Spenser, Kyd, and the Authorship of “The Spanish Tragedy”

by Frank R. Ardolino (Author)
©2019 Monographs X, 194 Pages


Spenser, Kyd, and the Authorship of "The Spanish Tragedy" maintains that Edmund Spenser and not Thomas Kyd is the author of The Spanish Tragedy, written in 1590/1592. This argument is based on the strength of the internal evidence and not on computermetrics, linguistic statistics, or parallel passages. The Spanish Tragedy and Spenser’s works are united by sources, themes, methods, and language to the point of authorial equation. Thomas Heywood provided the only attribution of the play to Kyd in 1612, but given the depth of the learning, the apocalyptic context of the anti-Spanish theme, and the literary, rhetorical, and metadramatic sophistication of The Spanish Tragedy, it is much more probable that Spenser wrote it and not the nearly anonymous journeyman writer Kyd. The internal evidence for a new attribution is compelling, and since the proposed author is Spenser, who is supposed to have been hostile to the public theater, the revelation of his hidden authorship of the most popular and influential play of the period is significant not only for Spenserian studies but also for the history of English literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I Apuleius, Kyd, and Spenser
  • Chapter 1. The Influence of Apuleius on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy
  • Chapter 2. Comparison of the Incertitude of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass and The Spanish Tragedy
  • Chapter 3. Apuleius and Spenser: Mystery Contexts and Games of Authorship
  • Part II Kyd, Spenser, and Dramatic Methods, Rhetoric, and Apocalypse and Armada
  • Chapter 4. Comparison of Spenser’s Dramatic Methods and Rhetoric in his Canon With Kyd’s Methods and Rhetoric in The Spanish Tragedy
  • Chapter 5. Empedocles, Just Revenge, Veritas Filia Temporis, and Textual Silence in The Faerie Queene and The Spanish Tragedy
  • Chapter 6. Apocalypse and Armada in Spenser’s Works and The Spanish Tragedy
  • Epilogue
  • Index

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I am grateful for the support of several institutions, conferences, and journals and scholars. The University of California in Riverside gave me two grants at the beginning of my work on The Spanish Tragedy. Later, the University of Hawaii at Manoa provided a number of grants for the subvention of my first book, the opportunities to carry on my work at the Folger Shakespeare and the Huntington Library, and to finish my second book. The Interlibrary Loan services at both universities were invaluable.

Conferences at the Sixteenth Century Studies, the Marlowe Society of America, and the Renaissance Society of America provided me with opportunities to present my ideas about The Spanish Tragedy. In the South-Central Renaissance Conference I delivered “The Induction of Sly: The Influence of The Spanish Tragedy on the Two Shrews,” as the winner of my Louis Martz Essay Contest in 2004.

Journals in which I published articles about The Spanish Tragedy include Allegorica, Discoveries (the online Newsletter), Early Modern Literary Studies, English Language Notes, etc. Discoveries, the online Newsletter, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Medieval and Renaissance Drama, Notes and Queries, Renaissance Quarterly, Renaissance and Reformation, Shakespeare Bulletin, Shakespeare Yearbook, Sixteenth Century Journal, Spenser Review, Spenser Studies, and Studies Iconography. ← ix | x →

The late Professor John Steadman encouraged me in the pursuit of my ideas on The Spanish Tragedy from the beginning of my career. Professor Robert Schnucker who created the Sixteen Century Studies Conference gave me conferences and reviews, and published the most important book of my career Apocalypse and Armada in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Prof. Schnucker has made me an established scholar. Professors Susan Cerasano, Lisa Hopkins, and Nicoleta Cinpoes have furthered my works on The Spanish Tragedy and Spenser.

