The Spanish Tragedy
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE SPANISH TRAGEDY
“Infortunate condition of kings,” laments the Viceroy of Portugal at length (III.i.1ff). Editors declare this a common theme in Elizabethan literature, but Oxford is probably responsible for most or all instances, including Richard II. The Viceroy broods on the spin of Fortune’s wheel as it pertains to kings. It is the occasion of Alexandro’s execution. One nobleman is surprised that the “countenance” of Alexandro could hide such hatred (III.i.18), but Villuppo rallies resentment against the condemned man. Alexandro is brought in, resigned to leave the corrupt world yet protesting his innocence. By order of the Viceroy he is bound to a stake. He accuses Villuppo of malice and false accusation, and Villuppo, calling Alexandro an “Injurious traitor, monstrous homicide!” (III.i.57), moves to help the fire be lit.
But the Ambassador arrives in time to stop the proceedings with news that Balthazar lives and peace with the Spanish court is accomplished. Letters prove all. Alexandro is released and Villuppo taken. When asked for a motive, Villuppo claims, “for reward and hope to be preferred / Thus have I shamelessly hazarded his life” (III.i.95-96). The Viceroy figures that the whole burning at the stake idea is too weak for Villuppo; he must suffer “with the bitterest torments and extremes / That may be yet invented for thine end” (III.i.100-101; cp. Iago, Don John). Alexandro will be honored.
In a long soliloquy, Hieronimo expresses his emotions, mostly rage, over the death of his son Horatio. He is interrupted by a letter falling from above, written in blood by Bel-imperia and informing Hieronimo that her brother Lorenzo and Balthazar are responsible for the murder. They have hidden her. She calls for revenge. Hieronimo is wary and suspects a trap, so he will do nothing but observe and listen to find out more.
Pedringano comes along, and Hieronimo asks him where his lady Bel-imperia is. Pedringano doesn’t know, but here’s Lorenzo, who says that his father, the Duke of Castile, “hath / Upon some disgrace awhile removed her hence” (III.ii.57-58). He¹d be glad to pass along a message. Hieronimo extracts himself awkwardly from the conversation and leaves.
[In a replacement expansion from the 1602 edition of the play, in answer to Lorenzo’s questioning about what’s concerning Hieronimo, the latter says, “In troth, my lord, it is a thing of nothing, / The murder of a son, or so: / A thing of nothing, my lord” (Second Addition 9-11). That’s familiar from Hamlet.]
Lorenzo notes Hieronimo’s odd behavior and blames Serberine (Balthazar’s servant) for revealing the truth about the murder. Pedringano says that’s impossible: Serberine has not been out of his company since the murder. But Lorenzo insists Serberine is a liability and is determined to have him eliminated. He offers Pedringano gold to help him with the deed at St. Luigi’s Park tonight. Lorenzo sends a page to deliver the summons to Serberine. Lorenzo then privately reveals that his real plan is to have the night-watch on hand so he can frame Pedringano with Serberine’s murder. But he was greedy for gold, and besides, slaves are “ordained” to die (III.ii.119).
Pedringano, pistol in hand, prays to Fortune and talks himself into thinking all is safe and Lorenzo will protect him if need be, while he lurks in Saint Luigi’s park. Three watchmen meanwhile wonder why they’ve been commanded to patrol near the Duke of Castile’s residence. Serberine comes along, expecting to meet with Lorenzo, as the page had conveyed. Pedringano practically quotes Claudio from Much Ado: “Here comes the bird that I must seize upon” (III.iii.28). He shoots Serberine down. The watchmen hear the shot, see the corpse, and nab Pedringano. When asked why he did it, Pedringano defiantly retorts, “Why? because he walked abroad so late” (III.iii.50). The watchmen will take him to Hieronimo’s house. Pedringano, no doubt trusting in Lorenzo’s rescue, arrogantly goes with them.
