Monday, 14 March 2016

14 March, 1592 - Hieronimo

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at Jeronymo the 14 marche 1591 ... iij11 xjs

In modern English: Received at Hieronimo, 14th March, 1592 ... £3 and 11 shillings

Today, Lord Strange's Men performed Hieronimo, which is almost certainly an alternate title for The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Yesterday, and also a couple of weeks ago, we saw Strange's Men perform a lost play entitled The Spanish Comedy of Don Horatio, which apparently portrayed the events leading up to The Spanish Tragedy. Now, we see the famous tragedy itself.

The Spanish Tragedy was one of the most popular plays of the English Renaissance theatre, and it is still occasionally revived today. By 1592, it may already have been several years old. It was often referred to simply as Hieronimo, after its central character of a grieving father who seeks revenge for the murder of his son. But even though it was an old play, Hieronimo was still incredibly successful at the box office: Henslowe's takings, which work out to 71 shillings, are almost as high as the receipts for the brand new First Part of Henry VI. No doubt Edward Alleyn's performance as Hieronimo contributed to its ongoing popularity.

Indeed, The Spanish Tragedy seems to have captured the imagination of Elizabethan playgoers like no other, and it became a byword for crowd-pleasing. Later playwrights sneered at the affection some audience members held for it; in the induction to Bartholomew Fair (1614), a jealous Ben Jonson mocked "He that will swear Hieronimo or Andronicus are the best plays". In my description of The Spanish Tragedy, I'll quote a number of its most famous lines, because Kyd's rhythmic and memorable speeches became icons of Renaissance popular culture.

The play

The Spanish Tragedy begins with a ghost, Don Andrea, recalling his past:

When this eternal substance of my soul
Did live imprisoned in my wanton flesh
Each in their function serving other's need
I was a courtier in the Spanish court...

Andrea relates how he loved the Spanish King's niece, Bel-Imperia, and hoped to marry her, but was killed in battle by Balthazar, heir to the Portuguese throne. The figure of Revenge then appears, and assures Andrea that his desire for vengeance on Balthazar will be fulfilled. Andrea and Revenge sit down to watch the events unfold, and throughout the play they comment on what they see.

Balthazar has been captured in battle, and is taken to the Spanish court. To forge peace, the Spanish King decides to marry Balthazar to Bel-Imperia. But Bel-Imperia has other ideas, as she has fallen in love with Andrea's friend Horatio. Her Machiavellian brother Lorenzo is furious when he finds out, and hires murderers to kill Horatio.

Horatio is ambushed by Lorenzo's henchmen, who stab him and hang him from an arbour. His cries wake his father, Hieronimo, who enters with the lines
What outcries pluck me from my naked bed
And chill my throbbing heart with trembling fear?
Woodcut from the 1615 edition of The Spanish Tragedy. Hieronimo is discovering Horatio's body hanging in an arbour. A masked murderer is dragging Bel-Imperia away.
Hieronimo and his wife Isabella find the body of Horatio and they lament his death at length. One of Hieronimo's laments became exceptionally famous:
Oh eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears!
Oh life, no life, but lively form of death!
O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs...
As he watches all of this, Andrea becomes exasperated; instead of gloating over his revenge upon Balthazar, he has instead found himself watching the suffering of people he loves. But Revenge counsels patience; he doesn't quite say "Revenge is a dish best served cold", but he comes pretty close.

Hieronimo and Isabella, meanwhile, are going mad with grief, so that when Hieronimo interrupts the Spanish King, wildly demanding "Justice, oh justice to Hieronimo!" it is easy for the courtiers to dismiss him, and Hieronimo slinks away, saying to himself "Hieronimo beware, go by, go by!"

Isabella commits suicide, but Hieronimo instead plots a crazy but effective revenge. Working in league with the despairing Bel-Imperia, Hieronimo convinces Lorenzo and Balthazar that they should entertain the kings of Spain and Portugal with a play. And so the four of them perform a tragedy, Soliman and Perseda, to the assembled court. During their performance, the levels of meta-theatricality become extraordinary: the real-life audience in the Rose playhouse watches Andrea and Revenge watch the Spanish court watch the play-within-the-play.

Hieronimo's cunning plan is that the prop knives in the play are in fact real knives. So, in front of the two kings, Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia kill Lorenzo and Balthazar, and then Bel-Imperia kills herself. Only when the courtiers' applause dies down and the bodies fail to rise for their bows do the two kings realize what has happened. Hieronimo then reveals the corpse of Horatio and explains his actions, beginning with a lament:

Here lay my hope, and here my hope hath end;
Here lay my heart, and here my heart was slain;
Here lay my treasure, here my treasure lost;
Here lay my bliss, and here my bliss bereft.
But hope, heart, treasure, joy and bliss,
All fled, failed, died, yea, all decayed with this.

Image from a 17th century Dutch adaptation of The Spanish Tragedy entitled Don Jeronimo, Marschalk van Spanjen. Lorenzo, Balthazar and Bel-Imperia are dead, and Hieronimo is revealing the body of his son. The two kings are just realizing that the stage deaths were for real...
In a final burst of violence, Hieronimo bites out his own tongue in a refusal to speak more and kills himself.

Andrea and Revenge enjoy watching these events. And at the end of the play, Revenge, satisfied with his work, tells Andrea that it is time to return to the land of the dead:
Then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes,
To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes.
For here, though Death doth end their misery,
I'll there begin their endless tragedy.
If you would like to read The Spanish Tragedy, there are numerous modern-spelling editions available.

What we learn from this

Decades after its first performances in the 1580s and 90s, English writers were still quoting the play's most popular lines. In her edition of The Spanish Tragedy, Emma Smith collects together an amazing array of allusions, parodies, pastiches and homages to lines from the play. The most popular lines and speeches include some of those quoted above: "Hieronimo beware; go by, go by!", "What outcries pluck me from my naked bed?", "When this eternal substance of my soul..." and, of course, "Oh eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears!"

I can't help wondering whether the audience in the Rose might have been able to recite along with some of these speeches. Is it possible that performances of The Spanish Tragedy might have eventually ended up something like screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

What's next?

There will be no post tomorrow because Henslowe records no performance on 15th March. We don't know why - perhaps the company were performing at the court instead, or perhaps Edward Alleyn had laryngitis after ranting too much as Hieronimo. Whatever the reason, Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will return on 16th March.


The Spanish Tragedy information

  • Emma Smith, ed. Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedie, with Anonymous: The First Part of Jeronimo (Penguin, 1998)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2012), entry 783.
  • Clara Calvo and Jesús Tronch, eds. The Spanish Tragedy (Bloomsbury, 2013).
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 78-81.

Henslowe links


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

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