Online Publication of the South-Central Renaissance Conference

Kyd’s Use of the Axiochus in The Spanish Tragedy

Posted on July 26, 2012

Discoveries 29.1 (2012)

By Frank Ardolino
University of Hawaii

Kyd’s description of the underworld justice system in The Spanish Tragedy is influenced by the afterworld depicted in book six of Virgil’s Aeneid and in the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochus. Eugene Hill (148-51) has traced Kyd’s debt to Virgil, but no critic has analyzed Kyd’s use of the Axiochus and its effect on the interpretation of Hieronimo’s moral status as a revenge figure. The soul-body dichotomy is central to the dialogue, and it is used by Kyd in the opening lines of the play. Secondly, the dialogue refers specifically to descents by Bacchus and Hercules which resulted in Eleusinian initiation through the encounter with Proserpine. Kyd adapts this motif in having Andrea meet with Proserpine who sends him back to earth to witness the mystery play, which will provide his initiation into the nature of the just revenge operating in the play. Virgil does not emphasize a meeting with Proserpine, nor does he overtly frame Aeneas’s descent as a mystery rite, and, finally, he does not have Aeneas subjected to an underworld judgment concerning his moral status.

Socrates assures Axiochus that because he has lived morally he will be sent to the Elysian Fields after he has died. Kyd parallels Andrea’s final underworld judgment, which sends Hieronimo’s enemies to Tartarus and rewards Hieronimo, Bel-imperia, Horatio, and Isabella with Elysian happiness, to the otherworld justice described in the dialogue and thus indicates that Hieronimo is not condemned as a mad revenger. Although Hieronimo, as befitting the blood revenge genre, has lived a more violent life than Axiochus, he nevertheless is rewarded with an Elysian apotheosis for his act of just revenge.

Frederick Padelford has stated that in the sixteenth century “no other Greek work was more frequently translated or widely read” than the Axiochus (Axiochus, 491). From 1477 to 1592, the dialogue was translated nine times in Latin, French, and Italian, and it was also used as a school text in England (Weatherby 112 18n, 108). The first English translation of the Axiochus was completed between 1570-1580 by Anthony Munday or Edmund Spenser, but it was not published until 1592 (Axiochus, 491; Weatherby 108).[i] The Spanish Tragedy was written around 1587-1591; thus, Kyd could have been familiar with the Latin, Italian, and French translations, or even the English version before it was published.[ii]

The popularity of the dialogue, whose subtitle is “on the brevity and uncertainty of human life,” was due primarily to its thematic congruence with the Tudor strain of Christian piety mixed with stoicism, which inculcated “the morally serious . . . attitude of heroism in confronting the issues of life and death” (Axiochus, 493). Socrates develops the earthly opposition between the body and soul to counsel the distraught Axiochus about the benefits resulting from death: “For we are a soule, that is to say, an immortal creature, being shut vp and inclosed in an earthly dungeon” (29).[iii] The soul, being enclosed within the body, inherits its ills even while yearning for the pleasures of the spiritual world from which it originated. Upon death, the soul is released from imprisonment, “beeing loosed and deliuered out of the darksome dungeons of this body” (35).

Socrates further assuages Axiochus’ fear of death by describing the justice system the dead man encounters during his descent into the underworld. He enters Pluto’s kingdom, which “is fenced with iron gates and fastened with brazen bolts,” (36) and passes the rivers Acheron and Cocytus to arrive at the Plain of Truth where he is subjected to the decision of the two underworld judges, Minos and Rhadamanthus. Socrates then describes how the wicked are sent to Tartarus to join Sisiphus, Titius, and Tantalus in their endless punishments. The blessed are sent to the Elysian Fields, where “they which haue taken holy orders are highly aduanced and reuerenced, dayly ministering the vnsearcheable rytes of religion” (37).

To emphasize the relationship between Elysian apotheosis and religious initiation, Socrates then recounts the “old saying” (37) about Hercules and Bacchus descending into the underworld at the encouragement “of the Goddesse Eleusina” and achieving holy orders as a result. Proserpine is the Goddess whose descent into the underworld when she was abducted by Hades forms the central action of the Eleusinian mystery rite (Axiochus, 277). The initiates undergo a mimetic infernal descent and meet with Proserpine who reveals the secrets of the mystery rite.[iv] Socrates is telling Axiochus that the virtuous man’s journey in Hades parallels Eleusinian initiation and leads to his being rewarded by the system of otherworld justice: “O Axiochus whether thou be carried into those highest Pallaces or lower Vawts needes must it bee that thou shalt be blessed because thou hast liued well and godly” (37).

In The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd adapts motifs drawn from the Axiochus such as the release of the soul in death and the infernal descent and judgment to depict Andrea’s descent into Hades as the beginning of an initiation which leads to his role as underworld justice figure and to his Elysian apotheosis. Andrea begins his account of his past life with the topos of the soul’s imprisonment within the body: “When this eternal substance of my soul / Did live imprison’d in my flesh” (1.1.2). After he was killed in battle, his soul descended into Hades, where he undertook a journey past the “flowing stream of Acheron” (l. 19) and “the slimy strond / That leads to fell Avernus’ ugly waves” (l. 28). The tower he passed had “walls of brass, the gates of adamant” (l. 75). He saw the condemned Ixion and the various punishments suffered by the wicked. Finally, he faced the judgment of the infernal court, to which Kyd added a third judge, Minos. When Rhadamanth and Aeacus were unable to reach a decision about Andrea’s final destination, Minos referred him to Proserpine to receive his “doom” (l. 53). However, Proserpine sent Andrea back to earth with her emissary Revenge to see the “mystery” (1.1.90), i.e., the play-within-the-play.

