Thomas Kyd: fragments of a life

The life and work of Thomas Kyd offer a perfect example of the problems posed by the erosion of evidence over time – see my post here – since what little we do know seems wholly arbitrary in its survival, yet also hints at the enormity of what we have lost.

Kyd, a prosperous scrivener’s son whose family hailed from the area around Lombard Street, was born in 1558 – he was baptised on 6 November – six years before Shakespeare and Marlowe and fourteen before Jonson. By virtue of his age, therefore, Kyd belongs more than any of them to the hinterland of Elizabethan drama, before works began to appear in print.

He was writing for the Queen’s Men more or less from its inception in 1583, which suggests that he already had an established reputation, although by the decade’s end he had moved on into the service of a patron – as yet unidentified, but most likely Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange – who had his own troupe of players. Marlowe was with him there, too: another provider of scripts for the patron’s men. In common with almost all of the drama of the 1580s, however, nearly everything Kyd wrote is lost.

Indeed, we are lucky to have the one original play of Kyd’s that we do: The Spanish Tragedy, which most likely post-dates his work for the Queen’s Men.  In fact, the only reason we know it to be Kyd’s is a throwaway comment in Thomas Heywood’s 1612 Apology for Actors. And that is despite the fact that The Spanish Tragedy was arguably the most successful play of the era, and its lead part, that of Hieronimo, one of the great star roles. On her death-bed, one great lady is said to have dismissed her priest and called instead for a performance of The Spanish Tragedy, with the words Hieronimo, Hieronimo, O let me see Hieronimo acted!’. Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but if not true it must at least have been thought plausible: it appears in at least two sources in the 1630s.

Probably written in 1587 – the evidence narrows the range no further than 1582-92 – The Spanish Tragedy was in the repertory constantly until the puritans closed the theatres in 1642. Henslowe’s diary for the years 1592-1597 at the Rose Theatre show it to be his third most successful play, tallying 29 performances. But its success also extended across the continent: there were multiple adaptations in German and Dutch, and records have survived of performances at Frankfurt, Dresden, Prague and Lüneburg until as late as 1660. At least one other play was certainly inspired by it.

In print it was equally successful, spawning 11 editions between 1592 and 1633. No doubt as a result of its appearance in print, it was in the repertory of at least four companies in the 1590s and early 1600s: Strange’s Men, Darby’s Men, Pembroke’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. There was a prequel, too – The First Part of Hieronimo, first printed in 1605 but probably belonging to the early 1590s –  which was, oddly, a comedy. One of The Spanish Tragedy’s innovations was the use of a play-within-a-play – here named Soliman and Perseda – as a plot device, and it is a measure of The Spanish Tragedy’s power at the box office that Soliman and Perseda was itself extracted and enlarged to become a play in its own right. Shakespeare certainly knew it: the Bastard quotes from it in the opening scene of King John.

One late 20th-century critic has gone so so far as to say that The Spanish Tragedy was ‘quite the most important single play in the history of English drama’. To some extent that judgement depends on when the play is dated. If it were early enough, it could claim to be the first revenge tragedy on the Elizabethan stage, for example. Influence is always difficult to quantify; but it is impossible to read The Spanish Tragedy without thinking of Hamlet, Kyd’s supposed involvement in the Ur-Hamlet notwithstanding (see below). The latest Arden editors of Hamlet put it like this: ‘Thomas Kyd’s play… has many plot similarities to Hamlet… and these include a ghost… a play-within-a-play, a faithful friend called Horatio, a brother who kills his sister’s lover, and a female suicide’. They might have added the moral indecision of the leading revenger, too.

Kyd and Marlowe were not, from what we know of them, obvious friends. The one seemingly studious, self-consciously serious, older, a grammar school boy, perhaps a little cold and dour; the other argumentative, brilliant, witty, a Cambridge man: provocative, infuriating, addictive company. But it is all too easy to grasp at the bare handful of facts that survive and scatter them into a misleadingly bold and authoritative pattern. They were certainly close enough to share their writing space, renting a room – most likely in Norton Folgate or up the road in Shoreditch – sometime around 1590–1, their notes and papers tumbled carelessly together in the press of time and circumstance.

