Thyestes; The Spanish Tragedy


Humanist Drama. (1490 - 1550 )
The first performance based on Greek drama in Europe took place in the mid-1480's, in Rome. The text chosen was Seneca's Hippolytus. In Europe, including England, Seneca was considered a much finer dramatist than the Greek tragedians: but Europe at that time had no idea of what 'tragedy' meant or how it should be performed. In England too, Seneca's tragedies were translated and 'adapted' to the moralizing tendency of the age. That is, the translators of Seneca converted his plays into Moralities: adding verses which turned the tragic actions into moral exhortations to the audience.

Seneca had enormous influence on Elizabethan drama: on The Spanish Tragedy, on the rhetoric of Shakespeare's plays (his tendency to pithy, fierce sententiae that contrast with the more genial aphorisms of Ovid.) Just now we will look at the Moralities and Interludes.

The Interludes as the name implies, are short entertainments (designed to be instructive) to be staged in a nobleman's or a scholars' hall at a university. Humanist interludes were created by scholars (Catholic) who consciously set out to reform English culture, especially through its educational system. They were concerned with establishing classical studies (that later dramatists would draw on) with the law, with the education of women and so on. Drama now is serving social/cultural didactic purposes and would maintain an association with European and English scholars like Erasmus and Thomas More.
The writers were favored by Henry VII who sought to centralize government by taking away the power of the feudal nobles. An organized educational program was an effective tool of this agenda. 

Humanism, then, was a major aspect of the renascence: favoring the new nationalism with centralized power in the monarch; the new learning, with its sense of earthly, practical but 'chivalrous' virtues rather than humble spiritual ones; and its sense of talent as competitive with feudal rank.

Humanist 'interludes' were staged at court or in the great houses of sympathetic nobles: they were not, therefore, as the Cycles and Moralities had been, accessible to the general public.

With the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent intense religious controversy Interludes increasingly became used for virulent polemical attacks on Catholicism until, finally, the Court imposed a censorship upon plays. Religious and political themes were banned - a fateful step that was to determine the future of drama in England.

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written for the newly emerged commercial theatre, represents a complete break with the medieval theatre tradition. The new Elizabethan theatre, freed from the obligation to render only the official ‘doctrine’ of the Church, needed to search out a different intellectual and imaginative ‘space’ and explore an alternative, secular account of the human condition and of what was worth dramatizing.

We are conditioned to see this as ‘Progress’. The texts of the best Elizabethan plays make for more interesting performing or reading than the texts of medieval drama. The ‘characters’ seem more 3-dimensional and not just iconic emblems or examples of predetermined spiritual conditions: and dramatic form and its medium, poetry, undergoes an evolution to greater and greater complexity.

But Elizabethan theatre was not free. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and made himself ‘Defender of the Faith’ he imposed a censorship upon the theatre: replacing the old Catholic doctrine with official state doctrine. This censorship of the theatre was continued by successive monarchs and, by Shakespeare’s time, there was an official Censor of Plays, the Master of the Revels; and the English theatres became propagandist tools of the monarchy.

Under Queen Elizabeth, all plays had to be submitted to The Master of the Revels who decided whether or not they could be performed, whether or not they contained subversive matter. Plays touching on religious matters were strictly forbidden: thus wiping out the entire subject matter of the old Corpus Christi Cycles and of the Moralities and Interludes. What we will be exploring is how the Elizabethan theatre searched out an equivalent imaginative space to that of the huge medieval cosmic drama. One scholar who regrets the loss of the old medieval theatre, Glynne Wickham, writes:

“Drama as a popular art form, despite Shakespeare, despite the spectacular Court Masks, was in fact fast dying during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. The texts of plays written before and after the boundaries of these dates show that a drama of cosmic scope and content had dwindled, within little more than 100 years, into one of coterie appeal: drama, in its subject matter, had been effectively divorced from religion. Thus cut off its fons et origo, it has drifted ever since whither the winds of commerce have cared to blow it. It’s ultimate degradation is to be seen in the television play sponsored by an advertiser. However splendid a person the advertiser may be, it remains a fact that the drama he sponsors is no longer an art to be served, but has become a means to further a strictly commercial end, the increased sales of the product advertised.
Regrettable as it may seem to us, there can be little doubt that the Reformation was directly responsible for the imposition of State censorship upon the English theatre, for the suppression of the religious stage...and for obliging the theatre in its struggle for survival to espouse a form of patronage which could only serve to divorce it from popular support, and thereby sap its native vigour.”

