The Spanish Tragedy (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Clara Calvo and Jesus Tronch.

In some cases, the publication and editing history of a play can be as fascinating as the play itself and that’s certainly the case with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Reprinted in eleven quartos before it fell into obscurity for three centuries, its first most certainly a pirate, its fourth filled with emendations and additions, quite rightly the editors of the Arden edition, Clara Calvo and Jesus Tronch, dedicate over a third of their introduction to explaining the process of simply fighting their way through this history in order to produce this scholarly version. At that they’ve succeeded and in such a way as to make the textual changes breath within the main text whilst still making it legible is a triumph.

The facts are these.  Q1 was a product of a feud between rival London publishers, with Eward Allde and bookseller Edward White creating it as a repost to the proper rights owner Abel Jeffes because he had knocked out a copy of Arden of Faversham which they themselves had proper rights to. Eventually, the law intervened and both stationers were fined and order to give their pirated editions to be confiscated and “either given or sold for a small sum to needy booksellers”. The upshot nevertheless of this is that The Spanish Tragedy, thought of as one of the pillars of tragedy in Early Modern English exists in several good, clean(ish) if unique copies even if the now accepted author’s name doesn’t appear on the cover.

Then there’s Q4. Q4 is published in 1602, by White and new copyright holder Thomas Pavier and substantially rewrites sections of the play and adds some extra scenes which these editors persuasively suggest must have been carried over from a theatre prompt book. Originally, these revisions were thought to be by Ben Jonson, but substantial critical back and forth across the years has dismissed all of that and now thanks to computer textual analysis, the probable candidate of at the least the whole new scene is Shakespeare. But unlike Sir Thomas More, there’s nothing substantial to confirm such and so the play still finds itself as in the Early Modern Drama series, rather than Shakespeare (presumably also because Kyd is still the substantive author).

Similarly to Hamlet and Lear then, the editors find themselves having to choose which version to favour. They choose Q1, largely because it was there first but also, I suspect, because its easier to demonstrate additions to a text than removals. So Q4 additions and revisions are included in the text in a different font with a small sans serif year next to them, which is certainly more sensible than in FA Foakes’s Arden Third Edition of Lear in which tiny Qs and Fs are employed around lines and single words and make the text distracting to read. The demands are different, I suppose, and there’s little need to change fonts in the middle of lines, for example, but there’s a sense of there being two different texts here that the Lear lacks.

The first two thirds of the introduction are structured in a more formal way than many of these Ardens, beginning with a short explanation of how play fits within European theatrical tradition before shifting into a (very short) biography of Kyd which concentrates on his death more than his life and extent to which he was the informer who led to the murder of Marlowe. In two letters to Sir John Pickering, the lord keeper, he accused Marlowe of being in possession of heretical papers, the very heretical papers which had seen his own arrest and by the editors account he comes across as “mean, cowardly, self-righteous and sanctimonious”. What would we think of Shakespeare if any of his correspondence had survived?

From there, we’re straight into the play, how it acts as a bridge between Seneca and Shakespeare in the development of tragedy, how its use of ghosts and revenge and madness and meta-theatre prefigure Hamlet and how its use of objects, and the introduction is especially good in this regard, slowly become relics as they slip between various hands across the play. Throughout there’s a genuine sense of being there at the start of theatrical history, of seeing ideas, characters and story points being employed for the very first time which are still being referred back to now in drama, even if we’re not necessarily aware of the source. But the authors treat this with a lightness of touch, so as not to overshadow the play they’re considering.

It’s in the theatrical history that we see how the textual history of the play feeds into directorial choices. How much of the emendations and additions do you include? What’s expected?  As with most of these Arden Early Modern Drama plays, there isn’t an unbroken history, The Spanish Tragedy falling out of favour for just under three hundred years, with Pepys’s viewing of a production in 1668 the last recorded performance until amateur revivals began in universities in the 1920s. Both the National Theatre and RSC have offered productions in recent years and BBC Radio in the 90s, but given its reputation, Kyd’s play still isn’t in favour as a piece of theatrical drama. Perhaps this new edition will do something to change that.

The Spanish Tragedy (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Clara Calvo and Jesus Tronch. Bloomsbury. 2013. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1904271604. Review copy supplied.

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