Jacobean Tragedies

The Spanish Tragedy

In its day, The Spanish Tragedy was anonymous. Only in 1773 did the theatrical historian Thomas Hawkins discover, in Thomas Heywood’s Apology for Actors (1612), the play’s assignment to Thomas Kyd. No other external evidence has been able to corroborate this link. Scholars generally agree, however, on the intimate relationship between The Spanish Tragedy and Kyd’s Cornelia, which strongly suggests a common author. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, very few-if any-scholars have seriously doubted Kyd’s authorship of The Spanish Tragedy. The exact date of the play’s composition is uncertain. Estimates are usually within the ten-year frame of 1582-1592.


Hieronimo  –  The protagonist of the story. Hieronimo starts out as a loyal servant to the King. He is the King’s Knight-Marshal and is in charge of organizing entertainments at royal events. At the beginning of the play, he is a minor character, especially in relation to Lorenzo, Balthazar, and Bel-Imperia. It is not until he discovers his son Horatio’s murdered body in the second Act that he becomes the protagonist of the play. His character undergoes a radical shift over the course of the play, from grieving father to Machiavellian plotter. After his son’s murder, he is constantly pushes the limits of sanity, as evidenced by his erratic speech and behaviour.

Bel-Imperia  –  The main female character of the story. Bel-Imperia’s role is prominent in the plot, especially toward the end. The daugher of the Duke of Castile, she is headstrong, as evidenced by her decisions to love Andrea and Horatio, both against her father’s wishes. She is intelligent, beautiful, and, in moments of love, tender. She also is bent on revenge, both for her slain lover Andrea and for Horatio. Her transformation into a Machiavellian villain is not as dramatic as Hieronimo’s, but only because she shows signs of Machiavellian behavior beforehand—her decision to love Horatio, in part, may have been calculated revenge, undertaken in order to spite Balthazar, Andrea’s killer.

Lorenzo  –  One of Horatio’s murderers. Lorenzo’s character remains fairly constant throughout the play. He is a proud verbal manipulator and a Machiavellian plotter. A great deceiver and manipulator of others, Horatio unsurprisingly has an enthusiasm for the theater. Lorenzo has a foil in Horatio; they are both brave young men, but Horatio’s directness, impulsiveness, and honesty, contrast and highlight Lorenzo’s guardedness, secretiveness, and deception.

