Too fond a friend

In May 1593 the famous playwright Thomas Kyd was arrested in London by officials of the Privy Council, the executive government body of Queen Elizabeth. Kyd was the author of The Spanish Tragedy, a revenge play of European wide fame and influence and he had also written versions of King Lear and of Hamlet, both later reworked by Shakespeare. He was put to the torture to obtain wanted information.

With an eye, lung or kidney pieced Kyd would not last long. Even worse, torture would destroy his self confidence and leave him ever fearful

Torture would result in loss of the use of his legs (through the Iron Boot which crushed the shin bones; the Rack which dislocated or severed limbs); or of sight (the Iron Maiden which pierced the eyes as well as other organs with spikes). Kyd would be left with no career but that of a beggar, or to be carried off swiftly through infection. The experience was to terrorise him the rest of his short life.

The Privy Council was investigating treasonous graffiti implicating a friend of Kyd’s, an even more famous playwright, Christopher Marlowe (or Christofer Marley). Their suspicions of Kyd, and of Marlowe, were unfounded, but the Council thought it a matter of urgency to get information. The government was always at the risk of overthrow by Catholic enemies such as the Kingdom of Spain, or the Papacy itself, who had declared Elizabeth an unlawful sovereign and encouraged English Catholics to work for her overthrow in 1570.

The charges were trumped up: the graffiti merely quoted lines from a play by Marlowe, Tamburlane the Great. A search of Kyd’s rooms (once shared with Marlowe) found only a heretical pamphlet on the nature of Christ published several years before. Its opinions, the Council’s officers suggested, were those of Marlowe and Kyd.

The charges were so ridiculous that Kyd must have done a foolish thing. He denied the attempt to misrepresent himself or Marlowe as heretics or traitors. And so he was tortured. Fifteen months later he was dead, aged 35.

A supposed portrait of Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), a scrivener’ son who rose to fame and fortune, then fell

Was the fact that Kyd did not at first inform, but was questioned, tortured and only then informed against Marlowe, an indication of the love and admiration he felt for Marlowe? He could have disliked the man and readily blackened his name. But he resisted. Was it his sense of justice that held out till the pain forced the admission the Privy Council wanted? Had Kyd lost eyesight or limbs from the torture he would have been in no position to write a letter, and it must have been written for him. Perhaps the Privy Councillors’ men bought it with them.

Also in May 1593 Marlowe was asked to report to the Council, put under restraint by their agents and murdered, probably in resisting this treatment. The matter has been examined by Charles Nicholl in The Reckoning (Vintage London 1992, rev edn 2002). Nicholl revealed the underworld of the Elizabethan secret service to be as unsavoury as the Cold War espionage of John Le Carré.

The problem was cleared up. Both men were dead. There were not one but two great reckonings in a little room. The political situation remained unchanged. The literary one suffered a grievous loss.

Frontispiece of an early edition of The Spanish Tragedy. Its violence would later enter Kyd’s own life


Nothing much survives of Kyd’s life or of his work. He was born in London in 1558 and baptised November, son of a scrivener, a writer of documents for the Inns of Court who could afford to give him a good education but not to send him to university. He knew Spencer and Lodge at school and that may later have influenced his choice of an uncertain literary career.

Kyd may have been an actor/writer in Lord Strange’s Men 1587 to his disgrace in 1593, aged 29-35. In 1593 the company was affected by an outbreak of plague in London, and was dissolved the following year on the death of Lord Strange. This was one of the early acting companies, where Kyd could have meet William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Kyd may have written hundreds of plays or collaborated with other dramatists on them. Experts believe up to 80% of Elizabethan plays have been lost (they were that important). Many surviving ones are unsigned. Kid’s authorship of The Spanish Tragedy was discovered only long after his death, in 1773. His authorship of that play in 1585 made him one of the most important dramatists in English literature. It was a seminal work, the first truely dramatic work written for the stage in English.

A modern version of The Spanish Tragedy made by ShaLT: Shakespearian London Theatres

In 1593 in what could have been a brave but foolhardy act of loyalty to Marlowe, Kyd resisted the officials sent to question him, was tortured, and died perhaps of the results (or of the plague, poverty or remorse) little more than a year latter, broken more in spirit even than body. There’s a story there, one we’ll never know. A great drama revealed not overtly but by the mere order of events.


Perhaps more could be found out, I thought, by looking at what is known of Marlowe’s life.

