Kyd was one of the most obscure names in Elizabethan drama until he was found to be the author of The Spanish Tragedy, the most famous Elizabethan play. In 1773, Thomas Hawkins, an early editor of the play, found that Kyd was named as its author in Thomas Heywood's Apologie for Actors. It was another hundred years before the pioneering researches of German scholars began to shed light on his life and work, including the surprising finding that he may have been the original author of Hamlet.
Thomas Kyd was the son of Francis and Anna Kyd and was baptized in the church of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London on November 6, 1558. The baptismal register carries the entry: "Thomas, son of Francis Kidd, Citizen and Writer of the Courte Letter of London". Francis Kyd was a scrivener or notary and held an important position in the Company of Scriveners.
In October 1565 Kyd was enrolled in the newly founded Merchant Taylors' School. The headmaster, Richard Mulcaster, was a progressive educator. Edmund Spenser was also a student there. There is no evidence that Kyd went on to either of the universities; he probably followed for a time his father's business. Two letters written by him are extant and his handwriting suggests the training of a scrivener.
Evidence suggests that in the 1580s Kyd became an important playwright, but little is known about his activity. Francis Meres placed him among "our best for tragedy" and Heywood elsewhere called him "Famous Kyd". Ben Jonson mentions Kyd in the same breath as Christopher Marlowe and John Lyly in the First Folio.
The Spanish Tragedy was probably written in the mid to late 1580s. The earliest surviving edition was printed in 1592; the full title being, The Spanish Tragedie, Containing the lamentable end of Don Horatio, and Bel-imperia: with the pittifull death of olde Hieronimo. However, the play was usually known simply as "Hieronimo", after the protagonist. It was the most popular play of the "Age of Shakespeare" and set new standards in effective plot construction and character development. In 1602 a version of the play with "additions" was published. Philip Henslowe's diary records payment to Ben Jonson for these, though his revision of the play may have been more extensive. It seems that the printer merely inserted fragmentary new passages into the old text.
Other works by Kyd are his translations of Torquato Tasso's Padre di Famiglia, published as The Householder's Philosophy (1588); and Robert Garnier's Cornelia (1594), which Kyd dedicated to the Countess of Sussex. Plays attributed in whole or in part to Kyd include Soliman and Perseda, King Leir and Arden of Feversham. A burlesque of The Spanish Tragedy called The First Part of Jeronimo is almost certainly not his. However, it's widely accepted that Kyd was the author of a Hamlet, the precursor of the Shakespearean play (see: Ur-Hamlet). Some poems by Kyd exist, but it seems that most of his work is lost or unidentified.
The success of Kyd's plays extended to Europe. Versions of The Spanish Tragedy and his Hamlet were popular in Germany and the Netherlands for generations. The influence of these plays on European drama was largely the reason for the interest in Kyd among German scholars in the nineteenth century.
About 1587 Kyd entered the service of a noble, possibly Ferdinando Stanley Lord Strange, who sponsored a company of actors. He may have worked as a secretary but it's not certain if he continued to write plays. At some point Christopher Marlowe also joined this patron's service. By 1591 the two were "writing in one chamber", we know this from the events of May, 1593.
On May 11, 1593 the Privy Council ordered the arrest of the authors of "divers lewd and mutinous libels" which had been posted around London. One of these, written in blank verse, contained allusions to several of Marlowe's plays and was signed "Tamburlaine". It seems as if someone was trying to frame Marlowe. But the next day it was Kyd who was arrested. His lodgings were searched and instead of evidence of the "libels" there was found a tract containing "vile heretical conceits denying the deity of Jesus Christ". While in custody he was tortured. He claimed he knew nothing of the offending document and that it must have belonged to Marlowe. Marlowe's arrest was ordered on May 18 (he was not in London at the time). He was only required to report to the Privy Council daily, on May 30 he was murdered.
When Kyd was released towards the end of May he was disowned by his patron, though he had not been charged with any crime. Kyd wrote to the head of the Privy Council, Sir John Puckering, asking for help in clearing his name, but without apparent success.
Much of what we know about his misfortune comes from this letter and the dedicatory inscription in Cornelia. In the latter he describes the "bitter times and privy broken passions" he had endured. He died in poverty and obscurity in August 1594, aged thirty-five.