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HISTORY PLAYS (RIBNER)

The coming of Henry VII to the English throne in 1485 gave a new impetus to historical writing, for
among other things the right of the Tudors to the throne had to be demonstrated. The new English
historical writings carried on much of the tradition of the medieval chronicles, but, as we shall see,
they were profoundly influenced also by the new historical schools of Renaissance Italy. They were
predominantly secular works, intensely nationalistic in their dedication to the greater glory of
England, and deliberately propagandistic in their use of history to support the right of the Tudors to
the throne and to preach political doctrine particularly dear to the Tudors.
Although chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth were also sometimes drawn upon by the historical
dramatists of the age of Shakespeare, it was chiefly the writings of these Renaissance English
historians which furnished the sources of the history plays with which we shall be concerned.
The new Renaissance history had its birth in England when Duke Humphrey of Gloucester
commissioned Tito Livio of Ferrara to write the history of Henry V. But the new historiography
begins in earnest with the arrival in England of Polydore Vergil in about 1501. Vergil was
commissioned by Henry VII to write a history of England which would, among other things,
establish the right of the Tudors to the throne. The Anglica Historia was not published, however,
until 1534, and in attacking the authenticity of Arthurian legend it did not accomplish the ends
Henry VII had envisioned. 3 In 1516, in the meantime, had been published Robert Fabyan The
New Chronicles of England and of France, essentially a medieval work, but one to be used by
Elizabethan writers of history plays. It was to go through three more editions by 1559. In 1548
Grafton printed posthumously the important work of Edward Hall, a barrister at Gray's Inn. This
was The Union of the two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke , which, as we
shall see, did so much to shape the philosophy of history in the plays of Shakespeare. Hall had
based his work upon Polydore Vergil, and by writing in English he gave wide currency to Vergil's
particular propagandistic view of English history. Hall's was probably the most influential of all
Elizabethan accounts of the period from Richard II to the coming of Henry VII. In 1562 Grafton
further brought out An Abridgement of the Chronicles of England which went through five editions
by 1572. In 1563 John Foxe produced his Actes and Monuments or The Book of Martyrs, as it
was commonly called, which gave to the history he recorded the strong imprint of his own
Reformation prejudices. This work was to be a source for historical plays dealing with the Tudor
period, and particularly the biographical plays. But the most important work of all, in so far as
the history play is concerned, appeared in 1577, when Raphael Holinshed published his
monumental Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande.
It was probably through Holinshed that Hall's view of history received its widest currency. A second
edition of Holinshed, greatly altered, appeared in 1587, and it was to this edition that Shakespeare
and his contemporaries went for the greater part of the Elizabethan and Jacobean historical
drama. Drama was, of course, not the only literary art in the Elizabethan age which went to the
chronicles of England for its inspiration. There is also a long and vital tradition of historical nondramatic poetry, 5 of which the most significant exemplar, for its influence upon the history play, is
A Mirror for Magistrates,-begun by William Baldwin as a continuation of John Lydgate Fall of
Princes,--first printed in 1559 after having been suppressed by Queen Mary and enlarged and reedited six more times by 1587. Michael Drayton was the author of several historical poems.
His Piers Gaveston was printed in 1593, and his Matilda followed in 1594. These were both
reprinted in 1596, along with The Tragical Legend of Robert Duke of Normandy. In that year also
Drayton published his Mortimeriados, which he was later to rewrite and republish in 1603 as The
Barons Warres.
The editors of the Shakespeare folio of 1623 divided his plays into tragedies, comedies, and
histories; but it is not likely that Heminges and Condell approached their task with fine critical
distinctions, as we know, for instance, from their inclusion of Cymbaline among the tragedies.
Under histories, they included only Shakespeare's plays on recent British history, but certainly no

Elizabethan would have questioned the historicity of such plays as Julius Caesar and Antony and
Cleopatra, to say nothing of King Lear and Macbeth. It seems likely that the editors of folio were
most interested in presenting Shakespeare's plays on recent English history in chronological order.
