Lukas Erne. Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. xix+252pp.
ISBN 0 7190 6093 1 (cloth).
Frank Ardolino
University of Hawaii

Ardolino, Frank. "Review of Lukas Erne, Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 17.1-20<URL:

  1. Many aspects of Thomas Kyd's career and canon are obscure and maddeningly inconclusive. For a dramatist who was saluted as "industrious" and "sporting," it is ironic that the only play which can be assigned to him with certainty is his translation of Robert Garnier's academic Senecan drama Cornélie in 1594. The Spanish Tragedy, perhaps the most popular and influential play of the period, has been attributed to Kyd on the strength of an obscure reference in Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (1612), which itself was not discovered until 1773. This means that the play, whose date of composition is also uncertain (c.1587-1592), effectively was anonymous for about 185 years.

  2. An Ur-Hamlet has been attributed to Kyd on the tenuous basis of some enigmatic lines supposedly alluding to him as a Senecan dramatist who "will affoord you whole Hamlets, . . . handfulls of tragical speaches" in Thomas Nashe's "Preface" to Greene's Menaphon in 1589 (qtd. in Erne 146). Further, Soliman and Perseda, an anonymous play published in 1592, has been attributed to Kyd because it is the full-length version, albeit with differences, of the bloody play-within-the-play which concludes The Spanish Tragedy. Finally, Kyd may also be the author of The First Part of Hieronimo, which was not published until 1605 and which most critics consider to be an execrable burlesque version of a forepiece listed by Henslowe in his diary as having been performed on at least three occasions the day before a performance of its presumed sequel, The Spanish Tragedy, in 1592.

  3. Into this bibliographical and scholarly minefield has stepped Lukas Erne, who intends "to present a comprehensive scholarly and critical introduction to Kyd's works that reviews, amends, and updates previous work on Kyd" (9). He also intends to provide original criticism concerning The First Part of Hieronimo, Soliman and Perseda, The Spanish Tragedy, and foreign adaptations of The Spanish Tragedy in the seventeenth century. Erne's book is highly recommended for any one wishing to gain an energetic and pointed analysis of past scholarship on the myriad issues which characterize Kydian criticism. True to his intentions, he does review, amend, and update many important works, although he systematically dismisses most of them, especially when they disagree with his contentions.

  4. Erne is particularly effective in areas of Kydian scholarship not adequately covered in the past. His analysis of the literary qualities of Soliman and Perseda is the best treatment of that neglected play so far; he makes a convincing case for its merits and its connections with The Spanish Tragedy. Erne is also original and adept in his analyses of the various foreign seventeenth-century adaptations of The Spanish Tragedy, especially in Germany. Erne explains how these plays treated certain cruxes in the original play and adds to our knowledge of the ways in which this enormously popular revenge play was perceived by different audiences and cultures.

  5. However, when we get to the heart of the book, the treatment of The First Part of Hieronimo and The Spanish Tragedy, Erne's critical acumen is overwhelmed by inconsistent interpretations, conjectural assertions, and specious reasoning. Because of his desire to claim a primacy for Kyd as more important than Marlowe in the development of blank verse, and therefore a major influence on Shakespeare, and as the primary creator of the two-part play, Erne is moved to establish a five-play canon with dates: "He [Kyd] can be identified with some confidence as the author of at least five plays":Don Horatio (c.1586-87), The Spanish Tragedy (c.1587), the lost Hamlet (c.1588/89), Soliman and Perseda (c.1588/89), and Cornelia (1593/94) [xi]. But he states later "that Soliman and Perseda is the only extant stage play, beside (sic) The Spanish Tragedy, which can be attributed in its entirety to Kyd with a good degree of certainty . . ." (168). Somewhere along the way it appears that Kyd has lost three plays, but perhaps some of the confusion can cleared up by noting that Cornelia was not a stage play. Also, since Erne argues that The First Part contains only some 400 lines by Kyd it cannot be attributed in its entirety to him (29). Finally, the lost Hamlet disappears altogether, but since it is lost and has never been firmly attributed to Kyd it should be discounted.

  6. My point is why make the claim for a developed canon in the first place, especially when it is based on conjectural attributions and dates. Throughout the book, Erne, in his effort to claim a presence, prominence, and primacy for Kyd, indulges in conjecture upon conjecture until he takes conjecture for established fact. Unfortunately, he treats conjecture and speculation as if they are the primary attributes of criticism. Moreover, Erne can never pass up the opportunity to posit a presumed aspect of a lost text as a necessary component in his theory. He chases so many ignes fatui that his thinking becomes fatuous.

