Hieronimo’s Transformation in The Spanish Tragedy

By the thirteenth scene of Act III in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the character Hieronimo has finally emerged as a major character and transformed significantly. He has gone from a commendable subordinate of the King, to a grieving father, to a man on the verge of losing his wits. Yet it isn’t till Act III, scene XIII that his ultimate, determined character emerges. Until this soliloquy, it is unclear who will be doing the avenging in a play that was framed from the opening scene as being about revenge for the unsettled ghost of Don Andrea. But by the end of the speech, and despite the ensuing delays that occur before the conclusion of the play, it is certain that Hieronimo will become the agent of revenge. This scene can be variously seen as Hieronimo’s transformation from by-standing victim to protagonist, from Knight Marshall of the King to incarnate scythe of God’s judgment, or even from hero to villain. What is unambiguous is that from Act III, scene XIII forward Hieronimo’s mind is determined, his role is active, and revenge is inevitable.Hieronimo begins his soliloquy with the Vulgate phrase, “Vindicta mihi!” (3.13.1), meaning, “Vengeance is mine,” quoting the passage from the book of Romans that continues: “‘I will repay,’ says the Lord.” This is his essential problem since Hieronimo is aware of this explicit New Testament decree against personal revenge, as would have been the Elizabethan audience for which this play was written. It was understood that God would avenge all wrongs, either directly or through his representative on earth, which was believed to be the King. However, it is interesting to note that he chooses to quote a phrase that is supposed to be in God’s voice, possibly hinting at his ultimate, personal appropriation of the role of final Judge in the play.Yet, with this understanding that he may “come by justice to the heavens” (3.6.6) since “they [Lorenzo and Balthazar] did what Heaven unpunished would not leave” (3.7.56) Hieronimo has attempted to inform his “Lord the King/And cry aloud for justice through the Court” (3.7.69-70). Nevertheless, he has been repeatedly denied access to the king by Act II, scene XIII. So the first five lines of the soliloquy in scene XIII, which consist of Hieronimo claiming to “attend [the] will” (3.13.4) of Heaven, lack the connotation of the monarch standing in for God and, in fact, literally mean that he must wait for the Heavens to carry out revenge.The idea of waiting on the Heavens is only toyed with though and by line 6 Hieronimo has pulled his head out of the clouds and into the pagan or Old Testament world of personal vengeance and action. This change is indicated by the fact that line 6, like line 1, is delivered in Latin, but this time does not quote the New Testament. Instead he references a line from the book that he holds in his hand containing the plays of Seneca. The quote, loosely translated two lines later as “For evils unto ills conductors be” (3.13.8), are spoken by Clytemnestra in the play Agamemnon as she plans to preempt the violence she expects from her husband. Based on this context, it would seem as though Hieronimo expects more violence from the murderers of his son (which is not unreasonable given his knowledge of the Pedringano execution) and may even fear his own life. So it is out of necessity of preemption, or preempting his enemies’ preemption, that he abandons the will of the Heavens in order to prevent further ills and guarantee revenge. Nevertheless, while Hieronimo has abandoned the idea of waiting on Heavens’ will, there is some indication that he feels that he will be carrying that will out. His second Seneca quote is again loosely translated into English in the following lines as “If destiny thy miseries do ease,/Then hast thou health, and happy shalt thou be;/If destiny deny thee life, Hieronimo,/Yet shall thou be assured of a tomb” (3.13.14-17). This essentially means that if everything works out in seeking revenge, then perfect, and if it leads to “the worst of resolution” (9) (ie his death), then he shall be righteously entombed. Finally, he concludes in lines 19-20 that even if he dies and doesn’t receive the proper burial rites, he indicates that he will still be accepted into heaven. The succession of these lines gives the firm impression that Hieronimo sees the mode of action and revenge as just. Thus Hieronimo abandons his role as vassal to the King for his newly perceived role as answering directly to and carrying out the will of a higher Lord.It is at this point in the soliloquy that Hieronimo drops all pretense and concludes that he “will revenge his [Horatio’s] death” (3.13.20). From this point on, Hieronimo’s soliloquy introduces a darker, Machiavellian side that seems to emulate the thoughts and actions of his enemy, Lorenzo. He thus decides to employ “secret” (23), “cloaked” (24), and “dissembling” (30) means to achieve his end. This decision contrasts with the heroic nobility and sincerity with which he has conducted himself up to this point and replaces it with conniving villainy and deceit.By the conclusion of this vengeance soliloquy, Hieronimo has developed fully into that character who will bring about the blood-soaked conclusion of the play. He incrementally convinces himself of the righteousness of vengeance in such “extremes” (3.13.27). He simultaneously abandons waiting on the will of God in favor of action, convinces himself that God will view his resolve to action as just, and adopts the underhanded tactics of his enemies to the detriment of his character. What emerges from this admixture is an understanding of Hieronimo as a newly resolved man of action, and while his proposed means are morally questionable, their announcement thankfully heralds the long delayed raison d’etre of the play.