Finding a new imaginative space for a secular tragic and comic drama after religion has been forbidden and removed as a cause or explanation of dramatic action meant that Elizabethan drama was gradually constructed from an amalgam of alternative sources. :

Religion in England was off limits as an area of human action on the stage due to the extraordinary oscillation of religious changes over a few decades in the life of the country at large. Any firm affiliation for any particular persuasion could put one in jeopardy with the latest accession to the throne. Furthermore, the authorities presided over a highly restive population of resentful Catholics whose allegiance could not be counted on and who might league with foreign powers to overthrow the Protestant throne; and captious Puritans discontented with the compromises the Anglican Church made with the old order. These fears on the side of the Court were to prove well-founded as the nation was to be convulsed in civil war a few decades into the future. Assassination plots, riots, an attempted invasion by Spain, guaranteed a volatile culture at the center of which was the Elizabethan theater.

Unlike the Spanish Drama, which retained its Catholic metaphysical world-view into its classic period, Elizabethan drama had to renounce its medieval heritage and assemble a whole new complex of metaphors to build up an adequate image of the human condition. As it was hazardous to offer direct metaphysical explanations for the human condition – as Calderon could do in Spain – metaphysical dimensions were smuggled covertly and perhaps not entirely consciously into the texts of Elizabethan drama, giving it, especially in Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, a richly intricate metaphoric allusiveness.

The Changing Ideology of the Court.
Henry VIII, who broke with the Catholic Church to set up a Protestant Church of which he was the head, was succeeded by his son Edward (VI) who died young. His sister, Mary Tudor, a Catholic and a staunch defender of the Old Faith, came to the throne, married Philip II of Spain (the most powerful monarch of Europe) and re-instated the Catholic Church and its accompanying culture, including the Cycle plays. A power shift followed, with landed aristocrats retrieving their confiscated properties and running the new government. Mary then died without an heir and her Protestant sister, Elizabeth came to the throne. 

The nation now reverted to Protestantism: old exiles returned and new exiles were banished abroad; a new power structure, with attendant confiscation of properties and new properties and titles was created. Catholics now were martyred in similar quantities as Protestants previously under Mary. Elizabeth, however, at the end of her long reign, had no heir and there followed great concern that the new monarch might be Catholic again. It would be hard to disentangle how much these fears were for life, property and power, and how much for faith. Probably in this period a definite pragmatism entered into Anglo-Saxon culture. Its emblem was the celebrated Vicar of Bray who changed his religious affiliations with each change of government.

The whole area of Religion, therefore, was too dangerous to put on the stage. But drama was now popular (one result of Tudor education) and the Court found the drama a very useful propaganda tool (incurring Puritan displeasure, however). The challenge facing the Elizabethan dramatists was how to set out an idea of the kingdom and of society, and how to create a drama of ‘magnitude’ that could create the genres of Tragedy and Comedy for the first time since the Greeks, without taking up the public’s primary concerns with Faith and current politics. Patriotic, pro-Tudor Histories, like Shakespeare’s, were one solution. But these could not explore the metaphysical dimensions of experience necessary for Tragedy. Furthermore, the theatre remained under the vigilant censorship of the Master of the Revels.

The danger of civil war was the pre-eminent fear of the authorities. Gorboduc dared not express what would be the most likely cause civil war in England: religious controversy. Protestant England, under Elizabeth, is now a very nervous nation: internally divided among Catholic, Anglican and Puritan forces: surrounded internationally by ruthless Catholilc enemies. In such a situation, it was essential the theatre should not incite controversy but, instead, be a force for unity by re-inforcing allegiance to a highly hierarchical, royalist agenda. An elaborate Elizabethan world-view was promulgated to make metaphysical sense of this cultural and political power structure - and the political power structure made sure that the theater adhered to it.

