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Thomas Kyd (1594)

Historical Records

In the epistle which prefaces his translation of Robert Garnier’s Cornélie, Thomas Kyd invites his dedicatee, the Countess of Sussex, to mark the ‘passing of a Winters weeke with desolate Cornelia’ and anticipates ‘my next Sommers better trauell with the Tragedy of Portia’ (Boas, 102).

Theatrical Provenance

None known; like Cornelia, Portia would most likely have been a closet drama written directly for print rather than performance in the public theatres. It is unlikely that Kyd completed work on this translation or another projected work on the life of St Paul before his death in August 1594 (Erne, 220).

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy; Roman play; closet drama.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

This work was to have been a translation of Robert Garnier’s earliest tragedy, Porcie (1568), and would have covered events at the centre of that which eventually became a thematic trilogy of Roman plays which also included Cornélie (1574, translated into English by Kyd in 1593) and Marc Antoine (1578, translated into English by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and published as Antonius in 1592). Each play is set in the aftermath of a decisive battle: the Battle of Pharsalus in the case of Cornélie, the Battle of Philippi in that of Porcie, and the Battle of Actium in Marc Antoine. In his argument, Garnier acknowledges his debt to the lives of Cicero, Marcus Brutus, and Marcus Antonius recorded by Plutarch (Garnier, A.iii^).

References to the Play

See "Historical Records" above.

Hazlitt notes in a marginal annotation of his own copy of the Play-Collectors Manual that "In Shirley's Humorous Courtier, 1640, is a reference under sig.C3 to Portia, evidently not Shakespeare's heroine" (183n). The reference he has in mind is Contarini's speech to Carintha:


Orseollo happy you, whose frozen nature
Will not permit a closure with a woman.
The sex doe quite degenerate from those
Great patternes which the former age produced.
Portia swallowed fire to please her husbands ghost,
Who inticed him to Elisium; Lucresse,
To purchase life unto her memory,
Noyse at her funerall such as might cleave
Her fame, priced her deare heart, and dyed... (sig.C3, emphasis added)

Critical Commentary

See Wiggins, Catalogue #962.

For What It's Worth

If Kyd had followed Garnier's schema which, judging by his translation of Cornélie, seems likely, the action of the play would have taken place after the death of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, where they are defeated by the new triumvirate consisting of Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Lepidus, following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Garnier's play opens with a speech by Megaera, one of the furies in Greek mythology, speaking from the underworld. This trope was a feature of Senecan drama, most notably Thyestes, and was also appropriated by Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy and Soliman and Perseda. The play concludes with an account of Portia's suicide provided by a wet nurse, followed by a speech from the Chorus. The play also features appearances from the three triumvirs, as well as the inclusion of a philosopher who delivers a moral commentary in a manner similar to his counterparts in Garnier's Cornélie and Marc Antoine. The philosopher, known in Garnier's play as Aree, also engages in a stichomythic debate with Octavius about the relative values of rigour and restraint. The trope of the restraining counsellor is also familiar from Senecan drama as seen in the relationship between the characters of Seneca and Nero in the pseudo-Senecan tragedy Octavia.

The existence of an earlier translation of a Garnier play by Kyd also provides some idea of Kyd's approach to translation and Cornelia has often been compared with the Countess of Pembroke's translation of Marc Antoine. Witherspoon argues that Kyd's translation is 'far more spirited and vigorous than Lady Pembroke's, and Cornelia is largely free from the stiffness which is so noticeable throughout Antonie (Witherspoon, 95). Witherspoon also comments upon the looseness of Kyd's translation, describing it as 'a paraphrase rather than a translation' (WItherspoon, 94) and comments that he occasionally 'uses the original only to furnish him with the skeleton of a thought, which he then clothes with muscles and sinews of his own making' (Witherspoon, 95). Roberts and Gaines argue along similar lines and go as far as to conclude that Kyd's 'amendments constitute a second text, which can be considered independently of Garnier's version, and where the work of the writer can be examined on many planes' (Roberts and Gaines, 133). It is therefore likely that Kyd would have adopted a similar methodology of translation in his rendering of Portia.

Works Cited

Boas, F. S. (ed.), The Works of Thomas Kyd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901. Internet Archive
Erne, Lukas . Beyond ‘The Spanish Tragedy’: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
Garnier, Robert. Porcie. Paris: Robert Estienne, 1568. Gallica
Hazlitt, W. Carew. A manual for the collector and amateur of old English plays. Ed. from the material formed by Kirkman, Langbaine, Downes, Oldys, and Halliwell-Phillipps, with extensive additions and corrections, by W. Carew Hazlitt. London, 1892. Folger Shakespeare Library W.a.501.
Roberts, Josephine A. and James F. Gaines 'Kyd and Garnier: The Art of Amendment', Comparative Literature, 31, 2 (Spring, 1979), 124-33.
Shirley, James. The humorous courtier A comedy, as it hath been presented with good applause at the private house in Drury-Lane. 1640.
Witherspoon, Alexander M., The Influence of Robert Garnier on Elizabethan Drama. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1924.

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