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date: 25 September 2023

Kyd, Thomasfree

(bap. 1558, d. 1594)

Kyd, Thomasfree

(bap. 1558, d. 1594)
  • J. R. Mulryne

Kyd, Thomas (bap. 1558, d. 1594), playwright and translator, was baptized on 6 November 1558 at the church of St Mary Woolnoth in London, the son of Francis Kyd and his wife, Anna (d. 1605).

Early life and education

Kyd's father achieved distinction as warden of the Company of Scriveners in 1580. Thomas entered Merchant Taylors' School in 1565, and may have remained a pupil there under the noted educationist Richard Mulcaster until 1575. The school curriculum included Latin, French, and Italian, a good grounding for the future translator. At Merchant Taylors', plays in both Latin and English formed part of the boys' training, and Kyd is likely to have taken part in these exercises. He may have performed before Queen Elizabeth at court, and before a paying audience in Merchant Taylors' Hall early in 1574, in the first known commercial production by a boys' company (Shapiro, 14). His failure to attend either Oxford or Cambridge university has been attributed to hints of Catholic sympathies in his writings, but the evidence is very slender.

Kyd may have taken up his father's profession of scrivener, as his neat handwriting in the few surviving holograph scraps suggests, and as Thomas Nashe's gibe about his following 'the trade of Noverint' possibly confirms (Preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon, 1589). According to Thomas Dekker's pamphlet A Knight's Conjuring (1607) Kyd was a playwright for the Queen's Men between 1583 and 1585. None of his early work is known to survive.

The Spanish Tragedy

If evidence for the details of Kyd's life is scant, evidence for his authorship of the works associated with him is no less so. The Spanish Tragedy (1587?) was not formally attributed to him until 1773, when Thomas Hawkins, the editor of a three-volume play-collection, The Origin of the English Drama, cited a passing reference in Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (1612) to 'M. Kid, in the Spanish Tragedy'. The date of composition of the play is unknown, with speculation ranging from 1583 to 1591. It must have been written before 23 February 1592, for on that date it was performed at the Rose Theatre by Lord Strange's men for Philip Henslowe. This is unlikely to have been the play's first performance, since Henslowe did not mark it as 'ne' (new). A balance of evidence suggests a date of composition before 1588, given the absence—in a play about Spain—of any reference to the Armada, and given plausible allusions in Nashe's 'Preface' to Menaphon (1589) and in his Anatomie of Absurdities (1588–9). The year 1587 fits the known facts and plausible speculation.

The Spanish Tragedy proved excellent box-office. Philip Henslowe, who held the early rights, recorded twenty-nine performances between 1592 and 1597, a record almost unsurpassed among his plays. The publication record is still more impressive, with at least eleven editions between 1592 and 1633, a tally unequalled by any of the plays of Shakespeare. There are more than one hundred allusions to The Spanish Tragedy in contemporary literature (Dundrap, 2.607–31). Additions and revisions were commissioned, from Ben Jonson among others; Anne Barton, arguing a case from Jonson's engagement with Elizabethan literature generally, takes the view that Jonson, commissioned by Henslowe to refurbish a dated though still theatrically potent text, may have assumed a style not his own, in a bold and arguably successful act of theatrical ventriloquism. It is, however, unlikely that the 'Additions' which have survived (printed 1602) are Jonson's. Their authorship is unknown. Stage success was not confined to England. Six adaptations, three in German and three in Dutch, have survived, and performances are recorded in Frankfurt (1601), Dresden (1626), Prague (1651), and Lüneburg (1660) (R. Schönwerth, Die niederländischen und deutschen Bearbeitungen von Thomas Kyds ‘Spanish Tragedy’, Litterarisch-Historische Forschungen, 26, 1897; Erne, 154).

By 1587–8 Kyd had acquired a patron to whom he refers, but whom he does not name, in a letter written in later years in connection with his difficulties with authority. The patron, according to the letter, was patron of a company of players, which narrows a wide field considerably. Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange (after 1593 earl of Derby), has been mooted, as has Henry Radcliffe, earl of Sussex, but neither suggestion is wholly convincing. Lukas Erne's advocacy of Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, has the advantage of placing Kyd in relationship to an influential literary circle, and of making sense of his dedication of Cornelia (1594; translated from Garnier) to Mary Herbert, countess of Pembroke, wife of Henry Herbert and herself the author of a translation of Garnier's Antoine (1592) (Erne, 274–8).

