woodcut from Spanish Tragedie
The Life of Thomas Kyd

THOMAS KYD, one of the most important of the English Elizabethan dramatists who preceded Shakespeare. Kyd remained until the last decade of the eighteenth century in what appeared likely to be impenetrable obscurity. Even his name was forgotten until Thomas Hawkins about 1773 discovered it in connection with The Spanish Tragedy in Thomas Heywood's Apologie for Actors. But by the industry of English and German scholars a great deal of light has since been thrown on his life and writings. He was the son of Francis Kyd, citizen and scrivener of London, and was baptized in the church of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, on the 6th of November 1558. His mother, who survived her son, was named Agnes, or Anna. In October 1565 Kyd entered the newly founded Merchant Taylors' School, where Edmund Spenser and perhaps Thomas Lodge were at different times his school-fellows. It is thought that Kyd did not proceed to either of the universities; he apparently followed, soon after leaving school, his father's business as a scrivener. But Nashe describes him as a " shifting companion that ran through every art and throve by none." He showed a fairly wide range of reading in Latin. The author on whom he draws most freely is Seneca, but there are many reminiscences, and occasionally mistranslations of other authors. Nashe contemptuously said that "English Seneca read by candlelight yeeldes many good sentences," no doubt exaggerating his indebtedness to Thomas Newton's translation. John Lyly had a more marked influence on his manner than any of his contemporaries.

It is believed that he produced his famous play, The Spanish Tragedy, between 1584 and 1589; the quarto in the British Museum (which is probably earlier than the Gottingen and Ellesmere quartos, dated 1594 and 1599) is undated, and the play was licensed for the press in 1592. The full title runs, The Spanish Tragedie containing the Lamentable End of Don Horatio and Bel-imperia; with the Pitiful Death of Old Hieronimo, and the play is commonly referred to by Henslowe and other contemporaries as Hieronimo. This drama enjoyed all through the age of Elizabeth and even of James I and Charles I so unflagging a success that it has been styled the most popular of all old English plays.

Certain expressions in Nashe's preface to the 1589 edition of Robert Greene's Menaphon may be said to have started a whole world of speculation with regard to Kyd's activity. Much of this is still very puzzling; nor is it really understood why Ben Jonson called him "sporting Kyd." In 1592 there was added a sort of prologue to The Spanish Tragedy, called The First Part of Jeronimo, or The Warres of Portugal, not printed till 1605. Professor Boas concludes that Kyd had nothing to do with this melodramatic production, which gives a different version of the story and presents Jeronimo as little more than a buffoon. On the other hand, it becomes more and more certain that what German criticism calls the Ur-Hamlet, the original draft of the tragedy of the prince of Denmark, was a lost work by Kyd, probably composed by him in 1587. This theory has been very elaborately worked out by Professor Sarrazin, and confirmed by Professor Boas; these scholars are doubtless right in holding that traces of Kyd's play survive in the first two acts of the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet, but they probably go too far in attributing much of the actual language of the last three acts to Kyd. Kyd's next work was in all probability the tragedy of Soliman and Perseda, written perhaps in 1588 and licensed for the press in 1592, which, although anonymous, is assigned to him on strong internal evidence by Mr. Boas. No copy of the first edition has come down to us; but it was reprinted, after Kyd's death, in 1599.

In the summer or autumn of 1590 Kyd seems to have given up writing for the stage, and to have entered the service of an unnamed lord, who employed a troop of players. Kyd was probably the private secretary of this nobleman, in whom Professor Boas sees Robert Radcliffe, afterwards fifth Earl of Sussex. To the wife of the Earl (Bridget Morison of Cassiobury) Kyd dedicated in the last year of his life his translation of Gamier's Comedia (1594), to the dedication of which he attached his initials. Two prose works of the dramatist have survived, a treatise on domestic economy, The House-holders Philosophy, translated from the Italian of Tasso (1588); and a sensational account of The Most Wicked and Secret Murdering of John Brewer, Goldsmith (1592). His name is written on the title-page of the unique copy of the last-named pamphlet at Lambeth, but probably not by his hand. That many of Kyd's plays and poems have been lost is proved by the fact that fragments exist, attributed to him, which are found in no surviving context.