GORBODUC, taking up the theme of Civil War without daring to mention the most likely cause of such a war depicts a Civil War without adequate motivation. Later English drama will have to establish motivation that somehow is dramatic yet avoids what the authorities most feared to see depicted. 

Elizabethan Drama always was limited by its lack of religious, intellectual and political freedom – why, for all its imaginative power, it is intellectually less daring than Greek tragedy. Including Shakespeare, it reflected the political line of the Court. This might not have been insincere: the Court protected and rewarded the theatre companies (each of which had to have a Court approved aristocratic patron). It is very likely Shakespeare, for one, genuinely admired the court and the stabilizing, hierarchical Order it kept in being.

The break with the Catholic Church rendered the old cosmic world view problematic; but the Court still invoked its useful hierarchical ideology: a semi-feudal idea of society to oppose the ‘leveling’ tendencies of the Puritans. In Gorboduc the point of horror is reached when the people rise up against their masters, the nobles – representing the idea of anarchy that Shakespeare seems to have greatly feared. This might account for a nostalgia for the old order we find in his work.

The 5 Act Structure of GORBODUC maps out the Tragic Space to be filled. The structure derives from Senecan tragedy. Elizabethan drama, however, was more fluid in structure. (In many cases, Act divisions are supplied by later editors). Other innovations included iambic blank verse as a potentially supple medium adapted to the growing internalizing of conflict (the soliloquies); dumb shows preceding an action; the theme of disorder coursing through an entire kingdom as in Shakespeare’s Histories, or KING LEAR, HAMLET, MACBETH.

Gorboduc’s s bleakly imagined cultural and metaphoric space was to be filled in by the later dramatists; but the play gave them a ‘mighty theme’ (the convulsed kingdom) although without metaphysical or convincing psychological explanation. It is set in pre-Christian times, and so cannily avoids evoking or invoking the Catholic past – (awkwardly, the only post-pagan past available). The plot – the old king disburdening himself of his Kingdom and disastrously dividing it among his children, and its consequences, will be the main plot of KING LEAR.

Much of Elizabethan Tragedy, in fact, is set in a time and place analogous to the Elizabethan time and place that cannot be presented. This requires much detective work on the part of commentators who need to read the plays for coded references to the actual social situation (like East European drama until recently). Elizabethan Censors read the plays in the same way, looking for such buried codes. 

A special performance of Richard II on the eve of the Essex Rebellion got Shakespeare’s Company into great trouble: Elizabeth perceived direct references herself in the tragedy of Richard’s deposition. The Master of the Revels was always on the look-out for seditious references in plays set in remote times and places. So one can see the difficulty for the Elizabethan dramatists: not able to present religious motivation, yet trying for a universal action (Aristotle's 'magnitude') that could give rise to a substantial tragic argument about the world.

SENECA: THYESTES: The search for a convincing Tragic motivation. 
Tudor education in the non-theological Latin classics provided a model.
An explicable major motivation, full of passion and dreadful consequence, was Revenge. It had a ‘diabolical’ quality without needing orthodox (Catholic) underpinning as to the origins of evil. Where the actions of Ferrex, Porrex, Viduna, etc, in GORBODUC are very schematic (each Prince with his Good and Bad counselors) Thyestes can act from plausible passion. So the Avenger becomes very useful to Elizabethan dramatists. He gets action going without the need for the schematic ‘ conventions of EVERYMAN and GORBODUC. THYESTES was the favorite Senecan tragedy because its theme and effects were so appalling. Later dramatists tried to match its horrific effects (e.g. TITUS ANDRONICUS).

