From The Oxford Companion to English Literature:
KYD, or Kid, Thomas (1558-94), dramatist, born in London. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, London, whose headmaster was Mulcaster; he may have worked for a time as a scrivener. He wrote (now lost) plays for the Queen's Men c. 1583-5, and was in the service of an unknown lord 1587-93. He seems to have been associated with Marlowe, with whom he shared lodgings in 1591, and whose 'atheistical' writings led to Kyd's suffering a period of torture and imprisonment in 1593. His Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) was published anonymously in 1592. The play proved exceptionally popular on the Elizabethan stage and passed through eleven printed editions by 1633. The only work published under his name was a translation of Robert Garnier's neo-Senecan Cornelia (1594), re-issued in 1595 as Pompey the Great, his faire Corneliaes Tragedie. The First part of Jeronimo (printed 1605) is probably a burlesque adaptation of a fore-piece to The Spanish Tragedy [but probably not the work of Kyd]. Other works Kyd is likely to have written are a lost pre-Shakespearean play on the subject of Hamlet, The Householders Philosophie (a prose translation from Tasso) and The Tragedye of Solyman and Perseda (printed 1592).
Spanish Tragedy, The, a tragedy mostly in blank verse by Kyd, written c. 1587, printed 11 times between 1592 and 1633.
The political background of the play is loosely related to the victory of Spain over Portugal in 1580. Lorenzo and Bel-imperia are the children of don Cyprian, duke of Castile (brother of the king of Spain); Hieronimo is marshal of Spain and Horatio his son. Balthazar, son of the viceroy of Portugal, has been captured in the war. He courts Bel-imperia, and Lorenzo and the king of Spain favour his suit for political reasons. Lorenzo and Balthazar discover that Bel-imperia loves Horatio; they surprise the couple by night in Hieronimo's garden and hang Horatio on a tree. Hieronimo discovers his son's body and runs mad with grief. He discovers the identity of the murderers, and carries out revenge by means of a play, Solyman and Perseda, in which Lorenzo and Balthazar are killed, and Bel-imperia stabs herself. Hieronimo bites out his tongue before killing himself. The whole action is watched over by Revenge and the Ghost of Andrea who was previously killed in battle by Balthazar.
The play was the prototype of the English revenge tragedy genre. It returned to the stage for decades and was seen by Pepys as late as 1668.
Jonson is known to have been paid for additions to the play, but the additional passages in the 1602 edition are probably not his. The play was one of Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet and the alternative title given to it in 1615, Hieronimo is Mad Againe, provided T. S. Eliot with the penultimate line of The Waste Land.
From Émile Legouis, A History of English Literature (The Middle Ages and the Renascence, 650-1660):
The Elizabethan drama, generally romantic, could be unromantic also. There was a section of its public whose preference was for modern and topical subjects, and there were playwrights to satisfy these tastes.
7. Thomas Kyd.—The majority, however, expected and desired romantic melodrama, and the first writer who supplied this demand was Thomas Kyd (1558-94) with his Spanish Tragedie. Nothing is known of Kyd save that he was the son of a London scrivener and studied law, and that Seneca's tragedies were his habitual reading. He bled Seneca white, and he translated Garnier's Cornélie which was modelled on Seneca.
So much can, at least, be deduced from a diatribe of Nashe's written in 1589. Seneca's influence on Kyd cannot be questioned, yet it did not cause his masterpiece to confine to the rules, as Thomas Hughes's Misfortunes of Arthur which was played at Gray's Inn at the same time, did conform, a play as tragic and grave as could be desired and full of sententious dialogue. What Kyd learnt from Seneca was how to produce terror—by the ghost of his prologue who relates past events, by atrocious circumstance, and by speeches heightened with striking lyrical expressions. He makes no attempt to simplify the construction of the popular drama, and he cares nothing for the unities. He takes from the Latin poet only what he thinks an English audience will assimilate, and leaves the loose, facile construction of the national drama intact. He owes to Seneca's Thyestes his theme of vengeance, one capable of producing the most pathetic and most fearful effects. He learns from him to envelop his whole work with an atmosphere of gloom, and adds the use of the most powerful stage expedients known to his own experience.
Young Horatio, son of the marshal Hieronimo and valiant as the Cid, is treacherously slain by Prince Balthazar and the perfidious Lorenzo at the very moment of exchanging love-vows with Bel-Imperia, daughter of the Duke of Castile. Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo swear to discover the murderers and avenge the deed. When the old father, who feigns madness in order to reach his ends and is indeed half-mad with grief, feels certain that he knows the murderers, he conceives the idea of having a play acted at the wedding of Bel-Imperia, who is obliged to marry her lover's murderer. This tragedy becomes a real one: every one at the wedding kills himself or is killed.
Another story of revenge is a frame for this one. Before the action of the play begins, Don Andrea, Bel-Imperia's first lover, has been treacherously slain in the war with Portugal. His ghost opens the play, calling for vengeance on Prince Balthazar, who has put him to death.
A synopsis can give, however, only a poor idea of the horrors of this melodrama and of the skill which made it triumph. The fearfulness of crime is intorduced into ardent, passionate scenes, making a contrast as violent as that between light and darkness. Horatio and Bel-Imperia are suddenly struck by love as he, the young warrior, is about to tell her of the death of Don Andrea, her betrothed. At once she gives him her heart. The lovers make a nocturnal assignation in the gardens of old Hieronimo, and there is a scene passionate as that between Hernani and Doña Sol, which is interrupted by the arrival of masked assassins who stab Horatio and hang his body in an arbour.