This rare fact dominates what we know of Kyd’s life because of its fatal sequel. On Saturday 5 May 1593, not long before midnight, someone evaded the nightwatch to peg a document to the wall of the Dutch church on Broad Street. It was an attack on the new Dutch immigrants in London, one of a number over recent days, and was signed Tamberlaine, after Marlowe’s best-known character. Fearing that these libels would incite violence on the streets, the Privy Council acted. Its instructions on 11 May could not have been more clear – or more chilling:

there have bin of late diver lewd and malicious libells set up within the citie of London, among the which there is some set uppon the wal of the Dutch churchyard that doth excead the rest in lewdnes… [officers should] make search and apprehend everie person so to be suspected [of writing or publishing the libels] … to make like search in anie the chambers, studies, chestes, or other like places for al manner of writings or papers that may geve you light for the discoverie of the libellers… And after you shal have examined the persons, if you shal finde them dulie to be suspected and they shal refuze to confesse the truth, you shal by aucthoritie hereof put them to the torture in Bridewel, and by th’extremetie thereof… draw them to discover their knowledge concerning the said libells

Kyd, gathered up in the sweep that followed, was a prisoner by the next day. His room had been searched and a heretical tract found. Kyd denied all knowledge of it, and blamed his association with Marlowe, the document having been ‘shufled wth some of myne (unknown to me) by some occasion of wrytinge in one chamber twoe yeares synce’. Marlowe, then out of town, was brought before the Privy Council on the 18th. He was freed on bail, only to be stabbed to death in Deptford on the 30th.

The extent of Kyd’s responsibility for Marlowe’s fate remains unknown: he certainly damned his late colleague’s opinions and character to the authorities – ‘It was [Marlowe’s] custom … to jest at the devine scriptures, gybe at praiers, & stryve in argument to frustrate & confute what hath byn spoke or wrytt by prophets & such holie men’, he said – but as far as we know he only did so after Marlowe’s death, when saving himself must have seemed the only worthwhile priority.

It is not clear, either, whether Kyd was tortured as the Privy Council had ordered. But he was certainly broken by the experience. That winter he laboured over a free translation of Robert Garnier’s French tragedy Cornélie. It was registered 26 January 1594 and dedicated to the Countess of Sussex. That dedication is bare testimony to Kyd’s suffering; as such, it is heartbreaking.

Having no leisure… but such as evermore is traveld with th’afflictions of the minde, then which the world affoords no greater misery, it may bee wondred at by some, how I durst undertake a matter of this moment: which both requiring cunning, rest, and oportunity… Wherein, what grace that excellent Garnier hath lost by my defaulte, I shall beseech your Honour to repaire with the regarde of those so bitter times and privie broken passions that I endured in the writing of it…

He ended with a promise of further work, as dedications often did:

And so vouchsafing but the passing of a Winters weeke with desolate Cornelia, I will assure your Ladiship my next Sommers better travell with the Tragedy of Portia.

We don’t know if Kyd ever attempted, never mind completed, the promised tragedy. He was dead before the end of August, aged just 35. The authorities’ reaction to an apparently random racist tract nailed up one summer evening had cost England its two greatest dramatic talents.

Perhaps it was no more than metrical convenience, but Jonson also yoked Marlowe and Kyd together in a line of his eulogy for Shakespeare, ‘To the memory of my beloved, the author…’ printed in Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio: ‘Sporting Kyd and Marlowe’s mighty line’ are among the peers whom Jonson says Shakespeare has surpassed. Jonson certainly knew more about the man and his work than we do: he had been a London teenager during Kyd’s heyday in the 1580s and was 22 when Kyd died. We must assume he knew what he was talking about, but there is absolutely nothing in what little now survives of Kyd’s  work that is equal to the lightness and frivolity Jonson implies. It is a small point, but it underlines how careful we have to be when characterising the dramatic literature of the period. And it also serves, rather bleakly, to highlight the desperation and bitterness of what does survive of the man’s life.