Versions of part of my third book include five articles that have been published in 2002, 2007, 2014, and 2016: “The Influence of Spenser’s Faerie Queen on Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy,” Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (2002): 4.1−70; “The Influence of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada on Spenser’s Complaints,” Spenser Studies 16 (2002): 55−75 (now established by Chicago University); “Kyd’s Use of Apuleius’s Golden Ass in The Spanish Tragedy,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama 27 (2014): 110−31. “Sheridan’s Parody of The Spanish Tragedy in the Critic,” Notes and Queries 63.4 (2016): 617−19; and “Translating Contexts: The Purpose of Hieronimo’s Soliman and Perseda Playlet in The Spanish Tragedy,” Discoveries (Winter 2007) http:www.scrc.us.com/ discoveries. Republication rights have been granted to me by the editors and journals in question.

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Emma Smith has called The Spanish Tragedy the “most influential play of the early modern English theater.”1 The revenge tragedy was published ten times between 1594 and 1613 and performed almost thirty times between 1592 and 1597, making it one of the three most frequently performed plays during this period. Further, five new passages or “additions” were published in the 1602 edition, and in 1605 the First Part of Hieronimo appeared, purporting to be a prequel to Kyd’s play. As the progenitor of revenge tragedies, The Spanish Tragedy exercised a significant influence on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (c.1592) and Hamlet (c.1600, revised 1600–04); John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (c.1599–1601); Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (c. 1606); Cyril Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy (c.1611); and John Webster’s The White Devil (c.1613) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613), among other plays. Moreover, The Spanish Tragedy constituted the first modern tragedy, which depicted the interior life of the main character, and, finally, it featured complex metadramatic methods like multiple onstage audiences and plays-within-the-play, which influenced later dramatists.2

The Spanish Tragedy was first published anonymously in 1592, and the author remained unknown until Thomas Heywood’s attribution to Thomas Kyd in his An Apology for Actors (1612). However, this attribution remained more or less uncredited until 1773 when Thomas Hawkins cited it in The ← 1 | 2 → Origin of the English Drama. Thus, in effect, for almost the first two hundred years of its existence, The Spanish Tragedy was an anonymous play. Moreover, except for Heywood’s attribution and a seventeenth-century publisher’s catalogue listing Kyd as the author, there is no other evidence of Kyd’s authorship.3 For such a popular and important play, the sustained anonymity is anomalous and befuddling. If Heywood’s identification was accurate, and there was no proof to the contrary, why wasn’t Kyd officially credited with the play in the ensuing editions instead of sixty years later?4

This book resolves the problematic attribution of The Spanish Tragedy, and, in so doing, explains the critical debate over the play’s historical context and elucidates, as far as is possible, the related complexities of its posthumous collateral texts. My conclusion is that Heywood is mistaken: Thomas Kyd is not the author, Edmund Spenser is. The study is based on internal evidence because there is no additional external information that will resolve the attribution. It is a standard belief that some early modern writers share stylistic characteristics in the same period, and, therefore, it is difficult to distinguish a specific authorship. However, the author of The Spanish Tragedy and Spenser’s works not only share early modern traits, but, more importantly, they are united by consanguineous themes, subject matter, and methods.5

Samuel Schoenbaum has stated that there is no more demanding pursuit than attribution studies, in which “The investigator’s task … is to isolate and describe the special character of a literary work of unknown or doubtful authorship, to show the extent to which a known writer’s work partakes of that special character, and from this evidence to arrive at an appropriate conclusion.”6 This is exactly what I intend to do—indicate the areas of identification between Kyd and Spenser. My major argument is that both authors treat the same subject matter in the same manner to the point of equation of Kyd’s play with Spenser’s works.

Smith has argued that nothing would be served if we posited an author other than Kyd, because, lacking external proof, “it would be to substitute one arbitrary authorial signifier for another.”7 However, the internal evidence for a new attribution is compelling, and since the proposed author is Spenser, who is supposed to have been hostile to the public theater, the revelation of his hidden authorship of the most popular and influential play of the period is significant not only for Spenserian studies but also for the history of English literature.