The sequel is even more horrible. Old Hieronimo, who has been awakened by Bel-Imperia's cries, comes through the shadows clad only in his shirt. He gropes his way, strumbles upon the corpse, and at this moment is joined by his wife, old Isabella. They mingle their tears and their vows for revenge. Hieronimo's final oath is in thirteen Latin hexameters and it must have sounded like and incantation and have been as terrifying as it was incomprehensible.
Old Hieronimo's madness, whether true or feigned, overtakes him in strange accesses. He goes to demand justice of the king, and before all the court plunges his poniard in the ground. Since he is a judge, citizens petition him for justice, among them an old man who desires that his son's murder may be avenged. The judge is thereupon beside himself, draws from his breast a napkin stained with Horatio's blood, tears the plaintiff's petitions to pieces, and finally rushes from the room, crying 'Run after, catch me, if you can'. Almost at once he returns and mistakes the old father for his Horatio. Persuaded from this error, he believes the old man is a Fury exciting him to avenge, then recognizes the old father's true identity and goes out with him, arm in arm. Certainly no one could be madder.
In the last scene, in which every one is killed, Hieronimo confesses to the king what he has done. When the king threatens him with extreme torture, he bites out his tongue in order not to speak again. Then he beckons for a knife with which to mend his pen, and therewith adds to the bloodshed by stabbing the father of one of his son's murderers and killing himself. Don Andrea's ghost, which appears several times over to demand revenge, may well declare itself well satisfied.
It was difficult to go much farther in melodrama. This one was so good that, in spite of all ironies and parodies, there was still a demand for it fifteen years after its first performance. Ben Jonson, the classicist, made additions to it, possibly those which have come down to us and which are certainly remarkable. They consist of new touches added to Hieronimo's madness and give the play the benefit of the improvement in dramatic psychology that had been made in the interval.
The play in its original form is emphatic, declamatory, and often ridiculous, yet such as to grip a simple public. The motives for action are not made clear; the characters are alive yet hardly have character. It is the element of the pathetic which veils all defects. Of all the parts in Renascence drama, that of Hieronimo was the most grateful to actors and the most popular with the public. Morover, the play supplies the poetry of place and scenery. It respects neither the unity of place nor that of time, yet preserves, on the whole, unity of action, and it also has unity of motive, for it all centres round revenge.
This excellent and most popular motive recurs in several of the great plays. The Spanish Tragedie foreshadows Hamlet. If the principal object of literary history were to determine starting-points, more space would be given to Kyd's play than to any of the great Shakespearian tragedies. Critics admit to-day that Kyd, whose other work is less interesting and is not certainly his, may have written an early and lost version of Hamlet. Such a play unquestionably existed in 1589, and it is likely that its author was the creator of old Hieronimo.
From McAlindon, English Renaissance Tragedy:
"When Kyd tied love and justice, marriage and law, into a firm thematic knot, and linked them to the universal principle of harmonious contrariety, he showed his contemporaries and successors how to combine in a richly significant pattern the elements of romance and intrigue attractive to a popular audience with those matters of state traditionally thought proper to tragedy. As a result of his design, the interaction of socio-political and sexual disorder is a constant feature of Renaissance tragedy" (39).
In Kyd's play we have the original and archetypal model for an important episode in many Renaissance tragedies, the Treacherous Entertainment, the most characteristic scene of renaissance tragedy:
"This scene may coincide with the major point of change near the centre of the action, but as a rule it forms the catastrophe. It may consist simply of a banquet or a game; more often it is a play or masque performed in conjunction with a marriage. But, whatever its position or form, it is always a ritual affirmation of love and union which turns out to be a monstrous negation of everything it affirms" (41).
Confusion of opposites is its guiding principle. Set in contrast or analogy to other ritual scenes, "a basic constructional formula on which the dramatists are heavily dependent" (41): "rite gone wrong" pun is ubiquitious. Rite is posited as as stable image of society, vs. play as the new and disturbing notion of the nature of life.
"VII. The Spanish Tragedy then, as Shakespeare perceived, is all of a piece, but complex and richly suggestive. In construction, characterisation, symbolism and style, it figures what happens to a peninsula (a binary geopolitical unit), to a nation, and to a noble individual when the untrustworthy 'second self' breaks free from the bond that controls 'difference'. One kind of difference (conflict) multiplies and prevails, the other (distinction, identity) is obliterated. A society publicly committed to love, peace, and celebration is secretly at war with itself, racked with private griefs and hatreds. Civility and cruelty, justice and barbarism, patience and revenge, reason and madness, ripeness and sterility, play and deadly earnest all become undistinguishable. Orphic man inflames the Furies and demons, domesticates Babel and finally destroys language altogether. The dramatic poet who is the tragic hero's alter ego recognised that a play which adequately presents this process must risk being 'hardly understood' by some and deemed 'a mere confusion' by others. Audaciously, he took the risk, leaving it to the judicious to ask, like Theseus confronted with the artisans' comical tragedy, and no doubt like the first courtly audience of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 'How shall we find the concord of this discord?' Neither in prologue nor in epilogue, however, does he help us to find what we are looking for; all his clues—'Ariadne's twines'—are in the artifact itself." (McAlindon 80-81).