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Kyd and Revenge Tragedy

Adrian Streete

Chronology and context

Thomas Kyd was born in London in 1558, the same year that Elizabeth I
ascended to the throne of England. Though firm biographical facts about
Kyd are hard to come by, there is a reasonable degree of scholarly consensus
about the bare outlines of his life.1 His father, Francis, was a scrivener, a
copier or drafter of important documents. There seems little reason to doubt
Arthur Freeman’s suggestion that the young Kyd grew up “in a lively commer-
cial quarter of London, in a comfortable middle-class household, and in the
company of a younger sister, a brother and a servant or two.”2 Nevertheless,
this should not be taken to imply that the Kyd family’s social standing
was one of straightforward bourgeois solidity. In fact, the social status of
scriveners in early modern England was a mixed one.
Though they were undoubtedly a crucial profession in terms of servicing the
early modern state, scriveners also attracted a fair amount of opprobrium
throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As James R. Siemon
notes, they were attacked because they had access to prior knowledge of the
financial dealings of all sections of society, for acting as loan brokers and
financial intermediaries, “as well as more generally for vulgar aspiration to
distinction and high art”3 through their mastery of calligraphy. Whether
Kyd experienced either directly or indirectly the hostility that Francis Kyd’s
profession attracted must remain a matter of biographical speculation. But
what can be said is that like his contemporaries or near-contemporaries
Greene, Lyly, Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele, Thomas Kyd was part of a genera-
tion of writers that emerged from that highly mobile social grouping referred
to by L. C. Knights as “the ‘new men’ of commerce and industry.”4 It is per-
haps then no coincidence that such a socially mobile group was quick to
recognize the newly established London commercial theatre as a potential
route to economic as well as social advancement.
In 1565 at the age of seven, Kyd began to attend the Merchant Taylors’
School. Others who were schooled here included the writers Edmund Spenser


A. Hiscock et al. (eds.), Teaching Shakespeare and Early Modern Dramatists

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2007
Adrian Streete 27

and Thomas Lodge, as well as the future Jacobean bishop Lancelot Andrewes.5
The headmaster of the School was the famous humanist and scholar Richard
Mulcaster, author of two well-known books of Elizabethan pedagogy,
Positions (1581) and The First Part of the Elementary (1582). Though ostensibly
set up for reasons of charity and a humanist-inspired belief in the social effi-
cacy of the studia humanitatis that included Latin and Greek, it seems that
not everyone was convinced by the broad social aims of the Merchant
Schools. Indeed, as Mulcaster himself wrote: “They will give a scholer some
petie poore exhibition to seeme to be religious, and under the sclender veale
of counterfeit liberalitie, hide the spoil of the ransacked povertie.”6 Whether
or not Mulcaster’s comment parallels Kyd’s own experience, it is noticeable
that unlike all the other contemporaries mentioned (but, interestingly,
like the younger Shakespeare) Kyd did not go on to either of the universities.
There is no direct evidence that Kyd followed in his father’s trade.7 Still, it is
worth noting that more than most other dramas of the period, The Spanish
Tragedy is a play in which the business of reading and writing are emphasized
almost obsessively.8 The letters that save Alexandro from burning at the
stake; Bel-imperia’s letter written in blood to Hieronimo; the empty box that
should contain Pedringano’s pardon; Hieronimo’s play written in “unknowne
languages” (IV.i.172);9 the pen-knife that Hieronimo kills himself with: these
examples (and others) evince the extent to which various forms of textuality
are significantly implicated and problematized in the social world of the play.
The first probable mark that Kyd makes on London’s literary scene is in the
years around 1585 when he is recorded as writing plays (now lost) for the
stage: he also served for a brief time in the household of an unidentified
nobleman, possibly Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange.10 In the Armada year,
1588, an edition of Torquato Tasso’s The Householders Philosophie translated
by a “TK” was published and a few years later, in 1591, Kyd is recorded as
lodging with the dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe. Between those
dates, it seems likely that The Spanish Tragedy was first written and performed
on the London stage, though the first surviving edition is generally accepted
to date from 1592.11 What can be in no doubt is the sheer popularity of the
play with the theatre-going public.12 It was one of the most regularly per-
formed dramas of the day and in 1602 the impresario Philip Henslowe
paid Ben Jonson for certain additions13 to Kyd’s original that, along with the
publication of a constant stream of editions, ensured the continuing popu-
larity of the play well into the seventeenth century. The Spanish Tragedy was
endlessly referred to, parodied and reworked, and many names and phrases
from the drama quickly attained proverbial status amongst playwrights and
As the reference to Jonson’s 1602 additions implies, Kyd did not live long
enough to savour the continued popular success of his play. In 1593, Kyd
and Marlowe’s lodgings were searched on the order of the Privy Council who
were looking for evidence connecting either or both of the writers to a sharp