In order to understand how the play has reached the point where such an attribution study is warranted, it is important to review the critical history ← 2 | 3 → of The Spanish Tragedy. In general, criticism has developed in three stages from the perception of the play as a Senecan “blood and guts” revenge tragedy to the analysis of the paradoxical combination of justice and revenge in Hieronimo’s actions, and, finally to the continuing debate over the existence and nature of its contemporary politico-religious context. In 1940, Fredson Bowers issued Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587–1642, in which he investigated the Elizabethan and biblical strictures against private revenge. Bowers concluded that Hieronimo would have been condemned by contemporary audiences for disregarding the divine law against murder.8 Bowers’s twin emphasis on the revenge elements and Hieronimo’s mad villainy became the dominant criticism of the play, and, to some extent, still influences current commentary.

Nevertheless, in reaction to Bowers, some critics argued that there was a sense of justice being enacted by Hieronimo. After analyzing the four court scenes at the outset, Ejner Jensen concluded that “We are dealing with a revenge play whose theme is justice.”9 G. K. Hunter emphasized the ironies implicit in the structure of the play’s judicial scenes, which depict the characters as puppets in a “mathematical perfection of total recompense, where justice and revenge are identical.”10

Other scholars placed the theme of just revenge within a contemporary religio-political context. Ernst de Chickera maintained that Hieronimo’s private vengeance is just, because it is carried out within the framework of public and divine vengeance against the evils of the Spanish court.11 S. F. Johnson strengthened the theme of Anglo-Spanish conflict by discerning a biblical sanction for Hieronimo’s revenge. Relating Hieronimo’s prediction “Now shall I see the fall of Babylon”12 with the confusion of the sundry tongues of the playlet, Johnson concluded that Kyd uses the Babylon/Babel topos to depict the symbolic fall of Babylon/Spain engineered by Hieronimo, the Spanish justice-figure who paradoxically represents for Elizabethan audiences the Protestant revenger.13 Similarly, in three significant articles, Ronald Broude maintained that Kyd’s depiction of a merciless revenge exacted upon Babylon/Spain fit the age in which Sir Francis Drake and his ship the Revenge helped to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.14

Expanding upon Johnson and Broude, Eugene Hill argued that The Spanish Tragedy involves the Virgilian transfer of empire from Spain to England, which is enacted symbolically when the sundry languages emblematic of Babylonian confusion are replaced by the English vernacular.15 Steven Justice explained that Kyd uses the Black Legend to attack Catholic Spain as a tyranny in which no justice is possible “because it had rejected Christ’s new ← 3 | 4 → dispensation.”16 Finally, in Apocalypse and Armada in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, I argued that the play contains a subtext that concerns the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.17

Despite these arguments for the nationalistic relevance of the play, current criticism, in the main, contends that The Spanish Tragedy is neither Protestant nor does it celebrate English imperialism. Lukas Erne stated that “If the ‘Spanishness’ of The Spanish Tragedy had contributed so much to the play’s popularity as some critics assert, it would seem surprising that none … of the innumerable … allusions to Kyd’s play takes up its historical relevance or points to its anti-Spanish prejudice.”18 Further, Thomas Rist maintained that revenge plays are not characterized by the Protestant condemnation of Roman Catholicism; instead, they are engaged in the controversy over the proper way to mourn the dead. Consequently, the motivation for Hieronimo’s revenge arises from the failure of the Spanish court to give his murdered son his proper burial.19 Finally, Calva Calvo has contended that the Spain depicted by Kyd was not evil or even particularly Spanish in a Catholic nationalistic context.20

The scholars who deny that the play celebrates English imperialism can be classified as “transnationals.” Barbara Fuchs maintained that the English imperialistic argument occludes the many areas of literary and cultural exchange that occurred between Spain and England during this period. As a result, she proposed “that we restore the texts constructed in a transnational, ideologically complex setting to their original contexts, and recuperate influence or transmission as ideological vectors.”21 Eric J. Griffin followed her suggestion by arguing that Kyd is not nationalistic but is opposed to “expansionist transnational empire” in both Spain and England.22 He contended that Kyd establishes that Hieronimo’s murderous revenge must be rejected by both countries as a solution to international problems. This thesis reflects Griffin’s desire to foreground “the transnational or cosmopolitan potential of the past.”23

Thus, criticism has reached a stalemate between those scholars who support the nationalistic context and those who reject it. However, the attribution of the play to Spenser will resolve this impasse because he was a committed apocalyptic Protestant writer who celebrated the ascendancy of Elizabeth after the defeat of Babylon/Spain. Throughout the book, for purposes of argument and clarity, I refer to Kyd as the author of The Spanish Tragedy; however, at its conclusion, I replace Kyd with Spenser as the author because of the evidence presented.

