This is the first written volume in the 27 Play Project. Suffice it to say, I am over the moon about this. Now that I’m on spring break, I have the time to sit down and actually gather my thoughts regarding the first play in this series: The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. I’m sure these short essays will evolve and generate a degree of focus and consistency as I work through this process, but for now, I am not particularly sure what this first essay will look like. But before I begin, I thought it would be productive to establish a few ground rules.
First, I will not provide a full summary of each play. I may allude to important plot details, but please do not expect anything more than that.
Second, each of the plays in this series is rich and complex (some, obviously, more so than others). Therefore, my point of interest for each play will be concentrated on a single thread or conceptual idea. I may write second or third essays for plays that I find uniquely interesting, but under no circumstances do I anticipate an all-encompassing reading of any play in this series.
Third, I want these essays to feel loose and spontaneous, so I will attempt to cite any secondary references I make, but I will not create bibliographies or works cited pages. Again, if this technique becomes problematic, I will certainly modify my approach.
Fourth, I welcome any commentary and criticism.
I thought I would begin with a comment I wrote as I read the play for a second time. This note encapsulates what I believe this play suggests about revenge and its potential social function:
It occurred to me that Hieronimo’s revenge inadvertently reveals the false alliance between Spain and Portugal. These consequences seem unintentional, but I argue that revenge requires an embrace of the unintentional. Like tragedy, revenge couples the intentional/unintentional binary thus functioning in the liminal space between the two. These two counter-intuitive ideas meet in this gap as a sort of short circuit. This short-circuiting creates, at least for this play, a sort of unrest.
What is fascinating about this play is the way Hieronimo’s decision to avenge Horatio’s death—an arch act of civil disobedience since the direct recipient, Balthazar, and the indirect recipient, Bel-imperia, operate as literal symbols of peace and unity between warring Spain and Portugal—unmasks the nascent yet flimsy and superficial political alliance between the two countries. Hieronimo’s revenge resonates precisely because of the broader social implications it engenders.
Yet, the wrinkle that distinguishes The Spanish Tragedy is the unintended consequences of Hieronimo’s unambiguous, one-directional decision. As Hieronimo asserts in 4.3 “Recall thy wits, recount thy former wrongs / Thou hast received by murder of thy son, / And lastly, not least, how Isabel, / Once his mother and thy wife, / All woebegone for him, hath slain herself” (4.3.22-26). There is no suggestion here that Hieronimo’s revenge serves a distinct social function. Such an idea is beyond his purview. His philosophical position regarding revenge has a distinct inwardness that refuses to expand beyond the reaches of his egocentricity. This tension between what Hieronimo intends and what actually occurs makes the play’s politics regarding revenge difficult to decipher and potentially misleading.
But Hieronimo is not alone. He is one of two characters effecting revenge. Bel-imperia, the fetishized and commodified daughter of the Duke, uses revenge as an instrument to exercise her own subjective agency. Hieronimo’s interpretation of Bel-imperia’s decision to kill herself in addition to killing Balthazar is suggestive:
So, Viceroy, was this Balthazar thy son,
That Suleiman which Bel-imperia,
In person of Perseda, murdered,
Solely appointed to that tragic part
That she might slay him that offended her.
Poor Bel-imperia missed her part in this,
For, though the story saith she should have died,
Yet I of kindness and of care to her
Did otherwise determine of her end;
But love of him whom they did hate too much
Did urge her resolution to be such. (4.4.135-143)
The “missed” in line 140 should be read as “deviated from,” which suggests a clear sense of agency otherwise unattributed to Bel-imperia. Therefore, if we read Hieronimo’s play-within-a play appropriation as possessing a double-consciousness, we should add Bel-imperia’s creative, adaptive deviation as forcing a triple-consciousness upon the appropriated material. Once again, the space or gap between what Hieronimo intended and what actually occurred is precisely where Bel-imperia finds the impetus for her subjective utterance.
Furthermore, Bel-imperia’s prerogative to deviate—like Hieronimo’s revenge prerogative—is egocentric, yet unseen and unannounced social implications layer the revenge act. By forcefully stabbing and killing Balthazar, a member of the aristocracy, Bel-imperia exercises an ideological position references throughout the play: her deference for suitors that lack aristocratic associations. In Act 3 Lorenzo justifies his machinations against Horatio by criticizing Bel-imperia’s predilection for suitors of an un-aristocratic pedigree:
Why, then, rememb’ring that old disgrace
Which you for Don Andrea had endured,
And now were likely longer to sustain,
By being found so meanly accompanied,
Thought rather—for I knew no readier mean—
To thrust Horatio forth my father’s way. (3.10.54-59)
“Meanly accompanied” here suggests an “unworthiness in rank,” yet Bel-imperia is utterly unaffected by this criticism. Her reaction to this revelation is telling, “But what’s the cause that you concealed me since?” (3.10.67). Perhaps surprisingly, Bel-imperia is more affronted by the realization that this plan was concocted without her knowledge or consent. But more to the point, Bel-imperia’s unwillingness to abide this politically advantageous coupling mirrors the unsustainability of Spain and Portugal’s alliance. Suffice it to say, Balthazar’s stabbing is not the only thing punctured in this scene.
Briefly I want to return to Hieronimo’s characterization of Bel-imperia’s revenge act, because regrettably, in this moment Hieronimo demonstrates the limits of his political imagination. The notion that Bel-imperia “missed her part” because her love for Horatio “did urge her resolution to be such” distances her from any notions or whispers of radicalism. Bel-imperia’s love for Horatio is itself an act of revenge. In 1.4 she argues:
But how can love find harbor in my breast
Till I revenge the death of my beloved?
Yes, second love shall further my revenge.
I’ll love Horatio, my Andrea’s friend,
The more to spite the Prince that wrought his end. (1.4.64-68)
This is the first utterance of revenge in the play, and we should not overlook from whose mouth it comes. Even though revenge is personified throughout the play, Bel-imperia harnesses the revenge injunction to “pursue revenge, / For nothing wants but acting of revenge” even if she is relatively unaware of the consequences it will produce (4.3.29-30).