Atreus’s motives of action: having his enemy in his power, then exercising that power to its ultimate and horrifically triumphant conclusion was felt as an impressive example of will to power. For Aeschylus, the crime of Atreus had been significant because it set in motion a large metaphysical and political argument about divine and human justice. For Seneca and the Elizabethans, however, the horror often was justification enough. One just contemplated it’s enormity in awe.

Seneca was a welcome model to the Elizabethans because his tragedies’ were not specific to any dramatic or theatrical context: they were texts’ free of any theatrical conventions or even any plausible social context. Being dramatically weak, they actually were much more adaptable than Greek dramas which were fully and finely realized as performances within a specific dramatic/social space. Seneca encouraged the theatrical ‘looseness’ of Elizabethan drama: and its essentially declamatory art form. For this reason, Seneca's example placed no restrictions on the development of Elizabethan drama but left it free to find its own theatrical form.

Most playwrights were impoverished scholars selling marketable scripts to the actor-managers like Alleyn and Burbage. The ‘classical’ references gave the texts some academic cachet, and were a system of gratifying references for the educated in the audience.

A tragedy like Thyestes sets out a 'tragic' action that is dramatically explicable without metaphysical sanction or explanation. Atreus’ action of Revenge is generated from a dramatic convention (revenge) that is humanly motivated only: from human passions and not from diabolic influence. (There are exotic pre-Christian powers involved 'underworld'.) It therefore makes a secular ‘tragic’ drama possible. It divides the characters into two types: the triumphant Avenger and the Victim . Both will be articulate: involving the rhetoric of vengeance and the rhetoric of suffering, cursing, etc. 

It creates Revenge as a terrifying entity within the structure of things, ready to break out from individuals as a devastating force at any time: a fate one may find oneself subjected to without warning and without defense. This increased a sense of the radical and unnerving uncertainty of the world, for the horrendous action was not located within any comprehensible metaphysical system: and,above all, it was not divinely punished. In the Medieval world, terrible things happened, but they were felt to be kept under divine control: ‘permitted yet punished’.

In post-Senecan Elizabethan plays, a strong tragic action could be set in motion without needing to invoke an ‘official’ supernatural authority. Revenge also offers a ‘private’ system of value (heroic integrity) which claims equal validity with the moral code that deplores it. The action gives rise to stoic or chastened sententiae about the nature of things: the motives from which the Avenger acts, the nature of the world in which he or she acts.

These are a prominent feature of Elizabethan drama derived from Seneca relating the bloody and violent action to an area of Stoic tragic consciousness. (‘That’s the way things are…'). Seneca derived this feature from Euripides and sententaie fall thick and fast throughout his plays. It becomes a habit of Elizabethan heroes (Hamlet being a prominent case):of finding a ‘universalizing tag’ to add to events as they happen. Some dramatists (John Webster) seemed to have collected such tags in advance to ‘apply’ at appropriate moments to the actions of his plays. 

The first play with the ambition of being major drama.
It is one of the most successful of the Elizabethan tragedies, revived many times. It had immense influence upon later dramatists, even if they made fun of its soon old-fashioned rhetoric and plotting. It’s pattern can be found behind HAMLET, THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, and ‘'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE, etc. THE SPANISH TRAGEDY draws heavily upon Senecan formula yet locates this tragedy within a more specific social/historical time and place Together with Marlowe’s TAMBURLAINE, it set out the formula for Elizabethan Drama.

It created expectations for Revenge Drama that other Elizabethan plays had to transcend to create tragedy. Its ethical and dramatic conventions, the moral norms that the villains violate, were to be boldly transgressed by Marlowe in his plays. By powerfully depicting the great wrong he suffers, the play allies the audience behind Hieronimo’s action of revenge without any moral qualms. The play assumes an entirely different metaphysical and moral universe than that insisted on in medieval drama. The code it applies is that of the Senecan Revenge ethic.

