From the beginning of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, similarities between his play and that of the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca are laid out. These similarities are formed on a shared depiction of  “the tragedy of blood, the rhetoric of the horrible, the revenge theme and the ghost” and these “together with the five acts and choruses, have long been thought derived from Senecan tragedies” (Baker, 27). One of the most apparent resemblances to the Senecan model can be found in the Induction. Here, the audience is introduced for the first time to the ghost of Andrea and the personification of Revenge: both form the body of the chorus. Andrea recounts how he has been killed in the Portuguese battle and is now on his way to the underworld. In the world of the Dead, he meets several figures from classical mythology. These figures ought to assess his place within the underworld based on his conduct in the world of the living. Yet, this proves to be difficult as the three judges, Minos, Aecus and Rhadmanth, have conflicting ideas about Andrea’s proper place. Minos argues that Andrea “liv’d and died in love” while Rhadamanth reasons that Andrea “died in war, and must to martial fields” (Tragedy). They finally accept to send him to the “infernal king”, Pluto (Tragedy). Pluto, however, does not execute his judicial role but leaves it to Proserpine who “begd that only she might giue (…) [Andrea’s] doome” and appoints Revenge as Andrea’s companion (Tragedy).

This model of a ghost’s descent into the underworld and later accompaniment by an allegoric companion is a feature which derives from Seneca’s prologue in Thyestes. In Thyestes, the ghost of Tantalus is accompanied by the personification of Fury. They return to earth where they encourage Tantalus’ descendants to commit terrible crimes. The similarity between Seneca’s prologue and Kyd’s Induction has been picked up on by many critics. T. S. Eliot affirms that Andrea and Revenge “replace the Tantalus and the Fury of the Thyestes” (65). By placing Tragedy within a Senecan framework, Kyd positions himself as a contributor to the Early modern literary community. Hill points out that during the Renaissance, Seneca lost his prestige because “Greek tragedians became accessible to a wide readership. Seneca seemed a luridly rhetorical debaser of his Attic models, an author whom only Latinists and the occasional student of Renaissance rhetoric need bother reading” (145). Whereas Elizabethans regarded Seneca as an “independent master” and “the prime exemplar of classical tragedy” (Hill, 145). Jessica Winston explains that Elizabethan playwrights “looked to Seneca, (…) as a source of ideas, styles, techniques, and forms that they could draw upon” (29). Especially, the many translations of Seneca’s works made Seneca more accessible and allowed playwrights to appropriate Seneca’s model onto their own texts. Thus, unsurprisingly, Kyd also follows the approach of Early modern playwrights by incorporating Senecan elements within his play.

However, many scholars have conflicting ideas about whether Seneca’s influence is that prominent in Tragedy. Andrea’s descent into the underworld is accepted as a Senecan feature, but many scholars have noted that Kyd’s descent varies in terms of how the ghost of Andrea depicts his journey to Hades. Andrea describes his journey: “my soul descended straight/ To pass the flowing stream of Acheron”, he portrays the landscape: “Then was the ferryman of hell content/ To pass me over to the slimy strand,/ That leads to fell Avernus’ ugly waves” and tells the audience of its inhabitants: “Not far from hence, amidst ten thousand souls,/  Sat Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanth” (Tragedy). Baker claims that Seneca, by contrast, is not interested in the depiction of the geography of the underworld, the landscape or its occupants (34). In the Prologue of the Thyestes, Tantalus creates horror by narrating the terrible things that are about to happen. Whereas in Tragedy, Andrea’s narrative of hell is livelier and does not create a dreadful atmosphere: “Whereat faire Proserpine began to smile,/And begd that onely she might giue my doome./ Pluto was pleasd, and sealde it with a kisse” (Tragedy). Hill agrees with Baker that Kyd’s play conveys a different mood. Hill claims that Andrea’s “tone of address in the Induction, unlike Senecan horror, sounds almost jaunty” (145). This deviation from the traditional Senecan model does not mean that Seneca’s influence on Kyd should be minimized or neglected.  Winston explains that “the Elizabethan reception of Seneca occurred in two distinct phases” with Tragedy being written in the second phase. In this second phase, playwrights wished to include “Seneca in parts — his sentences, rhetoric, devices, and structures” (Winston, 31). This distinction is crucial because Kyd’s Tragedy shows how he does not use Seneca in extensive imitation but rather integrates parts of Seneca within his play and therefore it may never have been Kyd’s intention to incorporate Seneca whole.