This they did, labeling the group histories. All other plays they grouped as either comedies or
tragedies--except for Troilus and Cressida, about which there was apparently some confusion-ignoring whether they were histories as well.
This historical purpose has also been recognized by E.M.W. Tillyard, who regards Shakespeare's
history plays as the embodiment of providential history, particularly as expounded by Edward Hall.
Tillyard feels that Shakespeare, in his use of Hall, asserts order, degree, and divine providence in
the world. He sees Hall's "Tudor myth," as presenting "a scheme fundamentally religious, by which
events evolve under a law of justice and the ruling of God's providence, and of which Elizabeth's
England was the acknowledged outcome." 14And what he interprets as Shakespeare's conception of
history, Tillyard calls the general Elizabethan conception and the doctrine which all of the best
history plays aim at preaching. There were other schools of historiography in Elizabethan England.
The providential history of Hall, in fact, represents a tradition which, when Shakespeare was
writing, was already in decline. 15 To dismiss, for instance, as Tillyard does (p. 21 ), Machiavelli and
all that he brought to historical method as lying "outside the main sixteenth-century interest" is
clearly shortsighted. In historiography, as in other intellectual areas, the Elizabethan age was one
of flux and uncertainty, with new and heretical notions competing in men's minds against old
established ideas which could no longer be accepted without doubt and questioning. Both the old
and the new notions of history may be found reflected in Tudor history plays.
What then was an historical purpose in Renaissance England? Wallace K. Ferguson has written that
an Italian humanist historian would have offered three reasons for the writing of history: "that it is
a form of literature, highly regarded by the ancients and presenting attractive opportunities for the
exercise of style; that it has great practical value since it teaches moral, ethical, and political
lessons; and finally, that his history celebrated the past and present glories of his native land or of
the state to which it was dedicated."
That Machiavelli was misunderstood by many Elizabethans is certain, but it is equally certain that
there were many and for our purposes, most significantly, Christopher Marlowe--who understood
him well. We must remember that the popular stage "Machiavel," the villain who delights in his own
villainy and gloats over his successes in lengthy soliloquies, is more surely descended from the
Senecan villain-hero and the morality play Vice than from anything in Machiavelli's writings, 29 and
that the "Machiavel" was a stage device used primarily for dramatic rather than political purposes.
The idea of the "Machiavel" has a life and history of its own, entirely unrelated to the history of
Machiavelli's actual ideas in England. The "Machiavel" was used in The Jew of Malta for dramatic
purposes by such a writer as Christopher Marlowe, who we know could also display a true
awareness of Machiavelli's actual ideas in Tamburlaine and who shared many of Machiavelli's
most fundamental premises. Machiavelli's doctrine came from the same classical sources as much
of serious Elizabethan political thought, and it was shaped by many of the same Renaissance
forces, both historical and intellectual.
This Christian philosophy of history persists throughout the Elizabethan era, although Elizabethans
generally conceded that in addition to the will of God, the "primary cause" of all human events,
there were "secondary causes" which could be found in the will of men. Chroniclers like Edward Hall
learned much from the new Italian historiograph, but they did not abandon the religious premises
of the older Christian historiography. Hall differed from his medieval predecessors in his strong
political partisanship. He interpreted the purposes of God to coincide with the purposes of the
Tudors; the Wars of the Roses were to him part of a divine plan which would culminate in the
accession of Henry VII. His school of historiography made great improvements in historical method,
some directly due to Italian humanistic examples, and it was marked by peculiarly sixteenthcentury English political prejudices, but the medieval Christian current in it is nevertheless very
strong. Charles H. Firth has written that "the Elizabethans in general held this belief that
Providence intervened in the government of the world, and most of them held that it was the
business of the historian as a teacher of morality to point it out when he related the events."

