The English dramatist Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) is best known for "The Spanish Tragedy," a play that was a great popular success and did much to influence the course of English tragedy of the late Renaissance.
Thomas Kyd was the son of Francis Kyd, a scrivener, or professional scribe, of London. He received his education at the Merchant Taylors' School, a well-respected, fairly progressive school attended by sons of middle-class citizens of London.
Kyd probably began his career as a popular playwright about 1583 and produced his most significant work, The Spanish Tragedy, sometime between this date and 1589. Although somewhat crude both dramatically and poetically, this extremely popular play did much to shape the greater tragedies of the later Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. It is the earliest example in English of the "revenge play," or "tragedy of blood," which was later developed and refined by such dramatists as Shakespeare, George Chapman, and John Webster. Its exciting action culminates in a cleverly contrived scene in which the protagonist stages a "play" which turns out to be horrifyingly real: the "actors" use their swords in earnest, with the result that all principal characters—heroes and villains—are disposed of in a spectacularly bloody fashion.
Unfortunately, Kyd proved unable to repeat his early success. During the early months of 1593 he became involved in legal difficulties in connection with certain "lewd and malicious libels" directed against foreigners living in London. In the course of an investigation into these charges, incriminating papers of an "atheist" nature were discovered in Kyd's lodgings. Although Kyd claimed that these papers belonged to Christopher Marlowe, with whom he had lived for a time, he was nonetheless forced to spend some months in prison. It was during this trying period that Kyd composed his Cornelia, a translation of a play by the French tragic writer Robert Garnier. Kyd's version of Garnier's play was highly esteemed by some early critics, but it lacks the excitement and energy which made The Spanish Tragedy such a potent influence on subsequent playwrights.
On the strength of a passage in the writings of the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe, Kyd's name has long been associated with an early Hamlet play. This play, which is commonly referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, has not survived. Scholars are now inclined to believe that the play did in fact exist and that Shakespeare probably made use of it for his masterpiece, but most are agreed that there is no firm evidence for associating this play with Kyd.
Kyd died in April 1594, apparently in poverty and disgrace as a result of his difficulties with the law. He was buried in London.
Further Reading on Thomas Kyd
The most detailed study of Kyd's life is Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (1967). For critical and historical comment on The Spanish Tragedy see Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (1940); Moody Erasmus Prior, The Language of Tragedy (1947); and Wolfgang Clemen, English Tragedy before Shakespeare (1955; trans. 1962).