Bel-imperia is a star player in The Spanish Tragedy, using bravura theatricality as she drives the plot forward and seeks revenge for the deaths of two lovers. With this novel role Kyd invokes the virtuosic performances of professional actresses, who first emerged in the commedia dell’arte in Italy in the 1560s. Their scenes of pathos and passion extended the arte’s reach beyond comedy to tragicomedies and tragedies. Playwrights and actors began to create new female-centered plays to showcase the actress’s presence and skills. This trend eventually affected the all-male stage, nowhere more clearly than in The Spanish Tragedy. Kyd refers explicitly to the Italian troupes, which gained international fame and royal patrons performing both improvised plays based on scenarios and fully scripted and memorized five-act plays. He built an innamorata in the Italian mode, translating her to the English stage with spectacular scenes mingling witty eroticism and tragic violence. Kyd stresses her virtuosity and multi-generic range while spinning a web of allusions to far-flung spheres featuring royal women and courtly politics, mixed-gender players and playing, and dramatic innovations in Italy, France, and Spain. The Spanish Tragedy shows that English playwrights used models forged abroad to fashion Italian-style leading “women” just as the commercial stages were striving to expand the repertory, attract paying audiences, and satisfy courtly tastes. Bel-imperia, played by a boy, is Kyd’s bold attempt to answer Hieronymo’s question: “For what’s a play without a woman in it?”


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pp. 49-65
Launched on MUSE
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