Study Guide

Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy

By Thomas Kyd

Bel-Imperia

An Unfortunate Life

And we mean unfortunate to say the least. Because her misfortune defines her character and her actions, let's take a look at her bad luck:

  • Her first love dies at the start of the play.
  • Her second love dies during their first rendezvous.
  • Her brother is pure evil.
  • Evil brother kills her second love and tries to hook her up with stalker-creep-Balthazar (who murdered her first love).
  • Her father forces her to marry the stalker creep.
  • She gets imprisoned for nothing.
  • She uses her blood to write a letter from prison
  • And she kills herself at the end of the play.

Feeling better about your own life? We hope so.

Strength, Brains, and Complexity

Despite her hard luck, Bel-Imperia is a strong, smart woman who controls her own destiny in the worst situations Kyd could imagine. She could've easily played the role of victim. Instead, she uses her awesome skills to take down her enemies. Her ability to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances makes her a force to be reckoned with.

But one of her quick adaptations may come off as cold-blooded. Because hot on the heels of learning about her first lover's death, she's already looking to the next guy: "Yet what avails to wail Andrea's death,/ From whence Horatio proves my second love" (1.4.61). She's essentially saying, "why bother crying for Andrea when I can find a second love in Horatio?" It's definitely a quick switcheroo, but she also says Horatio couldn't win her love if he weren't so tight with Andrea.

But, wait. Is this all really about love? Maybe not. Because she also says,

Yes, second love shall further my revenge.
I'll love Horatio, my Andrea's friend,
The more to spite the Prince that wrought his end.
(1.4.66-68)

Before you chalk her up as cold and calculating, think about her point of view. Her boyfriend was just murdered, she knows the guy who murdered him is pursuing her, and she can't even trust her family to look out for her. Also, the relationship she begins to forge with Horatio is natural and loving. She's a solitary figure in a cruel world that is crueler still for women.

Given all the stuff she deals with, it's easy to see her as heroic.

A New Woman

Whatever you decide, there's no denying her complexity. And this makes her a remarkably unique female character for the period. Kyd deserves major kudos for making her a smart, multifaceted woman with a drive for revenge that equals that of Hieronimo. Ladies like that weren't exactly coming out of the woodwork in 16th-century drama.

It's also easy to argue that she's way tougher than Hieronimo. Hieronimo gets all emo and ineffective for long stretches of the play. But Bel-Imperia faces way worse trials with way more strength and composure. She verbally reduces Balthazar to a melancholic pile, drains her own blood to write a letter, and refuses to play the passive role Hieronimo tries to impose on her at the end of the play.

In short, she's super smart and super bad.

Because of all this, Bel-Imperia is a precursor for some of the more celebrated strong, female characters that begin to appear on the Elizabethan stage some twenty years later. So keep in mind that she paved the way for groundbreaking characters like Beatrice, Portia, Rosalind… and maybe even Lady Macbeth. Today, you might see her in characters like the one Jessica Chastain plays in Zero Dark Thirty. And Hollywood took forever to portray women as tough crusaders—The Spanish Tragedy made woman roar in the 1580s.