The only reference I can find to relate Jonson’s comment to is Thomas Nashe’s 1589 jab at someone very much like Kyd, who, having spent candle-lit nights scouring an English translation of the Roman tragedian Seneca for lines to steal, would ‘if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning… afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches’, a comment which gave rise to the idea that Kyd might have written a notional Ur-Hamlet. Nashe was a professional discontent and contrarian; a friend of Marlowe’s, he was also Cambridge-educated himself and, as such, something of a snob. It would be going to far to describe Nashe’s attack here as affectionate: he goes on for some length beyond that quoted on the subject of ill-educated men having the temerity to essay a literary career. But I am not sure that the Kyd figure emerges so badly from the abuse. The lines quoted above seem to me to suggest an easy and generous invention, which may not be so far from ‘sporting’, after all.

Nearly twenty years later, in A Knights Conjuring, a pamphlet of 1607, Thomas Dekker, another younger London playwright and journalist, looked back to the early days of the London theatre, and offered a vision of Parnassus where ‘learned Watson, industrious Kyd, [and] ingenious Atchlow’ sit carousing by the holy well – most likely a nod to Holywell Street in Shoreditch, near the Theatre and the Curtain. With them is the ‘inimitable’ player John Bentley, one of leading members of the Queen’s Men who was, says Dekker, ‘molded out of their pennes’.

Of these three playwrights of the 80s, it is ironically Kyd who has survived best. None of Watson’s English plays survive, despite the fact that Francis Meres in 1598 recalled him as ‘among our best for tragedie’. Achelley (that is, ‘Atchlow’) has fared even worse: only a handful of his poems are extant. Bentley died in 1585 aged 32, Watson – another close friend of Marlowe’s – died seven years later, aged 36 or so. Achelley was dead by 1600, but disappears from the record in 1592. We cannot name a single English play of Watson’s or Achelley’s.

The invisibility of these men’s achievements is in itself a minor tragedy. This was the decade in which an actors’ theatre evolved into a writers’ one, yet The Annals of English Drama can only assign 14 plays to the Queen’s Men, the country’s premier acting troupe, for the years 1583-90 – and some of those are tentative. To give a rough measure for the number of lost works, the Admiral’s Men, over a comparable period in the next decade, got through 170.

No doubt if we knew more of the writings Kyd, Watson et al we would recognise many more allusions in Shakespeare’s works that we do. But a moment in Much Ado About Nothing – which dates to the last year or two of the century – catches the eye. Don Pedro is recalling a line from Kyd: ‘In time the savage bull sustains the yoke’. And it’s not just a reference to Kyd’s play; it specifically references a point at which Kyd himself is shadowing a poem of Watson’s from the latter’s fashionable and influential 1582 collection of 18-line sonnets Hekatompathia. Of course, Watson’s poems were not so influential that anyone took him up on his sonnet form, but that is beside the point. Kyd liked them enough to lift fully six lines:

In time the Bull is brought to ware the yoake;
In time all haggred Haukes will stoope the Lures:
In time small wedge will cleaue the sturdiest Oake;
In the time the Marble weares with weakest shewres:
More fierce is my sweete loue, more hard withall,
Than Beast, or Birde, then Tree, or Stony wall.

But Benedict, to whom Don Pedro is talking in Much Ado, turns the phrase into a feedline for a joke, and perhaps for Shakespeare that was part of the point: Kyd and Watson representing a sententious moral style that, nearly two decades on, seemed stale and drab, a style that it was important to move past and explicitly reject.

For me, from a somewhat more distant vantage point, the continuity of reference seems at least as significant: Shakespeare quoting Kyd channeling Watson: a moment shared between the three men, a point at which the young deaths and quick oblivion which had already consumed two of them collapsed for the space of an actor’s breath on stage, and we can briefly glimpse the vast world of casual shared reference that is lost to us forever.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this, you might also like to read my two posts on the Shakespeare authorship controversy here and here.

6 thoughts on “Thomas Kyd: fragments of a life

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  1. Outstanding article. Just one quibble: Thomas Achelley did not disappear from the record in 1592. Fellow writer Matthew Roydon obtained a “surety of the peace” order against him in 1599.

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