We thus can isolate two distinct trends which exerted an influence upon Elizabethan historiography:
a humanist trend essentially classical in origin, and a medieval trend based upon the premises of
Christian belief. In Richard II, King John, and the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare uses history both to
glorify England and to support temporal political doctrine, and at the same time he uses it to assert
divine providence in the universe and to illustrate a rational plan in human events. The English
Renaissance, in most intellectual areas, shows an easy merging of the medieval and humanist. The
English Renaissance, in most intellectual areas, shows an easy merging of the medieval and
humanist.
Although medieval chroniclers had sometimes recorded the insignificant private affairs of
individuals, and something of this practice is carried over in the work of uncritical compilers like
Holinshed, the subject matter of Renaissance history was the life of the state.
We may then define history plays as those which use, for any combination of these purposes,
material drawn from national chronicles and assumed by the dramatist to be true, whether in the
light of our modern knowledge they be true or not. The changing of this material by the dramatist
so that it might better serve either his doctrinal or his dramatic purposes did not alter its essential
historicity insofar as his Elizabethan or Jacobean audience was concerned. Source thus is an
important consideration, but it is secondary to purpose. Plays based upon factual matter which
nevertheless do not serve ends which Elizabethans considered to be legitimate purposes of history
are thus not history plays. 41John Webster White Devil and Duchess of Malfi might be included
among examples of such plays. Whether a dramatist considered certain matter mythical or factual
is often impossible now to determine.
We know that Elizabethans generally distinguished between tragedy and comedy and that they
admitted a third form, tragicomedy, although an early writer like Richard Edwards felt the need to
justify it in his preface to Damon and Pythias. That they made any distinction between tragedy and
history as dramatic forms, however, appears very doubtful, although the author of A Warning for
Fair Women seems to have had some distinction in mind. Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia listed
Richard II, Richard III, King John, and Henry IV as among "our best for Tragedie" History was one
of the classes of serious matter suitable for treatment in tragedy. Indeed, as the sixteenth century
progressed, history came to be regarded as the most suitable matter for tragedy. Ben Jonson, in a
preface to the 1605 edition of Sejanus, offers his "truth of argument" as one of the evidences that
he has "discharged the other offices of a tragic writer," points to his indebtedness to Tacitus,
Suetonius and Seneca, and indicates his specific use of these historians in marginal notes
throughout the text of his play. The close inter-relation between history and tragedy has continued
through the ages. Not all history plays are tragedies, of course, nor are all tragedies histories, but
some of the greatest plays of the Elizabethan era are both: Edward II, Richard II, Julius Caesar,
Sejanus, and others. A history play as we have defined it is, after all, an adaptation of drama to the
purposes of history, and tragedy is merely one form of drama. Aristotle's very attempt to separate
history and poetry left room for historical tragedy which is a fusion of both.
In so far as the form of the Tudor history play is concerned, we must remember that all of
Elizabethan drama, as the last century of investigation has made clear, has its structural roots in
two sources: primitive folk ritual and the medieval religious drama. Of the two native sources of
Elizabethan drama, primitive folk pageantry was by far the less important, and that in so far as the
religious drama is concerned, we must distinguish carefully between the influence of the miracle
play and that of the morality play.
The miracle play, both in the earlier Corpus Christi day mystery cycles and in the later saints
plays, was episodic in structure. It was virtually plotless in its simple presentation of incidents as
the author found them in his Biblical or apocryphal sources. There was little attempt to relate one
incident to the next; the method was factual, entirely devoid of symbolism or allegory. The history
play in its highest form emerged from the morality, as we shall see from our study of Kynge Johan
and Gorboduc. The morality play structure was a perfect vehicle for executing the true historical

function, for the morality was didactic and symbolic, designed to communicate idea rather than
fact, built upon a plot formula in which every event was related to the others so as to create a
meaningful whole.

embodies a Christian philosophy of history, and it is cast in the pattern


of the morality drama, which had itself sprung from characteristically
Christian assumptions.