The idea of taking inspiration from classical writers is also present in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. In the opening scene of Titus, Titus orders the sacrifice of Tamora’s son and the play ends with Titus killing his own daughter: gruesome actions which are persistently juxtaposed and disturbed by a lyrical language and Ovidian references. The clash between poetic language, classical influences and horrible acts can be observed in one of the most shocking and decisive scenes of the play. This scene centres on the instruction and implementation of Lavinia’s rape. Aaron wickedly plans and instructs Lavinia’s assault thus:

This is the day of doom for Bassianus:

 His Philomel must lose her tongue today,

Thy sons make pillage of her chastity,

 And wash their hands in Bassianus’ blood. (II.iii.42-5)

These lines mark Lavinia’s impending fate, a fate that is reminiscent of Ovid’s story of Philomela and Tereus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tereus falls in love with his wife’s sister, Philomela, he then goes on to rape her and in order to hide the deed, cuts off her tongue and tells his wife that Philomela has died. Philomela, however, weaves a tapestry portraying the attack and sends it to her sister. Vowing to revenge her sister, Procne decides to murder the son she shares with Tereus and serve him for dinner to Tereus. When Tereus notices what has happened, he wishes to kill the sisters but before he can do so all three of them are transformed into birds.

            Shakespeare clearly tailors his play to Ovid’s story of Philomela and Tereus. Gînju, Anamaria Domnina explains about the admiration for classical poets that:

These early  modern  uses  of  Ovid’s  work  for  moralistic  purposes  tell  us  a  lot  about  the  high reputation of the Latin poet among the humanists of the period, but they also illuminate on the early modern authors’ expectation that the quotations from Ovid should have a high impact on their readers and probably encourage the sales of their books. (85)

As Domnina points out it was common among Elizabethans to use Ovid as a moral frame of reference. However, Early modern commenters like Thomas Elyot question and challenge Ovid’s educational benefits. Elyot claims about Metamorphoses that “there is little other learning in them concerning either virtuous manners or policy” (236). Elyot’s statement shows that Ovid was not left without criticism something Shakespeare may allude to in Titus. In Titus, Aaron purposely uses and misuses Ovid’s Metamorphoses for his own vile intentions. Aaron’s knowledge of Metamorphoses hints at his education. Yet, his education has not cultivated within him a moral sense of righteousness but rather supports and sustains his appalling inclinations. Hence, Shakespeare may undercut Ovid’s educational value through the character of Aaron and agree with Elyot’s comments. By positioning the play within the Roman Empire, Shakespeare may reflect on a civilization and city that has been best known and highly regarded for its prestigious and remarkable social, cultural, and political inventions. In Titus, every character, whether Roman or Goth, has benefited from a Roman education and yet, as can be seen in Aaron, they fail to live up to the moral standards that are so often associated with Roman education. Shakespeare shows through Aaron how Ovid is used as a template to inspire crimes and murders rather than to appeal to readers’ moral conscience. West points out that in Titus “Roman education, which seems to stand for Roman tradition in general, has been twisted to become the teacher and rationalizer of heinous deeds” (West, 65). Shakespeare challenges the literary prestige that is often attached to these classical writers, and questions the crimes depicted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Thus, by incorporating Ovid within his play, Shakespeare highlights the negative impact that the depiction of violence has on readers of classical literature.

Throughout Titus, Shakespeare shows how classical texts behave as a medium to inspire new crimes. In the same manner that Aaron is inspired by the story of Philomela, Demetrius and Chiron are also encouraged by Tereus’s crimes. Yet, Demetrius and Chiron wish to avoid Tereus’s mistake of getting caught and therefore decide to not only cut off Lavinia’s tongue but also her hands: “She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;/ And so let’s leave her to her silent walks” (II.iv.7-8). And when the crime is uncovered, Titus fails to see the gravity of the actual deed and sees it in terms of a lesson that can be taught to his grandson: “And where’s our lesson then? Boy, what say you?” (IV.ii.105). By removing any didactic moral lessons from Titus, Shakespeare reinforces the idea that literature does not exclusively function as a vehicle to teach about morality.

Even though, Domnina points out that Ovid was used by Elizabethans as a moralizing tale, Joseph Solodow argues that Ovid’s Metamorphoses lacks a moral framework:

In short, he knows no morality, to use the term in a wide sense. This is true generally for the world of the poem, which lacks sense and meaning, discrimination of better from worse, or any single standard of judgment, and which refuses to authorize, much less prescribe, any course of human conduct. (157)

This complete lack of morality is also present in Titus, where Shakespeare eliminates any moral teachings from his play. In the play, Titus’ instinct is to look for a lesson that can be learnt from Lavinia’s tragedy which makes him conclude that the lesson to be learnt is to respond to violence with violence. Titus’ punishment for Lavinia’s rapist entails to bake their heads in a pie for their mother: “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter, And worse than Progne I will be revenged. (V.xi.193-4). Shakespeare seems to suggest that violence inspires more violence. As previously mentioned, Elizabethans resorted towards classical texts as morality tales. Titus, however, with its complete lack of a moral equilibrium exemplifies that literature cannot solely be read in terms of moral lessons. The excessive display of violence, blood and brutality enables Shakespeare to highlight the violence that is also present in Ovid’s story. By including Metamorphoses within his play, Shakespeare may allude to the possibility that Ovid is also devoid of any moral frame of reference. Ovid provides the characters with exemples on how to commit immoral acts rather than providing them with moral wisdom. This allows Shakespeare to play with the idea that drama is beyond good and evil and that a part of its function lies in its ability to be sensational rather than educational.

Shakespeare does not only comment on the prestige that classical writers benefit from, but he also engages with the idea that English playwrights wished to create their own space next to great authors and actually improve classical texts. This can be observed in Arthur Golding’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which include the translator’s own moral interpretation of the Metamorphoses. Forey states that Golding’s translation is a “transformation; classical myth is intertwined with Christian culture, and Ovidian wit is turned into native vitality and English lyricism” (xvi). This idea of creating their own version of a classical text is picked up on in the representation of Chiron and Demetrius. When they hear Aaron comparing Lavinia to Philomela, they both believe that they improve the text and forgo Tereus’ mistake by cutting of her tongue and her hands. This implies that they know the text and they are aware of what went wrong for Tereus, and yet, the text does not inspire them to see the morality of the story but they are rather fixated at preventing Lavinia from  revealing who is responsible for her rape and mutilation. Weber argues that: “it speaks volumes as to the profound turpitude of their characters that their solution focuses on the story’s insufficient criminality, but such is the flexibility of a literary model: revisions can reflect the morality of the reviser rather than the revised” (707). The rapists do not only re-enact the myth but they alter the story under the assumption that the alteration is going to improve the story which allows them to avoid Tereus’ fate: “Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,/ And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe./ See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl”. (II.iv.3-5). Shakespeare parodies the English authors’ idea to improve classical text and questions whether they also ameliorate the textual content.

The excessive depiction of violence in combination with a highly artificial use of language enables Shakespeare to illustrate the clash between horrible acts and flowery language. Upon finding out that Lavinia’s tongue has been cut out, Marcus addresses her in a language that appears highly inappropriate considering the situation: “If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me (…) / If I do wake, some planet strike me down / That I may slumber an eternal sleep” (II.iv.13-15). His speech manifests his disbelief and shock, but his language also conveys an element of artificiality. In fact, his use of poetic rhetoric seems highly inappropriate in this situation. Weber states that “While these statements evince a genuine extremity of emotion, it is difficult not to be struck by their rhetorical polish” (708). As Weber points out, Marcus’ language is filled with metaphors, allusions and imageries, a kind of language that seems to be inappropriate to Lavinia’s situation. Turpin explains that in Latin: “We are so accustomed to highflown language and ponderous allusions (…) that it is not easy to see when a poet is playing with the traditional language and mythology” (4). Thus, in Latin, the flowery language can distract from the actual meaning of the sentence. Similarly, in Titus, the beautiful language and the atrocious actions seem to compete for attention. Walsh points out that:

Ovid was moulded by formal education; here one must note the importance of his training in the school of rhetoric, for its influence on his poetry is manifest. At these schools, the Roman student was trained in declamation so that he could deliver speeches of both a judicial and a political kind. (27)

Walsh points out that Ovid’s education was essential for how he uses language as an oratorical tool rather than to use language to express something clearly.  Yet, Shakespeare may criticise this by making language and meaning compete with each other. Shakespeare alludes to playwrights’ intention to favour lyrical language over meaning.

Lavinia tells the audience about her rape and reveals the rapists through the book of the Metamorphoses. This shows that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is not only used as an intertextual reference but also as a stage prop. When Lavinia is looking for the book, Titus believes that she only wants to “beguile [her] sorrow” by reading it but since she is “deeper read and better skill’d” he offers her access to his whole library (IV.i.35/ 33). Shakespeare shows that although the characters are educated, they ultimately fail to grasp the intertextuality of the poem. Bates explains that “it was a favourite Renaissance practice to extract wisdom from the classics in the form of adages and apophthegms (20). Lavinia “quotes the leaves” of a copy of the Metamorphoses and writes with her stumps in Latin: “Stuprum [rape]. Chiron. Demetrius” to explain what has happened to her ( / 77)). By incorporating Latin within the story, Shakespeare reconnects Lavinia’s rape back to Ovid’s story, to the Roman Empire and to Roman education. Bates writes that “reading and memorizing of the Metamorphoses was almost universally required in sixteenth-century grammar schools” (21). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the actual text of the Metamorphoses is awarded such an essential part of the story. The centrality of the book highlights that Ovid’s story was used as an inspiration for the crime, and yet failed to be used as a moral point of reference. This is reinforced by the fact that every character knows the story, yet their didactic reading of the play prevents them from noticing what has happened to Lavinia. Marcus is too caught up in rhetoric and Titus is too focused in vengeance to comprehend Lavinia’s situation.

Like Shakespeare, Kyd also places a book on stage. When Hieronimo enters the stage, he carries a book from which he quotes a biblical scripture: “Vindicta mihi”, which warns against being revengeful (Tragedy). This gives the impression that the book he holds is the Bible, however, Hieronimo, subsequently misquotes three different Senecan tragedies, which raises the possibility that he is in fact holding a collection of Senecan texts. McMillin argues that this consistent misquoting of Seneca appears to be deliberate and is essential to the “play’s design” (201). In fact, Hieronimo seeks to break free from the Christian prohibition on revenge by replacing it with Seneca’s ideology on vengeance.

In the first quotation, Hieronimo misquotes from Seneca’s Agamemnon where Clytemnestra, after committing adultery, believes that she can only find safety by killing her husband. Yet, in this context, the quotation has nothing to do with vengeance. This shows that even though, Hieronimo purposely chooses this passage to justify his actions, the fact that the quotation has nothing to do with revenge, makes Hieronimo’s quotation appear meaningless and ill-chosen.

In the second quotation Hieronimo misquotes from Troades: “Fata si miseros juvant, habes, salute/ Fata si vitam negant, habes sepulchrum’ which translates to “may fate set me free by an early and easy passing, may I be buried in my own soil,” (Tragedy; Troades ). In this quotation, Andromache addresses her son, Astyanax, who hides in his father’s sepulchre to protect himself against the revengeful Greeks. Andromache’s words are intended to consulate Astyanax. Hieronimo however turns these words into “an exhortation to revenge” (Davis, 94). Hieronimo misinterprets the passage and concludes that no matter the outcome only revenge is appropriate. Similar to Titus, Kyd demonstrates how classical texts can be used as forms of encouragement to do wrong rather than good. Hieronimo rejects the underlying theme of the story. Hieronimo wishes to make the text fit his own needs rather than seeking moral guidance through classical quotations. 

In his last quotation, Hieronimo inquires how he will achieve revenge, and for one last time misquotes from Seneca’s Oedipus: “Remedium malorum ineres est” (An idle remedy for ills is ignorance) (Tragedy; Oedipus). The fact that Oedipus and Troades are not revenge tragedies shows that Hieronimo cannot justify revenge with a Christian belief system. Hieronimo transcends from being a Spanish Knight to someone who is driven mad and degenerates to a brutal and revengeful murderer: he kills Lorenzo, bites out his own tongue and stabs Don Cyprian and himself. Davis explains that “unable to obtain justice, Hieronimo rejects Christian principles and is transformed into a Senecan revenger” (95). As McMillin argues: “The three Senecan passages have nothing to do with revenge and wrenching them to prove the case for vengeance seems to be a piece of desperate logic” (202). Hieronimo tries to use passages that would make his decision seem rightful and even desirable, however, by forcefully attempting to carve the quotations into his belief, Hieronimo fails to validate his vengeful desires. Through Hieronimo’s wrongful understanding of classical texts, Kyd comments on forcing pre-conceptualized ideas onto classical works.