Balthazar wonders why Lorenzo is up so early in the morning. Lorenzo says he’s worried about them having been betrayed by the underlings regarding the murder. He says he’s convinced that all has been revealed to Hieronimo. A page brings word of Serberine having been killed by Pedringano. Balthazar is shocked and Lorenzo successfully riles him up further against Pedringano. Balthazar, although going about it legally by summoning the Marshal-Session, swears, “die he shall for this his damned deed” (III.iv.37). He rushes off.
Lorenzo gloats privately with a bird-snaring metaphor about his successful and undetected manipulations. A messenger brings a letter in which Pedringano requests help from Lorenzo. Lorenzo returns a message of reassurance and gives the page a box which he says contains a signed pardon for Pedringano. The boy is forbidden to look inside or to open it until Pedringano is about to be hanged. The Page takes off and Lorenzo gloats some more.
The Page, en route, confesses that male children “are like women in their uncertainty: that they are most forbidden, they will soonest attempt” (III.v.3-5). He opens the box and sees that it is empty. (The image of the empty box is a favorite discussion point of critics.) Like Launce regarding Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Page remarks, “Were it not sin against secrecy, I would say it were a piece of gentleman-like knavery” (III.v.6-8). But he has to smile at the thought of Pedringano’s arrogance on the gallows, presuming his pardon is accomplished. It’s a “scurvy jest” (III.v.16), but if he doesn’t comply he’ll be killed too.
Hieronimo, accompanied by a deputy, notes the irony of his being expected to serve as a judge in establishing justice for others while he can find no justice in his own circumstances. Officers bring in Pedringano, who says he had written another letter to Lorenzo but sees now that reassurance from the messenger and the pardon in the box with the boy have arrived. Pedringano acts arrogantly and boldly confesses to the murder, assuming there will be no consequences. He exchanges insults with the hangman while the boy continues pointing to the box. Hieronimo is disgusted: “I have not seen a wretch so impudent! / O monstrous times, where murder’s set so light” (III.vi.89-90). He leaves, and the hangman does his work without any pardon ever being produced. Pedringano’s body will remain unburied so as not to pollute the earth (cp. Titus Andronicus).
Hieronimo communes with nature but finds no relief for his suffering. The Hangman, who has picked up Lavatch’s practice in All’s Well That Ends Well of beginning his utterances with “O lord sir” (III.vii.19, 22), brings him a letter — the one Pedringano wrote to Lorenzo but never sent. The hangman is concerned that a mistake was made, but Hieronimo reassures him. Hieronimo reads the letter which, while threatening to rat out Lorenzo if he does not help him, reveals the guilty parties in both murders. Hieronimo realizes that the letter from Bel-imperia was legit. He rants against Lorenzo and heads off to seek justice at last from the King.
“First Isabella ‘runs lunatic’, a development suggesting that Christian forbearance counts for little against the ravages of grief and uuncertainty” (Hamlin 159). Hieronimo’s wife in fact runs botanically lunatic, not unlike Ophelia:
So that, you say, this herb will purge the eye,
And this the head?
Ah, but none of them will purge the heart:
No, there’s no medicine left for my disease,
Nor any physic to recure the dead.
Her maid tries to calm her, but although Isabella gets some pleasure in the thought that Horatio is singing in Heaven with “his newly-healed wounds” (III.viii.19), she thinks again of the unidentified murderers and screams for justice.
Bel-imperia is at her window, but imprisoned by Lorenzo, pondering her lot. She wonders why Lorenzo is insisting on martyring her and what is keeping Hieronimo from avenging his son’s death. She apostrophizes to Andrea, who would have been aghast at how she is treated and Horatio murdered. But she must remain patient.