Towards the close of his life Kyd was brought into relations with Christopher Marlowe. It would seem that in 1590, soon after he entered the service of this nobleman, Kyd formed his acquaintance. If he is to be believed, he shrank at once from Marlowe as a man intemperate and of a cruel heart and irreligious. This, however, was said by Kyd with the rope 'round his neck, and is scarcely consistent with a good deal of apparent intimacy between him and Marlowe. When, in May 1593, the lewd libels and blasphemies of Marlowe came before the notice of the Star Chamber, Kyd was immediately arrested, papers of his having been found shuffled with some of Marlowe's, who was imprisoned a week later. A visitation on Kyd's papers was made in consequence of his having attached a seditious libel to the wall of the Dutch churchyard in Austin Friars. Of this he was innocent, but there was found in his chamber a paper of vile heretical conceits denying the deity of Jesus Christ.

Kyd was arrested and put to the torture in Bridewell. He asserted that he knew nothing of this document and tried to shift the responsibility of it upon Marlowe, but he was kept in prison until after the death of that poet (June 1, 1593). When he was at length dismissed, his patron refused to take him back into his service. He fell into utter destitution, and sank under the weight of bitter times and privy broken passions. He must have died late in 1594, and on the 30th of December of that year his parents renounced their administration of the goods of their deceased son, in a document of great importance discovered by Professor Schick.

The importance of Kyd, as the pioneer in the wonderful movement of secular drama in England, gives great interest to his works, and we are now able at last to assert what many critics have long conjectured, that he takes in that movement the position of a leader and almost of an inventor. Regarded from this point of view, The Spanish Tragedy is a work of extraordinary value, since it is the earliest specimen of effective stage poetry existing in English literature. It had been preceded only by the pageant-poems of Peele and Lyly, in which all that constitutes in the modern sense theatrical technique and effective construction was entirely absent. These gifts, in which the whole power of the theatre as a place of general entertainment was to consist, were supplied earliest among English playwrights to Kyd, and were first exercised by him, so far as we can see, in 1586. This, then, is a more or less definite starting date for Elizabethan drama, and of peculiar value to its historians.

Curiously enough, The Spanish Tragedy, which was the earliest stage-play of the great period, was also the most popular, and held its own right through the careers of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Fletcher. It was not any shortcoming in its harrowing and exciting plot, hut the tameness of its archaic versification, which probably led in 1602 to its receiving additions, which have been a great stumblingblock to the critics. It is known that Ben Jonson was paid for these additional scenes, but they are extremely unlike all other known writings of his, and several scholars have independently conjectured that John Webster wrote them.

Of Kyd himself it seems needful to point out that neither the Germans nor even Professor Boas seems to realize how little definite merit his poetry has; he is important, not in himself, but as a pioneer. The influence of Kyd is marked on all the immediate predecessors of Shakespeare, and the bold way in which scenes of violent crime were treated on the Elizabethan stage appears to be directly owing to the example of Kyd's innovating genius. His relation to Hamlet has already been noted, and Titus Andronicus presents and exaggerates so many of his characteristics that Mr. Sidney Lee and others have supposed that tragedy to be a work of Kyd's, touched up by Shakespeare. Professor Boas, however, brings cogent objections against this theory, founding them on what he considers the imitative inferiority of Titus Andronicus to The Spanish Tragedy. The German critics have pushed too far their attempt to find indications of Kyd's influence on later plays of Shakespeare. The extraordinary interest felt for Kyd in Germany is explained by the fact that The Spanish Tragedy was long the best known of all Elizabethan plays abroad. It was acted at Frankfurt in 1601, and published soon afterwards at Nuremberg. It continued to be a stock piece in Germany until the beginning of the 18th century; it was equally popular in Holland, and potent in its effect upon Dutch dramatic literature.

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XV.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 959.

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Image: Woodcut from "The Spanish Tragedie" (1615 ed.)

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