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Welcome to Episode #134 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The English playwright Thomas Kyd is one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who arguably has as much, if not more, influence on the development of Renaissance theater than even the bard himself. Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is thought to have introduced to 16th century English theater a tragic format Shakespeare would later apply in his famous tragedy, Hamlet. Little is known about the life of Thomas Kyd, but what we do know is astonishing. He was a roommate with Christopher Marlowe, suspected of treason, accused of being an atheist, and had the entire memory of his life rest on a single letter he wrote to decry claims against him. He died in December of 1594, leaving a powerful mark on the theater industry and establishing himself a permanent place in the life of William Shakespeare. 

Here this week to introduce us to Thomas Kyd and the history we have about his life as a fellow playwright alongside William Shakespeare in turn of the 17th century England is our returning guest and respected friend, Darren Freebury Jones.

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Dr. Darren Freebury-Jones is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies (International – USA) at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His role involves building and developing relationships with schools, universities, and organisations in the USA through regular teaching tours; working on the Trust’s online educational resources; as well as lecturing at the Shakespeare Centre.  Darren’s research interests include early modern attribution studies, digital approaches to examining drama, and intertextuality. His doctoral thesis examined Thomas Kyd’s influence on Shakespeare’s early work and he is one of the editors for the first edition of Kyd’s collected works since 1901. 

He has also investigated the boundaries of John Marston’s dramatic corpus as part of the Oxford Marston project. His recent and forthcoming work on the plays of authors such as Shakespeare, Kyd, Lyly, Marlowe, Peele, Nashe, Marston, Dekker, Fletcher, and others can be found in a range of peer-reviewed journals.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Darren Freebury Jones about :

  • How did Thomas Kyd come to London originally?
  • I’ve read that he was accused of treason for what one article called “subversive political activities.” Was Kyd something of a rebel in general?
  •  In May of 1593, Kyd was arrested along with Marlowe and accused of being in possession of “divers lewd and mutinous libels.” Darren, what are “libels” and what were they supposed to contain that was so treasonous?

… and more!

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To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn'd
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

Sonnet 104

There are no records of when or where Thomas Kyd was born (at least none that has yet been located). However, we do have records of his baptism which took place at this church, St. Mary Woolnuth, in London, in November 1558. This photograph was taken by Amanda Slater from Coventry, West Midlands, UK. Her description of the photograph: “The church was rebuilt by the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. Work began in 1716 and the new church was reopened for worship on Easter Day 1727. It was commissioned from Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had responded with one of his most distinctive and original designs. He benefited greatly from having an unusually open area in which to work. The old church had been hemmed in by shops and houses, like many other City churches, but these were demolished at the same time as the church. Hawksmoor was thus able to fully exploit the unobstructed front of the site. St Mary Woolnoth is Hawksmoor's only City of London church. The resultant church was something of an architectural statement on Hawksmoor's part. Its unusually imposing façade, in English Baroque style, is dominated by two flat-topped turrets supported by columns of the Corinthian order, which are used throughout the church. The west side of the façade, facing Lombard Street, has distinctive recesses bearing an inset forward-curving pediment resting on skewed columns. The church underwent major changes in the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th century; it was proposed for demolition on several occasions but was saved each time. Its galleries were removed by William Butterfield in 1876, who thought they were unsafe, and a number of other significant (and not entirely successful) changes were made at the same time. Between 1897 and 1900 the City & South London Railway (C&SLR) built Bank Underground station beneath the church. The C&SLR were given permission to demolish it, but public outcry forced them to reconsider: the company undertook to use only the subsoil instead. The crypt was sold to the railway and the bones were removed for reburial at Ilford. The walls and internal columns of the church were then supported on steel girders while the lift shafts and staircase shaft for Bank station were built directly beneath the church floor. At this time, the bells were also rehung with new fittings. No cracks formed in the plasterwork, and no settlement of the structure occurred; the company later claimed that the edifice of the church was considerably stronger than before. Hawksmoor, who worked with Wren and Vanburgh, has been ‘rediscovered' in recent years. His style is innovative and eclectic. Some have portrayed his churches as centres of gloom and mystery, full of occult and morbid energies and pagan symbols, linked to ancient lay lines and to murders in Whitechapel and on the notorious Ratcliffe Highway (which now links the City and Canary Wharf).” Original Source. Used under Attribution License CC BY-SA 2.0 

Thomas Kyd Native to London

Thomas Kyd was a native Londoner, and lived there his entire life. Darren summarizes Kyd's upbringing this way,

“born [in London] and raised in the city. Cockney dramatist. Baptised 1558, 6 years older than Shakespeare, [on] Lombard street London ([he was the] son of a scribe). Kyd was at some point engaged as a scribe for awhile. His handwriting (1593-1594 surviving letters are very clear, suggests training). Classically educated Merchant Taylor’s School Thames St. across from Klink Prison. Entered the school in 1565, and was taught by Richard Morecaster (sp?) who also trained people like Lancelot Andrews, Edmund Spenser, and Thomas Lodge. His career, Dekker linked Industrious Kyd with John Bently (actor) with poets, and suggests he started with the Queen’s Men. He wrote a Eulogy on Shakespeare, Jonson lists “sporting Kyd” among Shakespeare’s peers. “Industrious and sporting” are often ascribed to Kyd, and his repertoire was substantial.” 

