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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

"The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd

I watched The Spanish Tragedy at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington on Saturday 27th February 2016. As is common with modern productions they dispensed with scenery (which has little impact on this play) and reduced props to a minimum which I was a little disappointed with because I love the dramatic impact of things like the dagger and rope. They cut the Alexandro Viluppo sub plot and the characters of Serberine and Isabella.

There were also a couple of sex changes. I'm not really a fan of the trend of changing the sex of a character; I wonder why they can't just play it in travesty. Hieronimo became Horatio's mother rather than his father. This was OK. They deleted Isabella and gave some of her lines to Hieronimo. In some ways the grieving mother was more powerful than the grieving father.

However, Lorenzo  also changed sex. This worked less well. In the original, Lorenzo and Balthazar can  be male buddies contriving that Balthazar should get Lorenzo's sister:  this can really emphasise the ways in which the patriarchal society controls even the sexual choices of the women. It works well with the fact that Bel-Imperia has 'disgraced' herself with low-born Don Andreas and that now she must marry the man her male relatives choose for her; Horatio's death is a consequence of Lorenzo's control of his sister. But Lorenzo played as a woman undermines all this. It also makes one wonder why she didn't want Balthazar for herself.

Having said this, Janet Etuk played a magnificently evil Lorenzo brilliantly. She was full of little twitches and tics. It is a difficult character to play; it can be difficult to see the motivation for the evil; in some ways Lorenzo has to react to events (eg the framing of Pedringano which is in itself a high-risk strategy) and Etuk's Lorenzo was a lovely complex of self-preservation, ambition and hatred.

Revenge really worked as a character which surprised me. It reads as if it is a device to keep the audience interested. There was a chilling start in which Revenge, played brilliantly by Leo Wan, wanders onto the stage and starts staring at members of the audience before choosing one to lead on to the stage and leaving him there; this 'audience member' turned out to be Don Andrea's ghost. (Leo Wan also transformed himself into Pedringano by means of dark glasses and a cringing stoop; it was an acting masterclass to see how stance can create a completely new character).

They also made me appreciate some of the poetry. Some lines are as classic as Shakespeare and yet have a truly modern ring. Hieronimo (Rebecca Crankshaw) was especially good at delivering Elizabethan blank verse in a way that conveyed the raw power and emotion of every grieving human parent across the ages.

It was a really brilliant production and I was overwhelmed by the end. But I'd have liked a few daggers!

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate in a Gresham College Lecture originally delivered 27th March 2019 at the Museum of London points out that Kyd's use of the ghost of Don Andrea follows the Roman author Seneca whose “trademark is indeed the supernatural intervention that winds the plot of revenge tragedy”; “linguistically, the long opening speech by the Ghost of Don Andrea is modelled on Seneca’s Agamemnon, which begins with the Ghost of Thyestes”.

It is interesting how many parallels there are between A Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet. Both start with a ghost. The theme of both is revenge though AST is a father revenging the death of a son and Hamlet is a son revenging the death of a father; in both the revenge is prompted by the ghost. Horatio is a character in both (though he dies early on in AST). In both, there is a play within a play. Hieronimo, the Hamlet figure, feigns madness; his wife actually goes mad and kills herself. Hieronimo debates (briefly) whether to kill himself. In the final scene the stage is strewn with corpses. The big difference is that AST is focussed on revenge whereas Hamlet is focussed on the moral dilemmas.

It is clear that Shakespeare had seen The Spanish Tragedy; the early Taming of the Shrew contains too partial quotes from The Spanish Tragedy in the Induction and the characters of the Lord and Christopher Sly seem to be required to comment on the action scene by scene as Don Andreas and revenge do (but Shakespeare seems to have forgotten them after the first scene).

On the other hand, I wrote an novel (not yet published, if you'd like to represent me get in touch) which starred a character called Pedro and I wrote a short story which I might yet turn into a novel which stars Balthazar and that was before I had either read or seen this play.

