What is the English History Play and Why are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?



Materialist criticism refuses to privilege 'literature' in the way that literary criticism has done hitherto ... This approach necessitates a radical contextualising of literature which eliminates the old divisions between literature and its 'background', text and context. (Dollimore 1985, 4)

New Historicism collaborates in the relativizing of canonical texts by stressing their historical situations, and also through its use of anthropology; it places Great Books alongside other texts so that their authority seeps away, and it often acknowledges their roles in a contested drama of state power. (Sinfield 1992, 284)

An 'alternative' Shakespeare can thus never be a 'finished' – and so diminished – Bard ... it seems far more likely ... that the reverse will continue to be the case. (Hawkes 1996, 16)

  1. Is the only alternative to 'Shakespeare' an 'Alternative Shakespeare'? Contributors to the second Alternative Shakespeares volume differ. Ania Loomba sees the continuing critical and pedagogical focus on Shakespeare 'as both unique and more emblematic of attitudes (dominant or contestatory) in "his" period than any other playwright' as unhelpful to serious investigation of 'cultural difference' in the early modern period, or to a serious rethinking of the Bard's place in early modern English theatrical culture (Loomba 1996, 165). Loomba places Antony and Cleopatra within a pattern of literary/spectacular representations of Easternness, narratives against which 'stories such as those of Jessica's conversion to Christianity, Othello's Europeanization, or Caliban's education are rendered "incomplete" in themselves' and urges more attention to 'an expanded historical and theatrical archive' (Loomba 1996, 188, 190).

  2. Catherine Belsey, on the other hand, begins her discussion of early modern sexual identities with the breezily Bardocentric assertion that 'among fictional figures, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is surely supremely seductive' (Belsey 1996, 41). Her article goes some way towards demonstrating how Loomba's contradictory Shakespeare, both unique and uniquely representative, is constructed. It is Shakespeare's Cleopatra, rather than Plutarch's, who is 'the origin of a succession of recreations' up to the present day; Shakespeare's recreation of Cleopatra becomes the new, 'supremely seductive' original, having 'an erotic appeal so intense as to claim metaphysical status' (Belsey 1996, 48). The kind of seduction Cleopatra represents fits into a high-culture set of fictional and artistic representations, ranging Europe-wide from Cranach, Corregio and Titian in the early sixteenth century to Poussin and Velazquez in the mid-seventeenth, showing that at 'the very moment when desire was being brought under the control of the Law ... it was still possible to recognize as seductive images that were more heterogenous than the resulting taxonomies have been willing to allow' (Belsey 1996, 62). Belsey's article can thus be seen to provide at least three reasons for returning to Shakespeare: because of the way 'Shakespeare' has functioned culturally, becoming so pervasive that he cannot be ignored, because the text can be read to present (or to have presented in its original performances) a compelling representation of (in this case) seduction, and because the text can be seen to belong to a set of such representations in the early modern period, giving us information about 'its own historical moment' (Belsey 1996, 40).

  3. This is clearly not the project adumbrated by Belsey in the late 1980s, when she wrote of moving English towards a cultural history which 'would have no place for a canon and no interest in ranking works in order of merit' (Belsey 1989, 83). But in its insistence that Shakespeare's Cleopatra deserves her pre-eminence, it differs from Alan Sinfield's non-evaluative position that Shakespeare 'is already where meaning is produced', and that the canon must be engaged with to avoid leaving the field to the likes of Kenneth Clarke or Allan Bloom (Sinfield 1994, 4). In common with many recent critics, Belsey attempts to challenge 'the supposed transcendence of literature' by showing a literary work as 'a cultural intervention produced initially within a specific set of practices and tending to render persuasive a certain view of reality', in the words of Sinfield's 'rough programme' for cultural materialism (Sinfield 1992, 22). But, contra Loomba, Belsey's 'set of practices' does not muddy the waters by including any other plays featuring Cleopatra, or the East, or seduction (any other plays at all, in fact). The (Western-Europe wide, century-spanning) historical 'moment' Belsey describes is for her most strongly produced through reading Shakespeare's "supreme" seductress. That it can be so produced is indubitable; that it cannot be produced using other plays, and that Cleopatra's seductiveness is the last word on the topic, needs more argument than Belsey allows.

  4. There are 'moments' that have not been, and perhaps cannot be, produced by reading traditionally canonical texts, as feminist scholarship's revaluation of women's writing clearly shows. The idea that we can say everything it is important to say about early modern culture through Shakespeare, who thus functions as a 'cultural synecdoche', has been persuasively criticised by James Holstun amongst others (Holstun 1989, 194). Blurring the boundaries between literary and non-literary productions of meaning can leave the division between canonical and non-canonical literary standing. The 'literary' itself is often read as homogenous, the canonical synecdochically standing for the non-canonical. The transcendent Bard targeted by cultural materialists is not merely produced by isolating him from nonliterary discourses; he is also a product of isolation from noncanonical literary discourses. It is still through Shakespeare's, rather than Daniel's, Cleopatra that undergraduates will access 'historical moments' (if they do at all), in part because writings such as Belsey's have no intention of acknowledging whether, or how much, what they are enclosing as 'Shakespearean' was common ground. It is symptomatic that Stephen Greenblatt reads Lear with Harsnett rather than Leir and the Henriad with Hakluyt rather than The Famous Victories, or that Terry Eagleton constructs a postmodern version of intertextuality in which there is nothing outside the Bard:

