ENGL 339: Shakespeare
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Sources and Models for Hamlet
Thomas Kyd and Revenge Tragedy

The source for Shakespeare's play was probably a Hamlet play by Thomas Kyd, now lost, which scholars refer to as the Ur-Hamlet. Thomas Kyd also wrote the first famous revenge tragedy, The Spanish Tragedy; or, Hieronimo is Mad Againe (ca. 1587-1590).  It was first played around 1590 (and thus antedated Shakespeare's Hamlet, ca. 1600-1601, by at least ten years.)  Revenge drama became a popular genre in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (e.g. The Atheist's Revenge, The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois, Antonio's Revenge, The Revenger's Tragedy, and Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus).  In the following summary of Thomas Kyd's play, notice characters and events with parallels in Hamlet.  Note also that, as usual, Shakespeare transcends his model.
The Spanish Tragedy: Main Characters
Ghost of Andrea (late Spanish courtier)
Revenge (personified abstraction)
Hieronimo, Marshal of Spain (avenger)
Horatio, his son, friend of Andrea
Bel-Imperia, widow of Andrea and sister of Lorenzo
Balthazar, Prince of Portugal (object of revenge -- Andrea's killer) 
Lorenzo, the Duke's son (boo, hiss--another villain)

The Spanish Tragedy: Plot Summary

Revenge brings the Ghost of Andrea on stage to witness the end of Balthazar, who slew Andrea in combat under dubious circumstances.  They remain on stage throughout the play, making occasional commentary on impending doom.  Brave Horatio captures Balthazar of Portugal in battle and brings him to the Spanish court.  His prisoner is not imprisoned, but is given freedom in the trusting care of Lorenzo.  Balthazar then seeks to win the hand of Bel-Imperia, widow of the late Andrea.  She, however, is loathe to marry her husband's murderer and falls in love with Horatio.  This fact, plus Horatio's previous victory, incenses Balthazar, who, with the encouragement and help of Lorenzo (boo, hiss), brutally murders Horatio.  They and their accomplices kidnap Bel-Imperia in order to hide her and to let Balthazar woo her.  Hieronimo, Horatio's bereaved father, desires vengeance, but is ignorant of the identity of the murderers until Bel-Imperia sends him a letter indicting her ruthless brother and the foreign prince.  Hieronimo hesitates, fearing that the letter is a trick.  Meanwhile, Lorenzo, fearing discovery, coolly disposes of his two trusting accomplices, but Hieronimo discovers a letter on the body of one of them, which confirms the guilt of Lorenzo and Balthazar.  He then suffers lapses of madness and considers suicide.  His wife, driven to madness by the delay in revenge for her son, does kill herself.  Bel-Imperia chastises Hieronimo for not having avenged Horatio's death and pushes him toward the final scene.  He plans a presentation of a play to the court, using his avowed enemies as players.  They, along with Bel-Imperia, take parts.  In full view of all, they present the play.  Hieronimo stabs Lorenzo, whereupon Bel-Imperia stabs Balthazar and herself.  Hieronimo drags out the body of his dead son and briefly unfolds the tale.  When pressed for further details, he bites off his tongue.  He then stabs Lorenzo's innocent father with a penknife and commits suicide.  Andrea's ghost comments and asks to be allowed to judge the guilty and assign their penalties.  This request is granted by Revenge, who takes him to the dark regions where the guilty will "begin their endless tragedy."

Click here for information on Establishing the Text of Hamlet

Click here for Hamlet Study Guide

Click here for information about Tragedy

Click here for Macbeth Study Guide

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2002 

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