The Spanish Tragedy is very often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s sources for Hamlet. In fact, both are revenge tragedies and there are some very solid and outstanding parallelisms between the two plays. Some aspects of this connection are studied in this essay. As for the common characteristics, we can list for example: jealousy, the protagonist’s contemplating suicide, additional scenes in which lovers are spied on by family members, characters who go insane, the ghost of a murdered man who desires revenge, the play within the play and we could continue.
Both tragedies begin with the frame story of a death and have a similar structure with extraordinarily violent murder scenes. They are similar with respect to the amount of people dying on stage. So, both of them seem to follow the conventions of revenge in the Elizabethan theatre. However, they are remarkably different on a secondary level – where what is important is not the “what” but the “how” – despite the common framework. The Spanish Tragedy is categorized among the so-called ‘primitive’ revenge plays.
While this drama can be depicted more or less in the context of the revenge and the action, Hamlet is far more than a pure strategy of revenge. This means that Shakespeare penetrates in far more dimensions than Kyd does, that is where Hamlet’s complexity comes from. Although Hieronimo’s sense of the difference between right action and wrong action is often obscured, it never becomes totally uncertain. The supernatural chorus provides constant support and external evidence for him about what he has to do.
In contrast, Hamlet does not have any kind of external norms or standards, he is deprived of both supernatural and moral certainty, and so he will hesitate and wait more, he will be tortured by this internal battle which is symbolised by his madness – even if it is only pretended. Madness is, in fact, a basic point in any revenge tragedy. In the one, it is a result of the passionate resentment towards the murder, and in Hamlet, it is pretended in order to ease action. The Spanish Tragedy is straightforward; Hamlet’s soul is no more predictable.
It illustrates for us that Shakespeare opened a new dimension of psychology, a more complex one, where the characters – and especially Hamlet – are not flat as in the ‘primitive’ revenge tragedies, but poly-dimensional, flexible figures. Hamlet’s nature is more difficult to define than Hieronomo’s. As a result of this complexity, one plot is never enough in Hamlet to see his relationships towards the others. While the Spanish Tragedy’s protagonist is directed on his way, Hamlet takes control of the destiny and makes it his own play.
The one fulfils, the other creates. Although revenge was banned both by the teaching of the Church and by the political authority, for Elizabethan people, it was very important to see it at least on stage. They desired justice. Another interesting difference follows from it. While the motive of Hamlet is totally acceptable, Hieronimo is in fact preparing the revenge of a ‘legal’ murder, in other words, this death was a fair one even in from the point of view of the audience of that time, as it took place during a battle.
This fact results in a certain ambiguity in The Spanish Tragedy, which is not at all present in Hamlet. That is what moves the reader much more in Hamlet, that is what makes the reader feel Hamlet’s feelings, as they are much more human. Complex human feelings versus one-dimensional conducted hero. Both tragedies have one or two female protagonists. In fact, the role of love is very important although it has nothing to do with the matter of the revenge. It makes the situation even more complex. In the Spanish tragedy, Bel-Imperia is a central person, a positive heroine.
Several lines depart from her, and she is one of the reasons why the ghost of Andrea is suffering. The parallel role may be assigned to Ophelia in Hamlet, but she is not a central person and her role is a matter of discussion. The image of a lover in the beginning changes to that of a spy, a traitor. Hamlet is not influenced by her and sends her away without hesitation. The longing for revenge was much dominate than love. If we say that his madness was pretended, maybe we should hesitate a little here. If an idea is able to suppress another one like love, that must be a kind of madness.
But in Hamlet, there is another female figure, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. If jealousy does not play a role in connection with love, it does in connection with the mother. So, we may say that the central female image of the Spanish Tragedy is present in Hamlet as well, but this time divided into two. (And let alone Freud with his Oedipus complex. ) Here, love and jealousy do not refer to the same person. What is common, however, is that in both plays, another man took the ghost’s wife or lover after his death.
So, on the whole, we can conclude that The Spanish Tragedy is not considered to be one of the most important sources by accident, there are many convincing references which point out their connection. The motivations of the similarities are certainly the Elizabethan revenge-play conventions, which are respected in both cases. However, Hamlet is more profound in some respects, which derives from its author’s being a genius. That is what makes the distinction between the two plays in terms of ‘primitive’ – however not with the meaning of simple or underdeveloped – and complex revenge plays.