Tuesday, 23 February 2016

23 February 1592 - The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: R at spanes comodye don oracoe the 23 of febreary ... xiijs vjd

In modern English: Received at Spanish Comedy Don Horatio, 23rd February ... 13 shillings and sixpence.

Today, Lord Strange's Men performed a play whose title could be interpreted as The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio. So, who was Don Horatio and why was he in a comedy? Well, this is a very complicated story, but I'll try to explain it as simply as I can. Take a deep breath.

Hieronimo discovers the hanging corpse
of his son Horatio in The Spanish Tragedy.
Detail from a woodcut on the title page
of the 1615 text.
1. There is a play called The Spanish Tragedy, written by Thomas Kyd around 1589. It was extremely popular and arguably invented English Renaissance tragedy as we know it. Among its characters are Horatio (a young man who is murdered) and Hieronimo (his father, who goes mad and then exacts revenge on the murderers).

2. You'll see a play called Hieronimo appear several times in Henslowe's Diary in the future. Most scholars assume that this is an alternative title for The Spanish Tragedy, which became known by the name of its famous protagonist.

3. Since the title The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio contains the name of a character in The Spanish Tragedy, and since there's an obvious parallelism between 'Spanish Comedy' and 'Spanish Tragedy', most scholars suspect that this was a play about the events leading up to those of the Spanish Tragedy. There is debate about whether the comedy was written first, or whether the two plays were always a two-parter, or whether the Comedy was a 'prequel' written to capitalize on the Tragedy's success.

4. Henslowe's Diary will later record a play called The Comedy of Hieronimo. Most scholars assume that this was an alternate title for The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio; perhaps Edward Alleyn's performance as Hieronimo caused a shift of emphasis in Henslowe's mind?

Don Horatio being performed the day before Hieronimo
in Henslowe's Diary.
5. Supporting the connection with The Spanish Tragedy, Henslowe's Diary sometimes shows the comedy being performed the day before Hieronimo, as if they were a two-part play.

6. So, to summarize so far: there is a surviving play called The Spanish Tragedy (a.k.a. Hieronimo) and there was a lost play about events preceding it called The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio (a.k.a. The Comedy of Hieronimo).

The First Part of Hieronimo,
published 1605.
7. Did I say the Comedy was lost? Not so fast! There is in fact a surviving prequel to The Spanish Tragedy. It was printed in 1605 under the title The First Part of Hieronimo. It tells a story that sets up (albeit imperfectly) the events of the tragedy, and in it Horatio is heroic in battle. It seems to have been written after the 1590s. But perhaps it is some kind of reworking of The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio?

8. Lukas Erne has recently proposed something more complicated: he thinks The First Part of Hieronimo is a reworking of the old play for a children's theatre, in which the war plot of the hypothetical Spanish Comedy is combined with a new love intrigue performed in burlesque style. Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean are convinced by Erne's theory. Martin Wiggins thinks the evidence is not conclusive, though.

9. Blimey. I'm exhausted. I'm going to have a cup of tea.

So, in short, The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio was probably a play about the events preceding  The Spanish Tragedy and it may or may not be lost. There are a ton of scholarly surmises, with lots of ifs and maybes behind that statement. And there are complications that I'm not even mentioning here. So I'm not going to venture any kind of opinion.

However, in order to make things more interesting for you, let's imagine that today's play was The First Part of Hieronimo, or at least something vaguely similar to it.  

 If the play was something like The First Part of Hieronimo...

This play begins by introducing Hieronimo and his intense pride in his young son Horatio. Meanwhile, the evil Don Lorenzo (who will order the murder of Horatio in the Tragedy) is jealous of Don Andrea (who will be an angry ghost in the Tragedy), who is going to Portugal as ambassador. Since Andrea loves Lorenzo's sister, Bel-Imperia (who will love Horatio in the Tragedy), Lorenzo concocts devious plots to ruin their love, or, if that doesn't work, have Andrea killed on his return. But Hieronimo and Horatio overhear his plotting, and manage to foil Lorenzo's plans.

War then breaks out between Spain and Portugal, and heroism ensues: among other things, Horatio rescues Andrea; Andrea tries to kill Balthazar the Portuguese heir, but is himself killed when Bathazar's soldiers rescue him; Horatio then kills Balthazar but Lorenzo  dishonestly seizes their slain foe's weapons as his prize. Throughout the battle, Hieronimo marvels at his son's warlike prowess. At the end of the play, the characters are thus in position to begin The Spanish Tragedy.

The play ends with the funeral of Andrea, which is attended by Andrea's own ghost and a figure representing Revenge; this prefigures the opening of The Spanish Tragedy, which opens with Andrea's ghost recalling his death and joining with Revenge to watch his vengeance play out. The last lines are a rather lame couplet from a general:
The day is ours and joy yields happy treasure;
Set on to Spain in most triumphant measure.
I suppose if you know what happens in the next play, these lines at least generate some dramatic irony.

If you would like to read The First Part of Hieronimo, the only modern-spelling text was published by Regents Renaissance Drama in 1967, edited by Andrew Cairncross; it bears the suitably convoluted title [The Spanish Comedy, or] The First Part of Hieronimo, and The Spanish Tragedy [or Hieronimo is Mad Again].

What we learn from this

Let's be blunt. The First Part of Hieronimo is a deeply unnecessary play. It might be fun in its own right, but it will affect your reading of The Spanish Tragedy about as much as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will affect your experience of Raiders of the Lost Ark (i.e. not a whit). Maybe The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio was more interesting, but we'll never know.

Still, we have learned something: Elizabethan audiences really liked The Spanish Tragedy and wanted more! Kyd's tale of the grieving father and his madness for revenge was a long-lived fixture of the stage and spawned numerous offshoots and imitations. Its most famous lines were quoted endlessly in later works (look at Emma Smith's edition, cited below, for loads of examples). And it's no secret that Shakespeare's Hamlet takes inspiration from Kyd's play. I'll have more to say about The Spanish Tragedy itself when it appears in Henslowe's diary later, so stay tuned...


Information on The Spanish Comedy and The First Part of Hieronimo 

  • Andrew Cairncross, ed.  '[The Spanish Comedy, or] The First Part of Hieronimo, and The Spanish Tragedy [or Hieronimo is Mad Again] (Edward Arnold, 1967)
  • Emma Smith, ed. Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedie, wih Anonymous: The First Part of Jeronimo (Penguin, 1998)
  • Lukas Erne, Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester University Press, 2001)
  •  Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642, vols. 3 and 4 (Oxford University Press, 2013-14), entries 909 and 1270
  • Sally-Beth Maclean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 81-5

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!


  1. Unnecessary as this play might be, I'm super interested in reading it BUT I WILL ONLY DO SO if Bel-Imperia gets a good chunk of stage time. Will I be disappointed?

  2. Hi Sarah, she is in a few scenes, and she does get some good lines at the beginning of the play, but she fades away as the play becomes more and more about guys hitting each other. It's worth a look, but keep your expectations low.