    What we call 'unique' or 'authentic' in Shakespeare, the genuine article, is really no more than his extraordinary ability to parody himself...his distinctive 'authenticity' lies in shameless self-plagiarism... Shakespeare never fails to steal/ from his own texts (Eagleton 1988, 204-5)

    Greenblatt justifies his Shakespeare book by claiming that 'we can scarcely write of prince or poet without accepting the fiction that power directly emanates from him and that society draws upon this power'; it is still a case rather more often made for the Bard than for Barnabe Googe or Emilia Lanyer (Greenblatt 1988, 4). As Daryl Palmer has pointed out, 'these appeals to wholeness and practices of exclusion' have had a baleful effect on serious study of the drama outside 'Shakespeare Studies' (Palmer 1994, 281).

  5. But if power 'emanates from' writers, as Greenblatt suggests, then Shakespeare is in a potentially vulnerable position, as a writer always beginning from someone else's writings. This is particularly so with the English history play, for many of Shakespeare's histories have sources both on the page (chronicles, historical poems) and on the stage (anonymous plays for the Queen's Men and other companies). The critical history of the English history play appears to register the tension this necessitates for a Bardocentric view of literary history. Unlike like the so-called problem play or the late romance, the history play is not a Shakespeare-specific category. Though it is commonly referred to as a 'genre', its 'canon' consists almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays.

  6. Written sources are not in themselves much of a challenge to the image of the Bard. The bagginess of chronicle sources has often been turned to the Bard's advantage, the half-acre tombs of Holinshed or Hall helping to make the Shakespearean history play seem a well-wrought urn. Indeed, for writers such as Tillyard, Shakespeare could have taught Holinshed a thing or two about how to treat disparate sources such as Hall and Vergil (Tillyard 1944, 57). Tillyard, of course, stressed that Hall's Chronicle gave Shakespeare a political philosophy and a Tudor myth to consider, and one of the features of post-Tillyard criticism of Shakespeare's histories has been the cutting of Tillyard's Hall down to the size of Tillyard's Holinshed, by showing either that the Tudor myth is not as coherent as Tillyard claimed, or that Shakespeare's plays cannot be said to subscribe to it in the simple way suggested by Tillyard. Robert Ornstein, writing of the morality play, put what was at stake in the blurring between Shakespearean originality and providential source material clearly in 1972:

    We are asked to believe that the Shakespeare who blazed the path in tragedy for Chapman, Tourneur, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton, and Ford was content to follow the lead of the plodding didacticists who supposedly created the genre of the history play, and like them dedicate his art to moralistic and propagandistic purposes. (Ornstein 1972, 2)

    Scepticism towards source material, in fact, has helped to make the Shakespeare of the histories a scholar in a way that the Shakespeare of the other genres is not. To write the kind of history Shakespeare did, you must perforce be a kind of historian, even, contribute to historiography itself:

    From the very start, he abandoned the normal, undifferentiated, monologic, chronological, cumulative, unmarked presentation of events; on the contrary, in each of his plays he focused on specific political problems, substituting a causal for a moral concatenation of events. His main contribution to the historiography of his time consisted, therefore, in practising a problem-oriented, multivocal kind of historiography that probed into events in depth rather than in extension (Pugliatti 1996, 23).

    It is no coincidence that Emrys Jones's critique of the image of Shakespeare 'still under- intellectualized, his mental powers still underestimated' should focus primarily on his five earliest histories (Jones 1977, 2). Indeed, Tillyard himself hoped that Shakespeare's History Plays 'has served to strengthen the ideas [sic] of an educated Shakespeare, and of a poet more rather than less like Dante and Milton in massiveness of intellect and powers of reflection' (Tillyard 1944, 325). More to the point might be a comparison with Marlowe. An intellectual Shakespeare is much closer to the obviously learned Marlowe, his rival for the status of prime poet early in his career, than the eighteenth century's preferred young Bard, a 'horse-holding play re-furbishing unconstructive demibumpkin of genius' (Rossiter 1946, 71). Earlier images of Shakespeare left the role of scholar-originator for Marlowe; as we shall see, recent revaluations of the history play genre have been part of a revaluation of Shakespeare, with potential consequences for the reputations of both Marlowe and Jonson.

  7. Recent work on the chronicles, shunning both the whiggishness of historians' surveys and the built-in bias of Shakespeareans' approaches, has attended to the textuality of these compilations, and has revalued them. B L Beer comments, for example, that 'the second edition of Holinshed, containing the detailed account of the Norfolk rebellion based on Neville, John Hooker's valuable description of Exeter, and John Cheke's Hurt of Sedition, stands in a class by itself as the best Tudor account of the rebellions of 1549' (Beer 1988, 356). Patterson concludes her study of Holinshed reminding the reader that 'the compilers of "Holinshed's" Chronicles were themselves extremely intelligent readers of preceding chronicles... they aimed to improve and guide their own readers in the rather special art and mental agility that this practice required' (Patterson 1994, 275). Graham Holderness also distinguishes 'the commonplace of Tudor history' from 'Holinshed's complex understanding of that history', and both from 'Shakespeare's production... of a unique and specific piece of Renaissance historiography' (Holderness 1992, 52). Michael Hattaway suggests in his edition of 2 Henry VI that the form of Holinshed, particularly its contradictory interplay of text and marginal gloss, influenced Shakespeare towards a dialogic presentation of the Cade rising, combining horror with glee (Hattaway 1991, 31-2).

