The following essay is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.
In direct and vivid energy of language, in powerful antithesis of character, and in skilful and effective construction of plot, in the chief qualities that make a good acting play, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo will bear comparison with the best work of any of Shakespeare's predecessors. That it passed through more editions than perhaps any play of the Elizabethans age is not at all surprising; it offered many points for ridicule to the wits of the time, but its unflagging interest and strong emotions of pity and suspense went straight to the popular heart.
The prominence of The Spanish Tragedy in the public mind is shown by the mention of it in Jonson's Cynthia's Revels, The Return from Parnassus, Thomas May's Heir, and other writings of the time. A less obtrusive evidence--but more complimentary to Kyd if it arose from choice and not from necessity--is the fact of Shakespeare's familiarity with the play, as proved by numerous echoes and adaptations of its phraseology and its situations.
One remarkable point in the plot of this double play is the breadth and scope of the action. Lorenzo, and antitype of Iago, plans the murder of his brother-in-law Andrea, and the dishonour of his sister Belimperia. Jeronimo and his son Horatio, the friend of Andrea, become aware of the plot, and write to Andrea warning him of his danger. Were the villain at this point to be exposed and the intended victim preserved for a happy life, or were all the principal personages to perish tragically, the action of the play would still be of ordinary breadth. But this is only half of the action of the First Part of Jeronimo. Jeronimo's letter never reaches Andrea, and Lorenzo's plot miscarries by an ingeniously conceived accident; yet, after all, the man whose assassination was arranged is dishonourably killed in battle by the myrmidons of Balthazar, the young prince of Portugal, and the First Part ends with Andrea's ghost bequeathing to Horatio the duty of revenge. In the Second Part, a marriage is contrived between Balthazar, who has been taken prisoner, and Belimperia the widow of Andrea. She loathes him and falls in love with Horatio. Horatio, the appointed revenger of Andrea's death, is hanged in his father's garden by Lorenzo and Balthazar. This takes place in the first two Acts. The remaining three are occupied with Hieronimo's madness at the loss of his only son, partly real, partly feigned. Like Hamlet, he is not at first certain of the murderers, and even when he discovers them indubitably, he bides his time. At last he hits upon the scheme of representing a play before the Court, and procuring that the actors be Lorenzo, Balthazar, Belimperia, and himself. They kill in earnest when they should kill but in jest: Belimperia stabs Balthazar, whose servants had killed her husband, and then stabs herself; Hieronimo stabs Lorenzo, the murderer of his son, then makes a speech disclosing to the horrified Court the "realism" of the play, and hangs himself.
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