was good entertainment in Elizabethan England. People actually paid money to visit insane asylums for entertainment purposes. It's not just that Elizabethan's liked crude forms of entertainment (they did)—it's also because they were clueless when it comes to insanity. The Renaissance happened way, way before modern psychology, which made insanity seem magical, otherworldly, and—strangely enough—entertaining. To be fair, Elizabethans also paid money to watch ginormous dogs rip bears to pieces.

    But we digress.

    Spain was England's greatest rival in the 1580s (complete with an invasion attempt and everything), so putting Spain in the title was a lot like having Rocky fight a Soviet boxer in Rocky IV. In the 1980s, the Soviets were America's biggest threat, so having Rocky beat the tar out of Ivan Drago made some people feel pretty darn good about America.

    Check out how the film uses the Soviet boxer to characterize the communist threat. Yes, it's a cheesy video, but whether it's the 1580s or the 1980s, people tend to pay for films that tap into national threats and patriotism. But as far as we know, nobody wore fluorescent outfits in the 1580s. Anywho, by making Spain look like a place where crazy dudes kill murderous dudes, Kyd was basically dissing the whole country. And putting "Spanish" in the title put butts in the theater seats.

    Oh yeah, one more thing: putting "tragedy" in the title announced that there would be tons of dead bodies on stage in the final scene: Spanish bodies, no less.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    First things first. It's a tragedy, meaning that there pretty much had to be mass death at the end of the play. So from the beginning, Kyd's original audience would've known that Hieronimo had to die because he's the tragic hero. And it makes sense that Lorenzo and Balthazar had to die because they were the worst dudes in the play.

    But why did Bel-Imperia have to die? And why did her father, the Duke of Castile, have to die? And why did the play go out of its way to have everyone die while performing as actors in a play-within-a-play? These are the head scratchers of the ending. And Shmoop is here to cure that itch. Or at least to get you scratching.

    Waiter, There's a Play in my Play

    The play-within-a-play is a common convention in Elizabethan drama. Professor types call plays-within-plays moments of metatheater. Pretty fancy word, huh? Metatheater means that a play is having fun with its audience members by reminding them that they are watching a play.

    The magic of watching plays and movies is that we find ourselves forgetting we're in a fictional world. This is why you cried when that big, mean fish ate Nemo's mom and all her eggs (except Nemo) in Finding Nemo. Ready for a little cry?

    If you didn't cry, go to the doctor and see if you still have a heart. If you did cry, it's because you allowed yourself, however briefly, to get lost in another reality. Well, when Renaissance playwrights used plays-within-plays, they wanted to snap you back into thinking you're just watching a play.

    Why would they do this? To get you thinking critically about theater itself, that's why. So, the effect of staging a bloodbath in a metatheatrical way might be about getting the audience members to think about why they pay money to watch murder portrayed in a realistic way. On that note, why do so many people love watching Dexter, or CSI, or slash-and-gash horror films? Think about that.

    Maybe the tragedy ends with a play-within-a-play to get people thinking about how murder is an inherently theatrical performance? Or that following the path of revenge changes one's character (so to speak) for the worse? We'll leave the answers to these questions up to you.

    Flipping the Script

    But while you're thinking about all this, consider why Bel-Imperia deviates from the script by killing Balthazar and herself. As Hieronimo makes clear, Bel-Imperia does not play her part as he intended when he wrote the play:

    Poor Bel-Imperia missed her part in this.
    For, though, the story saith she should have died,
    Yet I of kindness and care to her did
    Otherwise determine her end.

    Hieronimo's saying that the original story he borrowed from had Isabella's character die, but that he cared for her so much he rewrote the end for her. Does this mean she was fated to die no matter what? Or that there is some original script (or fate) out there that none of us can control? Or does it mean that playwrights cannot control human forces even in plays, try as they might? Are we living in a wildly uncontrollable world where human emotion constantly flips the script? Could be, could be.

    Or maybe it's simply that revenge is an uncontrollable force that swallows up even the innocent. Maybe that's why the Duke of Castile has to die. Castile did everything he could to make sure his malignant son didn't harm Hieronimo. And yet Hieronimo stabs him to death with a pen. Maybe revenge can't stand as true justice, because once someone takes an eye for an eye, then another person goes eyeball hunting, and on and on till there are no more eyeballs. There are so many ways you can go with the ending, so set your eyes on the prize and express what you think.