  8. My point is not that, somehow, critics should have anticipated later work on the chronicles when writing about Shakespeare, though it is perhaps significant that the most important study of Shakespeare's histories in a position to assimilate Patterson's book makes very little of her revaluation of the Shakespearean source, instead focusing on the chronicle primarily to indicate where Shakespeare departed from it (Howard & Rackin 1997, 110, 130, 157, 162, 170, 171, 212). It is rather that the paradigm within which 'Shakespeareans' write makes it difficult to regard the chronicles as other than 'raw' materials to be transformed. What better way to show a Shakespeare interested in producing dialogical history than to assert that his sources are monological, or to stress the differences rather than similarities between them?

  9. The same principle applies, naturally, to the non-Shakespearean history play. It is no coincidence, bearing in mind the low reputation of the chronicles, that it continued to be called the 'chronicle play' by critics long after Shakespeare's plays became 'histories'. Tillyard saw the genre as politically and historically simplistic, crediting any deviations from this to Shakespeare's influence and the sentiments behind his summary that 'in seeking the effect of the Chronicle Play on Shakespeare I had found something much more like the effect of Shakespeare on the Chronicle Play' are still widely echoed (Tillyard 1944, 111, 126).

  10. The compulsion to accompany a rubbishing of the history play as a whole with an insistence that what is good in it is traceable to Shakespeare is surprisingly widespread. It is perhaps explicable by the fact that none of Shakespeare's histories is the sole extant dramatic treatment of a reign or sequence of events. In fact, according to Bullough, five Shakespearean histories are directly based on other history plays; two other plays are 'probable' sources for Shakespeare plays (Bullough 1960, 1962). Whilst Bullough has been challenged, the general consensus is that King John and the Henriad are clearly based on non-Shakespearean histories, and that Richard II is significantly influenced by Marlowe. It is one of the many paradoxes of 'Shakespeare's genre' that it is the one most closely dependent in an obvious way upon the plays of others, and the writings of many critics seem to indicate that poets are not the only ones subject to the anxiety of influence.

  11. The challenge posed by Shakespeare's dramatic sources perhaps helps to make sense of the brusque imperatives of Robert Ornstein's rousing declaration of independence on behalf of the Bard:

    we have to say that Shakespeare followed his own artistic bent in the first tetralogy and that he was the supreme artistic influence on the History Plays written in the 1590's by his contemporaries. If he did not originate the form of the History Play when he wrote the Henry VI plays, he created its vogue and shaped its tradition. So preeminent was his contribution that, if we omit his History Plays, the tradition very nearly ceases to be artistically significant (Ornstein 1972, 6).

    The genre's usefulness, and indeed existence, as a category is thus primarily related to its usefulness for discussing Shakespeare, and the issue has been succinctly stated by Paola Pugliatti: 'although the historical genre was perhaps the most short-lived one in the whole history of English drama, it was anything but ephemeral and short-lived within Shakespeare's career' (Pugliatti 1996, 3). I have focused on Ornstein's comments about the history play because his literary history is so clearly subordinate to his critical evaluations. He is no historicist; as his lexis demonstrates, his primary aim is to reclaim Shakespeare the artist from the Tudor propagandist of the Tillyard- Campbell formulations of the 1930s and 1940s. In doing so he produces a literary history in which the genre depends upon the Bard, who is paradoxically constitutive of it, and transgressive of its (artistic) norms. This transgressive/constitutive Bard resembles Ania Loomba's unique/emblematic Bard quoted above. He also resembles the traditional picture of Marlowe, setting the pace for the London theatres by developing new kinds of possibly subversive theatricality, creating a whole genre, influencing but never influenced.

  12. Outside Shakespeare Studies, however, work on non-Shakespearean histories, especially post-Conquest ones, makes it difficult to maintain the position that the genre is a simplistic retelling of stories from simplistic sources. Editions of Woodstock, Sir Thomas More, Edward II, Edward I, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Look About You, amongst others, demonstrate that most history plays work from several sources (Rossiter 1946, 23, 18; Gabrieli and Melchiori 1990, 10; Rowland 1994, xix; Hook 1961, 6-23; Bowers 1962, 313; Hirsch, 1980 xviii). Sensitivity to the intellectual work that has gone into these plays is matched by awareness of their political interest, as the work of Kathleen McLuskie on Heywood and Dekker, Ivo Kamps on Heywood, Julia Gasper on Dekker, and Richard Helgerson on the whole genre amongst many others, demonstrates (McLuskie 1994, 54; Kamps 1996, 67; Gasper 1990, 44-61; Helgerson 1992, 193-246).

