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Kyd, Thomas (1558–1594) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Thomas Kyd led an ironic existence. He lived only thirty-six years and produced a very small canon; yet it contained one of the most influential dramatic works of the Tudor period, The Spanish Tragedy (ST) . This work serves as the most significant extant model for the greatest revenge tragedies of Tudor and Jacobean drama and was perhaps the most famous play of its time. Kyd’s other known works include only two translations. Even attributions are few in number and include plays that are no longer extant. Yet his literary importance is undeniable.

Ironically, his personal life was as dismal and nearly as tragic as that of his famous hero Hieronymo. Thomas Kyd was baptized in London on 6 November 1558 the son of Anna and Francis Kyd, a successful freeman of the Company of Scriveners. Scriveners, often disdained, were ancient tradespeople who served as scribes, letter writers, notaries, and later, moneylenders. Records reveal that Kyd had a sister and brother, that the family had at least one servant, and that they lived in a prosperous area of London near the western end of Lombard Street.

When Thomas was seven years old, the Kyds were sufficiently successful to enroll him in the four-year-old Merchant Taylor’s School, a competitive school directed by the famous scholar Richard Mulcaster, who also instructed Edmund Spenser,* Lancelot Andrewes, and Thomas Lodge.* No documents record Kyd’s activities until 1583; therefore, the number of years he studied at the school or his further study elsewhere is unknown. He mastered his studies well, given his relatively meager formal educational background. His extant writings show that he was fluent in Latin, French, Italian, and possibly Greek; but his understanding of history and geography was not thorough, and it is unlikely that he traveled outside England. The extent of his education and his highly formal handwriting suggest that he may have served as an apprentice for some years to his father.

Evidence also points to Kyd’s work as a dramatist before 1585. In 1607 Thomas Dekker* refers to Kyd’s pen, along with the pens of Thomas Achelley and Thomas Watson, “molding” the actor John Bentley, who died in 1585. These three men were associated with the Queen’s Company, a popular acting company newly formed in 1583 from among the members of the Earl of Leicester’s Men and other successful companies. These actors included the well-known comic actors Richard Tarlton, Robert Wilson, John Singer, and John Adams. That the performances of this company were in great demand suggests that the group required many new scripts. Dekker’s comments imply that some of these were created by Kyd, at least those performed before 1585.

Thus, by 1585 Kyd was a working dramatist. In 1587 or 1588 he entered into service as a tutor or secretary for a patron, possibly the earl of Sussex. His greatest work, The Spanish Tragedy , was likely written by 1587, and its first recorded performance was on 14 March 1592, the year of publication of Soliman and Perseda and possibly when Kyd and the radical Christopher Marlowe* were working together, perhaps even sharing rooms.

The single document recording the events of Thomas Kyd’s life during the period after 1585 is dated 12 May 1593. It identifies Kyd as a prisoner arrested for “lewd and malicious libels” against Dutch nationals living in London and for “vile hereticall Conceiptes denynge the deity of Jheses Christe or Savior” found among his papers. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, keeper of the Great Seal of England, Kyd denied vehemently the authorship of the latter statements and attributed them to the recently killed Christopher Marlowe. Kyd claimed that two years previously they had worked for the same patron, and their papers had inadvertently become mixed. The explanation may have merit. Unfortunately, even though he was freed in May 1593, the tortures that Kyd underwent during his imprisonment probably injured him severely enough that he was unable to regain his health. He died, poor, no doubt wrongfully accused, and alone in August 1594.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

The canon of Thomas Kyd clearly survives because of one play, The Spanish Tragedy . The play was a huge success in its day, remarkably inventive and serving as the model for most subsequent tragedies. Because it was well known and popular among playgoers, playwrights were eager to imitate it, as much for its marketability as for its innovation and artistry. Sadly, the play itself is referred to far more frequently than Kyd himself, another irony of his unhappy life. Among the few direct references to Kyd himself, Thomas Nashe broadly criticizes him in the introduction to Menaphon , but he is praised by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia as “our best for Tragedie” and, over the following thirty-five years, by the likes of Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Ben Jonson,* who called him “sporting Kyd.”

Today, after over two hundred years of scholarly respect for Thomas Kyd’s originality, his artistry as well as his innovation make him, along with Christopher Marlowe, one of the two most important tragic playwrights preceding Shakespeare in Tudor England.

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