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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

§ 18. Kyd and the early Hamlet

The theme of The Spanish Tragedie is the revenge of “old Hieronimo” for the undoing of his son Don Horatio and the “pittiful death” of the former in accomplishing his purpose. Though contemporary satire fixed upon the play, and made it out-Seneca Seneca in passion for blood, the essence of the drama lies in the slow carrying-out of the revenge. In this, rather than in the mere inversion of the roles of father and son, is there analogy with the Shakespearean Hamlet; as there is, also, in certain details of construction, such as the device of the play within the play, the presence of the ghost (with all allowance for Senecan and early Elizabethan habit), and, generally, the co-ordination of three stories in one plot. Consideration of this analogy helps us to define Kyd’s position in regard to both the English Senecan tragedy and the Shakespearean: the more immediate matter is that Kyd’s interest in this “variant” of the Hamlet story supports, rather than condemns, the conjecture that he had already been engaged on the tragedy of the son’s revenge. Such recasting by one hand of a single and simple dramatic motif is credible; and, in Kyd’s case, likely, when we recall the alleged relationship of Solimon and Perseda with The Spanish Tragedie. There are few authors of Kyd’s repute whose work suggests more clearly a development from within, a re-elaboration of its own limited material. For this reason, it is hard to disbelieve that he wrote a “first part” to his Spanish Tragedie, even if we be persuaded that the extant text of the First Part of Jeronimo is not from his pen.

Kyd’s authorship of a Hamlet which served as the basis for the Shakespearean Hamlet is more than a plausible inference. As the arguments in support of this are too lengthy for discussion in this place, only a general statement may be made. In regard to the date, we conclude, from the passage in Nashe, that the Saxo-Belleforest story had been dramatised before 1589. As there is no evidence that it had attracted attention in England before the tour of English actors on the continent, and, as they returned from Elsinore towards the close of 1587, we may very reasonably fix the date of production in 1587 or 1588. The assumption that Kyd is the author rests on these main bases: that the first quarto of the Shakespearean Hamlet (1603) carries over some sections of an original play, and that there are many parallelisms between the Shakespearean play and The Spanish Tragedie, in construction, in phrase and even in metre, and between it and Kyd’s other works, in respect of sentiment. The likenesses in construction already hinted at make up, with the textual data, a body of circumstantial evidence which the most cautious criticism, fully conscious of the risks of interpreting the re-echoed expressions of the spirit of the age as deliberate plagiarism, is not willing to throw aside. Indeed, the cumulative force of the evidence would appear to convert the assumption into a certainty. If, as no one will doubt, Shakespeare worked over, and reworked over, some Hamlet which had already secured popular favour, why should we, with Nashe and the comparative testimony before us, seek for another than Kyd as the author of the lost, perhaps unprinted, play? We are left with the regret that, having Shakespeare’s revisions, we are denied the details of the master’s transformation of the original copy. The lesson of this sequence would have told us more of Shakespeare’s “mind and art” than we could learn from the unravelling of all his collaborated plays.