Seeing and Interpreting the Ghosts in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

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Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written sometime in the late 1580s, is the foundation stone of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Drawing heavily on the Senecan drama that enjoyed considerable popularity at that time (Bowers 41), Kyd’s play establishes the revenge tragedy tradition and creates the patterns that form its core. The origin of the Ghost of Don Andrea lies in Senecan tragedy where “[g]hosts are the standard-equipment starters” (Watson 1990: 200).

Despite the fact that Bowers considers the presence of the Ghost in The Spanish Tragedy superfluous (68), the Ghost of Don Andrea is not only “effective for expounding the plot and for giving the desired atmosphere of tragedy” (Spencer 197); he is also an inseparable part of the plot. If he were removed, the meaning, and the whole structure of the play would fall apart. What is even more certain, without the Ghost the audience’s insight into the play, their attitude to it and understanding of it would be considerably different.

The role of Don Andrea’s Ghost as one of the characters in The Spanish Tragedy should be clarified before focusing on his identity. If this Ghost comes from the Senecan stock, his function should be merely “that of prologue … a serviceable piece of dramatic machinery, [which] enabled the playwright to place his audience in possession of the preliminary data – the most difficult of all a dramatist’s tasks” (Wilson 55-56). Such a ghost seems to be nothing more than a convenient means for a playwright, a nice picture used to decorate and liven up an otherwise vapid backdrop. As Dover Wilson fittingly says, the Senecan ghost is “a classical puppet… popping up from Tartarus at appropriate moments” (55). The Ghost of Don Andrea does not fit such a description, and his role diverges from that assigned to prologue ghosts by Seneca. In the very first scene Don Andrea gives an impressive and long speech presenting himself, and describing his way to Hades: “Through dreadful shades of ever-glooming night, / I saw more sights than thousands tongues can tell” (1.1.56-57). It is true that he serves as a prologue, but the picture he draws is one-sided. He is not aware of the real state of affairs. Don Andrea, accompanied by Revenge, appears at the end of every act in the play commenting on what has happened, again, from his point of view. A more appropriate prologue figure should be Revenge who obviously knows not only what has already happened but also what is yet to come. The two characters seem to complement each other, framing the whole play both from below and above. Don Andrea, as an unconscious spectator, is closely associated with the audience watching carefully what is happening on the stage. They both respond emotionally to the injustice they observe. Revenge, on the other hand, is omniscient, and serves as a representation of the supernatural, watching the world from above. It sees people in the same way as gods from Olympus, with the playwright in Zeus stand, as puppets whose destinies depend solely on its will. Although the two figures supposedly “serve for chorus in this tragedy” (1.1.91), the actual information usually provided by such figures is missing. Don Andrea talks but knows nothing: “I will sit to see the rest” (3.15). Revenge knows but does not tell, and only commands patience, because: “The end is crown of every work well done; / The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe” (2.6.) What it leaves the audience with is a sense of lack.

With the role having been outlined, the question arises of the Ghost’s effect on the individual characters in the play. On the face of it, it seems to have no effect at all since there is no contact with any of the characters. Looked at from a different angle, however, Don Andrea is actually the driving power behind all the events. This power comes partly from his connection to Revenge. Don Andrea’s revenge is the reason for Revenge being present, and Revenge is why Don Andrea’s Ghost is here. It is not difficult to imagine only one character embodying the essence of those two, where the Ghost represents “the desire for vengeance, [and] the figure of Revenge seems to symbolize the destined course of events set in motion by that desire” (Hallet and Hallet 22).

A greater part of Don Andrea’s influence comes from memory. “Plato’s most influential metaphor for memory was that of wax in which an impression is left. The metaphor expresses beautifully the way in which mind can keep the image of something that is no longer present” (Greenblatt 214). When he died, Don Andrea left a strong impression behind, an intermixture of passion, memory, and revenge, where one leads to another as in a chemical reaction, all activated by a memory of passion. A closer look at some issues in the play should illuminate the influence of Don Andrea, who is only seemingly a passive character.

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