The conflict with authority

The most substantial information about Kyd's later life concerns his serious brush with authority in May 1593. On 11 May the privy council instructed its officers to seek out the source of certain ‘libels’, or inflammatory writings, directed against foreigners resident in London. During the investigation Kyd's rooms were searched and the officers found, not what they were looking for, but material considered equally incriminating. This was a three-page manuscript consisting, according to an endorsement by one of Kyd's accusers, of 'vile heretical Conceiptes denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christe or Savior' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fols. 187–9). The 'conceipts' have been identified in the twentieth century as transcripts from an Elizabethan theological tract, John Proctour's The Fall of the Late Arian (1549), a tract which, in rebutting them, quotes 'heretical', or unitarian, views, possibly those of a parish priest, John Assheton (W. D. Briggs, On a document concerning Christopher Marlowe, Studies in Philology, 20, 1920, 153–9; G. T. Buckley, Who was the late Arian?, Modern Language Notes, 49, 1934, 500–03). The zealous officers were presumably unaware of the origin of the manuscript's contents, as Kyd must also have been, and he was arrested and imprisoned.

From his prison cell, and afterwards, Kyd wrote to the lord keeper, Sir John Puckering, pleading his innocence. In one of his letters, he explained that the incriminating documents were not his but Marlowe's 'shufled wth some of myne (unknown to me) by some occasion of wrytinge in one chamber twoe yeares synce' (BL, Harley MS 6849, fols. 218–218v). In a second letter Kyd wrote more fully about Marlowe's notoriously subversive views, accusing his fellow playwright of being blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate, and 'intemperate & of a cruel hart'. Marlowe was arrested on 18 May, but was released from prison two days later. On 30 May he died in a pub brawl at Deptford, the victim, it has been suggested, of shady dealings associated with the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (C. Nicholl, The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe, 1992; see also J. Masten, A New History of Early English Drama, ed. J. D. Cox and D. S. Kasten, 1997, 357–82). Both of Kyd's letters follow the date of Marlowe's death. Whether Marlowe's arrest was prompted by verbal accusations from Kyd to privy council officers can only be a matter of speculation. The 'conceipts', it has been suggested, were possibly a deliberate plant, put in place by the officers as part of an officially inspired effort to blacken Marlowe's name (Nicholl, 288–9). Kyd's release from prison preceded his death in 1594, perhaps hastened by torture, by no more than a year. He was buried at St Mary Colechurch in London on 15 August 1594.

Lesser works and reputation

Of Kyd's other writing, little has been said in print. A major problem is one of attribution. The theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe refers on twenty-two occasions between February 1591 and January 1593 to performances of plays he names Jeronymo, The Comedy of Jeronymo, Spanes comodye donne oracioe, and The Comodey of Doneoracio, with further variations of spelling. Recent scholars take Jeronimo, in its several forms, to refer to The Spanish Tragedy, while the various 'comedy' titles are thought to refer to The First Part of Ieronimo, a play printed in quarto in 1605. This play deals with events which precede the action of The Spanish Tragedy, and may have been written by Kyd as a forepiece or first part for his famous tragedy. It was so edited and published by Andrew S. Cairncross (1967). Equally, the play may have been written, possibly by a hack writer, to cash in on the success of The Spanish Tragedy. Accurate determination is made difficult by the poor state of the printed text. Lukas Erne proposes a complex origin, arguing that the play preserves elements of Kyd's original forepiece (which he calls Don Horatio), in particular that play's 'political level', but suggests that this has been incorporated by a lesser writer into a new drama, with a new storyline substituted for the 'private level' of Kyd's play. The theory is attractive but unproven. The play as it survives is unsatisfactory not only textually, but as a piece of theatre, though it offers features that make attribution to Kyd not implausible.

