The Spanish Tragedy is considered the best revenge play of its time and to this day, critics are analyzing its various aspects like justice, revenge, divinity etc. The most dominant subject matter throughout the play was the idea of judiciary. In this essay, it will be examined how justice played out through the characters of The Spanish tragedy and its relation to the theme of justice and revenge. While reading several articles associated to the play, the above-mentioned topic commanded the most attention. Therefore, by keeping the drama and the actions of the characters in mind, the topic will be discussed and unraveled.
The play opens with the soul of Don Andrea awaiting justice in the Underworld but due to him being a lover and a warrior, the three judges can not decide where to place him and consequently send him to Hades and Proserpine for judgement. Hades is presented with an air of indifference towards the fate of Don Andrea and he goes along with Proserpine to let Revenge accompany the warrior to get justice. In the article, The Eschatological Crux in “The Spanish Tragedy”, the writer mentions “In contrast, the judgement scene Don Andrea’s ghost describes must make us wonder if the gods are genuinely concerned about their roles as dispensers of “divine justice”. (Aggeler, page 2).
On the other hand, the King of Spain expresses his faith in divine justice right after the previous scene after finding out about their victory over the Portingales.
“Then bless’d be heavens and guider of the heavens
From whose fair influence such justice flows”
The King vows to execute justice whenever the need arises yet when it does arise, much later in the play, the King turns a blind eye to the pleas of justice and it leads to more catastrophe. The King’s attitude in this scene resembles to the gods’ indifference towards the suffering people.
Hieronimo, the main avenger in the play, is presented as a figure of justice at the start but after discovering the body of his son, Horatio, although he acknowledges his belief in divine justice, he cries out for vengeance in any form. He is half-crazed with grief and the thought that the murder might go unpunished. He yearns for some form of personal retribution:
“To know the author were some ease of grief,
For in revenge my heart would find relief.”
He is contradictory in his feelings because on one hand, he believes the gods will grant him justice but thoughts filled with vengeance are also taking over him. However, after receiving the letters of Bel-imperia and Peringano, Hieronimo is determined to achieve justice through the King who is “appointed to rule for God.” In the court, Hieronimo’s cry is loud as he says, “Justice, O justice to Hieronimo”
This makes it evident that Hieronimo does not seek revenge but justice at the hands of the ruler. But it turns out that the King fails to grant him that and tells him that he is interrupting an affair of business. This incident can be seen as the turning point when Hieronimo realizes that there is no justice to be granted by the King and that he will have to take matters in his own hand by walking the path of revenge. Justice after all, has to come forward one way or the other. He announces,
“Stand from about me!
I’ll make a pickaxe of my poniard,
And here surrender up my marshal ship:
For I’ll go marshal up the fiends in hell,
To be avenged on you all for this.”
Thus, in deserting his post, he is deserting what he stands for- justice through lawful means. He does not assume this position lightly though and according to the article “Divine Justice and Private Revenge in “The Spanish Tragedy”, “only by seeing himself as the instrument of divine justice can he bring himself to do the deed.”
Hieronimo only wanted justice but it was the heavenly indifference and the King’s disregard that led him to seeking revenge. He does not accept the fact that the heavens are indifferent to his suffering.
When he asks Balthazar and Lorenzo to act in his play and they agree, Hieronimo says
Now I shall see the fall of Babylon
Wrought by the heavens in this confusion.”
The reference to Babylon is proof that he sees himself as the one chosen to carry out divine justice which is a destructive work. The things that Hieronimo does in the play-within the play are cruel and excessive, especially Castile’s murder who had no relation to Horatio’s death. It arouses pity and fear in the audience to witness a just and patient man like Hieronimo carrying out such evil acts because he had no other choice.
The play concludes with Andrea expressing his happiness and rewarding his friends. At the beginning of the play, he was the one being judged and by the ending, he is the one granting justice to the characters. It seems as if the gods have given over the responsibility of their judgement over to Don Andrea who gives rewards and doom according to his personal affections. G.K Hunter is rightful in saying that the last judgement scene “places everyone where he morally belongs.”
Although in his article The Ironies of Justice in “The Spanish Tragedy”, he argues that everything that takes place is Andrea’s allegorical dream of perfect justice and that the characters do not have free will but are mere puppets of a predetermined justice. However, I do not support this view because if all of this was already decided then was it really justice? Did Balthazar and Lorenzo deserve to get eternal punishment while Hieronimo enjoyed eternal bliss? It was their choices that led to their respective ends.
Concludingly, this play shows how a good man, Hieronimo is forced to damn himself to achieve divine justice. He was someone who imparted justice yet had no choice but to take the path of revenge due to the negligence of the gods and the King to grant him justice. They represent a weak and irresponsible judiciary whose actions led to the destruction of various lives.
- The Eschatological Crux in “The Spanish Tragedy” by Geoffrey Aggeler
- Divine Justice and Private Revenge in the Spanish Tragedy by Ernst de Chickera
- Ironies of Justice in The Spanish Tragedy by G.K Hunter
- Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”: Inverted Vengeance by David P.Wil