This book is divided into two parts with each containing three chapters. Part one concerns the influence of Apuleius on Kyd and Spenser. The first ← 4 | 5 → chapter charts the ways that Apuleius’s The Golden Ass influenced The Spanish Tragedy, including the concept of the Silenus box, with its dual levels of meaning; the descent into the underworld as a heroic act that leads to the understanding of secret truths; the analogous notion of hermeneutic interpretation as a mystery rite that involves the transcendence of mystic silence; the launching of a ship in the spring as a communal act of security and betterment; and finally, the search for the “hidden author” of the work. In emulation of the authorial question in the prologue of The Golden Ass, Kyd develops a purposeful anonymity that leads the reader into a hermeneutic detective pursuit of the hidden meanings of the play and the author’s identity.

The second chapter analyzes the uncertainty concerning the vorlage (source) and putative addition to Apuleius’s The Golden Ass as the source of the ambiguities surrounding The First Part of Jeronimo and the so-called Additions to The Spanish Tragedy. Kyd uses the incertitude of these collateral texts to increase the mystification of the play. The third chapter demonstrates that Spenser also is influenced by Apuleius in the creation of incertitude and anonymity surrounding his works and in the use of mystery motifs such as the ritual descent into the underworld as the means of achieving heroism and the analogous depiction of hermeneutic interpretation as a mystery initiation into the meaning of hidden truths.

Part two presents the essential similarities between Kyd and Spenser as Protestant writers. Chapter four analyzes Spenser’s role as a “hidden dramatist” throughout his canon. For example, his bower scenes are essentially dramatic presentations with multiple audiences interpreting the action on different levels. Spenser also presents visions, dreams, and various productions to be interpreted by his audiences as containing a combination of art and history. Finally, Spenser uses Reformation dramatic forms and techniques to depict the Protestant victory over Babylon/Spain. All of these elements are duplicated by Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy, which is presented as a true dream or mystery to be interpreted by the audience as the destined victory of England over Spain in 1588.

Chapter five demonstrates that Spenser and Kyd employ four large themes to structure their works: the Empedoclean dichotomy of discord/concord; the connection between revenge and justice; the topos of “Truth, the daughter of Time,” and textual silence. The four schemes present variations of the same process: the onset of Truth, Justice, and English ascendancy in the course of Time. The final chapter traces Spenser’s and Kyd’s use of the imagery and language of the Book of Revelation to predict and represent the fall of the ← 5 | 6 → Catholic Whore of Babylon in their works. Spenser was involved with apocalypticism throughout his career, and, after the defeat of the Armada in 1588, he informed it with a sense of prophecy fulfilled in The Faerie Queene and the Complaints. Finally, the nexus of Apocalypse and Armada in Spenser’s canonical works will be compared with its appearance in The Spanish Tragedy to complete the essential equation between them.


1. Emma Smith, “Author v. Character in Early Modern Dramatic Authorship: The Example of Thomas Kyd and The Spanish Tragedy,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1998): 129−42.

2. Marina Tarlinskaja, Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 15611642 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 67.

3. Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 49, 120.

4. Heywood’s attribution will be discussed in greater detail in the Epilogue.


X, 194
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 194 pp.

Biographical notes

Frank R. Ardolino (Author)

Frank R. Ardolino is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Hawai’i. He has published two previous books and numerous peer-reviewed articles on The Spanish Tragedy.


Title: Spenser, Kyd, and the Authorship of “The Spanish Tragedy”