Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 20. Criticism of Kyd’s work and comparison with Marlowe; Kyd’s place in English Drama

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

§ 20. Criticism of Kyd’s work and comparison with Marlowe; Kyd’s place in English Drama

The interest of Kyd’s work is almost exclusively historical. Like Marlowe’s, it takes its place in the development of English tragedy by revealing new possibilities and offering a model in technique; unlike Marlowe’s, it does not make a second claim upon us as great literature. The historical interest lies in the advance which Kyd’s plays show in construction, in the manipulation of plot, and in effective situation. Kyd is the first to discover the bearing of episode and of the “movement” of the story on characterisation, and the first to give the audience and reader the hint of the development of character which follows from this interaction. In other words, he is the first English dramatist who writes dramatically. In this respect he was well served by his instinct for realism. The dialogue of his “stately written tragedy” is more human and probable than anything which had gone before, or was being done by Marlowe. In the working out of his plot, he escapes from the dangers of rhetoric by ingenious turns in the situation. In such a scene as that where Pedringano bandies words with the hangman when the boy brings in the empty box, or in Bellimperia’s dropping of her glove, we are parting company with the older tragedy, with the English Senecans, with Tamburlaine and Faustus and even Edward II, and we are nearer Shakespeare. When we add to this talent for dramatic surprise the talent for displaying character, as it were, rooted in the plot, and growing in it—not strewn on the path of a hero who is little more than the embodiment of a simple idea—we describe Kyd’s gift to English tragedy, and, more particularly, to Shakespeare himself. Direct references in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, though they be many, count for little beyond proving the popularity of The Spanish Tragedie. The indebtedness must be sought in the persistent reminiscence of Kyd’s stagecraft throughout the Shakespearean plays, of devices which could not come from any earlier source, and, because of their frequency, could not come by chance. We reflect on the fact that he, who may have been the young author making trial of Kyd’s manner in Titus Andronicus, found more than a theatre hack’s task in working and re-working upon the early Hamlet. From the straggling data, we surmise, not only that Shakespeare knew and was associated with Kyd’s work, but that the association was more to him than a chance meeting in the day’s round. Jonson with his “additions”—even with the Painter’s Part placed to his credit—supplies an instructive contrast; he intrudes as a censor, and will not be on terms. Yet the fact is worth record in the story of Kyd’s influence, that his work is found in direct touch with that of Shakespeare and Jonson. We want to know more of this association, above all of the early Hamlet which Shakespeare used; and, wishing thus, we are driven to vain speculation, till the Jonsonian Hieronimo stays us (as he may well do elsewhere in the “quest of enquirie” into Elizabethan authorship):

  • ’T is neither as you think, nor as you thinke,
  • Nor as you thinke; you’r wide all;
  • These slippers are not mine; they were my sonne Horatio’s.