  13. A recognition of the political and historiographical complexity of these histories is not easy to find in contemporary work on Shakespeare's histories, with the notable recent exception of Larry Champion, who identifies the whole genre as forming 'part of a general movement toward what amounts/ to a new mode of historical inquiry', 'beyond Ciceronian platitudes about history's moral utility, beyond the services of didacticism through a reflection of a providential view of human events, beyond history as a response to the tide of patriotism surrounding the defeat of the Armada, beyond history as a tool of the Tudor establishment' (Champion 1990, 129-30; see also Levy 1987, 6). Champion nowhere denies that Shakespeare was an important part of this trend, but his work has not fed into the mainstream of work on history plays. Paola Pugliatti, for example, simply asserts that she 'cannot' agree with Champion's assertion that this thoughtful kind of historiography is present outside Shakespeare's plays (Pugliatti 1996, 7).

  14. That critics' projects (usually to write about Shakespeare) determine their attitude to the non-Shakespearean genre can be seen clearly in the work of Ivo Kamps, who in attempting to shift critical focus towards a different kind of history play under the Stuarts, states that Elizabethan history plays (apart from Shakespeare's Henry V)

    foreground unity and cultural orthodoxy, as depicted through a coherent literary representation of the figure of the monarch, and a utilization of providence. The opposite is true for the early Stuart historical drama, which dramatizes precisely the inadequacy of orthodox socio-historical and providential patterns imposed routinely by the shaping powers of Tudor culture on history's rag-and-bone shop (Kamps 1996, 2).

    Kamps' admirable study of the later histories is not, however, a reliable guide to the Elizabethan histories. His reliance on Alvin Kernan's 1975 article on the English history play, which devotes thirty-five pages to Shakespeare and three to everything else, for example, leads him into statements about 'the typical historical pattern for Tudor historical dramas', proposing an epistemic unity which close study of the plays would find difficult to sustain (Kamps 1996, 92).

  15. Kamps, Champion, and Helgerson are exceptions to a recent trend in criticism of the histories whereby the baleful influence of the early, epistemic, Foucault conjoins with an acceptance of the Shakespearean dominance of the history play to produce a kind of ostensibly historicising study which assumes that through discussing Shakespeare it is possible to access, without significant gaps, how a nation conceived of, and reproduced, its history. It is a kind of Grecian Urn criticism, in which the canonical already-known-as-beautiful really is all you need to know.

  16. A prime exponent of the Grecian Urn approach is Leonard Tennenhouse, who begins his discussion of 'Shakespeare's genres' in Power on Display by pointing out that despite its popularity in the 1590s, the history play 'hastened into obsolescence' with romantic comedy and Petrarchan poetry, becoming 'virtually unwritable after 1600' as 'with few exceptions, such plays ceased to be produced after 1599, the most notable exception being Henry VIII' (Tennenhouse 1986, 73). The reason for this is that 'as political circumstances changed and presented the monarch with new forms of opposition, then, the strategies for legitimizing that authority had to change accordingly', because 'the form of the history play is so completely at one with certain Elizabethan controversies, that the materials of chronicle history could no longer be so assembled once the official strategies for mastering those controversies changed' (Tennenhouse 1986, 99, 76). In Tennenhouse's account, this change obviously happens across the board, but fortunately because 'Shakespeare was constantly in tune with his time, one discovers an author who at all times seemed to know the rhetorical strategies for making sense, as well as what it was politic to say' (Tennenhouse 1986, 2). The kind of politic Shakespeare Tennenhouse identifies as a guide to entire 'strategies for making sense' out of history is not, of course, the Shakespeare of multiple textual variants and likely censorship that a cursory reading of an Arden edition would reveal. Still less is he the reviser of others' plays. Tennenhouse observes that 'it cannot be accidental that the Henriad, which produces Shakespeare's most accomplished Elizabethan monarch, should also produce his most memorable figure of misrule', but neglects to look for causes in the play which first explored the elements of misrule in the making of Henry – The Famous Victories. But then a Shakespeare who has mastered a political langue, seemingly from thin air, is rather more compelling than a Shakespeare always beginning from examples of others' parole.

  17. So there really is nothing outside the Shakespearean text: Shakespeare is all Tennenhouse knows and all he needs to know. All the world's the Shakespearean stage, with the Bard, in his time, writing (if not playing) all the parts. Henry V 'appears to be Shakespeare's ultimate monarch'; but half a page later he is 'the most successful monarch of the Elizabethan stage plays' (Tennenhouse 1986, 84). This kind of reduction of the 'Elizabethan stage' to Shakespeare is even more clear when Tennenhouse states that Richard II plays down Richard's implication in his uncle's death because the only way of showing such royal deviance would have been to 'represent Richard II as the monstrous form in which Richard III steps forth' (Tennenhouse 1986, 77).

