Chronicle Plays Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.