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Lycidas, The Spanish Tragedy


In Lycidas, the protagonist searches for an explanation for why his virtuous friend has mysteriously died in a cultural-political landscape of unpunished, thriving, official corruption. Though Renaissance pastoral sometimes inveighed against corrupt authorities, pastoral elegy did not. What models, then, other than the Bible, would Milton have had for the swain’s search? Milton’s headnote calls his poem a monody, which within a literary context primarily is a speech in Greek tragedy. Milton then invites us to read the poem within a dramatic context. But which dramatic context? The Book of Revelation of course is one these contexts. But contemporary drama also had generated a vital genre that spectacularly combines the theme of the unjust death of the virtuous with that of corrupt officials who are destined themselves to be destroyed: revenge tragedy. To dramatize his attack on the state church, Milton draws in particular on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: its gradual emergence of shadowy conspiracy among corrupt authorities, Classical-Christian tensions, work-within-a-work structure, frequent interchanges between this world and the next, representation of poet-as-revenger, and exploitation of the dramatic possibilities of the Book of Revelation to justify the vengeance executed upon corrupt political and/or religious authorities. Milton subtly evokes these dramatic shadows to suggest that King was killed, directly or indirectly, by the “corrupted clergy.”