History for Shakespeare was never mere pageantry. He saw significant meaning in it, and he seized upon
morality devices to make its meaning clear, clearer than the factual method of the chronicles themselves could
make it. But the morality tradition is not limited to the third part of Shakespeare's first historical trilogy; there is
far more of this than Rossiter has perceived. Tillyard has indicated that it is present throughout the three
plays. 16 For if there is any hero who emerges from the vast panorama of events, it can be only England itself.
The Henry VI plays, in spite of their unintegrated, episodic structure, carry on the dramatic tradition of such
political morality plays as Respublica. The three plays, with Richard III, embody one vast scheme in which
England, like a morality hero, brings evil upon herself; she suffers degradation in the Wars of the Roses, loses
her conquests in France, and is brought almost to total destruction under the tyranny of Richard III. But God
pities England, shows her his grace, and, through the person of Henry of Richmond, allows her to make a proper
choice upon which the factions among her nobles can unite. Thus England attains a new and greater felicity to be
exemplified in the reign of the Tudors. This scheme of salvation for England is at the heart of the four plays; it is
the scheme which Shakespeare found in Edward Hall's chronicle; it embodies a Christian philosophy of history,
and it is cast in the pattern of the morality drama, which had itself sprung from characteristically Christian
assumptions.
The three Henry VI plays, with Richard III, may be viewed as virtually a series of successive waves,
in each of which one hero falls and another rises to replace him. The most significant of the falls
are displayed as divine retribution for sin, but there are some also which seem to illustrate only an
arbitrary and capricious fortune. The most significant rise and fall, of course, is that of Richard,
Duke of York, from the Temple Garden scene (II, iv) in Part I to his destruction in the second scene
of Part III. His destruction is displayed as divine punishment for his ruthless ambition and perhaps
chiefly for his sacrifice of Talbot in France. With his death begins the rise of Richard of Gloucester,
whose fall is to come in the succeeding play, Richard III. The pattern of rise and fall is repeated in
lesser instances. The good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester begins his decline at the beginning of Part
I, and with his death at the end of the play begins the rise of Suffolk, who suffers retribution for his
murder of Humphrey and his treachery to Henry VI by his own ignominious death in Part II. Upon
the death of Suffolk, the slowly rising star of Richard of York really comes into ascendency. There is
the brief rise of Edward IV, to be cut off by death and his sons to be murdered in retribution for his
lechery. Clifford rises briefly only to be struck down in vengeance for his brutal slaying of Rutland;
there is the rise of Clarence, whose treachery to Warwick will be repaid by his own murder in
Richard III. The fall of proud Eleanor Cobham to public ignominy is echoed by the similar fall of
Mistress Jane Shore. And the catalogue might be continued. This medieval pattern of rise and fall
lends a certain unifying element to the structure of the trilogy, and it is used to emphasize the
moral lessons inherent in the subject matter. All of the characteristic marks of Senecan style are
present in the plays, although they are less marked in Part I than in the other two plays. The long
Senecan soliloquy of self-revelation, in which the speaker characterizes himself, describes his
motives, and indicates the course of future action, in Part II is particularly obvious in the speeches
of Richard, Duke of York (I, i, 213 - 259 and III, i, 331 -381); in Part III we have the notable
example of Richard of Gloucester's speech (III, ii, 124 - 195 ) in which for the first time he clearly
assumes the role of cynical villain-hero which he is to carry through the succeeding Richard III.
The plays are full of examples of formal Senecan declamation. 22 There are set speeches illustrating
indignation, grief and surprise, hatred and envy, surrender, and defenseless suffering. And there
are the highly formal lamentations, such as that of Young Clifford over the body of his father in Part
II (V, i, 31-65). Craig (p. 61) further lists an imposing array of "tropes, schemata, and figures of
expression," which abound in all three plays. Also, in typically Senecan manner, Shakespeare

attempts to create the feeling of horror by means of rhetorical description. In Part I we find this
particularly in the scenes depicting the death of Mortimer (II, v) and the capture and condemnation
of La Pucelle. In Part II it appears particularly in the curses of Suffolk (III, ii, 309 - 332 ) and in the
ferocity of Young Clifford (V, ii, 51 - 65 ); and this device is used in all of the gruesome murders
which take place in Part III. And throughout the trilogy there is the pattern of the rise and fall of
statesmen at the hands of fortune, the pattern of medieval de casibus tragedy made popular in
Shakespeare's England by A Mirror for Magistrates. The Henry VI plays are concerned with political
issues of vital interest to the Elizabethan age, and they enunciate a deliberate and consistent
philosophy of history. This has not been widely acknowledged in criticism of the plays.
