Chronicle Plays Essay - Critical Essays

Chronicle Plays


Chronicle Plays

Genre of Renaissance drama based on major events and figures in English history.

The chronicle plays of the English Renaissance dramatize the lives and actions of the medieval kings of England during a crucial stage in its history. Such figures as Henry V and Edward II have become iconic literary figures because such sixteenth-century authors as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe used historical accounts of their reigns as the basis for dramatic works. Not only do chronicle plays provide dramatized episodes from medieval history, scholars have observed, they also offer insights into the political figures and events of the period in which their authors worked, as they often pointedly comment on contemporary political issues.

Literary historians generally concur that John Skelton's Magnyfycence (1519) marks the advent of the chronicle play in the English theater. Skelton's drama marks a transition between the allegorical, religiously centered morality plays of the medieval stage and Renaissance plays that depict secular history in a realistic manner. Not strictly a chronicle play as the genre would be developed by such authors as Marlowe and Shakespeare, Magnyfycence retains the medieval technique of allegory in which the story is acted out by stock characters such as Magnificence, the King, and the King's counselors Folly and Perseverance (thought by some to represent Cardinal Wolsey and the Duke of Norfolk). Skelton's introduction of secular subjects to the English stage was not developed further until the 1530s, when John Bale wrote Kynge Johan (c. 1534). This work was the first of several chronicle plays—including an early play by Shakespeare—examining the rule of King John, who was later held up as a Protestant hero for opposing the power of the Pope when Catholicism was still the national religion. Although Bale borrowed heavily from the form of the medieval morality play, closely linking the characters with the traditional allegorical figures of the earlier plays, the historical basis of Kynge Johan gives it the status of the first genuine chronicle play. Bale drew from historical materials to fashion a work of political propaganda that would not only glorify a national hero from the past—the purportedly martyred King John—but also advance a political viewpoint that pertained to the religious struggles of his own time. The chronicle play did not reach its full flower until the reign of Elizabeth I. Christopher Marlowe composed Edward II around 1592, and between 1589 and 1599, the chronicle plays of Shakespeare appeared in prolific succession: Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (1589-91), Richard III (1592-93), King John (1592-93), Richard II (1595-96), Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597-98), and Henry V (1598-99). The latter two works are often considered by many scholars to be the artistic epitome of the chronicle play.

Chronicle histories reflect a method of historiography by which texts from various sources were compiled with little or no editing, even when contradictory accounts of an event were available. Dramatists drew from a variety of sources in the composition of chronicle plays. Perhaps the best known of these is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1577; revised 1587), which are thought to be Shakespeare's primary source of historical information. Earlier sources include the chronicle histories of the French historian John Froissart (published in four volumes between 1377 and 1400; translated into English 1523-25), Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), and the Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles (1565) of John Stow, who later worked on Holinshed's history. The popularity of chronicle histories in the middle years of the reign of Elizabeth I coincided with a broad interest in forming a national identity—a project in which the dissemination of English history played a substantial part. The chronicles' strong focus on chronology (hence the name “chronicles”) also came increasingly to emphasize the cause and effect of human actions over the inscrutable workings of a divine power: political and military strategy began to rival in importance the will of God in explaining the course of national history. Taking liberties to develop characters and scenarios that could be effectively staged, the authors of Renaissance chronicle plays furthered the formation of a national identity in sixteenth-century England.

The relationship between chronicle plays and Renaissance historiography is a common theme in the scholarship concerned with this literary genre. Playwrights used a variety of sources to serve diverse purposes, and often scholars have been as interested in the ways in which playwrights diverged from the chronicle sources as in the plays themselves. As Lister Matheson and Peter Saccio have argued, one task of a playwright such as Shakespeare was to make the history offered in the chronicle stageworthy, possibly by choosing the version of an event that is most dramatic, if not the most accurate. Surveying trends in Renaissance historiography, Phyllis Rackin has suggested that dramatists, like historians, were keenly aware of the didactic function of history and crafted their stories accordingly. Since the advent of more political, historicist approaches to literature in the mid-1980s, scholars have also begun to scrutinize the ideological agendas of the chronicle plays. The plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others had previously been interpreted for the most part as straightforward, nationalistic celebrations of English monarchs. Later critics, however, have suggested that the ideology and function of these plays is more subtle and complex. Leonard Tennenhouse was one of the first scholars to call for a more politically sophisticated approach to understanding how chronicle plays use language and representation in ways similar to those of the Renaissance monarchs Elizabeth I and James I, thus linking the political climate of the courts of the English Renaissance to the rise and fall of this literary genre.