The synopsis below refers to the published play, not to the way it was adapted

Act One:

Scene 1: The ghost of Don Andrea and the figure of Revenge leave Hell and come to watch the play. Don A was killed in a battle between the King of Spain and the Vice-King of Portugal (Portingale).
Scene 2: The Spanish general tells the King of Spain how the battle went. They won. Moreover Balthazar, Prince of Portugal, was captured. But there is a dispute about who captured him: both Lorenzo (son of Cyprian the Dike of Castille and therefore the King of Spain's nephew) and Horatio (son of Hieronimo, the Knight-Marshall of Spain) claim the capture: the King rules that Lorenzo wins the horse and arms and Horatio will get the ransom but that Prince Balthazar should be lodged in Lorenzo's house.
Scene 3: Back in Portugal the Vice-King is bewailing the death of his son. Alexandro suggests that Balthazar may still be alive but Villuppo falsely lies that he saw Alexandro shoot Balthazar in the back on the battle-field. Alexandro is arrested.
Scene 4: Bel-Imperia, Lorenzo's sister, who had an affair with newly-dead Don Andrea (he calls it secret but she chats about it with Horatio) asks Horatio how DA died; he reports that Balthazar killed him and that he, Horatio, got there too late to rescue DA. Lorenzo and Balthazar now walk in and it is clear that B has fallen in love with B-I. She rebuffs him angrily and exits, dropping her glove which Horatio retrieves and hands back to her; she gives it to him.
There is then a banquet at which Balthazar again professes that he loves B-I and Hieronimo puts on a rather daft masque that (unhistorically) celebrates the triumphs of the English in Portugal.
Scene 5: Don A protests that it isn't worth coming out of Hell to watch banquets and lovey-loving; Revenge promises conflict to come.

Act Two:

An interesting feature of Act Two is how the characters from time to time break out into extended passages of rhyming couplets. Is there a pattern to this?
Scene 1: Balthazar complains to Lorenzo that B-I does not reciprocate his love. Lorenzo counsels patience:
In time the savage bull sustains the yoke,
In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure,
In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak, 
In time the flint is pierced with softest shower,
But B disagrees:
No, she is wilder and more hard, withal
Lorenzo thinks there might be another man and questions B-I's servant Pedringano; as soon as P prevaricates L (a truly hot-tempered man) draws his sword and threatens to kill him; P is bullied into admitting that B-I has the hots for Horatio.
Scene 2: Whilst P, L and B eavesdrop from the balcony, B-I and Horatio arrange a place to make sweet love:
Happily the gentle nightingale
Shall carol us asleep ere we be ware,
And, singing with the prickle at her breast,
Tell our delight and mirthful dalliance.
The image is interesting. Nightingales were supposed to stab themselves with thorns because Philomena had been turned into a nightingale after revenging herself her brother in law who had raped her. And 'prickle' of course alludes slyly to a man's penis.
Scene 3: The Portuguese ambassador and the King of Spain have agreed that B-I shall marry Balthazar; B-I's dad, Castille, the King of Spain's brother, will force his daughter to agree to this.
Scene 4: Horatio and B-I meet and get cosy;
Now that the night begins with sable wings
To overcloud the brightness of the sun,
And that in darkness pleasures may be done,
Come, Bel-Imperia, let us to the bower
And then it gets sexy. They kiss and say, in rhyming couplets:
BI: Nay then, to gain the glory of the field,
My twining arms shall yoke and make thee yield.
H: Nay then, my arms are large and strong withal;
Thus elms by vines are compassed till they fall.
BI: O, let me go, for in my troubled eyes
Now mays't thou read that life in passion dies.
H: O, stay awhile and I will die with thee;
So shalt thou yield and yet have conquered me.
And that last couplet is prophetic, but not of the 'little death' that comes with orgasm. Lorenzo and Balthazar and servants Pedringano and Serberine rush in. They hang Horatio and stab him and bundle B-I away. Sex has been replaced with death.
Scene 5: Horatio's dad, Hieronimo discovers the body:
Who hath slain my son? 
is a raw cry of grief.
O heavens, why made you night to cover sin?
he asks in a rejoinder to darkness that hides to permit pleasures of scene 4.
Then with his wife, Isabella, Hieronimo swears to identify and be revenged on the killers because
To know the author were some ease of grief
For in revenge my heart would find relief.
His wife agrees:
Time is the author of both truth and right,
[although Francis Bacon would have it that "Truth is the daughter of time" which isn't quite the same].
Scene 6: Don A protests that his mate Horatio has been killed and his beloved B-I made even more unhappy whilst Balthazar is still OK. Revenge promises he will enjoy what is to come.