The Page assures Lorenzo that Pedringano is dead. Lorenzo feels safe enough now to give a ring to the page for Christophil who will give it to Bel-imperia. She can be set free now. Lorenzo instructs Balthazar to be cunning enough to act light and jesting with Bel-imperia to dispel her suspicions: “under feigned jest / Are things concealed that else would breed unrest” (III.x.22-23). Bel-imperia enters, openly accusing Lorenzo of murdering Horatio and holding her prisoner. Lorenzo tries to insist he acted for her honor and reputation. He suggests that her marriage to Balthazar had been arranged by the King and the Viceroy. When he found her meeting Horatio, who was a social inferior like Andrea, Lorenzo and Balthazar had to kill him and imprison her to cover up her dishonor. Dad was in a furious rage, so best that she be out of harm’s way, especially from him “Who burnt like Aetna for Andrea’s loss” (III.x.75). Lorenzo whispers in her ear about Balthazar’s love for her and his melancholy. Initially, Bel-imperia behaves courteously, but she remains haughty and aloof. Lorenzo strings Balthazar along though, promising more discussion at court.
[In a portion of this scene appearing in the 1602 edition of the play, Hieronimo speechifies:
My son, and what’s a son? A thing begot
Within a pair of minutes, thereabout:
A lump bred up in darkness, and doth serve
To ballace these light creatures we call women;
And, at nine moneths’ end, creeps forth to light.
What is there yet in a son
To make a father dote, rave or run mad?
Being born, it pouts, cries, and breeds teeth.
What is there yet in a son? He must be fed,
Be taught to go, and speak. Ay, or yet?
Why might not a man love a calf as well?
Or melt in passion o’er a frisking kid,
As for a son? Methinks a young bacon
Or a fine little smooth horse-colt
Should move a man as much as doth a son:
For one of these in very little time
Will grow to some use, whereas a son….
(Third Addition 4-20)
Eventually Hieronimo roams rhetorically back to bemoaning the death of Horatio and hoping for some measure of justice.]
Two Portuguese men ask Hieronimo the way to the Duke’s home. They then ask if his son, Lorenzo, is there. Hieronimo tells them of a left path “That leadeth from a guilty conscience / Unto a forest of distrust and fear” (III.xi.14-15). Head for the rocky cliffs; the “filthy and detested fumes” (III.xi.23) mean you’re going in the right direction, and,
There, in a brazen cauldron, fixed by Jove
In his fell wrath upon a sulphur flame,
Yourselves shall find Lorenzo bathing him
In boiling lead and blood of innocents.
The Portuguese men respond with nervous laughter and the suspicion that Hieronimo is a lunatic or senile.
Hieronimo has a dagger and a rope. He reveals in sonnet format that he is ready to kill himself but then considers that no one will be left to avenge Horatio’s murder. So he throws away the implements of death.
The King of Spain accompanied by the Ambassador, the Duke of Castile, and Lorenzo, is too busy to attend to Hieronimo’s request for justice. The Ambassador brings enthusiastic word from the Viceroy about the marriage proposed between Balthazar and Bel-imperia, and the Viceroy will even come to attend. As soon as the two are married, the Viceroy will abdicate the throne: Balthazar and Bel-imperia will be King and Queen.
The Ambassador adds that he has brought the ransom due Horatio for the release of Balthazar. At the mention of the name, Hieronimo asks the King for justice, but the King seems alone in not knowing that Horatio is dead. Hieronimo flips out, digging at the ground with his dagger like Timon of Athens and ranting about revenge before leaving. Lorenzo tells the King that Hieronimo is so covetous over the huge ransom that he has gone mad. The King feels pity for Hieronimo and has the Duke go to give Hieronimo the ransom. Lorenzo says that Hieronimo should be removed from office, but the King says this would only worsen his madness. He looks forward instead to the marriage.
[In a scene from the 1602 edition, servants Jaques and Pedro discuss Hieronimo’s distracted mind since his son’s death, confirmed by Hieronimo’s insane search for Horatio all about: “Night is a murderous slut, / That would not have her treasons to be seen” (Fourth Addition 31-32). Hieronimo is able to focus correctly, and Isabella bids him come back inside. But a painter named Bazardo comes along. He also has had a son murdered. Hieronimo wants to commission him to paint a pleasant scene of the family — Hieronimo himself, Isabella, and Horatio — as they were five years ago. But his imagined picture morphs into a darker vision, until, “Draw me like old Priam of Troy, crying ‘The house is a-fire, the house is a-fire as the torch over my head!’ Make me curse, make me rave, make me cry, make me mad, make me well again, make me curse hell, invocate heaven, and in the end leave me in a trance; and so forth” (153-157).]