“Just and Sharp Revenge”: The Question of Underworld Justice in “The Spanish Tragedy”

“‘Send him,’ quoth [Minos], ‘to our infernal king, / To doom him as best seems his majesty” (1.1.52-3). Nestled in the lengthy opening monologue by Don Andrea, these lines introduce the overarching question that Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy seeks to answer – the question of Don Andrea’s “doom.” In the underworld, Aeacus and Rhadamanth argue about Don Andrea’s fate, about whether he should spend his eternity “walk[ing] with lovers in our fields of love,” or if he “must to martial fields” (1.1.42, 47). While Don Andrea’s role in the play can easily be overlooked for the revenge plots taking place among the living characters, his importance should not be minimized. Don Andrea serves as the instigator and the Chorus for the revenge plots, which are all under the heading of his own revenge. Yet, if he is so important, why can’t the underworld decide where he should spend eternity? Many episodes in the play suggest that the underworld operates as an inefficient system. The question is thus one of Kyd’s intentions: The Spanish Tragedy is either a well-intentioned but unflattering portrayal of the underworld, or a deliberate statement of its inefficiency. By questioning and exploring the fairness and efficiency of the underworld, this essay argues that the conflict surrounding Don Andrea’s fate positions the play as a critique of the dominant conception of the afterlife in sixteenth-century England. The most problematic representation of justice in the underworld occurs at the end of the play, when Don Andrea sentences all of his friends and enemies to their fates in the underworld. He asks if “he may consort [his] friends in pleasing sort,/ And on [his] foes work just and sharp revenge” and states his desire to “be judge and doom them to unrest” (4.5.15-6, 29-30). While the play is centered upon Don Andrea’s quest for revenge, it is unclear who or what gives him the authority to decide the fates of others, particularly the fates of those who were not involved in his death. While his acts against the characters who were directly involved in his death are legible as acts of revenge, it is less clear why Don Andrea assumes authority over the fates of those uninvolved. Kyd thus represents underworld justice as a system that is not based on impartiality: no character makes any objective judgment about the relationship between the characters’ morality and their eternal doom. When Don Andrea details how he will bestow “sweet pleasure to eternal days” on Bel-Imperia, Isabella, and Hieronimo (who commit murder, suicide, and both, respectively) and after he sadistically explains (in gruesome detail) his plan to damn the rest, Revenge simply assents, stating “then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes:/ To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes” (4.5.24, 45-6). He assigns himself to execute Don Andrea’s will, without any evidence of ensuring the righteousness of his judgement. The play also calls into question the relationship between justice and revenge. Why is Don Andrea even allowed to avenge his death at all? Why is he sent to Revenge? The text’s main justification is that Don Andrea’s death was itself unjust, caused by “young Don Balthazar with ruthless rage,/ Taking advantage of his foe’s distress” (1.4.23-4). It may be relevant that Andrea was briefly prevented from entering the underworld as a result of his “rites of burial not performed” in a timely way, but later, Horatio gives a touching account of how he buried his dear friend (1.1.21). The only apparent objection to the justice of Andrea’s death is that Don Balthazar was unsportsmanlike in the murder. However, one must remember that Andrea’s death was on the battlefield, where everyone participates in conscious anticipation of their own murder. Andrea, after all, was not ambushed and killed as Horatio was, or even secretly poisoned as are so many characters in revenge plays. Andrea knew the stakes. The ambiguity surrounding Don Andrea’s fate compels readers to question the efficiency and utility of the underworld system. As Kyd’s sixteeth-century audience would expect to see the underworld depicted as the legitimate reality of the afterlife, it is provocative that the play presents the process of justice in the underworld as based on flimsy, even flippant judgements. For example, Pluto allowed Don Andrea’s fate to be decided by Proserpine, when she “begged that only she might give [Don Andrea his] doom,” to which “Pluto was pleased, and sealed it with a kiss” (1.1.79-80). The inherent foolishishness of the scenario – Pluto determining a man’s fate according to his lover’s fancy – casts doubt on the legitimacy of the underworld. How could such an indecisive and somewhat arbitrary system be functional? It is also significant that the roles Don Andrea occupies – a lover and a soldier – are not mutually exclusive. Yet, Kyd presents