Thomas Kyd

Born in 1558, Thomas Kyd was educated at the Merchant Taylors School in London. Although the details of Kyd's life are obscure, it is known that he shared a room with another playwright, Christopher Marlowe. Not as poetic as Marlowe, Kyd's brilliance came from his understanding of the requirements of the stage and his instinctive grasp of the tragic form. Ben Jonson called him the "sporting Kyd," and it is believed that by 1589 he had written a lost Hamlet--sometimes referred to as the Ur-Hamlet--which was probably the model for Shakespeare's tragedy.

Kyd's best known play, The Spanish Tragedy (1589), was nothing less than the most popular and influential tragedy of Elizabethan times. Inspired by the tragedies of Seneca, it tells the story of Horatio, the only son of the marshal of Spain, who falls in love with the beautiful Belimperia but is murdered by the Prince of Portugal and by Belimperia's brother Lorenzo who wants her to marry the Prince. Before she is whisked away by her brother, Belimperia manages to send Horatio's grief-stricken father a letter using her own blood for ink, and the old man soon sets out to avenge his son's death, feigning madness--like Hamlet--to avoid suspicion. In its day, The Spanish Tragedy was even more popular than Shakespeare's plays, and it continued to be performed throughout the Elizabethan period.

The only other play which can be attributed to Kyd with certainty is Cornelia (1594) which he adapted from a French play by Robert Garnier. Soliman and Perseda is usually attributed to him as well on the basis of style and the fact that it has the same plot as the play produced by Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy. Another play which has sometimes been attributed to Kyd is Arden of Feversham, a dramatization of a crime that had been reported in Holinshed's Chronicles. Kyd's authorship of this play has come into doubt, but if he is indeed the author, then Kyd is the founder of middle-class tragedy as well the revenge play. In this surprisingly modern drama, Alice, the wife of the respectable gentleman Arden, betrays her husband with the lower-class Mosbie, then prevails upon the latter to rid her of the former. The realism of this dark drama, a masterpiece of Elizabethan theatre, foreshadows the middle class drama of a much later age.

Unfortunately, Kyd's promising career would be cut short. In 1593, after falling under suspicion of heresy, he was arrested on the charge of atheism and tortured into giving evidence against his roommate. Kyd denied the charge of atheism and attributed the offending manuscript to his roommate, Christopher Marlowe:

“shuffled with some of mine (unknown to me) by some occasion or writing in one chamber two years since."

The situation is rich with innuendos of treachery: that Marlowe set Kyd up, that Kyd returned the Favor, that Marlowe's subsequent death was covertly arranged as a result. Current evidence suggests that Marlowe may actually have been an agent provocateur employed by the Privy Council in its anti-Catholic activities. Kyd was eventually released from prison, but seems to have been broken by the imprisonment, torture, and disgrace. He died in December of 1594, in poverty, not yet thirty-six years old.

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Kyd's Plays


Kyd's Plays

Related Sites

British Theatre Index

Thomas Kyd: Bio

Thomas Kyd

Thomas Kyd: Monologues

Related Playwrights

George Chapman

Thomas Dekker

John Ford

Ben Jonson

John Lyly

Christopher Marlowe

Philip Massinger

Thomas Middleton

George Peele

William Shakespeare

James Shirley

John Webster

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