Hieronimo never needs call into question his own nature and motives nor, really, the universe within which he operates. He may complain that it does not punish wickedness but there is no doubt as to the nature of the wickedness calling out for vengeance. So, the rhetoric of his speeches is never self-questioning. It is stately, orotund, moving between poles of certainty. It’s elaborations are mainly externally figural – as with all the other characters. The verse frequently settles into ‘figures’ and ‘conceits’ derived from both Latin and renaissance models: and the ‘conceit’ establishes a stage reality independent of the individual speakers. It is the Elizabethan pleasure in the new medium of poetic/dramatic language and its formalist possibilities: like musical arias in opera.

The play sets out to create the maximum dramatic thrills (from the opening ghosts) with the least intellectual risk – a good definition of melodrama. That is, all its ‘horrors’ and classical extensions are embellishments of reality: not subversively challenging it in any way. However, it does it very expertly. The Prologue creates a Tourist's Guide to the Underworld: absolutely non-functional and irrelevant to the plot. It brings the Tudor schoolboy’s learning to life on the stage as well as announcing the classical and Senecan aspirations of the play. However, the play is well constructed in terms of scene, character, action, dialogue, props, etc. It is our first complete drama since classical times.

The play’s location is tactfully remote from British reality: Spain and Portugal depicted as sites of treachery and intrigue. Like Hamlet's’ Denmark it is claustrophobic, closed, watchful, stifling – a trap in which one must walk carefully. As a trap it is a ‘mechanism’ used against the hero, Hieronimo who will then convert it to his own advantage: as the inescapable trap. It is a kingdom, with all its hierarchy, and thus analogous to England. HAMLET and its Mousetrap derives from Kyd’s procedure in this play.

The Senecan Revenge plot of the catastrophic chain of Revenge is now more complexly set in motion in order to destroy a family (as in Thyestes) and convulse a kingdom (as in Gorboduc). It marks out a ‘bloody and violent’ space in which the characters can rise to heights (and depths) of rhetorical utterance.. The evil action that sets off the chain is the wholly secular love triangle and its treacheries. Hieronimo operates the treacherous trapped space, hostile to him, and uses it against his enemies supremely in the trap within a trap, play within a play, of the Masque. We will meet the same character-type in the plays of Middleton, Marston, Webster and Ford. 

THE SPANISH TRAGEDY creates, therefore, creates the masterplot of much later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. It beautifully solves the Elizabethan dramatists’ problem: of how to create a thrilling, rhetorically articulate, tragic action of deeply felt human passions, without broaching the dangerous topics of contemporary religious and political dissent. References to these dangerous topics might be smuggled in through metaphors and analogy but they will not be presented directly on stage.

The action moves to its first climax with the murder of Horatio: a piece of Court treachery which Hieronimo, in Senecan Revenge fashion, will outdo with the supreme treachery of the Court Masque (imitated by Middleton in WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN/. At one point, the ghost of ANDREA protests the plot development (II. vi. P. ) but Revenge assures him the Revenge counterplot is now in motion.

In Portuugal, the treachery of Viluppo is discovered, and this turning point is also the turning point of the whole play: signaling the beginning of the counter-movement of Hieronimo. The parallel subplot is another typically Elizabethan dramatic stratagem taken from the Cycle Plays and imitated by later dramatists.
The counter-plot of Hieronimo’s revenge now occupies ACTS III – V.

Hieronimo’s ‘great speech’
‘O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears…” 
is the verbal launching of the counter-plot. The speech was much parodied by later dramatists, but it must have been overwhelming to first audiences. Though it voices despair at Justice ever operating in the world, we have just seen it act with Alexandro in Portugal after Alexandro has commended himself to God. Hieronimo’s despair is ‘bad faith’ and his Revenge is impious. The speech is followed by the naive device of Bel-imperia’s letter, written in blood, floating down onto the stage as Hieronimo asks for some sign from Heaven. (54) . At this point, the minor villains will disintegrate and are destroyed leaving the stage clear for the major villains and their destruction in the great Revenge Masque.

The Revenge Masque is brilliantly meta-theatrical. It is first set up with the grotesque comedy of Pedringano and the box at the gallows (III. Vi.) and this starts off the whole collusion of dramatist and audience in ‘gallows-humor’ to the end. It amplifies our collusion with Hieronimo. 