  7. The first egregious example of conjecture taken as fact occurs in Erne's argument that The Spanish Tragedy, which in all of its editions has four acts, is in fact a five-act play. The process by which Erne moves to such a conclusion is characterized by a willful dismissal of reality. He begins by stating that since five acts is the standard Elizabethan and Senecan structure, then The Spanish Tragedy must be five acts as well. He follows this questionable premise with an admittedly "tentative" explanation that the uneven bibliographic qualities of the first edition of the play can account for some of its anomalies like the overlong chorus at the end of act 3: "This [chorus] may have taken shape late in the process of composition and the lines added--possibly on a separate piece of paper--may have been in barely legible writing"(66)[italics mine]. This speculation contains three conjectures within the space of one sentence to no purpose. Erne concludes this chain of conjecture illogically and, almost apologetically: "Even though this is mere speculation, it is not implausible" (66).

  8. He follows this waffling and baffling admission with another conjecture hardened into fact: "The possible loss of a similar Chorus, constituting the end of what Kyd intended to be the third act, supports this theory and would account for the odd four-act structure with an over-long third act"(66). Now he assumes that he knows that Kyd intended the play to be five acts because the third act is overlong and there should be another chorus to mark that break, but this may have been lost because it may have been handed in on a piece of paper which may have had illegible writing like the earlier overlong chorus.

  9. But Erne is not finished with spinning this web of projection and surmise. After detailing what action would occur in each of the five acts, he posits another conjectural leap concerning where the end of the third act would or could or should or may have occurred. He pinpoints Hieronimo's "seventy-line bravura piece in III.vii" as the demarcation point: "A 'Chorus' may have originally followed this scene, though another possibility is that Hieronimo's soliloquy was meant to replace it"(67). Presto, Hieronimo's soliloquy is equivalent to the missing chorus which signalled the end of the lost third act.

  10. Following this feat of critical legerdemain, Erne adds another one of his patented qualified conclusions, exploding all that has preceded it: "The evidence adduced may not be strong enough . . . to divide the play into five acts"(67). But lest we dismiss what he has argued, he helpfully reminds us that "If we want to understand Kyd's dramatic construction, we do well, however, to keep in mind that he is likely to have conceived The Spanish Tragedy as a five-act play"(67). The cliché "keep in mind" and the tenuous "likely to have conceived" render this conclusion worthless. Why should we keep anything of this in mind, unless we want to be thoroughly confused and wrongheaded?

  11. All of the conjecturing and weak qualifications are in the service of denying what is - the play consists of four acts. The four-act structure is indebted, as I have argued in Apocalypse and Armada, to the Protestant interpretation of the Book of Revelation as a four-act drama and to the Danielic motif of the four doomed empires. Although this may be an incorrect interpretation, it is not based on sheer conjecture and specious reasoning, but on Hieronimo's reference to the "fall of Babylon"(4.1.195), which in this period stood for Catholic Rome/Spain, and the way Kyd uses this topos to allude to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. By contrast, Erne's argument that the play must be five acts is based on a series of farfetched conjectures and does a disservice to scholarly discourse.

  12. The heart of Erne's original criticism is his "investigation of the textual history of The First Part of Hieronimo" (9), which is a purported version of the original forepiece listed in Henslowe's diary variously as "spanes comodye donne oracoe," "the comodey of doneoracio," "doneoracio," and "the comodey of Jeronymo." These entries have fostered the idea that originally Kyd's play consisted of two parts: Spain's comedy followed by Spain's tragedy. But no vestige of the forepiece surfaced until 1605 when a three-act play of 1200 lines was published anonymously with the title The First Part of Jeronimo With
    the Warres of Portugal and the life and death of Don Andrea
    , which became putatively and retrospectively linked with The Spanish Tragedy in a paradoxical two-part relationship.

  13. The First Part of Hieronimo is an anonymous text, which may have been written by the author of The Spanish Tragedy, who at the time of the publication of The First Part was still anonymous. It may be the same forepiece listed by Henslowe or it may be a seventeenth-century reconstruction or burlesque. Critics have been almost unanimous in stating that The First Part is not the actual forepiece listed by Henslowe and played in 1592 because it contains major inconsistencies with The Spanish Tragedy and is decidedly inferior to it in almost all respects.