“Vindicta mihi!” [“Vengeance is mine”], quotes Hieronimo in a soliloquy (Romans 12:19). “Per scelus semper tutum est sceleribus iter” [“The safe way for crimes is through (further) crimes”], he quotes Seneca’s Agamemnon, expressing an idea Macbeth also recognizes.
And to conclude, I will revenge his death!
But how? Not as the vulgar wits of men,
With open, but inevitable ills,
As by a secret, yet a certain mean,
Which under kindship will be cloaked best.
Wise men will take their opportunity,
Closely and safely fitting things to time.
But in extremes advantage hath no time;
And therefore all times fit not for revenge.
Thus he also echoes Hamlet. And then, vaguely, King Leir and The Taming of the Shrew: “Thus therefore will I rest me in unrest” (III.xiii.29). He decides to be stealthy with Lorenzo and Balthazar.
A servant introduces several poor petitioners who want Hieronimo to represent their causes to the King. They affirm his fine legal reputation — and the playwright knows the specific status and function of the “corregidor” (III.xiii.58) — but their issues concern leases and bonds. Hieronimo is more taken with an old man who turns out to have a grief similar to Hieronimo’s. The old man has difficulty talking about it and so offers Hieronimo a document instead, titled “The humble supplication / Of Don Bazulto for his murdered son” (III.xiii.78-79). Hieronimo is agitated and begins to give the old man a handkerchief, but it’s Horatio’s. So he gives the old man money and pitches a fit about his own inadequate grief. Hieronimo swears again, in the name(s) of the underworld, that he will have revenge. He tears up the legal papers of the other petitioners and seems to think the old man is Horatio, or a Fury, but settles on the notion that the man is a manifestation of his own grief. Together they must visit Isabella:
And thou, and I, and she, will sing a song,
Three parts in one, but all of discords framed —
Talk not of cords, but let us now be gone,
For with a cord Horatio was slain.
The King, the Duke, Lorenzo, Balthazar, the Ambassador, and Bel-imperia greet the Viceroy of Portugal before the wedding. The Duke of Castile and his son Lorenzo have a private conflab. The Duke thinks Lorenzo may be undermining Bel-imperia’s marriage plans by treating Hieronimo shabbily. Lorenzo insists he has only been trying to keep Hieronimo from running mad before the King. The Duke calls for Hieronimo.
Balthazar and Bel-imperia exchange love-chat. The Duke assures Bel-imperia he is not vexed with her now that she has gotten over Andrea. The servant brings in a suspicious Hieronimo:
What new device have they devised, trow?
Pocas palabras! mild as the lamb,
Is ‘t I will be revenged? No, I am not the man.
“Pocas palabras” (literally “few words” in Spanish), “a genteel form of ‘shut up,'” are the only words of Spanish in the play (Berney 20). It is, however, an utterance we hear, slightly bungled, from Christopher Sly in the beginning of the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew (I.5). Dogberry gives it in abbreviated form, “palabras,” in Much Ado About Nothing (III.v.16).
The Duke expresses concern that Hieronimo is “aggrieved” (III.xiv.131) at Lorenzo for restricting access to the King and intercepting his suits. Hieronimo histrionically draws his sword against anyone who would so insult Lorenzo. Like Bel-imperia to Balthazar, Hieronimo sweetly expresses friendship with Lorenzo, until he’s alone and expresses his contempt.
Andrea rants further about events and about Revenge having been asleep. He wake Revenge up and gripes about Hieronimo making nice with Lorenzo. Revenge assures Andrea that Hieronimo’s vengefulness will come forth eventually.
A dumb show provides further reassurance for Andrea. Revenge explains that the masque signifies a wedding that ends in blood. Andrea is better contented and will resume watching: “And thanks to thee and those infernal powers / That will not tolerate a lover’s woe” (III.xv.37-38). Is that true?