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Correcting Justice with Vengeance in The Spanish Tragedy

  • Derek Dunne
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)

Abstract

The crux of The Spanish Tragedy, and to a certain extent the revenge genre, is articulated in this passage, whereby revengers seek justice in an unjust world, amid a ‘mass of public wrongs’. This heartfelt plea comes in the wake of Horatio’s murder, as Hieronimo struggles to make sense of the ‘lively form of death’ he has discovered in the arbor (3.2.2). Kyd is quick to bring his audience’s attention to the universal, almost symbolic, nature of Horatio’s death. Within two hundred lines of discovering his son’s body, Hieronimo expresses the intertwined nature of vengeance and justice, in a rhetoric that owes more to Fortescue than to Seneca. His utterance relates directly to the rhetoric of law as the bulwark of civilisation, a rhetoric that continually reminded citizens how without law ‘all kingdoms and estates would be brought to confucyon, and all humane society would be dissolved’.1 Compare William Lambarde’s charge to a quarter session jury in 1595, when he says:

[I]f these good laws were not, our whole course and conversation should be disturbed and could be nothing else but a continual confusion, horror, and a living death.2

Lambarde’s ‘living death’ is literalised by Kyd in the ‘lively form of death’ that is Horatio’s corpse, presenting us with a world ‘[c]onfused and filled with murder and misdeeds’.

Keywords

Legal System Corrective Justice Legal Discourse Legal Procedure Official Justice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Judge at York assizes, 1620, quoted in J. S. Cockburn, A History of English Assizes, 1558–1714 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 310.Google Scholar
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  3. 6.
    The play was performed twenty-nine times between 1592 and 1597, The Spanish Tragedie, ed. Emma Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998), p. xiii. James Shapiro also notes that the play went through eleven editions by 1633, ‘“Tragedies Naturally Performed”: Kyd’s Representation of Violence’, in Staging the Renaissance: Re-interpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 99–113 (p. 112, n. 14).Google Scholar
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    Peter Mercer, Hamlet and the Acting of Revenge (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 41. See also Sandra Clark’s assertion in discussing Hieronimo’s plight, that ‘[s]ocial bonds and obligations have no currency; Hieronimo is driven back on his own sense of family loyalty and the archaic compulsion to revenge’, Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 136. For a theologically inflected argument on the same point, see Heather Hirschfeld, The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    ‘The Performance of Revenge: Titus Andronicus and The Spanish Tragedy’, in The Show Within: Dramatic and Other Insets. English Renaissance Drama (1550–1642), ed. Francois Laroque, 2 vols (Montpellier: Paul-Valéry University Press, 1992), II, (1992), pp. 267–83 (p. 278).Google Scholar
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    ‘Ironies of Justice in the Spanish Tragedy’, in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978), pp. 214–29 (p. 217).Google Scholar
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    This became formalised in the 1590 provision known as casus difficultatis. See William Lambarde, Eiranarcha, or of the Office of the Iustices of the Peace … Whereunto Is Added the Newly Reformed Commission of the Peace (London, 1591) (STC no. 15166), p. 49. For more on this see Chapter 1, pp. 27.Google Scholar
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    The phrase ‘just revenge’ is used by Hieronimo when describing how the distraught Isabella ‘cries on righteous Rhadamanth/For just revenge against the murderers’ (3.13.147–8). Such a juxtaposition is not unique to Kyd, and can be seen in Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Minos asks of Aeacus that he ‘assist me in the just/Revengement of my murdered son that sleepeth in the dust’ (7.617–8), Ovid, Metamorphosis, trans. Arthur Golding, ed. Madeleine Forey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002), p. 218. Thus the judges of the underworld in Kyd’s play are themselves implicated in a pattern of vindictive justice.Google Scholar
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    Katharine Eisaman Maus, ed., Four Revenge Tragedies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 339. Cf. Mukherji, Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama, p. 6, on how Othello’s line ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul’ (5.2.1) relies on the legal resonances of ‘cause’. Later in The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo employs the same lexicon: ‘For you have given me cause,/ Ay, by my faith have you’ (4.1.59–60).Google Scholar
  14. 38.
    On Gascoigne see James McBain, ‘Early Tudor Drama and Legal Culture, c. 1485–1558’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Magdalen College, Oxford, 2007), p. 215ff. Lorna Hutson discusses the emergence of the evidential plot in ‘Forensic Aspects of Renaissance Mimesis’, Representations, 94 (2006), 80–109 (p. 90).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    ‘The safest path to mischiefe is by mischiefe open still’, from Seneca’s Agamemnon (2.17), translated by John Studley and printed in Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (London, 1581) (STC no. 22221). The book Hieronimo holds in his hands would seem to contain both the biblical and the classical passages, suggesting perhaps that it is Hieronimo’s own personal commonplace book.Google Scholar
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    Peter Womack, English Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 130; Semenza, ‘The Spanish Tragedy and Revenge’, p. 58. Semenza also says ‘the grotesque and spectacular nature of Hieronimo’s revenge plot is not so much the problem as it is the central point of The Spanish Tragedy’, ‘The Spanish Tragedy and Revenge’, p. 51, but this ignores the extent to which the ‘spectacular’ can also be instructive, as was the case with exemplary punishments.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For example, Leslie Sanders, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy: A Play on the Revenge Play’, Renaissance & Reformation, 10 (1974), 25–36; Lillian Wilds, ‘The Revenger as Dramatist: A Study of the Character-as-Dramatist in The Revenger’s Tragedy’, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 30 (1976), 113–22; Barbara J. Baines, ‘Antonio’s Revenge: Marston’s Play on Revenge Plays’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 23 (1983), 277–94.Google Scholar
  18. 46.
    Cf. Annalisa Castaldo, ‘“These Were Spectacles to Please My Soul”: Inventive Violence in the Renaissance Revenge Tragedy’, in Staging Pain, 1580–1800, pp. 49–56 (p. 56); Janet Clare, Revenge Tragedies of the Renaissance (Devon: Northcote House, 2007), p. 28.Google Scholar
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    Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, 1550–1640 (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 2000), p. 119.Google Scholar
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    On the effects of real-life executions on early modern spectators, see J. A. Sharpe, ‘“Last Dying Speeches”: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past & Present, 107 (1985), 144–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Francis Bacon, Maxims of the Lawes of England (London, 1630) (STC no. 1134) p. 33. OED’s definition of ‘satisfy’ begins with the fulfilment of an obligation, and specifically states ‘Now somewhat rare exc. in Law’. See also Hirschfeld’s book The End of Satisfaction.Google Scholar
  22. 53.
    See Pamela Allen Brown, ‘Anatomy of an Actress: Bel-imperia as Tragic Diva’, Shakespeare Bulletin, 33 (2015), 49–65, for the leading role which Bel-imperia carves out for herself in Hieronimo’s drama.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 55.
    Bartholomew Fair, in The Alchemist and other plays, ed. by Gordon Campbell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 332. Ironically, Henslowe is recorded as paying Ben Jonson for his additions to the play in 1601, Edwards, p. lxvi.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Derek Dunne 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek Dunne
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FribourgSwitzerland

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