Agency and Ethics in The Spanish Tragedy

Timothy Rosendale


The proper theological significance of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy has often been misconstrued, and the play oversimplifyingly read as a referendum on revenge or Catholicism. In this essay I argue that the play (and revenge tragedy more broadly) can be better understood as a meditation on the longstanding theological and philosphical problem of agency--the question of the capacity of humans to will and act--and the ethics consequent to it. Despite Kyd's apparent avoidance of explicitly Christian conflicts, The Spanish Tragedy is deeply and broadly about the conditions, limitations, and responsibilities of human action. My analysis of the play's discourses of action suggests that they are very subtle, and that Hieronimo, in spite of Kyd's religious evasiveness, displays some commitments that criticism has often overlooked or misunderstood. His insistent pursuit of revenge exists in complex tension with a frame that both encourages and contains it in the respectively allegorical and executive functions of Revenge. In the end, I contend, the play affirms both the possibility of human action, and the necessity of transcendent limitations upon it; these dynamics of divine and human agencies generate multiple levels of ethical significance for the latter which resist reductive reading.


Kyd; Spanish Tragedy; theology; agency; revenge; ethics; action

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