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This play is much earlier than I'd thought-- on account of the title, I had it mentally down as Jacobean, but no, it is sometime between 1582-92 and hence pre-Shakespearean, and therefore the introduction is full of people arguing about How Important It Is To The Development Of The Modern Tragedy and saying nasty things about Marlowe, which is an unfortunate side-effect of having a Thing about someone other than Marlowe having written The First English Modern Tragedy No Really We Insist. (There is still, after all this time, nothing wrong with liking Tamburlaine, people, no matter what Kyd may have said about Marlowe in prison.)

Anyway. I am still going to have trouble thinking of this as anything other than a Jacobean; it acts like one. Almost bloody enough for Webster, and Revenge is not only actually a character, he is officially and textually the chorus. Whenever anything goes right for anybody, there's Revenge coming on again, with attendant ghost, assuring the audience that in half a moment we will have blood and rhetoric all round, just wait for it. And then after the first murder he falls asleep and has to be prodded to wake up again and remember what he's doing here, a nice touch.

And no echo scene (sigh-- I do like a good echo scene), but a play-within-a-play in which all the stabbings are real; also various letters written in blood, respectable persons run lunatic, someone biting out his own tongue, etc. And it has a sense of humor I enjoyed. In the play-within-a-play, for instance, the director of it (who is also arranging the stabbings) tells the cast that he wants them to give an impression of the events as taking place at a great distance, since the story happened in Turkey, and so each of them is to speak in the language they know that is most foreign. We don't get their actual dialogue, but we're told one is speaking French, one ancient Greek, one Latin, one dog-Latin, and one maintaining a sensible and dignified Spanish. I am sure it had the distancing effect the director wanted, and I really hope that whatever company first played this went for the gusto.

The thing that's odd about The Spanish Tragedy is how very, very much it both quotes and cribs from Latin literature generally. There are entire paragraphs of Seneca just thrown untranslated at the stage and a fair amount of Statius and even some odd things like a few tags of Lucretius. And the ghost who follows Revenge around is very, very clearly living in the cosmos of the Aeneid: it's not a Christian underworld he went to, and no one else seems to expect one either. There is very little by way of appealing to God or to church symbols in the play; all the soliloquies are in the classical mode and cry out to Fates and Furies. This is sufficiently odd for me to be unsurprised that Kyd found himself in prison at least partly because some of the papers in his room were considered irreligious and blasphemous. Usually there is at least some allusion to Christian burial, but the ghost here had trouble getting across Acheron because he didn't have coins on his eyes. I don't think Kyd is suggesting the Spanish are all heathens, though I admit I may be missing something.

Oh, and the poetry is good. Some of it is really good. I would love to see this acted, though it's not one I've ever noticed being revived or I'd have gone to it. The internet suggests there is no movie, but I may have to poke around some and see if I can find any filmed stage versions.

I mean, I don't love it as much as The Duchess of Malfi, but then, what lives up to that? Very good play, is what I am saying here.


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March 2017

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