Balthazar –  The prince of Portugal and son of the Portuguese Viceroy. Balthazar is characterized by his extreme pride and his hot-headedness. This pride makes him kill Horatio along with Lorenzo, and it turns him into a villain. He kills Andrea fairly, though with help, so it is unclear whether he is as “valiant” as the King and others continuously describe him. But his love for Bel-Imperia is genuine, and it is this love that primarily motivates his killing of Horatio.
Horatio  –  The proud, promising son of Hieronimo. Horatio sense of duty and loyalty is shown in his actions towards Andrea, and he gives Andrea the funeral rites that let the ghost cross the river Acheron in the underworld. He also captures Andrea’s killer, Balthazar, in battle, thus recovering Andrea’s body. His sense of pride is shown in his confrontation with Lorenzo; though Lorenzo greatly outranks him in stature, he does not defer, but instead continues to argue his case in front of the King.
Ghost of Andrea  –  Andrea’s ghost is the first character we see in the play, and the first voice to cry out for revenge. His quest for revenge can be seen both as a quest for justice, since it is sanctioned by Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, and as a quest for closure. Andrea is denied closure when he travels to the underworld, because the three judges there cannot decide where to place him; ironically, at the end of the play he becomes a judge himself, determining the places of the various characters in hell.
 Revenge –  Andrea’s companion throughout the play. Revenge is a spirit that symbolizes the forces of revenge that dominate the play’s action. He talks of the living characters as if they were performing a tragedy for his entertainment.
Isabella –  Hieronimo’s suffering wife, her inaction is a foil to his and Bel-Imperia’s action. Her inaction, along with her visions of a dead Horatio, torment her increasingly throughout the play, providing an extreme version of Hieronimo’s more subdued madness. Her death by her own hand foreshadows Hieronimo’s suicide.
The King  –  The King of Spain is an ambivalent character. At times he appears noble and is definitely a friend to Hieronimo, resisiting Lorenzo’s attempts to have the Knight-Marshal dismissed. But he is also complacent (a typical English stereotype about the Spanish), as demonstrated by his callous conversation after the Spanish victory in Act I, his subsequent dialogue with the ambassador, and his failure to know that Horatio has been murdered on his estate.
The Viceroy  –  The King’s counterpart in Portugal. The Viceroy is shown as both a loving father but also a weak king. He is defeated in battle, wallows in self-pity when he believes his son Balthazar to be dead, is easily led astray by Villuppo into condemning Alexandro to death, and then renounces his kingship in favor of his son. All of these are signs of bad leadership, especially to an Elizabethan audience.
Pedringano –  Bel-Imperia’s servant. Pedringano is easily bribed, and he betrays Bel-Imperia and is one of the gang of four murderers who kill Horatio. In fact, Pedringano seems to have no moral considerations, only following the person whom he thinks can help him most. Ironically, this leads him to trust Lorenzo, who ends up betraying him.
Serberine –  Balthazar’s manservant who, along with Lorenzo, Balthazar, and Pedringano, kills Horatio. Lorenzo suspects Serberine of informing Hieronimo of the crime, and has him killed by Pedringano.
Bazulto –  An old man. Bazulto visits Hieronimo because his own son has been murdered, and he wants the Knight-Marshal’s help in finding justice. The appearance of the old man makes Hieronimo feel ashamed at his own inability to avenge Horatio’s death.
The Ambassador  –  The Portuguese Ambassador is the agent of communication between the King and Viceroy. His presence appears purely functional, exchanging information between the Portuguese and Spanish court.
Alexandro –  A Portuguese nobleman who fought at the battle in Act I. Alexandro is betrayed by Villuppo, who falsely informs the King that Alexandro has shot Balthazar, the King’s son. Alexandro’s character appears exceptionally just; even when Villuppo is discovered, he begs the Viceroy (unsuccessfully) for mercy on Villuppo’s behalf.
Villuppo –  A nobleman who, for no reason clear to the audience, betrays Alexandro. Villuppo’s role is so short and so tied in with his lie about Alexandro that he almost serves as a personifcation of deceit, contrasting against Alexandro’s personification of honor.
General of the Spanish Army  –  The General simply describes the battle between Spain and Portugal in Act I. His account of Andrea’s death (or lack of account of it) and description of the Spanish casualties as minimal provides an ironic contrast to Andrea’s lamenting of his death in battle.
Christophil –  A servant who attends on Bel-Imperia while she is kept prisoner by Lorenzo.
The Hangman  –  The hangman is witty and jovial, and he exchanges verbal retorts with Pedringano before hanging him. Later, the hangman discovers the letter on Pedringano’s body that confirms Hieronimo’s suspicions of Lorenzo and Balthazar’s guilt.
The Page  –  The page is a messenger boy who brings Lorenzo’s empty box to the execution, which is believed to hold a pardon for Pedringano. After the page looks inside, he does not tell anyone that it is empty, out of fear for his own life. This has a distinct impact on the play, since Pedringano’s belief that he will be pardoned stops him from exposing Lorenzo as one of Horatio’s murderers before it is too late.


Basic summary 

The Spanish Tragedy tells the story of a young soldier who comes home from war only to be brutally murdered while chatting his girlfriend up in an otherwise romantic setting. When his father discovers his son’s bloodied body hanging from a tree, he then devotes the rest of his time finding his son’s murderers and executing them in a shockingly theatrical way.

 Plot Overview – synopsis 

The Spanish Tragedy begins with the ghost of Don Andrea, a Spanish nobleman killed in a recent battle with Portugal. Accompanied by the spirit of Revenge, he tells the story of his death; he was killed in hand-to-hand combat with the Portuguese prince Balthazar, after falling in love with the beautiful Bel-Imperia and having a secret affair with her. When he faces the judges who are supposed to assign him to his place in the underworld, they are unable to reach a decision and instead send him to the palace of Pluto and Proserpine, King and Queen of the Underworld. Proserpine decides that Revenge should accompany him back to the world of the living, and, after passing through the gates of horn, this is where he finds himself. The spirit of Revenge promises that by the play’s end, Don Andrea will see his revenge.

