Not Shakespeare: Elizabethan and Jacobean Popular Theatre

Imagine the year is 1595, and you are a habitué of London’s entertainment/theater/cock-fighting district. If you want to go see the year’s hot new play, do you go to see

  1. Taming of the Shrew (William Shakespeare)
  2. Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare) or
  3. The Spanish Tragedy (Thomas Kyd)?

Title page of the 1615 edition of The Spanish Tragedy. Image credit*

Modern theatergoers would be surprised to learn that the answer is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which was the big blockbuster of Renaissance English theater.

You can learn what made this exceedingly violent and gory revenge tragedy such a hit in an Oxford University lecture entitled The Spanish Tragedy: Thomas Kyd (iTunes, link), by Emma Smith.

This lecture is the first in series of six lectures, Not Shakespeare: Elizabethan and Jacobean Popular Theatre (iTunes, feed). It will be of special interest to Shakespeare fans who would like to learn more about Shakespeare’s world. For instance, Shakespeare’s Hamlet appears to have borrowed a number of elements from The Spanish Tragedy, including a vengeful ghost, a play within a play and a vacillating hero.

Some other tidbits from the lecture include:

  • Smith thinks that tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy had an appeal similar to today’s detective stories. A murder occurs; the murderer is brought to justice and order returns to the world.
  • The Spanish Tragedy was not only more popular than Hamlet among contemporary audiences, it continued to be more popular into the first half of the 17th century.
  • Smith compares The Spanish Tragedy to the Hollywood Western, which is often about the conflict between rough frontier justice and the more bureaucratic forms of justice embodied in the law. Smith notes, “The Western slogan ‘a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do’ is a good motto for revenge tragedy.”

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*Image credit: Wikipedia. Public domain.
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