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 Kyd Stuff 

May 12, 2005 
In college I was once assigned to read a play called The Spanish Tragedy, one of the big hits of the Elizabethan theater. I was taught that it was written by Today's column is "Kyd Stuff" on the Shakespeare 
authorship question -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them.Thomas Kyd, who was also believed to have written an early version of Hamlet — largely because The Spanish Tragedy, like the Hamlet we know as Shakespeare’s, features murder, revenge, a ghost, a suicide, and a play-within-the-play.

Until recently, I believed all this. But as usual, the textbook account of history turns out, under inspection, to be a glossy oversimplification.

Almost nothing is actually known of Kyd. He is said to have been born in 1558 and to have died in 1594. He was apparently tortured to tell the authorities what he knew about the murky playwright Christopher Marlowe, whom he accused of blasphemy and who apparently died in a brawl in 1593 (though details of his death remain disputed).

All we really know about The Spanish Tragedy is that it went through more than ten printings (even the exact number is unclear) from around 1590 to 1633. None of these identified its author; only a 1612 reference to “Mr. Kid” credits him with the play.

As for the idea that Kyd also wrote an early play about Hamlet, there is no evidence for this whatsoever — though many scholars swear he did. But a passing joke by Thomas Nashe about Hamlet’s name in 1589 has convinced the scholars that there must have been an earlier play about the Prince of Denmark by then — and that it had been written by someone other than Shakespeare, since the scholars agree that he couldn’t have written t before about 1600.

Unfortunately for the scholars, no trace of this supposed play has ever been found. If Kyd had written such a play, as well as the hugely popular Spanish Tragedy, why wasn’t it printed even once?

In other words, the whole idea of an “earlier” Hamlet play depends on the dubious assumption that Nashe couldn’t have been referring to Shakespeare’s version in 1589. This in turn assumes that Shakespeare was too young to have written his masterpiece so early. Which further assumes that “Shakespeare” was the Stratford man, William Shakspere, born in 1564 and only 25 at the time of Nashe’s joke about Hamlet and his “tragical speeches.”

[Breaker quote for Kyd Stuff on the Shakespeare authorship question and Thomas Kyd: The Play That Never Was]But Nashe was almost surely referring to the Shakespeare play. In 1592 he wrote a diatribe against drunkenness that strongly resembles Hamlet’s speech on the subject in Act I, Scene IV. Like Hamlet, Nashe singles out the Danes as notoriously “swinish” sots and uses various other words in the same speech, such as heavy-headed, manners, nature, and vice.

Others referred to a Hamlet again in 1594 and 1596. Though the scholars insist these meant that hypothetical “early” play, it appears much more likely that they meant the only version whose existence is undoubted: Shakespeare’s, which by 1603 had been performed in London, at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and elsewhere. In 1607 it was even staged aboard an English ship off the coast of Sierra Leone! In 1626 a troupe of English actors also took it to Dresden.

Even Shakespeare’s authentic version presents nightmares for editors, because three different versions of it have actually survived: a short, corrupt edition in 1603, a much longer and better edition in 1604, and a 1623 version that cut about 220 lines from the 1604 edition but added 80 new ones and changed many others.

Sorting all this out is a labor of Hercules, since we can’t know quite what Shakespeare intended. So modern textbook editions of Hamlet are far from being as definitive as they seem. Editors still come to blows over some of the most famous lines in Hamlet’s “tragical speeches.” Is his flesh “solid,” “sallied,” or “sullied”?

But in order to maintain the notion that Shakspere of Stratford was “Shakespeare,” the scholars have to keep insisting that Thomas Kyd or someone else had written that nonexistent early version of Hamlet. If this were the case, however, a text of that play, or at least some unmistakable mention of it, even a quotation from it, would have turned up by now. The only “evidence” that it ever existed is the circular logic of the scholars who say it “must have” existed.

Of course it all depends on who Shakespeare was and how old he was. If the scholars have gotten these basic facts wrong, it’s no wonder that they’ve been confused about so many other things.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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