  18. Unfortunately for Tennenhouse, Woodstock represents Richard's responsibility for his uncle's death by showing him as a weak-willed and manipulable young man rather than a monster like Richard III. Tennenhouse's assertions of what could not happen after Henry V are similarly suspect, for Henry V did not mark the end of the history play genre. We know of at least ten between Henry V and the accession of James, and more after it. Whilst it is true that few new ones seem to have been written after the middle of the new century's first decade, it must be remembered first that our information about the repertory is by no means complete, and second, that there is evidence that the history play remained theatrically popular. There was only one year between 1600 and 1614 when a post-Conquest history play (as defined by Ribner) was not published or republished. The decade up to 1600 saw 29 editions of these history plays published; but the decade succeeding it saw 21. 1 Henry IV was the most popular, with six editions to 1620, but sharing second place with Richard II and Richard III (five editions) were Heywood's 1 and 2 Edward IV and If You Know Not Me, whilst Marlowe's Edward II matched the three editions of the two parts of The Contention and Henry V. It was certainly possible to write history plays after 1600, and it was, on the evidence of print, certainly possible to revive them. 1 History plays continue to appear 'topical', as the loss of some newly-relevant lines about Buckingham from the First Folio of Richard III shows (Clare 1990, 199-200).

  19. Phyllis Rackin's work on Shakespeare's histories also begins from the proposition that a knowledge of Shakespeare is all that is necessary for understanding the capacities for historical consciousness of an era. Like Ornstein, whom she quotes approvingly, she disposes of the genre by stating that it was popular because of Shakespeare, that it ceased to be popular 'soon after Shakespeare abandoned it', that 'there is good evidence that the genre itself is largely Shakespeare's creation' and that his plays 'shaped the tradition' (Rackin 1990, 31). 'Creating a genre' is more than just choosing subject matter, however, and Shakespeare's indebtedness to earlier dramatic forms such as the romance and the heroic play has long been clear, thanks to the work of David Riggs and Paul Dean (Riggs 1971; Dean 1981). The relationship of Shakespeare's plays to the history play tradition is more complex than Rackin allows, not least because the problems of dating history plays make the direction of influence difficult to ascertain. It is also not clear, for example, how Henry V participates in genre-shaping if the history play ceased to exist shortly after it, or if the misrule in the Henriad shaped the misrule in plays such as Wyatt,or 1 Sir John Oldcastle, whilst remaining somehow unshaped by the misrule in The Famous Victories or Jack Straw.

  20. To verify Shakespeare's popularity, Rackin reminds the reader of Nashe's defence of history plays, and his use of Talbot to exemplify the power of the 'wooden O of Shakespeare's theater' (Rackin 1990, 116). As is usual with Shakespeareans, she passes over Nashe's equally approving reference to a non-Shakespearean Henry play and Thomas Heywood's praise of an Edward III play (McKerrow 1958, 213; Heywood 1612, B4r). Such selective quotation from Nashe and Heywood, along with her habitual attribution to 'Shakespeare's histories' or 'Shakespeare's theatre' of qualities present in other histories and other theatres, and her assumption that a genre is dead once no new plays are written, collapses the genre into Shakespeare. At the same time, Rackin is insensitive to the textuality of historiography in her presumption, on the apparent evidence of one critical book, that the history play was the victim of a grand epistemic shift, during which 'the theoretical contradictions that complicated the nature of history and its relationship to drama were sufficiently resolved that the shape of modern historiography– factual and positivistic– and the sphere of modern drama– personal and ahistorical– had already become apparent' and 'foreclosed the possibility of writing historical drama as Shakespeare had conceived it' (Rackin 1990, 31, 32). The circularity of the argument is clear, because for Rackin nobody else is capable of writing this kind of play anyway. The really indispensable condition of the 'true' history play's existence is Shakespeare's continuing to work within the genre.

  21. Matthew Wikander, whose The Play of Truth and State informs much of Rackin's thinking about the genre as a whole, suggests an alternative and rather more materialist reason for the 'disappearance' of the history play. The 1599 trouble over Hayward's history of Henry IV, and the consequent Privy Council order preventing histories from being printed without explicit permission, are for him crucial. He also points out that two of the three English histories surviving from the period 1610-42 'suffered some kind of governmental interference before being allowed upon the stage'; of non-English histories, Sejanus and the Byron plays also caused trouble for their writers (Wikander 1986, 51).

  22. The features in Tennenhouse and Rackin that I have isolated show the continuity existing between them and more openly Bardocentric writings. Paola Pugliatti's recent Shakespeare the Historian is much more upfront, beginning from the position that 'other playwrights of the period exploited the political myths derived from the English chronicles, and some of them even wrote good plays; but, certainly, Shakespeare's interest in history shows a constancy and a consistency which has no parallel in any of them' (Pugliatti 1996, 7). Certainly none of them contributed, as Shakespeare's did, to historiography itself. The focus on playwrights, of course, loads the dice, excluding one of the most prolific creators of history plays, Anon, and denying the view put forward by Richard Helgerson that the many history plays of the Henslowe writing syndicates have a consistent 'house' style and characteristic historical subject matter. Shakespeare's contribution to historiography – perspectivism – turns out, however, to be writing plays with certain literary virtues: 'a dramatic cross-examination from different points of view, embodied in/ different dramatic styles, of the issues raised and events enacted on the stage' (Pugliatti 1996, 7-8). This, in turn, is a 'significant contribution ... to an indirect criticism of contemporary historical sources' (Pugliatti 1996, 8). Shakespeare is a historian by virtue of creating well-made plays.

  23. Phyllis Rackin and Jean Howard devote a chapter to 'the history play in Shakespeare's time' in their recent Engendering a Nation. The book deliberately confines itself to nine Shakespearean histories, and as part of a series of feminist readings of Shakespeare has a priori justification for doing so. But it too employs in some measure the strategies outlined above, particularly the cod-historicism whereby Shakespeare is distinguished for something shared with others:

    The number of dramatic histories which Shakespeare wrote or helped to write indicates the popularity of this genre in the 1590s. Clearly, theatregoers had a taste for these plays; and the number of early printed versions that were produced suggests that readers did, also. Collectively, in their multiple versions, these plays incited patriotic interest in England's past and participated in the process by which the English forged a sense of themselves as a nation. (Howard and Rackin 1997, 18)

    It's not clear whether 'these plays' in the second sentence refers to the genre or to Shakespeare's plays, but the telltale 'multiple versions' in the third sentence indicates that Shakespeare is the referent. Of course some of Shakespeare's histories were popular (though only seven of them saw print before 1623); of course they may 'collectively' (whatever that means) have incited patriotic interest, and have participated in nation-formation. But can all that should be said about the popularity of history plays, patriotic interest in England's past and the formation of a sense of English nationhood be said using Shakespeare? Martha Kurtz, for one, challenges Rackin and others' assumptions that the history play was inherently a patriarchal genre, always opposed to the feminine, partly by approaching Shakespeare's plays differently, but partly by simply reading outside the Shakespearean canon. For her, Woodstock and Sir Thomas More show women not always demonised or marginalised, and 'the history play of the 1590s was not a totalitarian, hegemonic genre that enforced the code of a patriarchal society, but a new and experimental form within which individual playwrights might articulate a range of ideas, radical as well as conservative, about men and women and their place in public life' (Kurtz 1996, 285).

  24. The assumed simplicity of the non-Shakespearean genre has served formalistically inclined critics in another way, acting as a foil for Shakespearean variety. Jonathan Hart's recent attempt to define what Shakespeare's kind of history play might be concludes that it is difficult to define: even in the Henriad, individual plays lean towards, in chronological order, tragedy, comedy, satire and the problem play (Hart 1992, 4). He shows Shakespeare 'seeking new shapes' for the genre, and in doing so debating (and, it is implied, rejecting) 'the possibility of the history play' (Hart 1992, 5, 4). Against this, Hart sets kind of history play that enacts poetic justice, as characterised by Heywood, the kind of play that 'would not raise the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain' (Hart 1992, 17). Shakespeare is, above all, an experimental writer, 'bringing different genres into collision with the history play'. Oddly, through this anti-history play, he 'contributed most to making the history play a popular form in England' (Hart, 1992, 22). The use of 'occur' and 'recur' in the following quotation is presumably a typographical error, but illuminates what seems to be the inexorable logic of Hart's case for the independence and 'priority' of Shakespeare:

    Those, especially, who wrote in the 1580s and 1590s gave him his first lessons in mixing the comic and the tragic, creating linked plays that had great scope and described history, focusing on representative protagonists or monstrous villains, and using chronicles. Several oppositions of ideas that occur in the Second Tetralogy recur in these anonymous plays ... Shakespeare explores their interplay more rigorously. (Hart 1992, 245)

  25. The clearest example of the necessity for and the impossibility of 'Shakespeare's genre' is in the recent work of Robert Knapp, who writes that

    of the many ways in which Shakespeare exercises a peculiar authority in world dramatic history, not least is his unique mastery of the full range of generic shapes, a mastery that both (re-) establishes norms for their particular effects and insists upon the covert dependency of such effects upon an absent generic other. Or pair of others, for the histories (mostly) evade tragedy without being comic, except at moments... (Knapp 1989, 183)

    Though the best efforts of contemporary critics seem to endorse Samuel Johnson's 1765 verdict that 'the players, who in their edition divided our author's works into comedies, histories and tragedies, seem not to have distinguished the three kinds by any very exact or definite ideas' (Johnson 1765, 127), their conviction that the Shakespearean histories are central to the genre repeats a move first made in 1623 by Heminge and Condell, who can lay some claim to the responsibility for the idea that the English history play was a genre in the usually understood sense. If it is Bardolatry to assert that Shakespeare wrote the only true history plays, it is Bardolatry with a specific history.

  26. The only comprehensive modern account of the genre attending fully to its non-Shakespearean element, Irving Ribner's The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, characterises it as a sub-species of English history, using 'material drawn from national chronicles and assumed by the dramatist to be true' to treat 'the life of the state' (Ribner 1965, 24, 25). Ribner's definition is so permissive partly because although the term 'history' was often used to describe plays in the period – for example, it turns up in Burbage and Pope's petition to the Privy Council in 1596 for the extension of the Blackfriars licence (Hazlitt, 1869, 36) – there is little evidence that its usage then corresponds to our understanding of the genre now. According to Greg's Bibliography of English Printed Drama to the Restoration, the term 'history' was rarely applied without qualification to plays we would now call histories. On title pages of post-Conquest histories alone we encounter Troublesome Reign, Famous Chronicle, Life and Death of ..., True Tragedy, Reign, Tragedy, History, Famous Victory, Chronicle History, True and Honourable History, Famous Chronicle History, The Troubles of ..., and Famous History.

  27. Around the time that Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV was published as a 'history' there seems to have been a shift away from identifying new historical plays as tragedies (as Francis Meres in 1597 identified Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV and King John), and towards designating them as histories with the variously qualifiers 'famous', 'chronicle', 'famous chronicle', 'true chronicle', or 'true and honourable'. Apart from 'honourable', which as applied only to 1 Sir John Oldcastle is clearly deployed as part of its opposition to 1 Henry IV , these terms all denote the play's historical veracity. The word 'history' elsewhere usually denotes a story: Doctor Faustus is termed a 'tragical history', as were the first two quartos of Hamlet; The Two Angry Women of Abingdon is a 'pleasant history'; The Taming of A Shrew a 'pleasant conceited history'; Alphonsus King of Aragon is a 'comical history'; The Merchant of Venice is a 'most excellent history' (and a 'comical history' in head titles); Antonio and Mellida just plain 'history'; and James IV, entered in the Stationers' Register as 'the Scottishe story' is a 'Scottish history intermixed with a pleasant Comedie' on its title page (Greg 1939, 327, 310, 262, 203, 259, 278, 294, 244). Earlier uses of the terms also sometimes distinguish between 'famous' (ie well-known and true) historical subject matter and what the players or writers made of it. In 1557, Jacob and Esau's title page characterises the play as 'A newe mery and wittie Comedie or Enterlude...treating upon the Historie of Jacob and Esau' (Greg 1939, 130). A decade later, Common Conditions' title page describes 'An excellent and pleasant Comedie... drawne out of the most famous historie of Galiarbus Duke of Arabia' (Greg 1939, 149). Promos and Cassandra's title page advertises 'The Right Excellent and famous Historye, of Promos and Cassandra: Devided into two Commical Discourses' (Greg 1939, 153).

  28. The first time that the self-sufficient term 'history' is used consistently in the modern sense – denoting a play on post-Conquest English history – is thus in the First Folio. It is not wholly facetious to suggest, then, that the first canon of the 'history' play, as opposed to that of the 'true/famous/tragical/chronicle/reign,' consists solely of those 'histories' the First Folio attributes to Shakespeare. The genre has remained Shakespeare's ever since, and his dominance of it, unequalled elsewhere by any of his contemporaries, is still a significant contributor to his reputation. In fact, the necessity to establish the generic scope of Shakespeare is quite possibly behind Heminge and Condell's 'creation' of the English history play genre.

  29. Heminge and Condell chose to emphasis both Shakespeare's generic range and his strength in depth because in constructing 'Shakespeare', they proceeded, as many have done since, to put together a Shakespeare-who-is-not-Ben-Jonson, author of the first First Folio. Jonson's First Folio was a self-conscious act of summation and self-promotion on his part, collecting successful and unsuccessful plays, some revised, complete with prefatory matter and dedications, most of the poetry of the Epigrams and the Forest, as well as texts of Jonson's entertainments, masques, barriers and panegyrics (though none of his work for the City of London was included) (Dutton 1996, 61-69). The variety and scope of this collection, as Jonson well knew, was for the time unsurpassable.

  30. The recent 'Oxford' account of the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio sees Jonson's Works as presenting Heminge and Condell with several challenges. They could not, or would not, arrange the plays in date order, as Jonson had, either because they did not know the order, or because they thought Jonson was pretentious in so doing, or because they did not want to fix a single date on plays with more than one incarnation. Works as a title was out, as too Jonsonian (that is, pretentious). Plays would signal too clearly that the collection did not aspire to Jonsonian scope. So the collection was called Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (Wells et al 1987, 36-8).

  31. Whilst I agree with the Oxford editors that this title 'successfully navigates between the Scylla and Charybdis of Works or Plays, while at the same time confidently advertising the range of Shakespeare's output – as successful in three genres as Jonson had been in one' (Wells et al, 38), I would like to suggest a different genealogy for the volume. Heminge and Condell's First Folio is inclusive where Jonson's is selective: though it excludes some plays attributed to Shakespeare (The London Prodigal, A Yorkshire Tragedy, Pericles, 1 Sir John Oldcastle, and The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England), it greatly extends Shakespeare's dramatic canon. Where Jonson was fussy about including collaborative work, Heminge and Condell included plays they knew to be collaborations (most obviously Henry VIII), and others whose sole authorship by Shakespeare may well have been doubtful to them, as to modern scholars. Where Jonson did not distinguish by genre (though the engraving on his title page features personifications of tragedy, comedy, pastoral, satire, and tragicomedy), Heminge and Condell confidently (over-confidently, in the case of Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida, and, many have argued, some of the histories) found pegs for generic holes.

  32. Perhaps most importantly, Jonson had omitted at least two British history plays he worked on: the collaborative 1598 Henslowe play Robert II King of Scots and his 1602 solo Richard Crookback. The latter play, Roslyn Knutson suggests, may well have been the subject of a spoiling revival by Shakespeare's company of Richard III, which was reprinted, and thus possibly revived in the theatre, in the same year (Knutson 1991, 168-9). So by including as many of Shakespeare's plays as they could, and presenting collaborative work as Shakespeare's alone, Heminge and Condell showed a Shakespeare surpassing Jonson in dramatic bulk. By foregrounding Shakespeare's generic range in introducing the category of 'history' they showed that Shakespeare had mastered a genre that Jonson had not even attempted – or better still, for the cognoscenti, that he had attempted but would not own up to in print. Paradoxically, then, Jonson's abandonment of his early history plays helped to create 'Shakespeare's genre'. This may not have escaped the man Drummond described as a great lover and praiser of himself and a condemner and scorner of others, for by the time Shakespeare died Jonson knew that his rival had succeeded where he had not.

  33. It is thus perhaps significant that the first play in Jonson's 1616 Works (dedicated to the foremost historian of the day, William Camden) is prefaced by his famous swipe at Shakespeare's histories promising that this play will not 'with three rusty swords / And help of some few foot-and-half-foot words, / Fight over York, and Lancaster's long jars', nor will a 'Chorus waft[s] you o'er the seas' (Prologue to Every Man In His Humour, 9-11, 15). 2 In the same year that Jonson's Works appeared, in The Devil Is An Ass, the dupe Fitzdottrel quotes the fates of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke Humphrey and Richard III, but on being complimented for being 'cunning i' th' chronicle' replies, 'No, I confess I ha't from the play-books, / And think they are more authentic' (2:1, 380-6). Other plays than Shakespeare's featured these characters; but Jonson's satirical animus against the history play seems clear. It is thus a cruel irony that what may have been Jonson's final attempt to come to terms with, or surpass, Shakespeare's 'history', his own 'story' of not just Henry V's Agincourt campaign, but 'eight of his nine years' as king, based on documentation supplied by the leading antiquarians of the day Carew, Cotton and Selden, was destroyed by the fire in his chambers in the same year as Heminge and Condell published the First Folio ('An execration upon Vulcan', in Jonson, 1988, 184).

  34. So the First Folio generic divisions were not merely a scholarly exercise in dramatic taxonomy. Though the sheer number of plays included by Heminge and Condell can be attributed to their perceived responsibilities towards rescuing Shakespeare's works for posterity, their creation of the 'history' in the modern sense was part of an attempt to present, and sell, 'Shakespeare' as it has so often been sold since – as opposed to Ben Jonson. Jonson may not have been unhappy with this kind of demarcation, contributing as he did to the First Folio his own example of Shakespeare as not-Jonson with his famous comment about the Bard's small Latin and less Greek.

  35. The constitutive role of Shakespeare in the very idea of the history play helps to explain the Bardocentrism of later scholars. Many of the problems normally associated with defining a literary genre have been sidestepped by the assumption that Shakespeare is central to the genre. And once it is assumed that Shakespeare's plays are central, they can be praised – paradoxically – for their willingness to break generic cover, for their blending satire or tragedy with history, for providing the ultimate comic history, even, in the early plays, for absorbing elements of romance and the heroic play. So the Shakespearean history play is a Polonian nightmare all on its own. Shakespeare, to stretch an Eagletonian trope, has certainly read Hayden White, and his histories, formally, cover all the bases, so there is no need to look outside. Meantime, revaluing the histories allows a revaluation of the early Shakespeare, which puts Marlowe in the shade, and draws the sting of the Jonsonian challenge to the Bard in tragedy and comedy (and, of course, his superiority in the effete aristocratic genres of pageantry and masque).

  36. What, then, does the Shakespearean history exclude? Cursory reference to extant plays and Holinshed's treatment of the likely subject matter of lost plays reveals a great deal: A Richard II directly responsible for the murder of his uncle (Woodstock); kings whose sexual appetitites blight the lives of their subjects (Edward III, The Huntingdon Plays, Edward IV, Alice Pierce/Perrers); regicides (Piers of Exton); leaders of London risings during the reign of Henry II (William Longbeard); the problems of Protestant political disobedience (Wyatt, Oldcastle), the death of a famous German mercenary commander in the Lambert Simnel rising against Henry VII (Martin Swart);anti-Jewish riots in London (Funeral of Richard Coeur de Lion); an English queen who had ruled within living memory (Lady Jane Grey, in Wyatt and/or two plays bearing her name). And that is not to mention all those plays covering the reigns that Shakespeare's plays did, or the plays of Edward II, Mortimer, The Spensers, or to consider, for example, whether these histories were primarily comic, tragic, heroic, or satiric. Placing the 'Great Books' of Shakespearean history against these texts might help the former's authority 'seep away'; but as long as critics conceive of themselves as working within Shakespeare Studies rather than cultural history it appears more likely that they will carry on the work begun by Heminge and Condell three and a half centuries ago when they claimed the history play as Shakespeare's genre.


  1. Ivo Kamps attacks the idea of the unpopularity of the history play in the post-Elizabethan era, pointing to documented court performances and likely revivals (Kamps 1996, 196-98).


  2. It is possible, of course, that Jonson expected that his 1616 dramatic 'works' would be compared with Shakespeare's as yet uncollected corpus, and that he anticipated this in prefacing them with what seems to be a rubbishing of the histories, as well as elements of The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Cymbeline.


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Contents © Copyright Steve Longstaffe 1997.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1997. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 2, Number 2, Autumn 1997.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 30 September 1998.