  • Setting

    The Underworld and the Royal courts of Spain and Portugal

    Our tragedy bounces back-and-forth between Spain and Portugal, but the most far-flung region explored is the pagan underworld. Despite the fire, brimstone, and eternal punishment for all the baddies, Hell actually comes off downright civilized compared to the earthly locations in the play. In both Spain and Portugal, there's widespread corruption, no mercy, very few trusted allies, and lots and lots of murder.

    So, why would Kyd make Spain and Portugal the setting for murder and mayhem? Because Spain was England's greatest rival at the time, that's why. We know that Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy in the mid to late 1580s, and all of you history buffs are probably already recalling that Spain invaded England in 1588. Or at least Spain tried to invade England. On their way to merry ol' England, The Spanish Armada (the biggest in the world at the time) ran into a storm just off the British coast, which enabled the much weaker English forces to send the Spaniards packing.

    Defeating the mighty Spanish Armada was a home field advantage kind of win. And the years before and after the invasion were a time when xenophobia (hating on peeps from other countries) and nationalism reigned. By casting Spain as a bloodthirsty, lawless place, Kyd was capitalizing on England's deepest fears to spike theater attendance. Knowing that Londoners would have an Us-vs.-Them attitude while watching despicable acts in Spain will help you understand why all the violence seems so senseless.

    So go ahead and think of the play as negative propaganda on a foreign enemy. Interestingly enough, there are no references to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in Kyd's play. This probably means the play was written prior to 1588. It's hard to believe that Kyd would pass up the opportunity to earn some easy applause by bringing up a big, underdog victory.

    Light on the Details

    Other than while we are in Hell (please don't touch the brimstone), we get very little detail about places. Spain and Portugal are cast as blank slates where the actions of their inhabitants are used to suggest national character. As for Hell, it's standardly hellish. Kyd was clearly thinking of Aeneas' descent into the underworld in Virgil's seminally important work, the Aeneid.

    In the end, it's a voyage to Hell and back that will have you thinking fondly about returning to Hell. Think about that for a second.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    The hardest part of this play is that it's written in Renaissance English—you know, "thou art a villain!" and "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" kinda stuff. But, with a dictionary in hand and Shmoop for a friend, you'll soon know that "thou" just means "you" and "art" in this case means "are." As for the lady who protests too much, wethinks (here at Shmoop) that the line just means she promises more than she can actually do.

    The funny thing about Renaissance English is that what initially looks foreign quickly becomes familiar. Once you get a grip on some recurring words that modern folk don't really use anymore, you'll come to see that the language hasn't changed so much after all.

    The play is also set in two royal courts from bygone eras in Spain and Portugal. All the kings, princes, dukes, and viceroys might represent a set of characters you're not used to dealing with, but ultimately all the characters are motivated by the same desires and impulses that drive our entertainment today. Motives like greed, ambition, revenge, love, and hate sound familiar, right?

    And while the speeches are wordier than what we're used to seeing today, the words and how they work playfully together represent one of the great joys in reading period literature. Long and wonderfully worded speeches are like the IMAX theaters of dialogue—larger than life, fully immersive, and illustratively intense.

    Indulging in period language gets more and more natural with experience, and Shmoop is here to make your experience fun and entertaining. And The Spanish Tragedy is a great place to start exploring this language. After all, there is no better way for a character to break off from a long speech than by biting off his own tongue—what more can be said?

  • Writing Style

    Blank Verse, Rhymed Verse, Prose, Stichomythia, and Soliloquy

    The Spanish Tragedy is a blank verse tragedy, with rhymed verse and prose thrown into the mix. Kyd also uses conventions borrowed from classical drama to move his plot ahead and tie his original work with dramatic traditions of the past. The two most notable stylistic conventions are stichomythia (that's a mouthful) and soliloquy. Stichomythia is used to convey urgency and combativeness in dialogue. And soliloquy is a convention that gives the audience direct access into the mind and motives of a character.

    Let's take a closer look at these terms so we can gain a better appreciation for Kyd's style choices.

