The Spanish Tragedy
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE SPANISH TRAGEDY
Bel-imperia rails at Hieronimo for forgetting his son. She will have to avenge Horatio’s murder herself. Hieronimo sees she is sincere in her wrath at the others and asks that she forgive him for the delay. Hieronimo promises to kill the murderers, and he already has a plan. She’ll help, she says.
Balthazar and Lorenzo arrive, the former jokingly asking if Hieronimo is courting Bel-imperia. The two want Hieronimo’s help: entertainment for the upcoming wedding. Hieronimo will be happy to comply.
When I was young I gave my mind
And plied myself to fruitless poetry:
Which though it profit the professor naught,
Yet is it passing pleasing to the world.
Hieronimo wrote a tragedy when he was a student in Toledo, and he invites Balthazar and Lorenzo to accept parts in the play. After all, Nero didn’t think it beneath him to do so.
Hieronimo’s play is Soliman and Perseda, a work that had an independent life in anonymous editions including two 1599 quartos; “there is no external evidence to indicate its author” (Frederick S. Boas, ed. The Works of Thomas Kyd. Oxford: Clarendon, 1901. lvi), and the comic subplot involving Piston and Basilisco — a name mentioned in Shakespeare’s King John (I.i.244) — is not considered ito be in Kyd’s style. Nevertheless, he ends up with credit for the anonymous play based on the spurious assigning of The Spanish Tragedy to him. Oy.
Balthazar and Lorenzo accept their parts in the play, and Hieronimo wants Bel-imperia to join the troupe too, “For what’s a play without a woman in it?” (IV.i.97). She agrees. At Balthazar’s request, Hieronimo explains the “argument” (IV.i.107): the Spanish chronicles tell of a knight of Rhodes and his Italian wife, Perseda, whose beauty inspired the lust of the chief wedding guest, Soliman, who had the knight murdered by his courtier. But Perseda killed Soliman and then herself: “and this the tragedy” (IV.i.126). Lorenzo loves it. Bel-imperia wonders what happens to the courtier. Hieronimo says he hanged himself in remorse; he’ll take that part. Balthazar will play Soliman with a Turkish cap and mustache; Lorenzo will play the knight with a cross; Bel-imperia will play Perseda “Like Phoebe, Flora, or the Huntress” (IV.i.148). Balthazar thinks a comedy would be better, but Hieronimo says that “comedies are fit for common wits” (IV.i.157) and the occasion calls for something more stately. Italian tragedians used to be especially sharp. Hieronimo adds that each of them must deliver lines in a separate language: Lorenzo in Latin, Hieronimo in Greek, Balthazar in Italian, Bel-imperia in French. Balthazar says this will be confusion, but Hieronimo promises to explain all in a conclusion. “As in the Spanish Tragedy, so in All’s Well, a surplus of words breeds ‘confusion’ as often as communication” (Garber 631). Balthazar is dubious, but Lorenzo thinks this will “soothe his [Hieronimo’s] humours up” (IV.i.192). After they leave, Hieronimo is gleeful that he shall “see the fall of Babylon” (IV.i.195).
Isabella is in the garden with a weapon. “Since neither piety nor pity moves / The king to justice or compassion” (IV.ii.2-3), she will avenge herself upon this place where Horatio was murdered. She cuts down the arbour and various branches and wants to destroy the entire place. She apostrophizes to Hieronimo regarding his long delay in revenge, and she stabs herself to death.
The Duke of Castile is concerned that Hieronimo is doing all the stage preparation himself, but Hieronimo accepts the responsibility as author and asks the Duke “To give the king the copy of the play: / This is the argument of what we show” (IV.iii.6-7). The Duke agrees. One more thing: the Duke must throw a key down to the floor for him when the audience is in the gallery. Balthazar arrives with his only beard half on. Hieronimo starts to berate him, but then remembers the purpose of the event, with the addition of his wife’s suicide now too.
The King, Viceroy, Duke, and their attendants settle in to see the play. Despite Hieronimo’s earlier instructions that the players would deliver their lines in various languages, a note explains that a translation into English has taken place “for the easier understanding to every public reader.”
Balthazar / Soliman starts off with a triumphant speech regarding the battle for Rhodes. But the sight of Perseda has eclipsed the moment. The King meanwhile comments on Balthazar’s passionate acting. The Viceroy and Castile think he’s inspired by his real passion for Bel-imperia. Balthazar / Soliman expresses his friendship with Lorenzo / Erasto but Lorenzo / Erasto gets along a little too well with Bel-imperia / Perseda, so the bashaw / Hieronimo advises Soliman to eliminate Erasto. Despite some reluctance, Soliman does stab Erasto. Perseda spurns Soliman and takes revenge by stabbing him and then herself.
The King and Viceroy are impressed by the realism. Hieronimo concludes matters “in our vulgar tongue” (IV.iv.75), mentioning that theatrical expectation is that these tragically killed characters will jump up alive again at the end of the production to entertain again tomorrow.
No, princes; know I am Hieronimo,
The hopeless father of a hapless son.
He brings forth the corpse of his son and explains at length the backstory. He also mentions that the part was written without Perseda’s suicide but that Bel-imperia took it upon herself to perish at her own hand. (What a trooper!) Hieronimo finishes his discourse and rushes off to hang himself. The King and Viceroy raise a cry.
[In a replacement passage from the 1602 edition, Hieronimo invites the two join him in friendship: “Let us lay our heads together; / See here’s a goodly noose will hold them all” (Fifth Addition 5-6). The Viceroy is offended at Hieronimo’s self-assurance, and Hieronimo says it comes from seeing vengeance accomplished — “this red pool” (15). The King calls for torture, but Hieronimo tortures him with specification of the dashed legacy of Spain.]
The King and Viceroy hold Hieronimo and demand an explanation (which he has already provided). Hieronimo has said his piece and closes down: “What lesser liberty can kings afford / Than harmless silence? then afford it me: / Sufficeth I may not, nor I will not tell thee” (IV.iv.180-182). The King threatens torture, but Hieronimo says he’s been tortured all along: “And therefore in despite of all thy threats, / Pleased with their deaths, and eased with their revenge, / First take my tongue, and afterwards my heart” (IV.iv.189-191). He bites out his tongue.
“Yet he can write” (IV.iv.195), says the Duke, with a savvy needed earlier in Titus Andronicus. The King swears by torture again. Hieronimo signals that he needs a knife to sharpen his pen. No problem! Oops. Problem. Hieronimo stabs the Duke and then himself. The King and Viceroy, with their royal lines wiped out, are left to walk about the corpses and lament the tragedy.
Andrea is finally in a better mood having had the “spectacles to please my soul” (IV.v.12). He lists the deaths and says he will request of Proserpine further justice: for Horatio a warrior’s paradise, for Isabella a mourner’s paradise, for Bel-imperia vestal virginity, and “I’ll lead Hieronimo where Orpheus plays” (IV.v.23). In “deepest hell” (IV.v.27), however, the Duke of Castile will take Tityus’ place in the vulture’s grip, Lorenzo will accept Ixion’s place on the eternally spinning wheel, Balthazar will hang from Chimaeara’s neck, Serberine will take over for Sisyphus with the boulder, and Pedringano will be dragged through the boiling river of Acheron. Revenge has the last word, literally, reasserting the overall plan for friends and foes and, concerning the latter, insisting “though death hath end their misery, / I’ll there begin their endless tragedy” (IV.v.47-48).