The Role of Letters in the Production of Knowledge in “The Spanish Tragedy”

by Anastasia Foley

The English Renaissance was a formative time for dramatic production in terms of both genre and convention. The proliferation of plays and theatrical culture throughout London in this period brought the dramatic arts into mainstream culture. One of the key figures in this phenomenon was Thomas Kyd. Though Kyd likely produced many plays in his lifetime, his sole surviving work is The Spanish Tragedy (Bevington 3). Bevington regards The Spanish Tragedy as the earliest example of Renaissance tragedy and models how future plays, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, would be constructed. (Bevington 3).Revenge, deception, and the misconstruction of knowledge motivates The Spanish Tragedy. One of the significant forms of communication within the play is that of the letter. Letters appear in situations when characters expose injustices and deceptions to differing levels of success. The use of the letter in these scenes is always inextricably tied to the gender and power status of both the author and recipient. In situations where the dynamic between the two characters is fraught, truth is either accepted or obscured according to which of the two characters hold the power in the relationship. Depending on  how the letter is framed in the scene, in what ways are the two characters alienated, and to what extent the letter successfully furthers the plot or hinders it determines how characters and the audience analyze the meaning of each letter. In Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, letters, as a result of their status as an embodied form of language, are a vehicle through which knowledge is either produced or obscured depending on the gendered and politicized power dynamic between the correspondents. 

In the The Spanish Tragedy , letters often reveal, or attempt to reveal a truth to those who are ignorant. The letter serves as a way to communicate plot to characters who have been deceived or displaced from previous scenes. This streamlined mode of communication allows Kyd to express the content of the play clearly and precisely without having to stage complex scenes to the audience. Although the letter acts as a vessel for plot development, it operates very differently than the play’s spoken lines of dialogue and monologue. While a letter is intended to convey the voice of its author, what is produced on stage is not the author’s true voice because her speech has been commodified into a tangible object. When the letter is read and held by another character onstage, it means that this recipient of the letter is able to voice and manipulate the words on the page, thus mapping her own values and perceptions onto the narrative. Thus, when a character receives a letter onstage, it is from his or her perspective, not its author’s, that impacts the play. Additionally, letters serve to highlight the distinctions between the letter’s author and recipient. This occurs primarily because the appearance of a letter immediately suggests that the author of the letter is unable to communicate directly with the recipient because of physical or socio-political differences. In The Spanish Tragedy, the letter serves as a plot device and a site for mapping the imbalanced relationships between characters. This complicated intermingling of forces means that the letter works in different ways depending on the conditions of author and recipient as demonstrated by the difference between the way Hieronimo receives Bel-imperia’s letter and the way the Portuguese Viceroy receives letters from the Spanish King. 

Following Horatio’s murder towards the beginning of The Spanish Tragedy, Balthazar and Lorenzo send Bel-imperia away to her room and tell her to “stop her mouth” lest she expose them as the culprits of the crime (II.4.63). In order to avenge Horatio, Bel-imperia tries to communicate with Horatio by dropping a letter to him from her tower. Immediately upon receiving the letter, Hieronimo says, “what’s here? A letter? Tush it is not so” (3.2.24). Before Hieronimo can even examine the letter, he negates its existence. This comment makes it clear from the outset that Bel-imperia’s correspondence will not be valued or validated by Hieronimo. Not only has the letter been dropped ceremoniously from above, Bel-imperia has written it in her own blood “for want of ink” (3.2.26). Already in the scene we have a visual and textual framing of the letter as an impossible or foolish thing, as Hieronimo is quick to deem it impossible and the object appears unnecessarily dramatic with its dripping red blood. The absurd stage picture of a bloody letter descending from the sky conveys to both the audience and Hieronimo that this correspondence should not be taken seriously as evidence, but seen as a “miracle” (3.2.32). While the Norton Anthology denotes “miracle” as meaning “revelation” in this scene (34), the Oxford English Dictionary cites this usage in The Spanish Tragedy as an example of the definition “an achievement or occurrence seemingly beyond human power” (“miracle”). When one reads Bel-imperia’s letter as a fantastical occurrence, it is clear that Hieronimo sees the text as a myth rather than truth. This grandiose presentation of Bel-imperia’s letter immediately discredits what she is trying to convey, even though her statement that “Balthazar and [Lorenzo]… murderèd thy son” is very clear (3.2.29). In this way, it is impossible for Bel-imperia’s letter to inform Hieronimo because it is framed through superfluous drama and incredulity. 

