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THOMAS KYD (1558-1595)

The following article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 32.

UNTIL the last decade of the 19th century practically nothing was known about the life of the Elizabethan dramatist, Thomas Kyd. Although his famous Spanish Tragedy, produced about 1587, enjoyed immense popularity on the stage all through Elizabeth's reign and through the succeeding reigns of James I and Charles I, not even his name was known in connection with it until 1773. At that time it was accidentally discovered in a treatise written by Thomas Heywood in which reference was made to the Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo as it was more generally called by Kyd's contemporaries.

Thomas Kyd, we have learned, was the son of a London scrivener. What formal education he received probably was had at the Merchant Taylor's School where he acquired at least a smattering of Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. He seems to have been included in the Mermaid Tavern group although he appears not to have been the equal of most of them either in birth or education.

About the time of the production of the Spanish Tragedy, or shortly after, Kyd evidently came into a fairly close association with Marlowe. From 1590 to 1593 both dramatists were in the service of the same "noble lord." This contact had unfortunate results for Kyd. Some of his papers were seized in Marlowe's rooms when the government was preparing to arrest that gentleman on a charge of heresy. On the strength of this Kyd's lodging was searched and Kyd himself imprisoned and tortured. When, after the death of Marlowe, he was released, he could never regain his former place in the world and died in poverty shortly afterwards.

The Spanish Tragedy is, perhaps, the only surviving dramatic outpouring of Kyd's "rampant and lurid genius." It had everything--ghosts, insanity, murder, suicide--to shock the sensation-loving audiences of the day. There is no doubt that the play exercised a certain amount of influence on the writings of Kyd's contemporaries. Shakespearean commentators even acknowledge that famous playwright's indebtedness to Kyd's "tragedy of blood" for some of the mechanism of Hamlet.

For a long time The Spanish Tragedy was better known than any other English play in Germany where it was acted in Frankfurt in 1601. It was equally popular in Holland and exercised a powerful influence on Dutch literature.