  14. Recognizing its deficiencies, Erne nevertheless intends to rescue this play from the obloquy it has received by creating an extended conjecture about lost, pirated, revised, and dual-level texts which is a tribute to an assiduous imagination. He argues that there are two levels to the play, the private and the political. Upon this distinction, he builds a mountain of bibliographic and critical assumptions. He says that since the action in The First Part should be modelled on the events in The Spanish Tragedy point for point it seems impossible to advocate Kyd's authorship of The First Part as it has come down to us because of the obvious plot and character discrepancies between the two works.

  15. Erne's solution relies on the positing of two textual levels, the original, or the "A" text, and the revised, or the "B" text. The A text is the older of the two and was written at the time of the composition of The Spanish Tragedy as part of the forepiece Don Horatio and may have been by Kyd or is at least Kydian(?). The A text fits the style and events of The Spanish Tragedy. But the B text was written after the turn of the century and is not by Kyd, nor is it Kydian. In effect, this level is a monstrosity which reduces Hieronimo to the level of a buffoon. The A text level of action is political, dealing with Andrea's progress, his death in battle, and his funeral, interspersed with passages that show him caught between his public duties and his private love for Bel-Imperia. On the other hand, the B text deals with the personal matter of Lorenzo's envy and plot against Andrea. Erne surmises that possibly about 400 lines which were written about the time and in conjunction with The Spanish Tragedy survive in The First Part, and he posits as a result of the evidence that there was a two-part play written by Kyd.

  16. Erne conjectures on the basis of a passage in the induction to the preface of Marston's The Malcontent that the Children of the Chapel pirated a manuscript of Don Horatio and largely rewrote the play, omitting the private level of the original play dealing with Andrea's secret love for Bel-Imperia and Castile's wrath at its discovery (23). For these omissions he substituted Lorenzo's unsuccessful plot against Andrea's life, which constitutes the B level. The A level was left largely intact except for a few additions relating to Hieronimo.

  17. Then, once again inconsistently, Erne undermines his own argument. He says that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the political and personal levels: "While some scenes or passages can be attributed to A or B with some confidence, the occasional intrusions of B into the play's political portions sometimes make it hard to separate one textual layer from the other. The numerous textual corruptions also contribute to this difficulty" (23).

  18. Erne's separation of personal and political levels is based on a false distinction. Throughout the two plays, the personal is directly related to the political. Andrea's supposed secret love for Bel-Imperia is not private and it influences the political level. Thus, to disentangle these strands and to base your entire theory on this unwieldy distinction requires some scholarly gerrymandering. Moreover, once he has established his hybrid thesis about a two-thirds lost play, Erne is able to conjecture, when he is faced by a conundrum or an anomaly, that it is possible to resolve it in potentia by saying that the part that is lost must explain it, as he does with the continuation of the Duke of Castile's wrath and the disappearance of a character named Vollupo (36). Erne's argument places too much importance on what is essentially a phantom text.

  19. Near the end of his painstaking discussion of The First Part, Erne drops another one of his self-exploding admissions concerning the nature of the connection between The First Part and The Spanish Tragedy. After arguing that the forepiece provides necessary and illuminating links with its sequel and that consequently they form an integral two-part play (24-29), he inexplicably states that "The play's singular dramatic architecture becomes clearer if we realise that The Spanish Tragedy was constructed to be continuous with but also understandable without the first part"(35). Clearly, Erne is a critic for whom consistency is not a desideratum.

  20. Unfortunately, I could extend my negative analysis into other areas of Erne's book like his parsing of Nashe's preface (147-50), his defense of 1587 as the date of The Spanish Tragedy (55-59), his positing of a "now lost" narrative source of The Spanish Tragedy (50), and his inconsistent assessment of the role of Revenge and the nature of the universe depicted in The Spanish Tragedy (passim), but I believe I have already sufficiently demonstrated the fatally flawed nature of his work. Ultimately, this is a sad book because, although the author demonstrates an energetic and informed desire to provide a new and comprehensive assessment of Kyd's career and canon and does succeed in the areas I have indicated, he is, in the main, undermined by his fascination for conjecture and speculation. He sweeps away much of the criticism which has brought an increased awareness of the greatness of The Spanish Tragedy and returns us to the days when unproven hypotheses and scholarly speculation held sway.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).