Soliman and Perseda, entered on the Stationers' register in November 1592, may have been written in 1588 or 1589. Its relation to The Spanish Tragedy is once again a matter of speculation. It may have been written to capitalize on the earlier play's success, since it represents a scaling-up of the tragedy's play-within-the-play. The evidence for Kyd's authorship, including an apparent allusion noticed by Helen Gardner in one of Donne's poems (John Donne: the ‘Elegies’ and the ‘Songs and Sonnets’, 1965, 112–18) is attractive if inconclusive. The play's most notable character, Basilisco, a boastful, amorous, and inventive miles gloriosus prefigures Shakespeare's Falstaff, especially in his ubi sunt meditation on the deceits of honour (Soliman and Perseda, v.iii, ll. 67–92).

Cornelia, Kyd's translation of Robert Garnier's tragedy-of-grief Cornélie, was entered on the Stationers' register on 26 January 1594, and dedicated to Lady Bridget Fitzwalter, countess of Sussex, as well as to the countess of Pembroke, perhaps in a bid to win her patronage after the débâcle of May 1593. The translation, a free one, was probably known to Shakespeare (analogies have been found with Julius Caesar), but the neo-Senecan genre proved a dead end in English theatre. Kyd's other acknowledged translation, The Householder's Philosophy, renders Tasso's Il padre di famiglia in vigorous prose, expanding on the original's account of home and estate management.

Kyd's authorship of a Hamlet earlier than Shakespeare's holds an extensive if shadowy place in the annals of English scholarship. The case rests on the interpretation of phrases in Nashe's 'Preface' to Menaphon (1589), and has been both supported and rejected by leading scholars. Most recently, Lukas Erne has argued that Nashe's satiric phrases do indeed imply that Kyd was the author of an early Hamlet. He also reinforces suggestions, made by E. K. Chambers and W. W. Greg, among others, that traces of a Kydian Hamlet may be found in a small section of the first quarto of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare's debt to Kyd, however, remains no more than speculation.

The Spanish Tragedy has been successfully revived on the modern stage, though the record is blank before the twentieth century, except for a performance watched by Pepys at a minor theatre, the Nursery, on 24 February 1668 (Pepys, Diary, 9.90). Notable twentieth-century productions have included those directed by Michael Bogdanov for the National Theatre (Cottesloe and Lyttleton, opened 22 September 1982), and Michael Boyd's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, opened 30 April 1997).

The play's importance to the literary historian is considerable. As the first, or one of the first, in a line of tragedies of revenge, The Spanish Tragedy inaugurates an influential genre. Assuming the 1587 dating is correct, the play features the first Machiavellian villain (Lorenzo), and may be the first to include a play-within-the-play. Equally significant, Kyd developed in The Spanish Tragedy a robust and serviceable blank verse which, though some of its rhetorical practices soon came to seem outmoded, nevertheless provided Elizabethan theatre with its earliest convincing voice. This, together with his creation of memorable character, his development of the framing action, and his exploration of the double plot, confirms Kyd as the most important innovator, with Marlowe and Shakespeare, of the great age of English drama.


  • A. Freeman, Thomas Kyd: facts and problems (1967)
  • L. Erne, ‘Beyond The Spanish tragedy: a study of the works of Thomas Kyd’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1998
  • P. B. Murray, Thomas Kyd (1969)
  • M. Shapiro, Children of the revels (1977)
  • C. Dundrap, ‘La tragédie espagnole face à la critique élizabéthaine et jacobéene’, Dramaturgie et société … aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles [Nancy, 1967], ed. J. Jacquot and others, 2 vols. (1968)
  • P. Edwards, Thomas Kyd and early Elizabethan tragedy (1966)
  • F. Carrère, Le théâtre de Thomas Kyd (1951)
  • S. A. Tannenbaum, Thomas Kyd: a concise bibliography (1941–67)
  • J. R. Díaz Fernández, ‘Thomas Kyd: a bibliography, 1966–1992’, Bulletin of Bibliography, 52/1 (1995), 1–13
  • Henslowe's diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (1961)
  • A. Barton, Ben Jonson, dramatist (1984)


Wealth at Death

not known, but possibly died in debt: Freeman, Thomas Kyd, 38

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