Study Guide

The Spanish Tragedy Themes

By Thomas Kyd

  • Revenge

    The Spanish Tragedy opens with a dead guy looking for revenge while standing next to a character named Revenge. So yeah, you can see where Kyd is heading right from the start. You could say that the play is single-mindedly focused on the ethics of revenge, with another few smaller themes merely orbiting around this issue. But the way that these issues orbit around revenge make it clear that acts of revenge affect every facet of public and private life in the play. The real question about revenge is this: when there is no path to legal justice is it ethical to exact private justice?

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Revenge is a dish best served cold. But in this play revenge gets really cold—frigid even. It takes so long to happen that Isabella kills herself, Andrea's ghost gets deathly impatient, and the character Revenge literally falls asleep on the stage. Did you fall asleep before the bloodbath? And what affect does the delay have on revenge when it actually happens?
    2. Does Hieronimo have any alternatives to revenge? It becomes clear that the bad guys in the play aren't subject to the law. But does this justify Hieronimo murdering them? Make a case that Hieronimo is actually a bad guy. Or, defend Hieronimo as a hero for justice. Isn't it cool that you can sometimes have it either way in literature? Well, so long as you base your claims on the text…
    3. It's easy to think of Hieronimo as the prime avenger in the play. But what about the women? Isabella gets her own revenge by destroying the garden where her son was hanged. And Bel-Imperia obviously plays a leading role in getting revenge. Both women also commit suicide as their final act of revenge. So, how is female revenge different from male revenge in the play?
    4. Why is revenge so fun? Admit it, you know you enjoyed it when the baddies died. Does enjoying revenge in the play make you feel satisfied? Guilty? Mixed emotions? Discuss what it makes you feel. And then talk about the difference between literary and real violence?
    5. If you could save one character from dying in the last scene of the play who would it be? If you could kill off another character in the play, which would it be? Give textual evidence to support either saving or taking a literary life.

    Chew on This

    The Spanish Tragedy allows us to think like a victim, a villain, and a vigilante while considering how justice should really be served.

    While most of the play is about how Hieronimo can't find justice in a corrupt system, it's the women of the play who really can't find a voice in the Spanish justice system.

  • Madness

    There's crazy all over the place in The Spanish Tragedy. In fact, madness is a staple in revenge tragedies. After the popularity of Kyd's exploration of madness and revenge, Shakespeare featured disjointed avengers in both Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. And this trend has continued throughout the genre. But usually it's unclear whether or not avengers really go crazy, or if it's just a tactic. Hieronimoand Hamletboth outwardly say that they're merely adopting a mask of madness to keep their enemies guessing. But as readers, we're like, "dude, you really seem crazy." So the question is this: is madness just a way to create ambiguity so avengers can hide in plain sight? Or does wandering outside of the law to seek blood necessarily make people go cray cray?

    Questions About Madness

    1. When exactly does Hieronimo start acting crazy? Is it before or after he announces his plan to "rest […] in unrest" (or act nutty) in Act 3, scene 13? Is madness a well-crafted plan, or is Hieronimo naturally 'coo coo for cocoa puffs?' And since that last reference is from the 70s, here's what we mean.
    2. Hieronimo isn't the only crazy bird in the play. What about Balthazar's love madness for Bel-Imperia? And what about Isabella's descent into madness that ends with her taking her anger out on a garden? And what about the Portuguese Viceroy's violent mood swings? Now that we think of it, who are the sane characters in the play? If you think there are any, consider what happens to them as you talk about the consequences of sanity in a crazy world.
    3. Is crazy just a matter of context? For example, a character named "Second Portuguese" (yes, there's a first) says about Hieronimo, "Doubtless this man is passing lunatic" (3.13.34). And while he makes this diagnosis based on Hieronimo's ranting and raving, as an audience we understand that his wild speech is totally justified if we consider the context of his son's murder? Is madness in the play just a result of being misunderstood?
    4. The last scene of the play is, for lack of a better word, crazy. Forget about the mass killing and a protagonist biting off his own tongue (or don't) and consider why Hieronimo wrote a play in which each character speaks a different language. What does all this scripted misunderstanding have to do with madness?

    Chew on This

    People go crazy in The Spanish Tragedy when they can't get what they want: whether they want revenge, an out of reach girlfriend, or just to be heard, madness is the only effective way to get what you want in a corrupt system that denies fundamental human emotions.

    It's not him, it's the system that's crazy. Hieronimo is a moral man who discards his values and even his sanity because it takes a nut to survive in a crazy world.

    Bel-Imperia is the only avenger in the play that doesn't go crazy, but her suicide serves as a reminder that female assertiveness in the play is only possible through self-sacrifice.

  • Memory and the Past

    The Spanish Tragedy wants to make past memories real. And by real we mean living, present, and in some cases even touchable. Memory is the great mover in the play. To make this point clear the play goes out of its way to link memories to what motivates characters to pursue violent forms of justice. Memories of murdered loved ones and tokens of remembrance inspire violent action from seemingly law-abiding characters. And we also witness how memories of past crimes inspire new crimes in a seemingly endless loop. You could say memory haunts the play like a ghost. Oh yeah, there is a ghost that haunts the play. And when you think about it, ghosts are really just really spooky memories of life. And don't you ever forget that.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. You could argue that the biggest thing that happens in the play doesn't even happen in the play. And that's because the biggest thing that happens is just a memory. The play opens with a ghost talking about his life in the past tense. And this past tense ghost is the impetus of every single murder that happens in the play. Consider how the memory of Andrea's murder haunts and motivates his friends. And then consider how his memory haunts and motivates his enemies. Would the world of the play be a better place if everyone had shorter memories? Do memories inspire anyone in the play to do something positive?
    2. A ghost is really just a memory of life. In this respect, a haunted house is just a home with a really vivid memory. As a haunted play, how does The Spanish Tragedy ask you to remember a murder we never witness? Does the ghost give enough details to provide a vivid memory of how he died? Or does the text leave information out putting the burden on you to imaginatively create your own memory? Without looking at the text, write a descriptive paragraph about how Andrea dies—make it a little short story. Did you add new details? Lose others? Consider how our reading memories can influence the way we experience a text.
    3. There's a handkerchief that gets a lot of mileage in the play. First it's a love token from Bel-Imperia to Andrea. And then it becomes a love token between Bel-Imperia and Horatio. Finally, Hieronimo smears it with the blood of Horatio to serve as a reminder to spur his revenge. Characters repeatedly forget what the hanky once was so they can remember it as something new. What does this hanky tell us about human memory and loyalty?
    4. The play portrays the afterlife as a memory of life. That is, the memory of how a character lives his/her life is used as a means to dole out punishments and rewards after death. Examine the first speech alongside the last scene of the play with a mind to how memory and the afterlife are used to explore the problems of justice among the living.

    Chew on This

    The Spanish Tragedy gives conflicting reports on important events in the play, which ultimately puts the burden on readers to make tough choices while forming our own memories while reading.

    Revenge is motivated by memories that lead to violence that in turn create new memories that inspire new revenge, making The Spanish Tragedy a complex exploration of how violence self-perpetuates in human culture.

  • Society and Class

    When we talk about society and class in The Spanish Tragedy, we mean the boundaries that exist between individuals based on social rank. In some ways, social rank in the 16th century is easy for us to grasp: the king outranks the duke, the duke outranks the gentleman lawyer, and the lawyer outranks the farmer. Done. But where modern society thinks about social rank in terms of wealth, or the have's and the have-nots, Renaissance society thought of rank as a matter of birth—you're either born to be king or not, or as you move down the scale you're either well-born or low-born. Class distinction is responsible for a ton of the dramatic tension in the play, so let's check out what all this hoity-toity snobbery is all about.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. The play focuses intently on the problems with Revenge. But could you make the argument that class distinctions are the real problem? Bel-Imperia's love affair with Andrea and Horatio is frowned upon, which in turn brings scorn from her father and brother. And her brother Lorenzo at least pretends to be motivated by protecting her from marrying the wrong sort. Without harsh class distinctions would we still get the same kind of violence?
    2. Pedringano, the Prince of Portugal, often breaks into rhymed poetry while speaking. But the messenger boy talks in plain, everyday prose. What does language have to do with social distinction in The Spanish Tragedy? And do different social classes today speak markedly different? If so, explain. If not, what do you think has changed?
    3. Hieronimo has an important career as a judge. And yet, he ranks significantly lower on the social scale relative to the king, Lorenzo, Balthazar, and the Duke of Castile. What does this say about how justice is valued in the play? And how specifically does his social rank inhibit his revenge? And what, if anything, does all this say about the relationship between social status and justice in the play?
    4. Does the play make an argument about social distinction in the 16th century? Or put another way, was Kyd trying to say that lowborn characters are morally superior to the out-of-touch nobility? If so, explain how the nobility are out-of-touch and the lowborn characters are virtuous. If you don't think the play argues in favor of one class or another, explain how class issues are ultimately neutralized.

    Chew on This

    Hieronimo's frustrated path to find justice for his family illuminates how 16th-century privilege outweighed impartial judgment.

    As a well-born woman, Bel-Imperia does not reap the same class rewards as her male counterparts, which suggests that gender disparity is the biggest social chasm of the 16th century.

    While some critics see the Duke of Castile's death as random and arbitrary, Hieronimo's decision to kill the duke reflects a negative view on arranged marriages designed to maintain familial nobility.