Marlowe has had a peculiar afterlife. On Amazon, Marlowe features in the usual critical editions of his plays, and academic studies of his ideas. Of his life and times though there is nothing much, at the moment:

  • supernatural thrillers featuring Marlowe by Robert NJ Thomas
  • spy stories by Phillip DePoy featuring Marlowe
  • mystery stories by MJ Trow featuring Marlowe
  • novels by Ros Barber and by Melissa Olsen that reveal Marlowe’s death was faked and that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays
  • a study by John Barber, another by Rodney Boit, showing Marlowe was the author of Shakespeare’s plays
  • an attempt by Richard Unwin to show Marlowe’s plays were written by Shakespeare
  • a study by David Riggs that makes Marlowe look like Galileo resisting the forces of reaction
  • the study on the Elizabethan secret service by Charles Nicholl already mentioned.

Nicholl’s work has clearly been influential. And look how we invent history. Perhaps it should be mentioned that Marlowe was not an Elizabethan James Bond.

The portrait of an unknown man often claimed to be Marlowe (1564-1593) once looked like this before it was restored, and shows much more character

‘Spying’ for Elizabethans was informing. The spy joined a suspect group, tried to ascertain their treacherous plans (if any) then told the government what he had discovered. Sometimes the spy encouraged the seditious group to go further so the government could implicate as many as possible. Sometimes they reported falsely just to earn their fee. Some spies were amoral agents of assassination, others anti-Catholic bigots. This last might be where Marlowe fitted, with his bias against religious superstition.

But Marlowe’s career as a spy was necessarily brief. While studying for his MA at Cambridge University 1584-87 (aged 21-23), where students’ life was regulated around the clock, from 4.00 am to near midnight, and all were expected to converse in Ancient Greek, Latin or Hebrew, Marlowe also made two lengthy translations from Latin, must have written many poems which have not survived (to explain his expertise), wrote his first play, Dido Queen of Carthage, and is supposed to have joined Lord Strange’s group of players, where he would have met Thomas Kyd (and perhaps Shakespeare). And gone on a spying mission for the Privy Council.

A woodcut from an early edition of Dr Faustus

During these years occurred the production, and fame, of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. In 1587 Marlowe wrote and produced Tamburlane, the next year a sequel, both immensely popular. He was only 24. Between 1589-1591 came Massacre at Paris and Dr Faustus, two more highly popular plays. While perhaps writing the play about Faustus Marlowe shared a room with Kyd, and the heretical tract he left behind might have been some research on the possible beliefs of Faustus (if it really belonged to him).

Then came the apogee of his career, tragically aborted by his death. In 1592 he wrote and produced the Jew of Malta, in 1593 Edward II, his two greatest plays and indeed among the greatest of English dramas. And he began the narrative poem Hero and Leander, unfinished as it is one of the greatest of lyric poems in English.

Woodcuts from a modern edition of The Jew of Malta illustrated by Eric Ravilious


Marlowe may have fallen between the chairs of spy and traitor as far as the authorities who ordered his death were concerned. But there is no doubt what his peers thought of him.

“Unhappy in thy end, Marley, the Muses’ darling”

(George Peele, The Honour of the Garter).

“When a man’s verses cannot be understood nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It).

“…the impression of the man, that hath been dear unto us, living an afterlife in our memory…” (Edward Blount, Preface to Hero and Leander).

“(Marlowe) the best of poets in that age” (Thomas Heywood, Preface to The Jew of Malta).

These are the conventional regrets, saving Shakespeare’s, which contains the bitterness of understanding, and even empathy.

Not many (and not many today) can see the dramatic poet doesn’t write autobiography, but lets his characters express their views (if he is able to).

Thomas Kyd had this to say about Marlowe, frantically urging his orthodoxy and putting the blame on his friend Marlowe for any unorthodox opinions. The agony of his torture was still fresh in his memory:

Kyd lost everything in 1593: use of his limbs, fame, money, friends and self respect. His only chance of survival was with those who had abused him

“that I should love, or be familiar friend, with one so irreligious, were very rare (strange)…besides he was intemperate and of a cruel heart…”

“It was his custom when I knew him first…to jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoke or written by prophets and such holy men” (Thomas Kyd, two letters to Sir John Puckering, Lord Keeper of the Seal and Chief of the Privy Council, and one able to have him tortured again, perhaps).

A shameful act, to malign a dead friend whose death he was perhaps responsible for. Everything else we know about Kyd shows that shame for his actions over Marlowe was with him till his death. Spurned by fellow writers and the Privy Council alike, he had only memories, of the youthful genius he had once taken under his wing and encouraged as a dramatist, and that he himself was once famous and admired by his fellow writers.

Perhaps Kyd, like Shakespeare, was one of the few who knew how much had been lost.

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “Too fond a friend

    1. I think there’s a good novel in the relationship between Kyd and Marlowe. Care to give it a try? If no performances available where you are, Marlowe is quite readable, and available online.

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