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Theatre / The Spanish Tragedy

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The Spanish Tragedy is a 1592 play by English playwright Thomas Kyd. It is now considered the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, paving the way for Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare (with some obvious influences on Hamlet and commonalities with Titus Andronicus.)

The play begins in the aftermath of a Spanish victory over Portugal in 1580. The Spanish king's brother, the Duke of Castile, has a son and daughter, Lorenzo and Bel-imperia. Her deceased former lover Andrea has been killed by the Portugese viceroy's son Balthazar, who has been taken prisoner by Lorenzo and Horatio, the son of the Spanish marshal Hieronimo. Andrea appears as a ghost throughout the play, alongside a personification of Revenge.

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Balthazar is in love with Bel-imperia, and is supported in his courtship of her by both Lorenzo and the king, who sees a potential for an alliance between the two countries through their union. Bel-imperia, however, has fallen mutually in love with Horatio; upon surprising them together in Hieronimo's arbour at night with the help of a treacherous servant, Lorenzo and Balthazar stab Horatio to death and hang his body from a tree, before locking Bel-imperia away.

Hieronimo and his wife Isabella, finding their son's body, become frantic with grief. The imprisoned Bel-imperia manages to send the former a letter written in her blood, naming the murderers, but his attempts to see her arouse Lorenzo's suspicions. The latter convinces the king that Horatio is alive, and prevents Hieronimo from seeing him in order to stop him seeking justice, while Isabella commits suicide, all of which drive Hieronimo raving mad.

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Hieronimo joins forces with Bel-imperia to take revenge on the murderers, first feigning reconciliation with them and proposing that the four of them perform a play ("Soliman and Perseda") together for the court. During the performance of this play, real daggers are secretly used instead of prop ones, with Hieronimo stabbing Lorenzo, and Bel-imperia stabbing Balthazar and then herself. Hieronimo explains his revenge plot to the king, bites out his own tongue in order to be mute under torture, and then stabs the Duke of Castile and himself. Satisfied, Andrea and Revenge resolve to punish the souls of the guilty parties.

The text is available here.


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Tropes in The Spanish Tragedy:

