"On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue" – The Spanish Tragedy

One of the best things about theatre in Staunton is the opportunity to see so many rarely-performed plays. Not only does the ASC make an effort to include selections from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, predecessors, and successors in the repertory — this year alone, we’ve had Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Massinger’s The Roman Actor in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, with the 1790 Wild Oats by John O’Keefe currently playing and Thomas Heywood’s 1631 Fair Maid of the West opening in October — but related programs in the area have also taken to branching out in a similar fashion. The theatre department at Stuart Hall, headed by a graduate of the MLitt/MFA program, has in the past performed plays like John Lyly’s Gallathea alongside more traditional Shakespearean fare. The MBC program often trends towards the revival of obscure plays, whether by Shakespeare or by his contemporaries, and this year will be no exception, with productions of The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1587 play by Thomas Hugues, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a 1599 city comedy by Thomas Dekker, both upcoming in the fall.

Last night’s selection, put forth by the University Wits, was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, generally considered to be the forerunner for Hamlet and any number of other plays in the revenge tragedy genre. As such, this play is fertile ground for thinking of the chains of inspiration and derivation in early modern theatre. (Thesis project, anyone?). As director Asae Dean noted in the program, and as I noticed while watching the play, you can see in Spanish Tragedy the seeds of many other plays. I thought of the unapologetic vengeance of Vindice, from Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. I thought of the brother-sister relationship in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I saw Iago’s cunning, Titus’s devotion to wholesale destruction, the concealed passions of so many lovers meeting by moonlight. I was also put in mind strongly of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at a moment where Hieronimo comments on the nature of acting:

That we do as all Tragedians do:
To die today for fashioning our scene
The death of Ajax or some Roman peer–
And in a minute starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.

Though Stoppard’s play obviously derives from Hamlet, he seems to have borrowed from Kyd when Guildenstern complains that actors “die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life…because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat.” The Spanish Tragedy thus becomes a sort of echo-chamber, not just to a viewer with a broad experience of early modern theatre, but with ripples that come down to the present day as well.

Though Spanish Tragedy is most often linked to Hamlet, I found myself thinking not about the similarities between the plays, but of the differences. The connection between the two plays is strong, but in many ways, it appears to be one of inversion rather than replication. The ghost of Don Andrea, who appears at the beginning of the play (and remains onstage for the duration), doesn’t affect any of the action as Hamlet’s father does; though the people responsible for Don Andrea’s death do pay in the end, his death isn’t what they’re paying for. The revenge belongs to another character, for another death. The play-within-a-play isn’t meant to out anyone watching it; it’s designed as a trap for two of the actors. A father mourns for a son, not a son for a father. The people left standing at the end of the play occupy wildly different places in the plot than those left at the end of Hamlet. The biggest difference, though, is how much Spanish Tragedy struck me as a play of passions, whereas I’ve always felt Hamlet to be much more cerebral (and a little bloodless). Wooing and love-play in Hamlet take place off-stage, or before the play begins, but in Spanish Tragedy, the audience gets to see it — Horatio and Bel-imperia have some wonderful romantic teasing, and the awkward advances of Balthazar are plainly presented for the audience to cringe at. Though such fleshy interests are in Hamlet’s mind, we never see his mother and stepfather-uncle in their private moments, nor do we see Hamlet court Ophelia — all we get are the remnants in the form of Ophelia’s love-tokens. Shakespeare’s doing something interesting there, turning the physical inward, making the audience imagine or remember along with Hamlet, rather than allowing us to experience the moments as we do in The Spanish Tragedy.

The Spanish Tragedy is a play I’d read several times but never seen before, and as I watched the show, I remembered several of the things we’d discussed when reading this play in the Contemporaries class at Mary Baldwin. Many of the things we’d identified as “problems” in class seemed perfectly natural on the stage — most notably the ending play-within-a-play, where each of four characters speaks in a different language (none of them English). The text of The Spanish Tragedy indicates that “this play of Hieronimo, in sundry languages, was thought good to be set down in English more largely, for the easier understanding to every public reader,” but it does seem clear that, in performance, it was done in those sundry languages. As a reader, you wonder how this can possibly work, but on the stage you discover that, since Hieronimo has helpfully explained the plot (which unsubtly mirrors the plot of the play they’re all in) in a previous scene, it really doesn’t matter if you can’t understand what they’re saying. You get the idea, and they move along to the homicides rapidly enough that the strange tongues don’t become tedious. The bloodshed at the end does lean towards the absurd, but — similar to The Revenger’s Tragedy — I was entirely okay with that. The entire play has an edge of the ridiculous to it, which the cast embraced rather than embarrassedly shying away from. Like Revenger’s, The Spanish Tragedy dances on the thin line between high tragedy and black comedy, and I find that juxtaposition delightful.

I’m sure I’ll be working with these connections a lot over the next year, as I prepare a study guide for Hamlet, which will necessarily involve looking at Hamlet‘s antecedents and at the revenge tragedy genre as a whole. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see such an energetic and committed production before I begin that work — it’s always great to have a live production in mind from which to draw inspiration. If you ever have the chance to see this play in performance, do so — you won’t regret it. If you’re looking for a non-Shakespeare play to produce, consider it — this play is well-worthy of revival. And if you’re in Staunton, you can still see the University Wits’ production tonight, 7:30 PM, at the King Theatre at Stuart Hall.

One thought on “"On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue" – The Spanish Tragedy

  1. I'm so disappointed that I didn't hear about this happening. I would have driven down from DC to see this production.The Spanish Tragedy is my Early Modern obsession. (Everyone has one, right?) I spend a lot of time trying to convince others of its brilliance. As part of these efforts I directed a production of it in 2009. My production team and I did what research we could and found very little evidence of previous productions in this country. From what we could figure out we may have been doing only the fifth or sixth full production staged in America. Were you guys able to do any research on this aspect?It really surprises me that this play isn't performed more often. I think it absolutely holds up.I'm glad you performed the play-within in the various languages. Whenever I see people suggest that they should be done in English, I sigh a giant sigh…

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