Choose roommate wisely,
Or suffer obscurity,
Death in poverty.
Today’s subject on Playwright Week is poor Thomas Kyd, who nowadays is famous for ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ and not much else. For that, I blame Christopher Marlowe.
Kyd was born the son of a London scrivener in 1558. He became a well-known playwright sometime in the 80s, hanging out with Shakespeare, Jonson, and all of that set. His big hit was the aforementioned ‘Spanish Tragedy,’ the first known revenge play in English language. Much of his work, including a pre-Shakespeare version of ‘Hamlet’, hasn’t survived. Why? Aside from the fact that a LOT of Elizabethan writing has been lost, there’s another possible reason.
Unfortunately, Kyd had shit luck with roommates, having opted to live with the (ahem) controversial Kit Marlowe. After Marlowe moved out, Kyd was arrested on orders of the Privy Council on suspicion of authoring ‘divers lewd and mutinous libels’. In this instance, this meant that someone had been posting verse around town threatening foreign Protestant refugees.
Kyd was innocent. But some of Marlowe’s, how shall we say, controversial writings were found at his place. (“Jesus wasn’t God and he also liked dudes.”) Kyd was tortured to get Marlowe’s name. Marlowe ran into a knife in a tavern while waiting to meet the Privy Council himself, spawning centuries of conspiracy theories over what may have been just the result of a bar fight.
Then Kyd was released.
The poor Kyd died in 1594, the very next year, probably as a result of the punishment his body sustained during torture. And I do mean ‘poor’ – his patron refused to resume his support, and he was so deeply in debt that his mother refused to handle his estate.
Dashing vinegar on the wound, the authorship of ‘The Spanish Play’ remained anonymous until 1773. Thomas Hawkins, reading that and ‘Cornelia’ (Kyd’s other extant play), noticed the very similar writing style and said, “Hey, wait a minute.”
Now we’re five for five for playwrights in prison. Nice.