Interiority and the Letter in Cymbeline

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  • 1 Concordia University
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The letter was the single most widely used property in Tudor-Stuart plays. In that memorable stage direction from The Spanish Tragedy, the letter is an instrumental device in the plot. It provides Hieronimo, the central protagonist of the revenge tragedy, with targets for revenge by identifying his son’s killers by name. However, the letter also is a sign for the interior state of mind of its writer, the beautiful Bel-imperia, in issuing a call for reprisal. It is a materialisation of what immaterial passions ultimately drive the action: desire, loss, and rage. Red ink. Blood signifies the authenticity of the words on the page. They come, literally, from Bel-imperia’s heart. And yet, the macabre medium of the message brings Hieronimo to see in it fatal implications for himself. ‘Hieronimo, beware’, he says to himself, ‘thou art betrayed, / And to entrap thy life this train is laid’. (Indeed, in another revenge tragedy, Bussy D’Ambois, an adulterous wife is forced at knifepoint to lay a snare for her lover with that very deception of a letter inscribed in her blood). This single moment in Thomas Kyd’s tragedy, Hieronimo’s reception of Bel-imperia’s ‘bloody writ’, captures the complex of attitudes that governed the circulation of letters as stage properties.

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