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Thomas Kyd (1558 - 1594) was an English dramatist, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and one of the most important figures in the development of Elizabethan drama.
Kyd languished in obscurity until 1773 when Thomas Hawkins, an early editor of the play, discovered that he was named as its author by Thomas Heywood in his Apologie for Actors. A hundred years later, scholars in Germany and England began to shed light on his life and work, including the controversial finding that he may have been the original author of Hamlet.
Thomas Kyd was the son of Francis and Anna Kyd and was baptized in the church of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London on November 6, 1558. The baptismal register carries the entry: "Thomas, son of Francis Kidd, Citizen and Writer of the Courte Letter of London". Francis Kyd was a scrivener and in 1580 was warden of the Scriveners' Company.
In October 1565 Kyd was enrolled in the newly-founded Merchant Taylors' School, whose headmaster was Richard Mulcaster. Fellow students included Edmund Spenser and Thomas Lodge. Here, Kyd received a well-rounded education, thanks to Mulcaster's progressive ideas. Apart from Latin and Greek, the curriculum included music, drama, physical education, and "good manners". There is no evidence that Kyd went on to either of the universities. He may have followed for a time his father's profession; two letters written by him are extant and his handwriting suggests the training of a scrivener.
Evidence suggests that in the 1580s Kyd became an important playwright, but little is known about his activity. Francis Meres placed him among "our best for tragedy" and Heywood elsewhere called him "Famous Kyd". Ben Jonson mentions Kyd in the same breath as Christopher Marlowe and John Lyly in the Shakespeare First Folio.
The Spanish Tragedy was probably written in the mid to late 1580s. The earliest surviving edition was printed in 1592; the full title being, The Spanish Tragedie, Containing the lamentable end of Don Horatio, and Bel-imperia: with the pittifull death of olde Hieronimo. However, the play was usually known simply as "Hieronimo", after the protagonist. It was the most popular play of the "Age of Shakespeare" and set new standards in effective plot construction and character development. In 1602 a version of the play with "additions" was published. Philip Henslowe's diary records payment to Ben Jonson for these, though his revision of the play may have been more extensive. It is probable that the printer merely inserted fragmentary new passages into the old text.
Other works by Kyd are his translations of Torquato Tasso's Padre di Famiglia, published as The Householder's Philosophy (1588); and Robert Garnier's Cornelia (1594). Plays attributed in whole or in part to Kyd include Soliman and Perseda, King Leir and Arden of Feversham. A burlesque of The Spanish Tragedy called The First Part of Jeronimo is almost certainly not his. However, it's widely accepted that Kyd was the author of a Hamlet, the precursor of the Shakespearean play (see: Ur-Hamlet). Some poems by Kyd exist, but it seems that most of his work is lost or unidentified.
The success of Kyd's plays extended to Europe. Versions of The Spanish Tragedy and his Hamlet were popular in Germany and the Netherlands for generations. The influence of these plays on European drama was largely the reason for the interest in Kyd among German scholars in the nineteenth century.
About 1587 Kyd entered the service of a noble, possibly Ferdinando Stanley Lord Strange, who sponsored a company of actors. He may have worked as a secretary but it's not certain if he continued to write plays. At some time around 1591 Christopher Marlowe also joined this patron's service, we know this from the events of May, 1593.
On May 11, 1593 the Privy Council ordered the arrest of the authors of "divers lewd and mutinous libels" which had been posted around London. The next day, Kyd was among those arrested; he would later believe, quite plausibly, that he had been the victim of an informer. His lodgings were searched and instead of evidence of the "libels" there was found an Arianist tract. A note written by an investigator describes the document as "vile heretical conceits denying the deity of Jesus Christ our Saviour found amongst the papers of Thos Kydd, prisoner". Beneath, in different ink, is written, "which he affirmeth he had from Marlowe". It's believed that Kyd was tortured to obtain this information. Marlowe was questioned by the Privy Council and, while waiting for a decision on his case, was killed in an incident involving known government agents.
Kyd was released towards the end of May but was not accepted back into the service of his lord. Believing he was under suspicion of atheism himself, he wrote to the Lord Keeper, Sir John Puckering, protesting his innocence. Apart from referring to his "pains and undeserved tortures", he again denies ownership of the heretical document: "When I was first suspected for that libel that concerned the state, amongst those waste and idle papers (which I cared not for) and which unasked I did deliver up, were found some fragments of a disputation touching that opinion, affirmed by Marlowe to be his, and shuffled with some of mine unknown to me by some occasion of our writing in one chamber two years since."
Kyd's efforts to clear his name were apparently fruitless. The last we hear from the playwright is the publication of Cornelia early in 1594. In the dedication to the Countess of Sussex he describes the "bitter times and privy broken passions" he had endured. Kyd died later that year. In December, 1594, his mother legally renounced the administration of his estate which was debt-ridden.