that duality as enough to cause confusion and indecision in the underworld, leaving Don Andrea without a determined fate. When “the manner of [Don Andrea’s] life and death” was discussed, Minos describes that he “both lived and died in love,/ And for his love tried fortune of the wars,/ And by war’s fortune lost both love and life,” after which Rhadamanth and Aeacus argue over different interpretations (1.1.37-40). Could something as unremarkable as coexisting as a lover and a soldier be enough to unravel the system of the underworld? Of course, the argument between Rhadamanth and Aeacus over Don Andrea’s fate is not proof that his fate cannot be decided, for they did decide to send him to Pluto for sentencing. Yet the fact that Pluto does not take the decision seriously and allows Proserpine’s whim to decide his fate, as well as the fact that Don Andrea’s fate is still undisclosed at the end of the play implies that Don Andrea’s fate is in fact uncertain. The underworld is unable to understand Don Andrea’s character because he occupies the role of lover and fighter simultaneously. How can anyone’s fate be decided in such black and white terms? That this question is what fuels the conflict over Don Andrea’s fate suggests that Kyd undermines the concept of underworld justice by portraying it as an inefficient method of determining one’s eternal fate. The structure of the play itself alludes to the imperfection of the underworld. In particular, the play presents revenge as devastating and never-ending. For most of the characters, “though death hath end their misery,/ [Revenge will] there begin their endless tragedy” (4.5.47-8). That Don Andrea’s appetite for revenge is allowed to determine the fates of so many characters raises the possibility of an infinite regress. If Don Andrea can doom other characters after (and because of) his death, it follows that each character that dies will be given their own power to exact revenge in the afterlife, a situation which could lead to mass death and destruction. The plot of the play, therefore, depends on the idea of revenge as destructive and infinite – after all, revenge causes the death of most of the characters – yet the eternal fates of these characters are decided by their own vengeful behavior. The implication is that the underworld is unethical nature. By allowing the characters’ fates to be determined only by their actions in the revenge plot, their fates are reduced to nothing more than the likes and dislikes of Revenge and a vengeful Ghost. By allowing revenge – a concept that the play has established as destructive – determine the fates of the characters, Kyd undermines the ethical integrity of the underworld. In contrast to the religious, virtue-based afterlives that are the alternatives, it seems unlikely that Kyd would have endorsed a system that determines the fates of souls based on vicious revenge. Could Kyd’s criticism be directed at revenge, and not the underworld as a whole? The play-within-a-play, “Soloman and Perseda,” represents revenge that is executed through trickery and deceit. The play places a distinct emphasis on confusion and chaos: staged in four different languages, “Solomon and Perseda” alludes to the Tower of Babel – a biblical allegory that explains the discord between human groups. It is discord that also fuels revenge. The play illustrates the immoral and damaging nature of revenge. The mere fact that mortal revenge is not enough – that revenge extends into the afterlife – speaks to the unquenchable sadism of revenge itself and vengeful mortals. Yet, we must ask, why is the most vengeful character – Don Andrea – allowed to be the decisive, authoritative figure in the play? If the play is a criticism of revenge, Don Andrea would be the most damned of all. Yet in terms of his eternal fate, he seems to be the most privileged among the dead. Kyd uses his critique of revenge to demonstrate the injustice of the underworld. Ultimately, the unjust nature of the underworld in The Spanish Tragedy reflects a deep pessimism that permeates the play’s action. After all, Kyd does not posit an alternative to the system of fate-decision in the mythic underworld. Perhaps The Spanish Tragedy’s underworld represents the flawed system of human justice; perhaps Kyd does not believe in any afterlife. In either case, the instances of injustice in the underworld indicate that our lives and fates may very well be determined by a force that is arbitrary and unjust, if determined by anything at all. The corresponding cliché, of course, is that fate is blind. The world that Kyd constructs in The Spanish Tragedy – a world full of treachery, bloodthirsty avengers, murder and deceit – suggests a rather bleak version of reality, in both life and the afterlife. If life can be so unjust, Kyd suggests, the eternal fate of humanity might be just as hopeless. Works CitedKyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedie. Ed. Emma Smith. London: Penguin Books, 1998.