Andrea returns to the scene of the battle where he died, to find that the Spanish have won. Balthazar was taken prisoner shortly after Andrea’s death, by the Andrea’s good friend Horatio, son of Hieronimo, the Knight Marshal of Spain. But a dispute ensues between Horatio and Lorenzo, the son of the Duke of Castile and brother of Bel-Imperia, as to who actually captured the prince. The King of Spain decides to compromise between the two, letting Horatio have the ransom money to be paid for Balthazar and Lorenzo keep the captured prince at his home. Back in Portugal, the Viceroy (ruler) is mad with grief, for he believes his son to be dead, and is tricked by Villuppo into arresting an innocent noble, Alexandro, for Balthazar’s murder. Diplomatic negotiations then begin between the Portuguese ambassador and the Spanish King, to ensure Balthazar’s return and a lasting peace between Spain and Portugal.

Upon being taken back to Spain, Balthazar soon falls in love with Bel-Imperia himself. But, as her servant Pedringano reveals to him, Bel-Imperia is in love with Horatio, who returns her affections. The slight against him, which is somewhat intentional on Bel-Imperia’s part, enrages Balthazar. Horatio also incurs the hatred of Lorenzo, because of the fight over Balthazar’s capture and the fact that the lower-born Horatio (the son of a civil servant) now consorts with Lorenzo’s sister. So the two nobles decide to kill Horatio, which they successfully do with the aid of Pedringano and Balthazar’s servant Serberine, during an evening rende-vous between the two lovers. Bel-Imperia is then taken away before Hieronimo stumbles on to the scene to discover his dead son. He is soon joined in uncontrollable grief by his wife, Isabella.

In Portugal, Alexandro escapes death when the Portuguese ambassador returns from Spain with news that Balthazar still lives; Villuppo is then sentenced to death. In Spain, Hieronimo is almost driven insane by his inability to find justice for his son. Hieronimo receives a bloody letter in Bel-Imperia’s hand, identifying the murderers as Lorenzo and Balthazar, but he is uncertain whether or not to believe it. While Hieronimo is racked with grief, Lorenzo grows worried by Hieronimo’s erratic behavior and acts in a Machiavellian manner to eliminate all evidence surrounding his crime. He tells Pedringano to kill Serberine for gold but arranges it so that Pedringano is immediately arrested after the crime. He then leads Pedringano to believe that a pardon for his crime is hidden in a box brought to the execution by a messenger boy, a belief that prevents Pedringano from exposing Lorenzo before he is hanged. Negotiations continue between Spain and Portugal, now centering on a diplomatic marriage between Balthazar and Bel-Imperia to unite the royal lines of the two countries. Ironically, a letter is found on Pedringano’s body that confirms Hieronimo’s suspicion over Lorenzo and Balthazar, but Lorenzo is able to deny Hieronimo access to the king, thus making royal justice unavailable to the distressed father. Hieronimo then vows to revenge himself privately on the two killers, using deception and a false show of friendship to keep Lorenzo off his guard. The marriage between Bel-Imperia and Balthazar is set, and the Viceroy travels to Spain to attend the ceremony. Hieronimo is given responsibility over the entertainment for the marriage ceremony, and he uses it to exact his revenge. He devises a play, a tragedy, to be performed at the ceremonies, and convinces Lorenzo and Balthazar to act in it. Bel-Imperia, by now a confederate in Hieronimo’s plot for revenge, also acts in the play. Just before the play is acted, Isabella, insane with grief, kills herself.

The plot of the tragedy mirrors the plot of the play as a whole (a sultan is driven to murder a noble friend through jealousy over a woman). Hieronimo casts himself in the role of the hired murderer. During the action of the play, Hieronimo’s character stabs Lorenzo’s character and Bel-Imperia’s character stabs Balthazar’s character, before killing herself. But after the play is over, Hieronimo reveals to the horrified wedding guests (while standing over the corpse of his own son) that all the stabbings in the play were done with real knives, and that Lorenzo, Balthazar, and Bel-Imperia are now all dead. He then tries to kill himself, but the King and Viceroy and Duke of Castile stop him. In order to keep himself from talking, he bites out his own tongue. Tricking the Duke into giving him a knife, he then stabs the Duke and himself and then dies. Revenge and Andrea then have the final words of the play. Andrea assigns each of the play’s “good” characters (Hieronimo, Bel-Imperia, Horatio, and Isabella) to happy eternities. The rest of the characters are assigned to the various tortures and punishments of Hell.


 Other Jacobean Tragedies:

Duchess of Malfi

The Changeling







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