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In his latest book, Shakespeare’s Tutor, Darren Freebury Jones explores the unsung history of Thomas Kyd as a master playwright who belongs in the canon of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Lyly as one of the greatest playwrights of the Elizabethan Era. Darren writes that along with Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, specifically, paved the way for Shakspeare to be a successful playwright. While it makes sense for a newcomer on the scene, as Shakespeare was in the 1580s, to reach for adaptations of the work of established playwrights to launch his career, Darren points out that William Shakespeare continued to use and be influenced by the work of Thomas Kyd not only after Kyd’s death in 1594, but even after Shakespeare was independently established as a successful playwright in London. To share with us the often overlooked history of Thomas Kyd, and his influence on Shakespeare, 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, including the project management of Self-led Macbeth; as well as lecturing at the Shakespeare Centre. His 2016 doctoral thesis examined Thomas Kyd’s influence on Shakespeare’s early work and he is the Associate Editor 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 and is General Editor for The Collected Plays of Robert Greene (Edinburgh University Press). His recent and forthcoming essays on the plays of authors such as Shakespeare, Kyd, Lyly, Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Nashe, Marston, Dekker, Fletcher, Behn, and others can be found in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals as well as in books by Routledge, Boydell and Brewer, and Oxford University Press. He is the author of the monographs: Reading Robert Greene: Recovering Shakespeare’s Rival (Routledge) and Shakespeare’s Tutor: The Influence of Thomas Kyd (Manchester University Press). His findings on the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries have also been discussed in national newspapers such as The TimesThe GuardianThe TelegraphThe Observer, and The Independent. He has been invited to act as editorial and advisory board member for journals such as American Notes and QueriesJournal of Early Modern Studies, and Early Modern Digital Review and is a member of the education committee for British Shakespeare Association. His interests include early modern attribution and textual studies, digital approaches to examining drama, and intertextuality, as well as performance studies, having acted in several productions of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

I’ll be asking Darren Freebury Jones about:

  • Did Thomas Kyd write the story of Hamlet before Shakespeare?  
  • Darren writes that in Shakespeare’s eulogy, Ben Jonson lists “sporting Kyd” as a peer of Shakespeare’s. Darren, what was Shakespeare’s relationship with Kyd in real life? Did they ever write plays together? 
  • Darren writes that several of Kyd’s works were published anonymously in the 16-17th century, while also pointing out that this kind of anonymity was not unusual. Darren, why were Kyd’s works not published under his name until centuries after his death and what makes this practice of anonymous publishing normal for his lifetime? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Darren Freebury Jones recommends:

Bonus Book Ideas That Might Be Useful

Title page of Kyd’s 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). | Public Domain | Source

Nashe insults Thomas Kyd

“Nashe claims Kyd bleeds Seneca line by line.” Darren explains that Thomas Kyd was known for “refining Seneca for the commercial stage.” In a similar fashion to Robert Greene attacking William Shakespeare in Groatsworth of Wit, “[Thomas] Nashe takes a couple of jabs at the Spanish Tragedy” in his publication from 1589.

Polemical woodcut deriding Nashe as jailbird. From Richard Lichfield’s The Trimming of Thomas Nashe, Gentleman (1597) | Public Domain| Source

Shakespeare acted in Kyd’s plays

Along with collaborating to write plays together, Darren suggests that one place Shakespeare could have found his initial influences into plays as a career was by acting in Thomas Kyd’s plays. Darren argues that Edward III was written together with Kyd, and printed in 1596 with no authorial attribution. “That play is universally acknowledged as an early Shakespeare collab[oration]. Shakespeare wrote the Countess scene. Also the scene when Edward is taunted by French.”

1590 Title page of a 400-year-old play by English playwright Christopher Marlowe | Original created over 400 years ago. Digital image of a bad copy of the frontispiece of a play in England in 1590. Original typographer unknown. Printer was Richard Jones of London, England. | Source | Found here | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Plays published before the 1600 didn’t attribute the author

 It was not common to include the author on the title page of plays prior to 1600. As you can see in the example above of Tamburlaine, wrtten by Christopher Marlowe, that 1590 printing only attributes the name of the printer, not the author of the work itself.

“Every 16-17th century edition was anonymously published. [To publish without authorial attribution” was not unusual. Tamburlaine wasn’t published under Marlowe until the 1800s. Elizabethans were more concerned with advertising the play itself than their authorship…Out of 20 plays printed prior to 1593, 17 don’t mention the author’s name. Over the next 5 years, only 40% of play title pages provide an author. Even Shakespeare’s name don’t appear on title pages until 1590s, and that after Kyd had died, so it wasn’t becoming popular to advertise the author of a play before then. “

Compare the title page of Tamburlaine, shown above, with this title page of Shakespeare’s King Lear printed in 1608 where Shakespeare’s name is prominently at the top of the page.

1608 Title page of the first edition of en:King Lear by William Shakespeare. The handwritten words are the signatures of the book’s various owners. | HIS True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters. (1608) By William Shakespeare. Originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia (under the same name) by Barney Jenkins. | Public Domain | Source

Books Could Only Be Printed by the Stationer’s Company

When it comes to copyright law in Elizabethan England, or Jacobean England, there was not exactly a free-for-all even though authorship itself was not prized the way it is today. Instead, there was a process of official publication in England where books were only allowed to be published by the Stationer’s Company. This provided the opportunity and means for the government to control what people were reading. Nothing that was not approved as fit for public consumption was allowed to be printed.

“No book could be published outside of the Stationer’s Company, and had to be done by a book seller, and this was a kind of copyright, and maintaining a censorship of the press but little with author rights. Arden of Faverhsam was in the Stationer’s register, published by Edward Wright, and Solomon of Cressida…Wright was fined for [publishing] the Spanish Tragedy. What made these dealings illegal, was that he didn’t have the rights to publish what he did. The Stationer’s Company seized his illegal copies, recorded as Arden of Kent, and ordered him to pay a fine of some shillings.” 

We are tempted to think that an “illegal” copy of Kyd’s work (or any other illegal copy of plays from the 16th-17th century) might mean that government disapproved of those works, similar to how we think about banned books today. However, it was often more likely an issue of control and permission, as we see with The Spanish Tragedy, where the government didn’t want anyone publishing anything (regardless of content) without proper permission.


The Stationers’ Company Mark.png; originally from Printers’ Marks – A Chapter in the History of Typography by W. Roberts at gutenberg.org | Public Domain, copyright expired. Source

Side Note: Lest you think all works published after 1600 always included an author’s name, that was not always the case, as you can see with this title page of King Leir from 1605, which does not attribute any author. Today, we consider this to be a copy of a title page of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Title page of the 1605 text of The True Chronicle History of King Leir, an anonymous play which may have been a source for Shakespeare’s King Lear’.’ | Public Domain | Source
Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung Berlin | Attribution: I, Calidius | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source