Act Three:

Scene 1: The Vice-King of Portingale is still under the impression that his son, Balthazar, has been killed by Alexandro, despite his ambassador having negotiated a ransom for the release of Balathazar in the last Act. Fortunately, just as Alexandro is being tied to the stake to be burnt, the Ambassador arrives with the news that Balthazar is alive. Villuppo admits that he lied (for gain) and is arrested.
Scene 2: Hieronimo is grieving for Horatio:
O eyes, no eyes but fountains fraught with tears!
O Life, no life, but lively form of death!
O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs,
Confused and filled with murder and misdeeds!
which is a nice quatrain containing the three lines starting the same but the third continuing over two lines to remove the tyranny of form and give a more natural feel.
He asks heaven:
How should we term your dealings to be just
If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?
which is a very good question. We often say: judge not by words but by deeds and the Bible comes close to this in Romans 2:6 when it says that God "will render to every man according to his deeds". On the 'do as you would be done by' principle then, Hieronimo is entitled to judge heaven by its deeds.
 He calls the night
sad secretary to my moans
There is some classic writing here!
Suddenly there falleth a letter from the sky, written by B-I in her blood. She is locked away from Hieronimo but reveals that her brother Lorenzo and Balthazar were those responsible for Horatio's death and urges Hieronimo to avenge his son. But Hieronimo suspects that the letter is a ploy to entrap him. He can't imagine why B-I would accuse her brother of murder or what reason L and B would have to murder Horatio.
Lorenzo and Pedringano meet Hieronimo and he asks to see B-I but L says she has been removed by his dad because she is disgraced; he asks H why he wants to see B-I but H won't say and leaves. Now L suspects that Serberine has told H about the murder so he pays P to assassinate S, telling him to shoot S at 8PM at Saint Luigi's Park. Then he tells his page to tell S to meet him, L, at the park at 8PM. Then he tells the Watch to keep watch at the park at 8PM. Treacherous!
Scene 3: P enters with a pistol. The Watch enter. S enters. P shoots S. The Watch arrest P and take him to Hieronimo's house.
Scene 4: Lorenzo warns Balthazar that they may have been betrayed. The page arrives with the news that P has killed S and B goes off to Hieronimo's house to prosecute P. Now a message arrives from P asking L for help; L talks in double meanings and sends a box to P with the message that P's pardon is in the box (but he warns the messenger not to open the box). Lorenzo, alone on stage, soliloquises: "Now stands our fortune on a tickle point" and then speaks Italian which means: "And what I want, no one knows; I understand, and that's enough for me."
Scene 5: The boy with the box opens it and discovers it is empty.
Scene 6: Hieronimo condemns P to death:
Thus must we toil in other men's extremes,
That know not how to remedy our own. 
P jokes with the hangman. The boy with the empty box is standing by and P thinks his pardon is in the box. But he gets hanged.
Scene 7: Hieronimo is still grieving for Horatio. Again there are wonderful lines:
... ceaseless plaints for my deceased son
The blust'ring winds, conspiroing with my words,
At my lament have moved the leafless trees,
Disrobed the meadows of their flowered green,
Made mountains marsh with spring-tides of my tears,
And broken through the brazen gates of hell.
The hangman enters with a letter from P to Lorenzo. H reads it; it reminds Lorenzo that P killed S for him and also helped to kill Horatio with Balthazar. H realises that B-I's letter told the truth.
Scene 8: Isabella, talking herbs (another hint of Hamlet), "runs lunatic".
Why, did I not give you gowns and goodly things,
Bought you a whistle and a whipstalk too,
To be revenged on their villainies?
she asks her maid.
Scene 9: B-I, sequestered, bemoans her fate.
Scene 10: Lorenzo, confident that the fuss over Horatio's murder has blown over, brings B-I to him and suggests to her, in front of Balthazar, that they killed Horatio because B-I was doing naughty stuff with him like she had done with Don Andrea, so he, acting on his father's orders, was killing H to preserve B-I's honour: it was an honour killing! Balthazar now tries wooing B-I.
Scene 11: Two Portuguese encounter Hieronimo and ask him the way to find Lorenzo (at whose house Balthazar is staying until the ransom is paid). Hieronimo tells them to follow the path into hell:
There is a path upon your left-hand side,
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear ...
They laugh. He laughs. They conclude that H is either lunatic or senile. MORE presages of Hamlet, especially if we equate these two with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Scene 12: Hieronimo enters with a dagger and a rope, considering whether to kill himself, but decides against it and throws them away. "This way or that way?" isn't exactly 'To be or not to be' but it is the purport without the poetry. The King and the Ambassador and Lorenzo and Lorenzo's dad Castille arrive; H calls for justice from the King. The Ambassador announces the terms of the treaty with the King that Balthazar shall marry B-I. He also has the ransom due to Horatio. This sets H off into further calls for justice. He digs in the ground with his dagger. They all think he is mad. Lorenzo suggests that he should be sacked from the Marshalship; it would seem that the K has not heard of Horatio's death.
Scene 13: Another soliloquy from Hieronimo. He reflects that it is likely that L, to cover up his murder of H, will have himself killed. He suggests that the best way forward for his is to dissemble: "Thus therefore will I rest me in unrest,/ Dissembling quiet in unquietness,/ Not seeming that I know their villanies,/ That my simplicity may make them think/ That ignorantly I will let all slip..." Some citizens come in to plead for Hieronimo to hear their grievances; Don Bazuto is grieving for his murdered son which sends Hieronimo off into yet more paroxysms of grief:
O my son, my son, O my son Horatio! 
... Gentle boy, be gone/
For justice is exiled from the Earth." 
This scene was probably the most intense of the Old Red Lion Theatre production.
Scene 14: The assembled nobles of Spain and Portugal are gathered to celebrate B marrying B-I. Castille warns his son Lorenzo that there are rumours that L is preventing Hieronimo from gaining access to the King; L protests that he has been misunderstood so C sends for H, who arrives after B and B-I have come in, B speaking love and B-I reluctance. H pretends in front of C that he has no quarrel with either L or B.
Scene 15: The ghost of Don A is angry that H is reconciled with L and B. But Revenge promises DA that H is dissembling.