Kyd creates, for the first time in English drama, the group portrait of a multiply corrupt and treacherous society – a fundamental structural feature of later Elizabethan drama. Here will be the collection of villains, heroes, lovers, avengers sycophants, hirelings, negligent monarchs and, at the center, the morally outraged and wounded Revenge Hero, Hieronimo. He already is superior to Atreus in Thyestes. Opposite him is Lorenzo, a proto-machiavel, perhaps under Marlowe‘s prompting. He really only starts being a machiavel late in the play ( III. iv.) 

It is scored for elaborate ‘arias’ (soliloquies) duets, ensemble scenes (two lovers affirming their love: onlookers secretly and cynically commenting This was to have great effect on later writing: e..g. Troilus and Cressida; the lovers’ language is echoed in the meeting of Romeo and Juliet where the lovers at first meeting build up a whole sonnet of ‘conceits’ on pilgrims, shrines, saints, palmers, etc.)

Hieronino’s discovery of Horatio’s corpse is a good example of the new dramatic poetry. The words contain their own stage directions. The passage goes from perplexity at being awakened, shock at seeing the body, anguish at discovering it is Horatio, and then an apostrophe to Heaven that allowed such a horror. And all the time it strives to be a ‘poem’ of independent merit. It is an elaborate and complex arc of dramatic emotion for the actor to bring off.

Note the non-naturalistic emphasis of Hieronimo’s speech. A naturalistic rendition might have Hieronimo not speak at all, or merely articulate a howl, breaking down into sobs and anguished silence. But this is a ceremonial, elaborate art and the audience wants, not plausible reality, but brilliant artifice equal to the occasion. The operatic analogy is appropriate. 

“Alas, it is Horatio, my sweet son;
Ah no, but he that whilom was my son…”

Even more of an elaborate aria is the huge Oration which only a major actor (in this case Edward Alleyn) can bring off. It was later much mocked by Elizabethan dramatists, but it set the standard that had to be matched. It is the Senecan sententiae taken to their ultimate expression. The text frequently goes into LATIN to bring to life the poet’s schoolboy-learning. 

It is the first play we have read in which all (or most) of the elements of Elizabethan Tragedy are brought into play, and where there is an elaborate poetic language to support these elements. The metaphysical world onstage is carefully non-Christian even though the play is set in Christian time and place: that is, there is no representative of religion on stage: it is a secular space like in which a pagan Underworld does analogous duty for Christian religion

The Scene is a kingdom with a hierarchical social structure, with an already outdated chivalric love-code both present and violated. (This aspect was to be dropped from later dramas) The space of human action is surrounded by a metaphysical structure which is only analogous to the actual, problematic, Elizabethan Order.

The Revenge theme attempts to link the secular with the supernatural, not very successfully: the Andrea-Revenge audience only frames, without affecting, the human actions. The characters now differentiate into:

Heroic aristocratic subjects of the monarch(s)
Heroic lovers
Traitors to the heroic Order
Proto-Machiavellian villain - Lorenzo
Outraged Avenger – Hieronimo 

At the end of the play, there is an almost ludicrous attempt to relate the carnage and suffering to some justifying scheme of things. Andrea and Revenge tot up the score of the dead, and announce rewards and punishments in a pagan Hades. It is more bookish and unconvincing than the medieval Cycle’s Judgment Day.

But the uncertain, problematic cosmos of the Elizabethans is closer to the Greek idea of a tragic cosmos. It remains a terrifying, uncertain space in FAUSTUS, KING LEAR, HAMLET, MACBETH This makes Tragedy possible for the first time since the Greeks.

Within this play one can find the prototype of so much Elizabethan and Shakespearean drama, just as there are many premonitions or ‘echoes in advance’ of later plays. It seems to have created the essential terms of the later drama. The play's structure of Scene, Character, Action, Dialogue never got radically changed, only made more subtle. There will be a tremendous rhetorical enriching of the terms that Thomas Kyd introduced to the Elizabethan stage.