    Never Blank on Blank Verse Again

    Blank verse is a term for unrhymed iambic pentameter. Totally clarifying, right?

    Okay, maybe not. So, here goes: iambic pentameter is a ten-syllable line in which each unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. Professor-types call each set of two syllables a foot, which means that there are five feet in each line (adding up to ten syllables).

    Those are the basics. And this isn't as complicated as it sounds, we promise. It's probably best to give an example at this point. So, let's start with an example from the play.

    What outcries pluck me from my naked bed,
    And chill my throbbing heart with trembling fear? 

    First, count the syllables of each line. 1, 2, 3… you get the point. There are ten syllables in each. Next take a look at the feet in the first line.

    What out (1 foot) cries pluck (two feet) me from (3 feet) my na (4 feet) ked bed (5 feet)

    As you can see, feet are all about syllables, so they often cut words into their syllabic parts.

    Now comes the fun part: let's look at how alternating unstressed and stressed syllables create rhythm, or verse.

    What outcries pluck me from my naked bed,
    And chill my throbbing heart with trembling fear?

    As you read these lines, give the bolded parts extra emphasis. Giving extra emphasis probably felt pretty natural, right? Well, that's because it was natural. Authors who write in blank verse take advantage of the way that our language naturally emphasizes certain syllables. This means that authors who write in blank verse not only have to come up with the right words to express their intended meaning, but they also have to come up with words that put emphasis in the right places in each line.

    Can you imagine how much work this is? But don't it sound pretty? And blank verse gives a powerful rhythm to language. Authors use it to craft majestic, important sounding lines. So, blank verse becomes kind of a no brainer for the lofty genre of tragedy. But of equal importance, the sing-songy effect makes it easier for actors who had to memorize massive amounts of dialogue.

    And guess what? Thomas Kyd was one of the first English playwrights to use blank verse. So know that you're reading a technical innovation hot off the press when you take on The Spanish Tragedy. People were oohing and ahhing over the new technology like it were the new iPhone.

    No really, we promise.

    Rhymed Verse Is Neither Better Nor Worse

    There are also portions of rhymed verse interspersed throughout the play. So, what is rhymed verse? Oh, man, this is going to be tough. Here goes: rhymed verse is verse that rhymes. Phew, we're glad to get that out of the way.

    But seriously, verse is any line that has rhythm. You'll of course recall the rhythm of iambic pentameter, where alternating unstressed and stressed lines make speeches sound majestically important. Authors can use the natural stress in words to create all kinds of different rhythms: in addition to iambic verse, there's trochaic verse, spondaic, anapestic, dactylic, and more. And lines can have as many feet as you'd like, giving us dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and so on.

    But let's not worry ourselves over all the terms we just threw around. We just did that to look smart. For the purposes of our play, the rhymed verse portions are mostly rhymed iambic pentameter. Meaning, ten syllable lines, with five feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, and rhyming couplets. So, the rhymed verse in the play is just like blank verse but with rhyming couplets. And what about rhyming couplets? A quick example from the play will make this term easy as easy can get.

    Horatio: If Cupid sing, then Venus is not far.
    Ay, thou art Venus, or some fairer star.
    Bel-Imperia: If I be Venus, thou must needs be Mars,
    And Where Mars reigneth there must need be wars.

    Get the picture? Rhyming couplets happen when pairs of lines rhyme together. In this case, the couplet spoken by Horatio almost rhymes with the couplet spoken by Bel-Imperia. Maybe Kyd was trying to create a bond between the two. Can you think of other reasons he might break out of unrhymed verse in favor of rhymed couplets? Is it because they are in love? Maybe.

    What if we told you that the other large section of rhymed couplets takes place in the first private exchange between Lorenzo and Balthazar, the closely tied villains of the play? Why would Kyd do this? We'll let you explore this question on your own: the rhymed verse sections of the play are 2.1.1-40 and 2.4.24-49. Have fun.

    The Pros and Cons of Using Prose

    So, who knows prose? You do, that's who. You know prose because you talk in prose. Prose is our every day speech. It's also the kind of writing you read in novels, newspaper articles, websites, and pretty much everywhere. It's just our everyday, run-of-the-mill speech. It's not that prose can't be beautifully expressive, dramatic, and inspired—it's just that it doesn't have a consistent pattern or rhythm to it.