In conclusion, this essay demonstrates that Kyd and Shakespeare incorporate classical references within their plays. Titus and Tragedy comment on the use of classical texts as moral points of reference. In Titus, we have explored howShakespeare challenges the idea that classical references should be held up as moral exemplars by applying Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the characters’ own lives.In this case, Ovid is used as an inspiration for crimes and vengeance instead of fostering a just sense of morality within the characters. Shakespeare shows the absurdity of reading the Metamorphoses as a purely didactical and moralistic text. Shakespeare also demonstrates the danger of valuing flowery language over meaning. Similarly, Kyd shows that Seneca’s classical authority can be deliberately twisted for a very specific interpretation. This allows Kyd to criticise the idea of purposely mapping classical references onto pre-established views in order to validate vengeful actions. Kyd and Shakespeare only include parts of classical references in their texts which allows them to engage with the Early Modern literary practice of incorporating classical text piecemeal.


Baker, Howard. “Ghosts and Guides: Kyd’s ‘Spanish Tragedy’ and the Medieval Tragedy.”    Modern Philology, vol. 33, no. 1, 1935, pp. 27-35.

Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993.

Chaudhuri, Pramit. “Classical Quotation in ‘Titus Andronicus’.” Elh, vol. 81, no. 3, 2014, pp.          787-810.

Davis, Peter J. Seneca: Thyestes. Bristol Classical Press, London, 2013.

Elyot. Thomas. “The Governor” in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. ed by Allan H. Gilbert.           Detroit: Wayne State UP, Detroit, 1962.

G.K. Hunter. “Seneca and the Elizabethans: A Case Study in Influence”. Shakespeare Survey         XX. 1967.

Gînju, Anamaria D. “Cultural Translations of Ovid in Early Modern England.” Analele       Universităţii Ovidius Din Constanţa. Seria Filologie, vol. XXVIII, no. 2, 2017, pp. 79-  87

Hamilton, A. C. “Titus Andronicus: The Form of Shakespearian Tragedy.” Shakespeare           Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, 1963, pp. 201-213.

Hill, Eugene D. “Senecan and Vergilian Perspectives in ‘The Spanish Tragedy’.” English     Literary Renaissance, vol. 15, no. 2, 1985, pp. 143–165.

“Introduction.” in Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses (1567), and the tale of Phaeton. ed by             Madeleine Forey. Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 2002. [Accessed on moodle          30.04.2020]

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. <          h.htm> [accessed 30.04.2020]

McMillin, Scott. “The Book of Seneca in the Spanish Tragedy.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 14, no. 2, 1974, pp. 201-208.

“Seneca, Oedipus.” Seneca the Younger. Theoi Classical Texts Library,             <> [accessed 30.04.2020]

“Seneca, Troades.” Seneca the Younger, Troades. Theoi Classical Texts Library, <> [accessed 30.04.2020]

Shakespeare, William, et al. “Titus Andronicus.” in The New Oxford Shakespeare: The        Complete Works. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.

Solodw, Joseph P. The World of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. University of North Carolina Press, London, 1988.

T. S. Eliot. Selected Essays 1917-1932. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1932.

Turpin, William, et al. Ovid, Amores (Book 1). vol. 6.;2;2.;6;. Open Book Publishers,  Cambridge, 2016.

Walsh, Peter. “Ovid and his Influence.” University Review, vol. 2, no. 6, 1961, pp. 26–37.

Weber, William W. “‘Worse than Philomel’: Violence, Revenge, and Meta-Allusion in ‘Titus          Andronicus’.” Studies in Philology, vol. 112, no. 4, 2015, pp. 698-717.

West, Grace S. “Going by the Book: Classical Allusions in Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’.”   Studies in Philology, vol. 79, no. 1, 1982, pp. 62-77.

Winston, Jessica. “Seneca in Early Elizabethan England.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 2006, pp. 29-59.