Representative Works

Albion Knight (play) c. 1537-38
The Raigne of Edward III (play) c. 1590
Woodstock (play) c. 1591-95

John Bale
Kynge Johan (play) c. 1534

Robert Davenport
King John and Matilda (play) c. 1630-40

John Ford
Perkin Warbeck (play) 1634

Thomas Heywood
Edward IV, Parts 1 and 2 (play) c. 1594-99
If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody, Parts 1 and 2 (play) 1603-05

Christopher Marlowe
Edward II (play) 1592

George Peele
Edward I (play) c. 1590-92

William Shakespeare
Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (play) 1589-91
King John (play) 1592-93
Richard III (play) 1592-93
Richard II (play) 1595-96
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (play) 1597-98
Henry V (play) 1598-99
Henry VIII (play) 1612-13

John Skelton
Magnyfycence (play) 1519

Criticism: Development Of The Genre

Felix Emmanuel Schelling (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: Schelling, Felix Emmanuel. “Popular Playwrights: Modifications of the Type.” In The English Chronicle Play: A Study in the Popular Historical Literature Environing Shakespeare, pp. 134-71. New York: MacMillan Company, 1902.

[In this essay, Schelling focuses on the chronicle plays of the later 1590s and the new elements these works introduced to the genre.]

As we have seen above, it was during the last decade of the [sixteenth] century that the Chronicle Play flourished in its greatest luxuriance. We have already investigated the part which Shakespeare's earlier contemporaries, Marlowe, Greene and Peele, played in the development of this species of drama....

(The entire section is 9198 words.)

William A. Armstrong (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Armstrong, William A. Introduction to Elizabethan History Plays, pp. vii-xv. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

[In the following the introduction to a collection of early English chronicle plays, Armstrong details the importance of John Bale's Kynge Johan as one of the first chronicle plays, then discusses later works in the genre, including Edward III, Woodstock, John Ford's Perkin Warbeck, and Robert Davenport's King John and Matilda.]

Great enterprises often have unexpected origins. The creative process which culminated in Shakespeare's history plays was probably set in motion by William Tyndale's terse but pointed criticism of...

(The entire section is 2817 words.)

Irving Ribner (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Ribner, Irving. “The Emergence of a Dramatic Genre.” In The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, pp. 30-64. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.

[In this essay, Ribner traces the roots of the Renaissance chronicle plays back to medieval morality plays and the classical tradition of Senecan drama.]

To trace the history play to its ultimate source would be, from one point of view, to go back to the very origins of drama itself. For drama is a narrative art, and the earliest subjects for narrative in every civilization have been the heroic achievements of peoples, the exploits of popular heroes, those events which a nation seeks to perpetuate for its...

(The entire section is 14897 words.)

Criticism: Historiography And Literature

John E. Curran, Jr. (essay date August 1999)

SOURCE: Curran, John E., Jr. “Geoffrey of Monmouth in Renaissance Drama: Imagining Non-History.” Modern Philology 97, no. 1 (1999): 1-20.

[In this essay, Curran reviews the story told in Shakespeare's King Lear as it appears in several chronicle plays, comparing Shakespeare's more poetic treatment of historical events and figures with those of more factual chronicle dramas.]

At the end of King Lear, Shakespeare makes a crucial decision that sheds much light on his intentions for the play: contrary to the story he would have read everywhere else, he has Regan and Goneril die without issue. Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, recounted in his...

(The entire section is 8912 words.)

Joan Parks (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Parks, Joan. “History, Tragedy, and Truth in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II.SEL 39, no. 2 (spring 1999): 275-90.