As far as surviving places or documents, there aren't many in association with Kyd's life. For example, Darren shares that “We do know that he shared a chamber with Marlowe, but we don’t know precisely where that was located.” The letters that Kyd wrote are at the British Museum, which you can view in facsimile inside the book version approved by the British Museum and available here. 

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Though in thy youth thou wast as true a lover…

As You Like It (II.4)

This 1585 painting is actually an anonymous portrait. No one knows exactly who the person is being featured. As David Kathman explains in his work “The Spelling and Pronunciation of Shakespeare's Name: Pronunciation” Retrieved 14 June 2020. This portrait “A portrait, supposedly of Christopher Marlowe. There is in fact no evidence that the anonymous sitter is Marlowe, but the clues do point in that direction. Marlowe was 21 years old in 1585, when the painting was made. He was also the only 21-year old student at Corpus Christi, where the painting was later found.” Original Source. Public Domain. 

Christopher Marlowe was Kyd's boon companion

Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were both employed by Lord Strange, Ferdinando Stanley. We know that the two men shared a house together, in part due to the testimonies given during their arrest and imprisonment for treason in which Kyd testified that they had shared a room. While much has been made of sharing a room with another man, as if to suggest through a modern lens that the men may have been lovers, as Darren explains, that conclusion may well be entirely out of context:

[We can see through their writings, and lines like] “Should come about the person of a King” [that they were] copying each others’ lines, they were colleagues. Black Comedy, Marlowe play Jew of Malta, influenced by Kyd’s innovation of theater. Spanish Tragedy scene mocks his executioner on the scaffold, believing a box has been delivered with his pardon inside, the page opens the box, and the dead man has been tricked, get hanged, bitter dramatic irony–that was Kyd, and filtered into Marlowe and Shakespeare’s works, too. Kyd was known for this feature/device. More like Beaumont and Fletcher.

While some historians accuse Kyd of being in possession of treasonous material and even try to cast a hue of rebellion over the reputation of Thomas Kyd as a result of the trial that occured towards the end of his life, Darren calls our attention to the life of Thomas Kyd, his reputation in London, and the impression of him held by Shakepseare's contemporaries like Ben Jonson to acknowledge that Thomas Kyd, whatever he became at the time of his death, lived a life of status and accomplishment in Elizabethan England. Darren explains that Thomas Kyd was a

“Sober minded moralistic figure. Opposed to Marlowe, and ignores Jonson’s accusation of “sporting” description. His work suggests he had a great sense of humor, his reputation of “idle and most false” was an unlucky attribution. August 1594, Christopher Marlowe was as dead as a doornail. Accused of posting bills about London, threatening London refugees, stabbed in the eye by someone working for Francis Walsingham while awaiting a decision on his case by the Privy Council, when Kyd died that same month, the path was cleared for Shakespeare to rise to fame. Kyd arrested and tortured, despite being an innocent man. He was released from prison so if he was a rebel, then it was a rebel without a patron.

There is historical evidence to indicate Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were close friends, colleagues, and companions, but to go further and suggest they may have been lovers is entirely conjecture and truly a distraction from understanding the powerfully influential lives of these artists.


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Will you then write me a sonnet in praise of my beauty?

Much Ado About Nothing (V.2)

1615 Title Page of The Spanish Tragedy, with a woodcut showing (left) the hung body of Horatio discovered by (centre) Hieronymo and Bel-imperia being taken from the scene by a blackface Lorenzo (right). Original Source. Public Domain. Original image is housed at The British Library. 

Edward III & Ur-Hamlet

Kyd is attributed as the author of Edward III, which is also sometimes attributed to Shakespeare or in some instances, to Kyd and Shakespeare together. Darren explains there are a couple of specific historians who wrote about the connection of Kyd and Shakespeare:

“Shakespeare’s Tutor, the influence of Kyd on Shakespeare” the title is inspired by Ben JOnson who distinguished different authorial collaborators, one of which was “tutor” and Stanley Wells “Shakespeare & Co” Coagitor, equal collaborator, etc.