Act Four:

Scene 1: B-I berates Hieronimo for his apparent acceptance of his son's murder; he swears he will be avenged and she swears to help him.
Lorenzo and Baklthazar rock up and ask H to help them entertain B's father, Vice-King of Portingale. He recruits them to play the parts in a tragedy he has written about an assassin who murdered a husband so that the Turkish emperor could gain the husband's wife but she killed herself; the murderer then ran away and hanged himself. H says he will play the murderer; Lorenzo the husband, B-I the wife and B  the Turkish emperor. And each person shall play their part in a different language.
Scene 2: Isabella comes in with a weapon that she uses to chop down the arbour where Horatio was hanged and then stab herself.
Scene 3:  H prepares the play with Castille; he gives C the playscript to be taken to the King and requests that "when the train are passed into the gallery/You would vouchsafe to throw me down the key." B appears with props, half-bearded.
Scene 4: The performance begins. Despite the fiction that the actors are speaking in different languages, it is actually played in English. Whilst the actors are playing, the audience comment on the play.
The action of the play is brief. H, playing the assassin, stabs L, the husband; B-I, playing the wife, stabs B, the Emperor and then herself. Then Hieronimo, playing herself, reveals the body of Horatio and addresses the audience. He explains what he has done and runs off to hang himself. The audience realise that L and B-I and B are dead. They grab H and abuse him and threaten him with tortures so he will tell them who his confederates are. To foil them he bites out his tongue but, Castille observes, he can still write. The King of Spain gets a knife to sharpen the pen but instead stabs his brother and himself, so eliminating the royal line of Spain.
Scene 5: Don Andrea's ghost approves and tells Revenge where the dead people shall be placed in Hell.

Utterly, utterly brilliant.

Febraru 2016, 130 pages

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