[In this essay, Parks takes issue with the traditional notion that Edward II functioned to bring about the transition between the chronicle play and more modern history plays.]

Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is typically applauded as an aesthetic achievement, a history play that brings form and meaning to the incoherent material of its chronicle source by retelling the king's slightly dull, twenty-year reign as the fierce and deadly struggle of a few willful personalities. Within the development of Elizabethan drama,...

(The entire section is 6810 words.)

Peter Saccio (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Saccio, Peter. “History and History Plays.” In Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama, second edition, pp. 3-15. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In this essay, Saccio provides a background for the historical events addressed in Shakespeare's history plays—events that also comprise the subject matter of several other chronicle plays of the period.]

Methinks the truth should live from age to age.

Late in Shakespeare's Richard III, three royal ladies, the dowager queens Margaret and Elizabeth and the dowager duchess of York, sit upon the ground to catalogue their...

(The entire section is 4036 words.)

Criticism: Genre And Performance

Charles R. Forker (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays as Historical Pastoral.” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 85-104.

[In this essay, Forker focuses on the pastoral elements in Shakespeare's histories, suggesting that the pastoral functions to raise the issue of natural order and that in his chronicle plays Shakespeare used the contrast between the epic and pastoral genres to develop the contrast between order and chaos.]

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.


(The entire section is 9746 words.)

Lister M. Matheson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Matheson, Lister M. “English Chronicle Contexts for Shakespeare's Death of Richard II.” In From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama, edited by John A. Alford, pp. 195-219. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

[In this essay, Matheson explores the issue of Shakespeare's source materials, using the death scene in Richard II as an example.]

The murder of the king, weapon in hand, struck down (probably with a poleaxe) by Sir Pierce of Exton, in Shakespeare's Richard II (1595) is remarkable for several reasons. It shows a decisive aspect of Richard's character that is free of any sense of resignation or passive...

(The entire section is 10174 words.)

Martha A. Kurtz (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Kurtz, Martha A. “Rethinking Gender and Genre in the History Play.” SEL 36, no. 2 (1996): 265-87.

[In this essay, Kurtz examines the role of female characters in such plays as Sir Thomas More, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry VI, and Woodstock.]

Two concepts that have exercised considerable influence over criticism of Elizabethan drama in the past fifteen years are what might be called the hegemony of genre—that is, the idea that the ideological content of a play is predetermined and controlled by the dramatic genre to which the play seems to belong—and the Lacanian dualistic theory of gender in which masculine and feminine are seen as discrete and...

(The entire section is 8545 words.)

Criticism: Politics And Ideology

Leonard Tennenhouse (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Tennenhouse, Leonard. “Strategies of State and Political Plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 109-28. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

[In this essay, Tennenhouse traces changes in Shakespeare's plays concurrent with the movement from Elizabethan to Jacobean politics.]


For over fifty years traditional literary criticism has read Shakespeare's history plays in one of three ways: as overt political texts that can be interpreted by reference to the...

(The entire section is 8393 words.)

Larry S. Champion (essay date April 1988)

SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “‘Answere to this Perillous Time’: Ideological Ambivalence in The Raigne of King Edward III and the English Chronicle Plays.” English Studies 69, no. 2 (April 1988): 117-29.

[In this essay, Champion uses the example of the anonymous play The Raigne of King Edward III to argue that the chronicle play resonated in different ways with different strata of the audience.]

The Raigne of Edward III, published anonymously in quartos of 1596 and 1599, has been described as ‘one of the finest examples of the chronicle history plays’,1 ‘the most academic and intellectual’2 and the ‘most...

(The entire section is 6799 words.)

Further Reading


Boas, Frederick, S. “Senecan Chronicle-Play at Cambridge.” In University Drama in the Tudor Age, pp. 109-32. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1914.

Study of chronicle plays performed by students at Cambridge University in the sixteenth century.

Champion, Larry S. ”The Noise of the Threatening Drum”: Dramatic Strategy and Political Ideology in Shakespeare and the English Chronicle Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.

Includes chapters on nine of the major chronicle plays, focusing on the political ideology expressed in these works as well as their portrayal of political events of the time....

(The entire section is 221 words.)