The doctrine of degree is an inherent part of the world view. 28 Each man must keep his allotted
station in life and desire no more; to aspire above one's station is to violate the divinely ordained
order of the universe, and such violation, particularly if it manifests itself in rebellion against God's
agent on earth, the king, must inevitably be punished by God. The proper attitude for a Tudor
gentleman is well expressed by Shakespeare in 2 Henry VI in the speech of Iden:
Lord, who would live turmoiled in the court, And may enjoy such quiet walks as these? This small
inheritance my father left me Contenteth me, and worth a monarchy. I seek not to wax great by
others' waning, or gather wealth, I care not, with what envy: Sufficeth that I have maintains my
state And sends the poor well pleased from my gate.
(IV, x, 18 - 25 )
Iden's acceptance of order is contrasted to the violent disruption of it envisioned by Jack Cade and
his followers:
There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have
ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in
Cheapside shall my palfry go to grass.
(IV, ii, 70 - 74 )
The order which Iden accepts and which Cade would destroy is what God's providence has
designed for man, and the lesson of history as Hall and Shakespeare see it is that when such order
is destroyed, God's curse will plague England until it is restored. This lesson the Henry VI plays
graphically illustrate.
The providential view of history is, of course, an old and commonplace one. Hall's interpretation of
the Wars of the Roses in the light of it, however, belongs particularly to the age in which he wrote
and to the particular political prejudices to which he catered. For Hall perpetuated what Tillyard
(pp. 29-32) has called "the Tudor Myth," and this myth Shakespeare incorporated into his Henry VI
plays. The myth includes two interpretations of earlier history which were designed to support the,
in truth, very shaky claim of the Tudors to the throne. The one held that Henry VII derived his right
to the throne ultimately from King Arthur, through his Welsh ancestry, and that he and his heirs, in
fact, fulfilled the ancient legend that Arthur would return to England and bring with him an era of
glorious wellbeing. The other view was that the coming of Henry Tudor was an act of divine
providence by which God granted to England atonement for her sins and thus terminated the long
period of her suffering which had begun with the upsetting of divine order by the deposition of King
Richard II, and which had reached its culmination of savagery in the tyrannous reign of Richard III.
This train of events which began with Richard's deposition was, according to Hall, all part of a
divine scheme which was to produce the union of the houses of York and Lancaster by Henry Tudor
and thus assure to England a new age of glory under his descendant, Queen Elizabeth.

That Shakespeare accepted this providential view of history and that he saw the period with which
he was dealing within the terms of the "Tudor Myth" have, I believe, been amply demonstrated by
Tillyard. In the Henry VI plays Shakespeare shows us the Wars of the Roses in which England
suffers for her sins, and although, as Whitaker (p. 58) perceives, he does not emphasize the
deposition and murder of Richard II, that initial crime is nevertheless in the background. The
violations of divine harmony and order--the sins for which England must suffer--which Shakespeare
does emphasize are those committed within the Henry VI plays themselves: the sacrifice of Talbot
to the personal ambition and rivalry of York and Somerset, the murder of Duke Humphrey, the
treason and lechery of Suffolk, the murder of Young Rutland, the perfidy of Clarence. The catalogue
is a long one, and in each instance the sinner suffers retribution for his crime in accordance with
the historical order of cause and effect. After the murder of Duke Humphrey in Part II, for instance,
Shakespeare reminds us of God's vengeance which must inevitably follow, when he has King
Henry say: