The Spanish Tragedy is an Elizabethan drama, which some believe may have been a precursor and influence on Hamlet. Like Shakespeare’s better known play, Kyd’s tragedy features a ghost bent on revenge, characters suffering from indecision and madness, and a play-within-a-play which entraps a murderer.
A brief war between Spain and Portugal leads to the death of Don Andrea. The play opens with his ghost recalling his experiences in the underworld and getting permission from Proserpina, the Queen of the Dead, to return to the mortal realm with the allegorical figure of Revenge. They then serve throughout the play as a chorus to comment on the transpiring events of the play with Don Andrea hoping that Balthazar, his murderer, will get his comeuppance. We then return to shortly after the battle is finished. Horatio and Lorenzo have captured Balthazar, the prince of Portugal and Don Andrea’s murderer. Balthazar is taken back to Spain where he is held for ransom, but is treated as an honored guest of Lorenzo and the two soon befriend each other. Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s sister, Bel-imperia, mourns the death of her beloved Don Andrea, but she soon falls in love with Horatio. Balthazar also falls in love with Bel-Imperia. With the help of the Lorenzo and a servant named Pedringano they learn about Bel-Imperia’s love for Horatio, which they see as the primary impediment to Balthazar’s chances with her. They conspire to kill Horatio. He and Bel-Imperia rendezvous in his father’s grove to share their love, but Pedringano betrays their location and Horatio is killed by the two conspirators. Hieronomo, his father, comes to check out the ruckus caused by this event only to find his dead son in the grove. Hieronomo and his wife Isabel descend into a fit of madness over the loss of their son. Hieronimo soon learns the truth of what happened and conspires with Bel-Imperia to get revenge for his son, convincing Lorenzo and Balthazar to participate in a play that bears a similar story line of love and betrayal to his son’s real life experience, and during the play takes his revenge by killing them.
While the similarities of some elements to Hamlet have been noted, a major difference of this plot line is that it is a father attempting to avenge a son’s death rather than the reverse situation. Kyd’s play lacks the depth of character that Shakespeare develops in his plays. Although there are some pretty rhetorical flourishes in the play and some good poetic writing, there is never any line or speech in the play that comes anywhere near Shakespeare’s talent when the Bard is at his best. The play abounds with Classical Allusions to various Greek myths and figures and its revenge oriented plot is places it in the same tradition as Seneca’s plays.
Despite the ghost’s desire for revenge at the beginning of the play, there is a sense of tranquility when we first meet the other characters. Horatio is honored for his valor and capture of Balthazar. The same with Lorenzo. When Horatio is eventually slaughtered the play emphasizes his innocence. He really has done nothing wrong to Lorenzo or Balthazar, except loved Bel-Imperia. We learn, too, that Don Andrea went to war and attempted to prove his valor by putting himself in the thick of the battle in order to prove his worthiness to love someone like Bel-Imperia, which the play hints was above his station, despite being a member of the nobility himself. Even Balthazar ends up in the play that will lead to his death as an entertainment for the King of Spain and his father, the King of Portugal, who is there for his betrothal to Bel-Imperia. These three examples of ill-fated lovers suggests that Bel-Imperia’s love leads people to their deaths. So one message of the play seems to be a warning that one should be careful who they fall in love with, especially if that love gains the disapproval of those in positions of power. Revenge is obviously another theme. Revenge in the allegorical form that converses with the impatient Don Andrea is patient. Hieronimo who serves as marshal and a justice for the king comes to see revenge as an equivalent to justice, justifying his actions as good rather than evil. In his mind by taking revenge, he is getting justice for his son.