“Tutor” was a master craftsman guiding a novice. Edward III 1593, Martin Wiggins, Kyd would have been the more experienced dramatist, the mastercraftsman. Shakespeare would continue to engage with and learn from Kyd (revision, adaptation, and collaboration)

One of Kyd’s most famous plays is his Ur-Hamlet. The Ur-Hamlet was a play written to tell the story of Hamlet that came before Shakespeare's version was first performed, and the two stories are very similar. As Darren explains, 

“Ur” means primitive or original. There are strong indications that Kyd wrote the Ur-Hamlet but there are no copies of the Ur Hamlet surviving today. Kyd is identified as the author based on the work of Thomas Nashe. Left the trade as a scribe, meddling with Italian translations. “The householders philogopher” Nashe claims Kyd copies Seneca to afford you “whole hamlets” and ascribed the Spanish Tragedy, Nashe’s attack “ifs and ands” which parodies a line from the Spanish Tragedy…Indications Green would have been willing to ridicule Kyd. “others will flaut” existence of hostile critics, dedication to Thomas Reed…”

While the authoriship of Ur-Hamlet is generally attributed to Kyd, the authorship is somewhat contested, but Darren shares that “Whomoever wrote Ur Hamlet, also wrote Fair Em.”

Ur Hamlet was performed at Newington Butts…Thomas Lodge alluded to it in his play refers to “hamlet” and “senecan ghost” ghosts don’t interact with living people, Kyd is innovating. Kyd refines Seneca for the English stage.

The question comes up of whether Shakespeare and Kyd collaborated. Darren shares that

All major attribution scholars say Shakespeare contributed to the 1602 edition of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, written by the late 1590s. Contemporary plays allude to or mock this version in their plays. (many think Shakespeare used Spanish Tragedy, exacting revenge, example)

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What's this but libelling against the senate,
And blazoning our injustice every where?

Titus Andronicus (IV.4)

This is supposed to be the church on Broadstreet where the Dutch Church Libel was posted. “In the City of London. The original building was established by Protestant refugees, who were granted asylum by Edward VI in 1550. It was the scene of the infamous ‘Dutch Church Libel” of 1593, in which playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were implicated. The church was destroyed in the Blitz in World War II, but rebuilt by Arthur Bailey in time for its 400th anniversary in 1950.” Photo by It's No Game on Flickr. Shared under Attribution License CC by 2.0. No alterations were made to this photograph and the use of this photo does not constitute endorsement of my site by the photographer. Original Source

The Dutch Church Libel

In 1593,  England was in a tense state of affairs. Along with fears of a coming Spanish Invasion, plague, and rough economic times, the city of London was rife with Anti-Protestant papers (often poems) written by suspected Catholic terrorists being circulated around the city. These treasonous poems were known as libels. In May of that year, Kyd was arrested on May 12, accused of being in possession of “divers lewd and mutinous libels.” Papers in Marlowe's home suggested he was an athiest (illegal at this time), and on May 18 a warrant was issued for the arrest of Christopher Marlowe and he would present himself to the Privy Council two days later.

The “Dutch Church Libel” as the poem is now known, “threatened the Dutch immigrants living in London with harm and violence if they did not leave” and was signed “per Tamberlaine” which is why Marlowe was immediately suspected, though Kyd was the the first to be arrested. (Source) According to work by Arthur Freeman, Kyd did not implicate Marlowe personally at his arrest, but nevertheless Marlowe was soon arrested in connection with the treasonous poem soon after Kyd. (Source) The two men were good friends, and close enough that Kyd seems to have been, as Darren explains, “swept up in these proceedings.” Ever how accidental, the event was deadly for both of them.

You can read the entire Dutch Libel poem here. For a long time, we only had pieces of the poem to go off of (and of course the knowledge that it was signed per Tamberlaine) was all that was available. The relatively recent discovery of the entire poem has lead scholars (like Freeman above), to conclude Kyd was not responsible for Marlowe's death. 

Darren explains,

Thomas Maloney has been cited as the author, and Kyd was swept up in these proceedings, and he was searched when Marlowe’s chamber was searched, a document was discovered “fragments of a disputation” “vile, heretical conciets” “denying the deity of Jesus Christ” making Kyd answerable to the charge of atheism. Kyd wrote to John Puckering, head of Privy Council, and the fragments were Marlowe’s. These fragments found in Kyd’s possession, were later revealed to be “innocuous tract from 1549 by John Proctor.” Richard Banes accused Marlowe of being a disreputable person but Banes was a double agent and informer, who loved to blackened people’s names, plenty of scope for conspiracy theories.

Just ten days after he surrendered himself to authorities, Marlowe was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer. Kyd's life was not ended immediately, but was considerably thrown into dissarray. As Darren explains, Kyd, too, would only live a few months after the arrests:

The last we hear from Kyd is the publication of Cornelia in 1594, dedication to the countess of sussex, he alludes to the tortures he had endured, and the promise of another Tragedy called Portia, but that never appeared. Kyd died later that year, at the age of 35. Buried 15th of August, destroyed in 1666, and his grave was lost.

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