Renaissance Tragedy and Investigator Heroes

The role of the investigator in Renaissance tragedy, with special reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy

by Tannistho Ghosh
I therefore will by circumstances try, What I can gather to confirm this writ
The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King

The roots of the blossoming tree of crime fiction can be traced back to the ancient soil of The Bible, and beyond, in literature which contains mysteries to be solved, and figures who act as detectives. Mystery was present in Classical Greek tragedy. In Oedipus Rex (c. 429 bc) the identity of Oedipus is a mystery, the unravelling of which influences the movement of the plot. In fact the very term 'anagnorisis' indicates a discovery - a revealing of a mystery.

In the biblical era perhaps one of the earliest acts of 'detection' took place when Herod killed all new-born babies on one particular night in an attempt to eliminate the child prophesied to ruin him. We have other examples of detection prior to Christ too; the prophets, such as Daniel, could interpret dreams. This was detection in the sense that they had to interpret symbolic images to understand their significance. In that sense the prophets could be called 'investigators'. But these dreams were very often interpreted in a visionary state of mind, therefore detection in the strictest sense of the term cannot be used here.

We have detection in the 12th century German epic Nibelungenlied as well where Hagen, the minister of Brunhild's revenge coaxes the secret of the vulnerable spot in Siegfried's body from Kriemhild.

In Romantic fiction we see for the first time in European literature, a systematic use of mystery in plotting. As A. H. Clewer stated in his essay Modern Crime Fiction [1], 'the early whodunit approach is perhaps related to mysteries of identity in Romantic fiction. For example, in Scott's Ivanhoe the identity of the Black Knight is mysterious, and its eventual revelation forms an important element in the plot. Keats uses a similar gambit in his tragedy Otho The Great (1819) presumably influenced by Scott.

But the role of the investigator that we find in the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and others probably entered into the realm of fiction through Voltaire's Zadig (1748). As John Drinkwater observed in The Outline of Literature [2] 'Zadig was a Sherlock Holmes born before his time.' [See excerpt in Appendix]. If Voltaire had been born after Conan Doyle 'Zadig' might have been taken as a parody of the great detective who resided in Baker Street.

In Elizabethan drama the plot tends to move forward in complex ways, but without any element of the mysterious. There are no actual mysteries in Shakespeare's plots, however complex they are. But although there is no real mystery in the tragedies of Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, the figure of the investigator features prominently. In Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy we have Hieronimo taking up the role of the investigator to unravel the mystery of his son's death, and in Hamlet, Hamlet acts as an investigator to avenge his dead father. However, there is a basic difference between the roles that Hieronimo and Hamlet take up, and the investigator that we find in modern crime fiction. While the investigators in modern crime fiction choose detection as a profession, the characters of Shakespeare and Kyd are forced to become investigators by circumstances.

Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy portrays Hieronimo as a bereaved father turned investigator after receiving a letter from Bel-imperia which reveals the identity of the murderers:

Me hath my hapless brother hid from thee,
Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him:
For these were they that murdered thy son. [Act III Scene i]

Although the letter reveals the identity of the murderers, Hieronimo treats it only as a clue and decides to investigate. He behaves as any 'detective' of modern crime fiction would have done. He says in the same speech:

My son slain by Lorenzo and the Prince
What cause Had they Horatio to malign?
Or what might move thee Bel-imperia,
To accuse thy brother,
. . .
I therefore will by circumstances try,
What I can gather to confirm this writ [Act III Scene i]

Later in the play, when the hangman's letter reveals the murderers of Horatio, Hieronimo finds Bel-imperia's letter to be true and not a trap. A similar pattern is seen in Agatha Christie's The Hollow, which starts with a murder and a lady accused of the crime. The lady is soon acquitted as the evidence indicates her innocence. However, at the end the same lady is found to be the killer. Hercule Poirot solves the case by concentrating on the initial evidence and negating the possibilities which cropped up later.