    Kyd breaks rhythm to write in prose for three sections of the play (3.5, 3.6.41-89, and 3.7.19-28). Why in these parts? Let's take a closer look.

    In 3.5 we only get a speech by a messenger boy. And in 3.6.41-89 we have an exchange between the hangman and Pedringano. Finally, in 3.7.19-28 there is a discussion between the hangman and Hieronimo. Are you detecting a pattern?

    Yeah, these are scenes in which common folk speak for an extended period of time. Kyd would never think of having his commoners speak in verse. From his perspective it would have been absurd to have a messenger or a hangman speak beautiful poetry. There's a snobbery about verse, so typically it's only the higher ups (and maybe the ambitious) that get to speak with rhythm.

    This will thankfully change over time. Part of what makes Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream so novel and funny is that his common characters make great efforts to speak in verse. Just know that an author's choice of style says a lot about the kind of character he or she is trying to create.

    Stichomythia: Sounds Sticky, but It's Easy

    And we mean really easy. But first with the stuff that sounds hard. Stichomythia derives from two Greek words: stikhos, which means "row, or line of verse" and muthos, which means "speech or talk." When combined we get a literary term for a dramatic technique that gives single alternating lines to alternating characters in conversation. Let's look at an example of stichomythia from the play:

    LORENZO: Sister, what means this melancholy walk?
    BEL-IMPERIA: That for a while I wish no company.
    LORENZO: But here the Prince is come to visit you.
    BEL-IMPERIA: That argues that he lives in liberty.
    BALTHAZAR: No, madam, but in pleasing servitude.
    BEL-IMPERIA: Your prison then belike is your conceit.
    BALTHAZAR: Ay, by conceit my freedom is enthralled.
    BEL-IMPERIA: Then with conceit enlarge yourself again.

    Authors use alternating one-liners to convey heated arguments. Whenever you see alternating lines like these, know that there is some serious tension and probably some real trouble brewing between the characters. This makes the convention work as a kind of foreshadowing for heightened conflict on the horizon. This definitely proves true in this case (spoiler alert), because Lorenzo will soon conspire with Balthazar to kill Bel-Imperia's lover, in return for which Bel-Imperia will collaborate to kill both Lorenzo and Balthazar.

    You'll probably also notice that these quick lines make you grab for your dictionary. This is because stichomythia is all about being quick-witted, which means you'll see a lot of puns and other linguistic jokes that take a moment to set in. They're some of the most delicious moments in the English language, so have fun with the witty repartee. We love using the word "repartee": repartee!

    In using stichomythia, Kyd is giving the nod to his greatest influence, Seneca. Seneca also used stichomythia to linguistically portray heated relationships. Classical stichomythia usually features repetition and antithesis from line to line—which is just a fancy schmancy way of saying, "I'll repeat what you say and give you a smart aleck reply that means the exact opposite." You can see how Kyd kind of sticks to the old formula and kind of makes it his own. The big point is that it's just another style technique that Kyd uses to give his readers insight into character and plot.

    O Solo Mio, I Talk to Myself: or the Soliloquy

    Soliloquy just means a character talks to himself (unless he is a she, and then she talks to herself). But really, he (or she) is talking to the audience. Look at the beginning of the play. Notice how Andrea goes on and on by himself. That's a soliloquy.

    They're easy to spot. But let's talk more about what they accomplish. You know how a novel can have tons and tons of writing that isn't spoken dialogue? You know, just saying lots of stuff—stuff like narration, what's going on in the heads of characters, stories about what happened in the past, stories that happen outside the action of the novel, and what a setting is like. Well, plays can't do this because they are all dialogue with no narration. Renaissance playwrights realized that this was a problem, so they invented the soliloquy.

    Through soliloquies the audience gets insider information like what motivates a character, who made who mad in the past, and even what a character's secret plans might be for the future. Before the soliloquy was invented, all of this information came from the chorus. But choruses are usually stuffy old men with stuffy old man stuff to say. Soliloquies can be dynamic, philosophical, and even scary.

    Oh, and be careful that you're really solo while soliloquizing in your own life—people might think you're crazy. Here at Shmoop we'd think you're perfectly normal. It's just those other people. Take a break and watch the most famous soliloquy of all time, as delivered by Sir Kenneth Branagh.

  • The Bower

    This is not your mother's garden. Unless, your mother's garden has a bloody corpse hanging in it. But your mother does have the right idea—gardens should be a pleasurable, private place. Oh yeah, "bower" is just an old-fashioned word for a shady, secluded area in a garden where people can retreat from the everyday world.

    Adam and Eve, Sittin' in a Tree…

    And when we first hear about the bower in The Spanish Tragedy, it's all about the private pleasures of new lovers. For example, Horatio invites Bel-Imperia to the bower by saying,

    Now that the night with sable wings
    To overcloud the brightness of the sun,
    And that in darkness pleasures may be done,
    Come, Bel-Imperia, let us to the bower,
    And there in safety pass a pleasant hour.

    Bowers have been symbols for romantic love and retreat from the harshness of every day life ever since Adam and Eve lived, loved, and got kicked out of their own private bower, the Garden of Eden. So it comes as no surprise that the bower in The Spanish Tragedy carries meaningful elements of the Adam and Eve Story, which include romantic love and tragic loss. But the play does more than just borrow from Garden of Eden. Because in the process of borrowing, the play adds even more loss and sadness to the old garden story.

    Paradise Lost

    Just like Adam and Eve, Horatio and Bel-Imperia see the bower as a place for pleasure and ease, which Bel-Imperia expresses by saying:

    I fear no more; love now is all my thoughts.
    Why sit we not? For pleasure asketh ease.

    All love and no work sure does sound like the Garden of Eden, right? But Kyd has other plans, which he makes clear by allowing the serpent to enter the garden way ahead of schedule.

    The serpent in this case is Lorenzo, and he comes with reinforcements in the form of Balthazar, Pedringano, and Serberine. But instead of tempting the young lovers to do something bad, Lorenzo cuts to the chase and orchestrates a brutal stabbing and hanging.

    At this point Edenic symbolism is used to let us know that we are way, way far from paradise. Kyd is basically saying, "If you think there was a loss of innocence in Paradise, you should see the bad stuff that's going on in Spain."

    Paradise Revenged

    As if this weren't enough, Kyd uses the bower symbolism in a later scene of further tragic loss and destruction. You'll recall that Isabella, Horatio's mother, returns to the scene of her son's murder to enact her own kind of revenge. In her own words, Isabella returns to the bower to "burn the roots from whence the rest is sprung" (4.2.9). In theology, the Garden of Eden is the place where all earthly good and evil originates. Isabella echoes this idea, but she's focused on all the bad stuff.

    Her plan is to cut the evil off at the roots by destroying the garden. Before she does this, she says,

    And as I curse this tree from further fruit,
    So shall my womb be cursed for his sake,
    And with this weapon will I wound the breast,
    The hapless breast that gave Horatio suck.

    She keeps her sad promise by stabbing herself in the breast that once fed her beloved son. All you biblical experts out there are probably remembering that Eve (and the rest of womankind) was cursed with painful childbirth after getting kicked out of the Garden. Well, Isabella's pain as a mother has gone way beyond childbirth. And now she's getting revenge by symbolically destroying the Garden of Eden.

    The Death of Life

    When God kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden it was bad for them, but good for us. Right? Because the curse of childbirth means we all could be born—sorry, mom. When Isabella destroys the garden she links it to her own life-giving potential. Which means that she is symbolically taking her revenge on, well, life.

    So, do you think the play takes a cynically dark stance on the state of humankind? Hmmm, could be.

  • The Bloody Handkerchief

    Not only is the handkerchief bloody, but it's also a busy little piece of linen. Before getting into the symbolic meaning of the bloody handkerchief, let's quickly chart how it moves throughout the story.

    The infamous hanky first pops up when Horatio tells Bel-Imperia how he plucked it from "the lifeless arm" of Andrea, and how he now wears it as a "remembrance of [his] friend" (1.4.42-43). Bel-Imperia then says something like, "yeah, I know that hanky, I gave it to Andrea as a token to remember me by while he was in battle." So, from early on we see that the hanky is a symbol of memory and love, both in terms of friendship and romance.