Additionally, the condition of this letter parallels Bel-imperia’s status as an imprisoned woman. The content of the letter reinforces Bel-imperia’s lack of power in her relationship with Hieronimo. The letter is essentially Bel-imperia’s attempt at a call to action: she begs Hieronimo to exact “revenge” on Lorenzo where she can not. The ending of the letter, “and better fare than Bel-imperia doth,” establishes that Bel-imperia is in a state of disadvantage in comparison to Hieronimo (3.2.31). In addition to their difference in mobility, Hieronimo and Bel-imperia differ in their gender. Even though Bel-imperia is of noble descent and should have power over Hieronimo, her gender situates her at a lower social standing than he. By discrediting the letter, Hieronimo is in turn denying Bel-imperia’s claim to truth as a woman. The letter enables the use of written rather than verbal speech because the physical distance between them also brings to bear the differences in their identities. Thus, the communication via letter that takes place between Bel-imperia and Hieronimo demonstrates how a letter within The Spanish Tragedy makes it possible for certain characters to impose their own thoughts and perceptions onto the words of another, making the written word an ineffective source of knowledge between people of differing socio-political power. Not only is Bel-imperia’s letter immediately written off as an absurd occurrence by its framing in the scene, its existence brings forth questions of gender and power to the audience in which Hieronimo is able to dismiss Bel-imperia’s narrative because she is of a lower station. Thus, this correspondence written by a female character addressed to a male character is dismissed as inaccurate in the story; however, the audience and/or reader of the play knows that Bel-imperia is in fact telling the truth. This sense of dramatic irony sets up Hieronimo as a fool, aligning him with other ignorant men in positions of authority in the play, namely the King. The King of Spain, who is blinded by his inability to understand the lives of his subjects or the state of his country asks the General if “hath fortune given us victory”, not knowing that the war with Portugal is long over (1.2.6). Similarly, the power dynamics illuminated through letters in the play demonstrates how people in positions of power can not accept the viewpoints of those they do not respect or consider to be on their socio-political strata. In this way, it is clear that Kyd does not use this exchange with Bel-imperia to insinuate that one should disregard female voices, but to highlight the disconnect between men of significant station and the world around them. This idea is a thread which traces throughout the work. The letter in Kyd’s play is thus a site where knowledge is either produced or destroyed. When there is a disconnect in gender and power, as with Bel-imperia and Hieronimo, her narrative is framed as fantastical, her alienation exploited, her truth denied, and Hieronimo made to seem a fool for enacting these qualities. In contrast with this exchange where letters are unable to produce knowledge, immediately preceding this scene is an example where because the author has power over the recipient, letters are accepted eagerly as fact.

Contrastingly to Bel-imperia’s attempted correspondence with Hieronimo, letters written from one man in power to another are not disputed for accuracy, but rather immediately accepted as objective truth. In the subplot of the play, Villuppo tricks the Viceroy of Portugal into thinking that his son, Balthazar is dead. Later on, the Ambassador to Spain rights this deceit by telling the Viceroy, “these eyes beheld, and these my followers,/ with these, the letters of the King’s commends,/ Are happy witnesses of [Balthazar]’s health” (3.1.67-69). This introduction of the letters into the scene establishes two different forms of knowledge: the experiential knowledge of the Ambassador and the epistolary knowledge of the King. By suggesting that those who read “the letters” will be “witnesses” of Balthazar’s health and safety, Kyd equates reading letters and firsthand experience. In this way, it is already clear that what the King has written will be accepted as evidential truth, as opposed to Bel-imperia’s letter being referred to as a “miracle” (3.2.32). As spoken by the Viceroy, the letters open with the Spanish King’s assertion that “thy son doth live, your tribute is received,/ Thy peace is made, and we are satisfied” (3.1.70-71). The clear, direct language which Kyd uses for the King’s letter immediately stands against the whimsical drama of Bel-imperia’s letter about “revenge” and “murder” (3.2.28-29). The formality and realistic nature of the interaction between the Ambassador and the Viceroy gives the letters authority, whereas the dramatic framing of Bel-imperia’s letter which is to follow will immediately discredit her claim to truth. Thus, Kyd sets up the exchange between the King and the Viceroy as a legitimate place where knowledge will be produced and deceit undone. 