Just as Bel-imperia's letter provides the clue in The Spanish Tragedy, the clue in Hamlet is provided by the dead King's ghost. Hamlet suspects a foul deed when Horatio mentions the presence of the ghost in the castle:

My father's spirit - in arms? All is not well.
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes. [Act I Scene ii]

Hamlet suspects that a crime has been covered up, but even when the Ghost has revealed the secret of his death Hamlet does not immediately embark upon action. Instead, taking on the role of investigator, he sets out to prove the crime before seeking revenge. Hamlet goes through a complex process of trial and error to prove the guilt of Claudius, even though the method of the crime and the identity of the criminal were known to him. The Ghost's message is merely taken as a clue that leads Hamlet towards the right path.

As Paul N. Siegel states in his essay Hamlet, Revenge [3], 'another question related to the question of how we are to respond to the ghost's call is that of how we are to regard the ghost itself. From the late eighteenth century on, it ceased being presented on the stage as a terrifying figure and becomes a majestic figure before whom Hamlet kneels in reverence, ready to do his bidding.' This was also how other critics regarded it. J. Dover Wilson, however, examining the Elizabethan literature on ghosts, restored the terror of the Hamlet ghost. He found that ghosts could be regarded as hallucinations, devils, angels or (by Catholics) souls from purgatory. The Ghost in Hamlet displaying bewilderingly diverse indications of what it was, was watched by the Elizabethan audience with doubt and uncertainty. This doubt and uncertainty, said Wilson, 'was never resolved.'

Perhaps one reason the doubt regarding the Ghost is never resolved is that Shakespeare never intended the Ghost to have any other function other than to lead Hamlet to the right path. When the Ghost reappears in Act III Scene iv his purpose is to assist Hamlet in unravelling the crime. The Ghost says pointing at the Queen - 'Do not forget; this visitation/ Is to whet thy almost blunted purpose.'

Hamlet's 'madness' can also be seen in terms of his role as investigator. He feigns madness to use means of detection without being noticed - something that would definitely have aroused the suspicion of others if Hamlet had retained his own self. The twelfth century legend of Amleth which is recorded in Saxo Grammaticus's 'Historie Tragiques' and which probably is the source of Hamlet, clearly presents Amleth as an avenger who feigns madness in order to find out the secret of his father's murder. It reads - (Oliver Elton's translation, 1926) - 'Amleth beheld all this but feared lest too shrewd a behaviour might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety . . . you would not have thought him a man at all, but some absurd abortion due to a mad fit of destiny.'

In Belleforest's version of Saxo Grammaticus's Histories Tragiques Hamblet is presented as a character who is both cunning and witty, and who pretends to be a fool to deceive others. Belleforest writes, 'Hamblet in this sorte counterfeiting the mad man, many times did diuers actions of great and deepe consideration and often made such and so fitte answers, that a wise man would soone haue iudged from what spirite so fine an inuention mighte proceede . . . fooles as I said before, esteemed those his words as nothing, but men of quicke spirites, and such as hadde a deeper reach began to suspect somewhat, esteeming that vnder that kinde of folly there lay hidden a deeper and rare subtility.'

Hamlet's reasoning is clear even though he acts like a madman calling Polonius a 'fishmonger', and like a professional investigator of modern crime fiction he tries to remain emotionally detached from his suspects, and exploits them emotionally in his search for the truth.

Conan Doyle borrows heavily from Hamlet when Sherlock Holmes sets out to solve The Reigate Puzzle. Sherlock Holmes feigns madness in order to enter into the house of Mr Cunningham, and Dr Watson even quotes from Hamlet by saying that there is a method in Holmes's madness.

Hamlet's reasoning is clearly revealed when he plans the play.

. . . I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions:
. . . The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. [Act II Scene ii]

While The Mousetrap is being staged Hamlet, as Ophelia says, acts as a Chorus. He interprets the scenes and the actions. Hamlet observes the reactions of the King and the Queen and when the King cries out for light Hamlet's suspicion is confirmed. We find a similar device being used by Agatha Christie in her novel The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side where leaving aside the other questions regarding a murder in her neighbourhood Miss Marple chooses to concentrate on a particular expression on the face of a distinguished lady at a particular moment before the murder. Later the lady is found to be the killer. However, unlike Hamlet, Miss Marple does not get to see the expression of the lady herself, but merely learns about it from other sources.