    Not So Fast

    But it's also a symbol for violent death, right? And perhaps there's already some blood on it, seeing as Andrea was killed while wearing the hanky. Anyway, Isabella tells Horatio to go ahead and "wear thou it both for him and me," which is to say the hanky is now a symbol for the shared love between Horatio, Andrea, and Bel-Imperia (1.4.48).

    So yeah, it's complicated.

    Not Done Yet

    But wait, the journey of the hanky is far from over. Because after Horatio is murdered in the bower, Hieronimo finds it on his son's body and says, "Sees't thou this hanky besmeared with blood? It shall not from me till I take revenge" (2.5.51). So now the hanky has become a symbol for memory and revenge.

    And Hieronimo will continue to use the prop to remind him of his son's murder. At the end of the play, Hieronimo dramatically produces the hanky just before his suicide. After this, the hanky is no longer needed, because from Hieronimo's perspective justice has been served and these memories are symbolically erased by revenge.

    The Gist, Please

    To recap: the hanky begins as a symbol of romantic love; then becomes a symbol to remember the violent death of a best friend; it then changes again to represent the love of three close friends and lovers; and finally shifts to symbolize the violent death of a son and the revenge mission of a distraught father. If all of this reminds you of the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, please watch this clip to to gain some clarity.

    After achieving clarity, just know that the hanky ultimately represents memory, friendship, love, violence, and vengeance. In other words, the entire play resides on one bloody handkerchief. Oh yeah, very deep stuff, indeed.

    For those of you experiencing literary vertigo, relax in the comfort that it's okay for something to symbolize more than one thing. In fact, we secretly think the hanky might also symbolize how germs get passed around.

    But don't tell your teacher that.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    The Spanish Tragedy is like a total rebel, dude. It's like, "I don't know who this Booker guy is, but he's not the boss of me." Which is to say, the play does not neatly conform to any of Booker's seven basic plots.

    While the play shares some traits with Booker's "Tragedy" plot, Hieronimo really isn't a tragic hero in the classic sense. Booker's tragic hero has character flaws that pretty much drive him to destruction—you know, Darth Vader type stuff. Hieronimo, on the other hand, is just a poor sap in a bad situation. Bad dudes above the reach of the law murder his son, and it's his sad job to set things right.

    In the simplest sense, the plot is as follows: you killed my son, prepare to die. That Hieronimo's tale escapes Booker's seven basic plots probably speaks to the ancient simplicity and novelty of this very old play.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Let the Killing Begin

    Don Andrea, a heroic young Spaniard, is killed in a battle against Portuguese forces. Had he been killed fairly in battle, he would have not passed go on his way to peaceful rest in the afterlife.


    His nemesis, Prince Balthazar, used dishonorable means, making his death a murder to be avenged. So, the King and Queen of Hell decide to send Andrea back to the world of the living to watch his friends get back at his enemies. But of course one bad deed will lead to another, and another, and another…


    New Love Inspires New Murder

    Andrea really had some good reasons to live. Most importantly, he wanted to get back to his lady, Bel-Imperia. His best friend, Horatio, breaks the bad news to Bel-Imperia who almost immediately decides that Horatio should be her new lover. This might sound like the conflict, but it's not—the ghost of Andrea has no problem with Bel-Imperia and Horatio hooking up.

    The conflict erupts when Prince Balthazar (the dude who killed Andrea) starts creeping on Bel-Imperia. This of course infuriates our revenge-minded ghost (and us, too, for that matter). Balthazar even gets help in his romantic quest from Bel-Imperia's brother, Lorenzo.

    Lorenzo is a murderous psycho who uncovers the secret relationship between Horatio and Bel-Imperia. The major conflict occurs when Lorenzo hires henchmen to kill Horatio. He orders the murder to pave the way for an arranged marriage between his sister and Balthazar. This conflict inspires Horatio's father, Hieronimo, to seek revenge against everyone involved in his son's murder.