Not only to the correspondences by Bel-imperia and by the King differ in their structure, the statuses of the letter’s author and addressee are flipped. If Bel-imperia’s interaction with Hieronimo explores the role of gender in how letters create knowledge, then the correspondence between the King and the Viceroy bring political power to bear on this conversation. The reader or audience member understands that Portugal is politically subservient to Spain because Spain has just defeated them on the battlefield. This inequality is also presented in this scene in particular when the King writes to the Viceroy that “your tribute is received” (3.1.70). Though it appears that Portugal’s debt to Spain has recently been arranged, the existence of Balthazar’s survival shows that the Viceroy views the King as someone he needs to please. This comes through once again at the end of the scene when the Viceroy refers to the Spanish figurehead as “our great lord the mighty king of Spain” (3.1.106). Rather than the two sides of the correspondence being divided by their gender, now they are alienated by their relative political power. When the Viceroy receives the letter from the King, his respect and deference are mapped on to the prop, therefore asserting its value as a representation of truth. While it is true that both of these characters are men in positions of power, their particular relation to one another is mitigated by the fact that the Viceroy serves the King. Where Hieronimo is shocked and dismissive of Bel-imperia’s correspondence due to her gender, the Viceroy eagerly accepts the words of the King, asserting that knowledge is clearly produced through letters when the author holds political power over the recipient. 

Finally, the letters which the Spanish King writes to the Viceroy are not indicative of the lack of knowledge production in the text, but rather the importance of the letter as an example of the many types of evidence in the play. After reading the correspondences, the Viceroy immediately attacks Villuppo, calling him an “accursèd wretch” (3.1.75). Unlike in the following scene where Hieronimo will ask what the letter he receives means (3.2.32), the Viceroy does not consider the possibility of this being another deceit. Rather, he readily understands the truth being conveyed by the King and acts upon it. This conception of the letter as a piece of evidence is carried on through other language of the scene. The Viceroy goes on to say that Villuppo is “bound to death,” asserting that the letter has given him a death sentence (3.1.78). In this way, the letter is taken to be an objective piece of legal evidence which now exerts force on the characters in the scene. Furthermore, Alexandro refers to what Viluppo has done as a “damnèd fact” (3.1.82). While in this case the primary definition of “fact” is a deed or action, the definition of fact as a “particular truth” was also available at this time (“fact”). This double meaning, though slight, deepens the association between the content of the letters and the idea of truth. Thus, the letters which the King writes act as a site for socially constructed knowledge to be produced. The definitive presentation of the King’s letters to the Viceroy as objective fact stands apart from the later scene with Bel-imperia in that in this instance, the letter is structurally framed as valid, the alienation between characters favors the author, and the lack of incredulity reinforces the impact of written knowledge within the text. 

In a play which presents itself as an ongoing quest for truth, the role of written correspondence becomes intreagal to how the plot is furthered and characters relate to one another. In the opening speech of the play, Don Andrea reflects upon his earthly death without providing specific details about how he was killed, saying only that “Death’s winter nipped the blossoms of my bliss” (1.1.13). This frames the play as a grappling with a lack of information and access to the truth. In this way, it is significant that when characters are presented with potential forms of knowledge, sometimes this truth is accepted and sometimes it is not. When this articulation of speech is commodified into a letter, it becomes possible to either silence that voice and remain ignorant or hear the narratives of another and learn. In this way, the letter in The Spanish Tragedy is a space in which knowledge can either be produced or destroyed depending on the status of author and recipient. The letters within Kyd’s seminal work, namely Bel-imperia’s and the King’s, convey a tension between status and knowledge production. The narrative framing of a letter sets up the expectation for how the exchange will go, granting figures with political power more authority than women with similarly noble roots. The physical alienation represented by the letter also opens up the possibility for social and political relationships to be projected onto it as an object: namely gendered and political imbalance. The lack of awareness of men like Hieronimo hinders the plot, whereas the status of the King’s letters as legal fact furthers the play along. When the recipient of a letter has more power than the author the correspondence is dismissed, whereas when the recipient is in debt to the author the letter is given validity and credence. In this way, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy uses letters as a device through which to explore the particular conditions of knowledge production between characters with an imbalance power, namely ones which favor the author and ones which favor the recipient. 

Works Cited 

“fact, n., int., and adv.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 14 March 2019. 

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. 1587. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. Bevington, Engle, Maus, and Rasmussen, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. 

“miracle, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, Accessed 10 March 2019.