  • All Part of the Show: During the climactic performance of "Soliman and Perseda", the audience does not notice that the killings are real (until Hieronimo spills the beans afterwards), and the king remarks on how good the acting is.
  • Ambadassador: Don Andrea was definitely this before his death in the prequel, being a valiant war hero. The present Portugese Ambassador also has a moment of this in Act 3, when his arrival saves an innocent man from the stake and exposes the traitor who condemned him.
  • And I Must Scream: In the final scene, Andrea and Revenge arrange eternal punishments for Lorenzo (bound to Ixion's burning solar wheel), Balthazar (hung from the Chimera's neck), the Duke of Castile (put in Tityus' place as the eternal prey of a vulture), Pedringano (dragged through the boiling Acheron river) and Serberine (doomed to roll Sisyphus' stone forever).
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The villains Lorenzo and Balthazar are nobility, while Andrea, Horatio and Hieronimo are all of humble birth and relatively heroic figures.
  • Asshole Victim: Lorenzo and Balthazar really had it coming.
  • Bittersweet Ending: With shades of a Downer Ending. The villains are killed and punished in hell (although it's debatable how much of a villain the Duke was). Andrea, Horatio, Isabella, Bel-imperia and Hieronimo are all dead through murder or suicide, but there is promise of them all finding happiness together in the afterlife. On the other hand, the main survivors left to mourn and pick up the pieces - the Spanish king and the Portugese viceroy - have both (especially the latter) shown themselves to be rather weak and gullible rulers who probably will not be able to stop history from repeating itself.
  • Break the Cutie: Bel-imperia sees her lover stabbed and hanged in front of her, and then she is imprisoned. And even before that, she was already feeling vengeful towards Balthazar because of his having killed Andrea before the beginning of the play.
  • Cartwright Curse: Both of Bel-imperia's lovers are murdered, one before the beginning of the play and the other at the end of Act 2.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Hieronimo spends the first act as a background character, but when his son Horatio is murdered, he becomes the protagonist of the story.
  • The Climax: The play performed by Hieronimo, Bel-imperia, Balthazar and Lorenzo in Act 4.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: For want of ink, the imprisoned Bel-imperia uses her own blood to write to Hieronimo and name Horatio's murderers, and drops the letter out the window for him to find.
    Bel-imperia: (written) For want of ink, receive this bloody writ:
    Me hath my hapless brother hid from thee;
    Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him:
    For these were they that murdered thy son.
  • Dead Man Writing: After executing Pedringano, the Hangman finds a letter on his body exposing the guilt of Lorenzo and Balthazar, which he gives to Hieronimo.
    Pedringano: (written) If you neglect, my life is desperate,
    And in my death I shall reveal the truth...
  • Despair Event Horizon: Isabella crosses it in her very first scene, where she goes insane upon seeing the murdered body of her son.
  • The Dragon: Pedringano is this to Lorenzo.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • During Horatio and Bel-imperia's fatal love scene in the arbour, the audience knows that the treacherous Pedringano has gone to fetch Lorenzo and his accomplices. Horatio says to Bel-imperia "Oh stay a while, and I will die with thee..." shortly before he is stabbed and hanged right in front of her.
    • Just after Bel-imperia and Hieronimo have resolved to join forces for revenge, the latter invites Lorenzo and Balthazar to perform in a tragic play with them in front of the king and the viceroy, saying that it will prove "wondrous plausible to that assembly", referring to the fact that the killings in the play will be real.
    • After Bel-imperia has stabbed Balthazar and herself, the viceroy says "Were this in earnest, Bel-imperia, you would be better to my son than so." He's unaware that it was in earnest, and they are both dead.
  • Driven to Suicide: Isabella, Bel-imperia and Hieronimo.
  • Due to the Dead: Andrea's soul was kept in limbo until his funeral rites were properly performed by his devoted friend Horatio.
  • Entitled to Have You: Balthazar's attitude toward Bel-imperia, who hates his guts.
  • Foil: Honourable, impulsive and chivalrous Horatio to the deceitful Machiavellian villain Lorenzo. Also, the honest Alexandro to the dishonest Villuppo.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Revenge's very first speech to Andrea assures him that Balthazar will be "deprived of life by Bel-imperia."
  • Greek Chorus: The spirit of Revenge and the ghost of Andrea serve this function; they are removed from the action and comment on the events at the end of each act. Lampshaded in Revenge's first speech.
    Revenge: Here sit we down to see the mystery,
    And serve for Chorus in this Tragedy.
  • He Knows Too Much: Lorenzo offs the servants Pedringano and Serberine in order to stop them from revealing his role in Horatio's death.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Horatio and Andrea used to be, before the latter's death.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: The Spanish king and the duke of Castile both trust Balthazar and regard him as a good match for Bel-imperia, and the former is also duped by Lorenzo's lies about Hieronimo and Horatio in the third act, while the viceroy of Portugal is taken in by Villuppo's lies about Alexandro. Also, Bel-imperia in Act 2, when she says her servant Pedringano "is as trusty as my second self".
  • I Surrender, Suckers: After biting his tongue out so he can't talk under torture, Hieronimo is compelled by the king to write instead. He appears to agree, and motions for a knife to mend his pen, which upon receiving, he suddenly stabs the Duke of Castile to death and then commits suicide.
  • Kill ’Em All: Nearly all of the named characters are dead by the end of the play.
  • Kill Him Already!: The essence of Bel-imperia's opening speech to Hieronimo in Act 4, essentially accusing him of dithering in the matter of avenging Horatio.
  • Knight Templar: Hieronimo arguably crosses into this area when he sees fit to stab the Duke of Castile, who, unlike Lorenzo and Balthazar, has done nothing to him.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • The snitch Pedringano who betrayed Horatio to his death is, in turn, betrayed to his death by Lorenzo.
    • Viluppo is condemned to the same death to which he tried to betray Alexandro.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve:
    • Alexandro has been falsely accused of murdering Balthazar and tied to the stake to be burned, when the Portugese Ambassador enters with letters confirming Balthazar to be alive and Alexandro innocent.
    • Subverted with the treacherous Pedringano, who is led to believe that the empty box brought by the page boy contains a pardon from Lorenzo, right up until his moment of execution.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Both the king and the viceroy. Lorenzo falsely convinces the former that the murdered Horatio is alive and well, while Viluppo falsely convinces the viceroy that his living son Balthazar has been murdered by Alexandro.
  • Meaningful Name: Bel-imperia is both beautiful and imperious.
  • Motive Rant: Hieronimo delivers an epic one to the audience of his play at court, revealing a) Horatio's dead body, b) his extreme grief and thirst for vengeance, c) the perfidy of Lorenzo and Balthazar and d) the very real on-stage killings that the king, duke and viceroy had supposed to be counterfeit.
  • Murder-Suicide: In the final act, Bel-imperia stabs first Balthazar and then herself, while Hieronimo kills Lorenzo and the Duke of Castile before knifing himself.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Balthazar wants Bel-imperia for himself, so he and Lorenzo do this to her lover Horatio.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: Averted, interestingly for the time period. Bel-imperia has explicitly had a relationship with Andrea before his death, but is still seen as valuable and desirable, to the extent that Balthazar murders her new lover Horatio in an attempt to force her to marry him.
  • Not-So-Fake Prop Weapon: Hieronimo and Bel-imperia's mode of revenge against Horatio's murderers. Inviting them to perform "Soliman and Perseda" together at court, they stab them for real when the play calls for their characters to kill them.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Hieronimo really does go insane, but pretends to be even more insane still while he craftily plots his revenge.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Hieronimo will not stop until he has destroyed the murderers of his son Horatio.
    • The Duke of Castile and Portugese viceroy call for Hieronimo to be tortured when they find out he has killed their sons.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: As par for the course in a revenge tragedy. Hieronimo and Bel-imperia orchestrate terrible revenge for the death of Horatio (and, in her case, Andrea too).
  • Posthumous Character: Andrea, Bel-imperia's former lover who was murdered by Balthazar, appears as a ghost, commenting on the action at the end of each act, and imploring the spirit of Revenge to mete out justice.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Hangman, who shares a witty and good-humoured dialogue with Pedringano right before executing him.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: A villainous version in Balthazar (red) and Lorenzo (blue).
  • Replacement Goldfish: Bel-imperia regards Horatio as one for her deceased Andrea to some extent, as she reveals in a monologue.
    Bel-imperia: Yet what avails to wail Andrea's death,
    From whence Horatio proves my second love?
    Had he not loved Andrea as he did,
    He could not sit in Bel-imperia's thoughts.
  • Revenge: Par for the course. Revenge even manifests as a spirit, overseeing the action and assuring Andrea of the villains' impending doom.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Lorenzo orchestrates the death of Bel-imperia's treacherous servant Pedringano, while making him believe he will be pardoned. Hieronimo, acting as judge, eagerly condemns him to die due to his role in betraying Horatio to his death.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Hieronimo and Bel-imperia take brutal revenge on behalf of their son and lovers respectively.
  • Romancing the Widow: Bel-imperia is not technically a widow as she was not married, but she and Horatio end up turning to each other for comfort in the wake of the death of Andrea, who was her lover and his dear friend.
  • Shock Value Relationship: Downplayed. Although Bel-imperia really does love Horatio as he does her, she also secretly admits that one of her motives for being with him is to spite Balthazar who murdered her first lover Andrea and who is now wooing her.
    Bel-imperia: 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.
  • Show Within a Show: A play within a play is the vehicle for Bel-imperia and Hieronimo's revenge in the final act.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Bel-imperia is beautiful, intelligent and headstrong. She chooses both her lovers, Andrea and Horatio, against the wishes of her father.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Balthazar to Bel-imperia, who hates him.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Pedringano tattles about Bel-imperia's relationship with Horatio to Lorenzo and Balthazar, leading them to kill Horatio.
  • Taking You with Me: Held captive and threatened with torture at the end of the play, Hieronimo manages to stab the Duke of Castile before turning the knife on himself.
  • Together in Death: At the end of the play, the ghost of Andrea proposes to "beg at lovely Proserpine" to be reunited with his beloved Bel-imperia, his friend Horatio, and the latter's parents Hieronimo and Isabella, and to lead them to a blissful afterlife.
  • Tongue Trauma: Threatened with torture to make him talk, Hieronimo bites out his own tongue so that he can't.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Horatio. He's honest, chivalrous, and easily the nicest character in the mostly Black and Grey Morality world of the play, and is murdered in the second act.
  • Trauma Conga Line:
    • Hieronimo finds his son's body stabbed and hanged, is repeatedly obstructed in his search for justice, and then loses his wife Isabella to suicide. No wonder he snapped.
    • Bel-imperia, meanwhile, has endured seeing both her boyfriends murdered, the latter in a particularly brutal manner by her evil brother, and is then imprisoned, where she has to resort to writing a letter in her own blood to expose the murderers. By the end of the play she has killed herself.
  • Uriah Gambit: Lorenzo pulls one on Pedringano by inducing him to murder Serberine, and then ensuring that he is excuted for this crime.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Both Hieronimo and Bel-imperia, due to the murders of their loved ones.


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