    Killing Friends in High Places

    The conflict is heightened by the fact that Hieronimo has to get revenge against some of the highest-ranking dudes in Spain and Portugal. It's an ironic complication because Hieronimo's job is precisely to exact justice on criminals as the Knight Marshal of Spain.

    As he begins to find out that his enemies are tight homies with kings, Hieronimo realizes that he will have to act covertly and criminally while cautiously planning his bloody killing spree. The politics of social class and justice will muddy the waters of all his thoughts and actions.


    The Theater of Revenge

    Hieronimo finally gets his revenge as his victims unwittingly follow his scripting of their own doom. And we mean "scripting" in the most literal sense. Because Hieronimo ensnares his victims by having them play the parts of characters that get murdered in a play. His enemies agree to act as if they're being murdered while performing in front of the royal court, but Hieronimo commits real murder under the guise of fiction. Clever, no?

    Unfortunately, Bel-Imperia diverts from Hieronimo's script by killing herself in the action of the play. Hieronimo also wanders from the script by killing a relatively innocent guy. Oh yeah, and then he bites off his own tongue. Apparently, there are some things a playwright just can't control. Still, we get a juicy climax to our play in the same moment that Hieronimo's play climaxes. How's that for hammering the climax into our heads?

    Resolution (Denouement)

    And the Critics Have Their Say

    Keeping with the theatricality of Hieronimo's "final act," the ghost of Don Andrea and Revenge give a "Rotten Tomatoes" review of the play. They basically give the play two thumbs up. Then Revenge explains how all the bad guys will go to especially bad places in Hell, while all the good characters will have much comfier afterlives.

    With all the characters given their just desserts, the plot wraps up quite neatly. The philosophical problems the play presents, however, will ring throughout the halls of eternity. And no, we're not being dramatic—the halls of eternity are ringing.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Don Andrea is unjustly murdered by Prince Balthazar, after which Balthazar finds an ally in Lorenzo as he romantically pursues Andrea's former lover, Bel-Imperia. Horatio becomes Bel-Imperia's lover and protector, but he is brutally murdered by Lorenzo's henchman so that Balthazar can pursue marriage with Bel-Imperia. Hieronimo discovers his son's dead body and vows to avenge his death.

    Act II

    Hieronimo plays a detective type while also dropping deep philosophical knowledge on revenge and justice. His efforts are constantly thwarted because of his relatively low social rank compared to the important snobs he must bring to justice. In the process he either fakes or is actually beset with mental illness.

    Act III

    After finally confirming who murdered his son, Hieronimo comes up with a plan to avenge the bad guys. He carries out this plan by producing a staged drama in which he and Bel-Imperia publicly kill all of the conspirators in Horatio's murder.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Virgil, Book 6 of the Aeneid (1.1.82-83) and Book 4 (4.5.10)
    • Seneca, Agamemnon (3.1.1-11, 3.13.6)
    • Seneca, Troades (3.13.12-13)
    • Lucan, Pharsalia (3.13.19)
    • Seneca, Oedipus (3.13.35)
    • Commedia Dell'arte (4.1.164-66)
    • Sophocles, Ajax (4.4.80)

    Historical References

    • Nero, Roman Emperor (4.1.87-89)

    Mythological References

    • Acheron (1.1.19, 4.4.216, 4.5.42)
    • Charon (1.1.20)
    • Cerberus (1.1.30)
    • Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus (1.1.33, 3.13.142)
    • Myrmidons (1.1.49)
    • The Furies (1.1.65, 3.13.112, 4.5.28)
    • Ixion and the Turning Wheel (1.1.66, 4.5.34)
    • The Elysian Green (1.1.73)
    • Pluto and Proserpine (1.1.76, 3.13.110-120, 4.5.13)
    • Pallas Athena (1.3.20)
    • Pan and Marsyas (2.1.16)
    • Philomela and the Nightingale (2.2.50)
    • Phlegethon (3.1.50)
    • Cherubin (3.8.18)
    • Ariadne (3.10.89)
    • Hercules (3.13.111)
    • Orpheus (3.13.117, 4.5.23)
    • Phoebe and Flora (4.1.148)
    • Charybdis and Scylla (4.4.215)
    • Tityus (4.5.31)
    • Chimera (4.5.36)
    • Sisyphus (4.5.40)

    Biblical References