Hamlet has another interesting feature; instead of one there are two investigator figures. While Hamlet tries to unravel the mystery of his father's death, Polonius is trying to see through Hamlet's 'crafty madness', and therefore Hamlet the investigator also becomes the object of an investigation. Hercule Poirot has to face a similar situation in the novel The Big Four, where while attempting to unmask a group of unknown but influential criminals he himself becomes the target of a murder plot. If Hamlet had not killed Polonius so suddenly, the play could have been the arena of the interplay of two investigator figures.

Hamlet and Hieronimo are not merely investigators - they are criminals at the same time. They do not resort to the law, they themselves bring justice and in doing so commit crimes themselves. Their characters combine the elements of both the just and the criminal, a combination that Vidocq said would make a fine detective.

The investigator figure of the modern crime fiction is endowed with the qualities that characterised the Renaissance 'investigator' tragic figures such as Hieronimo and Hamlet and Voltaire's Zadig. The Renaissance tragic heroes like Hamlet and Hieronimo were created for an audience who were content with the complex plots and gory violence on the stage and hardly showed any appetite for mysteries. Therefore the characters were not created as investigators in the sense we call Sherlock Holmes an investigator. However they contained within themselves many qualities that were to be manifested in the detective figure of the twentieth century.


1. Clewer, A. H. Modern Crime Fiction

2. Drinkwater, John. The Outline of Literature

3. Siegel, Paul N. Hamlet, Revenge

See also: T. S. Eliot. Hamlet and his Problems

An online edition of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy can be found here:

Appendix: Excerpt from Voltaire's Zadig (1748)

One day when Zadig was walking near a little wood he saw the Queen's chief attendants and several officers running towards him. He noticed that they were in great anxiety for they ran about as if they were quite bewildered, looking for something of great value, which they had lost. When they came up to him the chief Eunuch said, "Have you seen the Queen's pet dog?"

Zadig replied, "Is it a female dog?"

"You are right," said the Eunuch.

"It is a very small spaniel," added Zadig; "she has recently had puppies, she has a limp of the left forefoot, and she has very long ears."

"You have seen her then," exclaimed the Eunuch joyfully.

Zadig's reply was in the negative.

Precisely at the same time, by an extraordinary coincidence, the most beautiful horse in the King's stable had escaped from the hands of the stable attendants and galloped out on the plains of Babylon. The Grand Vizier and all other officers ran after it with as much anxiety as the first Eunuch after the spaniel. The Grand Vizier addressed himself to Zadig, and asked him if he had seen the King's horse pass.

Zadig replied, "It is a horse, which gallops to perfection; it is five feet high, with very small hoofs. It has a tail three and half feet long; the bits of its bridle is of twenty three carat gold; its shoes are of silver."

"What road has it taken? Where is it?" demanded the Vizier.

"I have never seen it," replied Zadig, "and I have never heard it spoken of."

Zadig's reply failed to convince the Vizier and the Eunuch and he was arrested. When the horse and the dog were found and Zadig's innocence was acknowledged - he was presented before the Great Desterhan where he pleaded his case in these terms - "This is what happened to me. I was walking towards the little wood, where I lately encountered the venerable Eunuch and the most illustrious Vizier. I had seen on the sand the traces of an animal, and I had easily judged that they were those of a little dog. The light and long furrows imprinted on the little eminences of the sand between the traces of the feet showed me that it was a female and that it had lately given birth to pups. Other traces that appeared to have continually raised the surface of the sand by the side of the front feet told me that she had long ears. As I remarked that the sand was always less crushed by one foot than by three others, I understood that the dog of our august Queen was, if I may dare say so, a little lame."

© Tannistho Ghosh, June 2002
See Tannistho Ghosh's blog: The Spirit of Ferdinand
email the author

See also: Shakespeare plays on film >

Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy