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Monday, May 20, 2013

Shakespeare & Thomas Kyd's Arrest

This is the first of three articles written about the last days of Christopher Marlowe:

2. Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe's Last Words

3. Christopher Marlowe's Death

Christopher Marlowe

On 11 May 1593, Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council issued an arrest warrant for the authors of “lewd and mutinous libels” which had been posted around London.

Queen Elizabeth with William Cecil, Lord Burleigh and Francis Walsingham

William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, as the heads of the Privy Council and the Queen's spy and intelligence network, took any threat to the state and the Queen very seriously.

Many people were arrested.

The playwright Thomas Kyd was swept up in this dragnet the very next day, perhaps a victim of an informer -- a neighbor perhaps.

His flat was searched. The authorities didn’t find any of the libels. They did find a Arianist tract, which preached that Jesus, the Son of God was subordinate to God the Father. The investigators considered the tract to be heresy.

Kyd was tortured by the authorities. How and to what degree? We don't know, but we do know that Kyd suffered terrible bodily harm. I think the Scavenger's Daughter is a likely choice.

The Scavenger's Daughter, invented in the reign of Elizabeth's father Henry VIII

At some point, Kyd told them that he got the tract from his flat-mate and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe.

A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest.

What would Shakespeare have thought at this moment in history?

The entire theatre community in London, from the play-poets to the actors to the young men studying law at the Inns of Court who frequented The Theatre and The Curtain, must have been terrified.

It was bad enough that the plague had closed the theatres almost continually from June of the last year.

This was worse. Kyd and Marlowe were two of the most famous men who walked the streets of London, and who had met just about everyone there was to know.

What would they say? What did they know? Who else might they implicate? 

If the Queen’s Privy Council wanted to scare people away from the theatres, and send a chill down the spine of the theatre community, they couldn’t have chosen a better way to do it.

Thomas Kyd must have known Shakespeare. They may never have been close, and may never have written together, but it is doubtful that they never met at some point or another.

Shakespeare had great early success with his Henry VI plays (1589-90) and Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590-1). It’s impossible to think that Shakespeare was off anyone’s radar in those days, and Kyd and Marlowe would have been curious to see what all the fuss was about with this upstart Shakespeare.

It is also impossible to think that Shakespeare had not seen The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine.

Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy for the stage somewhere between 1582 and 1592. It was very influential, and it inspired just about every future playwright.

It was important because it created a new genre in English theatre, the revenge play or revenge tragedy.

This play includes a ghost who returns from the dead to take his revenge, a character named Horatio, a character who is mad with grief, another character named Hieronimo, who is driven insane, and who devises a play within a play that concludes with a lot of dead people on stage.

This clearly inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, with the ghost of Hamlet’s father who has come to take his revenge, has a character named Horatio, and whose hero named Hamlet is mad with grief and is driven insane in his pursuit to avenge his father, and who stages a play within a play, and by the conclusion there are a lot of dead bodies on stage.

In fact, Kyd may have written a play which has become known as the ur-Hamlet play. It was a play which is believed to have been written and performed around 1589 and told the story that resembles the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, which is believed to have been written around 1599-1601.

I happen to think that Kyd did not write the ur-Hamlet play. I think that Shakespeare himself wrote an early and unsuccessful version of the Hamlet story in around 1589, as a gift of sorts for his son Hamnet, whose name is interchangeable with the name Hamlet. His final version of the play was written in 1601, to celebrate the memory of the Earl of Essex.

In any event, when Shakespeare arrived in London around 1587, the two biggest names in theatre were Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe.

Christopher Marlowe’s brilliant and brutal play Tamburlaine the Great was all the rage in 1587, just when Shakespeare was getting settled in London, to start his career.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine
Theatre For A New Audience, 2013

By the time that Kyd and Marlowe were in jail, Shakespeare was quite a successful play-poet, but nowhere as famous as them. Also, Shakespeare’s success was by no means secure, he had only just begun his career.

For all he knew, the arrest of Kyd and Marlowe might close the theatres forever, and Shakespeare’s entire career might come to an end in May 1593.

We do not properly understand or appreciate how difficult Shakespeare’s life was. When we do take a moment to look at his life, he is a constant reminder that no matter how hard life may be, it is possible to pull through.

With the plague, it was a miracle he was born, a miracle that he survived to be an adult, and a miracle that he lived to be over 50. 

We don’t often stop and appreciate how politically charged and dangerous London was at the time. 

It was a time where neighbors informed on each other, when the Queen’s Privy Council ran a spy network on their own people which could arrest you, search your flat, and torture you for information.

This was a dark time in Shakespeare’s life, and I wonder if he considered heading back to Stratford.

But he may have feared doing so. If he ran, would that not have been an indication that he had something to hide. The authorities could always snatch him in Stratford.

Really, he had no choice. He may have wanted to run away, but he had to stay.

If we stop for a moment and look at this day in Shakespeare’s life -- we might see a man, stuck in his flat, who just wants to write and perform plays, but has no theatre to perform in and no audience to perform for.

It was this same month that Shakespeare published his erotic poem Venus and Adonis -- which was the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Elizabethan period.

He had to make money somehow, and if he couldn’t be a play-poet then he would be a published poet.

Shakespeare was gifted, he was smart, he worked hard, and he was resilient throughout his life.

But in the days while Kyd and Marlowe were locked up, Shakespeare must have had to dig very deep to find strength and hope.

The fact that he did, and the fact that he not only survived but triumphed is a miracle in itself.


David B. Schajer

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