Philip Edwards defines mystery as “events with a secret meaning . . . [and] possibly a suggestion . . . of . . . ‘secret rites’—usually in a religious connexion” (8 n90). In Apocalypse and Armada, I have argued that The Spanish Tragedy is a mystery play that on its subtextual level deals with the triumph of Protestant England over Catholic Spain brought about symbolically by Hieronimo’s act of just revenge in the Soliman and Perseda playlet. Before completing his initiation into the underworld, Andrea first must view the mystery play, which becomes the means of his understanding the nature of the justice at work in the play and the vision of the translatio imperii, in this case the passage of power from Spain to England (Hill 151, 163). Kyd’s treatment of Andrea’s descent and the play-within-the-play as a mystery rite represent Kyd’s most significant debt to the motif of the infernal descent as depicted in the Axiochus.

To emphasize the importance of the induction descent and judgment scene Kyd includes a number of references to hellish journeys within the earthly play. As his anger and sadness increase because of his inability to punish Horatio’s murderers, Hieronimo describes his descents into the underworld: “soliciting for justice and revenge” (3.6.14). To ease his suicidal despair, he places himself before the underworld judge who “sits / Upon a seat of steel and molten brass / . . . [and will] do . . . justice for Horatio’s death” (3.12.8-9, 13). When he meets old Bazulto, Hieronimo declares that since there is no justice on earth he will travel to Pluto’s court, as Hercules once did, to assemble a “Troop of Furies . . . / To torture Don Lorenzo” (ll. 112-13). During his distraught appeal to the Spanish King, Hieronimo again depicts his underworld journey to “ferry over to the Elysian plains” (l. 72) and bring his dead son to the court to obtain justice. If Cerberus should prevent his “passage to the slimy strond” (l. 115), he tells Bazulto to “be my Orpheus . . . / Till we gain that Proserpine may grant / Revenge on them that murdered my son” (ll. 117, 120-21). Finally, Hieronimo imagines that Horatio has appeared on earth to chide him for being “unreveng’d” (l. 135), and he tells his son that he will accompany him to Hades to complain to Aeacus and “righteous Rhadamanth / For just revenge against the murderers” (142-43).[v] These passages parallel Hieronimo’s quest for justice at the court of Spain with the otherworld justice depicted in the induction.

After seeing the play, Andrea and Revenge return to the underworld, but the ghost’s fate ostensibly is not revealed. Daniel Kline has seen this omission as further proof of the play’s lack of closure (243-45). However, Andrea’s serving as the judge fits his role as the initiate who has understood the mystery play and can render the appropriate judgment of the blessed and the damned.

In this role as privileged audience, Andrea functions as the guide and parallel to the theater audience (Adams 226, 234). We watch him learn how to interpret the play through the instruction of the enigmatic Revenge, who finally enables Andrea to understand “What ’tis to be subject to destiny” (3.15.28). Analogously, we learn that the play and its characters are to be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, with the justified figures assigned Elysian rewards and the evil characters destined to be punished in the deepest parts of Hades by replacing the classical villains depicted in the Axiochus (4.5.31-44) in accordance with Andrea’s “just and sharp revenge” (4.5.16). Thus, as Linda Woodbridge has observed, the play is preoccupied “with just deserts,” and, appropriately, it ends with perfect justice involving the justice number, 5: “[F]ive of The Spanish Tragedy’s dead are bound for Elysium (Andrea, Horatio, Isabella, Bel-imperia, Hieronimo) and five for Hades (Don Cyprian, Lorenzo, Balthazar, Serberine, Pedringano)” (125, 61). As the result of his initiation into the dramatic mystery, Andrea completes the journey he described in the induction and joins the blessed in the Elysian Fields. Considering the popularity of the Axiochus, it is possible to conclude that Kyd would have expected members of his audience to recognize the parallel between the “condign retributions” of the revenge tragedy (Woodbridge 125) and the otherworld justice system celebrated in the dialogue.

Works Cited

[i] On the authorship question, see the articles by Swan, Weatherby, and Wright and Gottfried’s “Commentary” in the Variorum.

[ii] Kyd’s knowledge of these languages is demonstrated by his translation of Robert Garnier’s play Cornélie and Tasso’s dialogue Padre Di Famiglia, and by the presence of extensive Latin passages in The Spanish Tragedy.

[iii] All quotations of the dialogue will be from the Variorum edition and will be cited in the text according to page numbers.

[iv] For a discussion of the sources on Proserpine as tutelary goddess of the mysteries and justice-figure see my Kyd’s Mystery Play, 75-82.

[v] When Isabella destroys the bower where Horatio was murdered, she imagines that she and Hieronimo will journey to Hades “To hear Horatio plead with Rhadamanth” (4.2.28).