Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 16. Thomas Kyd’s early work

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Marlowe and Kyd

§ 16. Thomas Kyd’s early work

The dramatic career of Thomas Kyd covers a shorter period than Marlowe’s; and, despite the great popularity and influence of The Spanish Tragedie, it lacks both the range and sustained interest of the work of his junior and associate. He was the son of one Francis Kyd, a city scrivener, and was educated at Merchant Taylors’ school, in which, from 26 October, 1565, he was a fellow pupil with Edmund Spenser. This date and an earlier fixing his baptism on 6 November, 1558, are the sole biographical evidence available, with theexception of sundry references, at the close of his short life, in papers connected with the judicial enquiry into Marlowe’s religious opinions. For the rest, we must rely on the interpretation of the well known passage in Nashe’s preface to Greene’s Menaphon (1589) and of certain cryptic entries in Henslowe’s diary. The former, by the elaboration of its satirical anger, acquires the value of a biographical document. Even if we had not the punning reference to the “Kidde in Aesop” (a reminiscence of the “May” eclogue of The Shepheards Calender) we should recognise, with due allowance for the extravagance of the attack, that the series of allusions constitutes strong circumstantial evidence as to the victim’s career down to 1589. From this passage, therefore, we assume that Kyd had early forsaken his apprenticeship to his father’s “trade of Noverint”; that, being weak in Latinity (and so charged unjustly), he had turned to play making and had “bled” Seneca through its “English” veins; that, in this barber surgeon enterprise, he had interested himself in the story of Hamlet; and that, later, he had fallen to the task of translating from Italian and French. The reference to the botching up of blank verse “with ifs and ands” seems to be explained by a line in The Spanish Tragedie; and the ridiculed phrase “bloud is a beggar” may prove to have a textual interest when fortune gives us the pre-Shakespearean Hamlet.

The earliest known dated work ascribed to Kyd is The Householders Philosophie, a version of Tasso’s Padre di Famiglia. This volume, by “T. K.,” printed in 1588, probably represents the “twopenny pamphlet” work from the Italian to which Nashe refers towards the close of his depreciation. The French enterprise, also amiably described by the same hand, may remain to us in Pompey the Great, his faire Corneliaes Tragedie, which appeared under Kyd’s name in 1595 as a translation of Garnier’s Cornélie, and in the record of his intention to follow with a rendering of that author’s Porcie. This intimation of Kyd’s interest in the French Senecan brings him into immediate touch with lady Pembroke and her coterie, and gives point to Nashe’s double-sensed gibe that the translators “for recreation after their candle-stuffe, having starched their beardes most curiously” made “a peripateticall path into the inner parts of the Citie” and spent “two or three howers in turning over French Doudie.” The translation of Cornélie, a pamphlet on The Murthering of John Brewen, Goldsmith, and perhaps another on The Poisoninge of Thomas Elliot, Tailor (both printed by his brother John Kyd in 1592), appear to be the latest efforts of Kyd’s short career, which came to an end about December, 1594. In the short interval anterior to this hackwork, between 1585 and the publication of Nashe’s attack in 1589, the public were probably in possession of the works on which his reputation rests, his Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedie, and The Tragedie of Solimon and Perseda. These, and the discredited First Part of Jeronimo, still supply some of the thorniest problems to Elizabethan scholarship. Here, only a partial statement can be attempted.