Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Author and Actor in This Tragedy": The Influence of Apuleius's the Golden Ass on Kyd's the Spanish Tragedy

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Author and Actor in This Tragedy": The Influence of Apuleius's the Golden Ass on Kyd's the Spanish Tragedy

Article excerpt

THE Spanish Tragedy has been influenced by the Metamorphoses. or The Golden Ass in a number of important ways. Most significantly. Kyd uses the example of The Golden Ass as a Silenus box to create a mystery play, a revenge tragedy on the literal level with a political allegory as its subtext. Moreover, like Apuleius, who presents initiation into the mysteries of Isis as a drama culminating in the awareness of the nature of destiny, Kyd parallels initiation into the mysteries to a hermeneutic process of enlightenment concerning the play's political subtext. To establish the mystery ritual context, Kyd uses Apuleius's motifs such as the initiatory descent into the underworld and meeting with the tutelary goddess and the paradox of revealing and concealing the secret of the rite. In addition, Kyd adapts the narrative box-within-box structure of The Golden Ass into an analogous scheme of four plays-within-the-play by which he creates multiple perspectives on the dramatic action. He also translates the novel's authorial conundrum of "Quis ille?" into the "Che le ieron!" crux of act 2. Finally, Kyd recasts the ritual launching of the ship, the "Isidis navigium, or 'Ship of Isis," during Lucius's initiation as the symbolic defeat of Spain in Hieronimo's revenge playlet.

This article is important for the insights it provides into Kyd's use of the classical tradition in ways that have not been discussed previously. Traditionally, The Spanish Tragedy has been seen as Senecan in its use of revenge and Grand Guignol effects, especially in the presence of the vindictive underworld presence, as embodied by Revenge and Andrea, and Hieronimo's slaughter of his enemies followed by the biting out of his tongue. However, my study demonstrates that Kyd is more indebted to the Apuleian tradition of multiple audience perspectives, hermeneutic detection motifs, and the revelation of secrets through initiation into the underworld mysteries of Pros-erpinetIsis. Kyd adapted Apuleius's narrative methods to create the dramaturgical effects that exercised a major influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.(1)

Significantly, the history of the criticism of The Spanish Tragedy generally recapitulates the history of the criticism of The Golden Ass. Two similar schools of thought have grown up for both texts: one school argues that the novel and the play are what they appear to be on the surface, respectively, a collection of ribald tales and a gory revenge tragedy; but the other school maintains that they are carefully composed works with subtexts that involve deeper meanings. The literal school maintains that the works are essentially entertainments intended to appeal to their respective audiences on a sensationalist level: on the other hand, the subtextual school asserts that the works are philosophical constructs that use violence, sexuality, and sensational elements to hint at more profound themes.(2)

It is my argument that Kyd adapted The Golden Ass because he recognized the artistry and hermeneutic subtlety that Apuleius achieved through the overriding idea of the work as a mystery with the multiple implications of that complex word. In order to prove this thesis. I will first trace the critical history of the novel, then I will analyze its pertinent motifs, and, finally, I will demonstrate how Kyd adapts them in The Spanish Tragedy.


Lucius Apuleius was a Roman rhetorician who was born in Madauros in North Africa c. 123 AD. He studied Platonic philosophy at Athens, traveled throughout Greece, and was said to have been initiated into the mysteries. He is best known for his humorous, satirical, and philosophic novel Metconor-phoses or The Golden Ass (Asineus Aureus c. 150-160 AD). Seven of its eleven books concern a series of Milesian or ribald tales that take place in Thessaly, traditionally noted as a place of magic, and are presented by a narrator named Lucius with hermeneutic complexity. The first three books culminate in Lucius's ill-fated metamorphosis into an ass as the result of an abortive magical rite. …

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