Chronicle Plays

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Charles R. Forker (essay date 1965)

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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.

Hamlet, II.ii.415-418


The critic who invokes the failing mental powers of Polonius in matters of literary terminology no doubt risks impaling himself upon the point of his own irony. Nevertheless, the risk is worth taking, for there is a sense in which the old counselor's words go beyond their immediate context to describe the modes of Shakespeare's own artistic practice. Elizabethan drama is nearly always “impure art,” and Polonius's final category is more applicable than has generally been recognized to Shakespeare's ten plays on English kings from 1 Henry VI to Henry VIII. It is the “pastoral” element in these histories that I want specifically to discuss in this essay, but perhaps, by way of laying the necessary foundation, I may be permitted a few general comments on the unity of the history plays as a group and the generic principles that appear to inform that unity.1

Although the individual plays have their own dramatic unity and have been acted independently ever since they were first presented at the Globe,2 it is obvious from the arrangement of the Folio, where they are grouped according to the chronology of reigns, that their plots and characters are related and that they share common thematic and political interests. All the plays are crowded with action, comprise a more or less continuous drama covering roughly a century and a half of political and military history, and therefore project an image of great temporal and spatial extent. Because the emphasis is political, they usually present ambiguous conflicts between characters or groups of characters who represent opposed systems of value, partial or complementary mixtures of good and evil, so that our moral sympathies necessarily hover between the different sides of an issue. And in all the plays, too, Shakespeare raises the complex question of order in both its political and metaphysical aspects.

The so-called Tudor myth with its orthodox teleological and providential assumptions about the movement of history might support the idealistic position that political order was ultimately an aspect of divine order. Tillyard has shown how importantly that essentially medieval tradition influenced Shakespeare. Yet the equally forceful and more modern notion that man might, in some sense, be a shaper of his own destiny, that political goods and evils could and did result directly from the strength or weakness of individual leaders, cut precisely the other way; it seemed to suggest, with disturbing Machiavellian import, that the two orders had little practical connection and might in fact conflict. The struggle between Richard and Bolingbroke in Richard II obviously owes something to both attitudes.

It has been usual ever since A. W. Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (delivered in 1808) to take the plays together as comprising a national epic in dramatic form, a great panorama involving some two hundred different characters from both high and low life, a great patriotic celebration of “This happy breed of men … This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (R2, II.i. 45-50).3 Although the epic qualities of the series have been generally granted, critics on the whole have been...

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somewhat vague in their use of the term. One might begin the search for a clearer definition by noting that Tasso's summary of epic requirements (though of course the Italian poet was thinking not of drama but of the romantic-heroic poem in the tradition of Ariosto) fits Shakespeare's histories surprisingly well in a general way. The essentials for Tasso, apart from the orthodox classic purpose of inspiring admiration in the audience and delighting it through instruction, were: “The authority of history, truth of religion [i.e., specifically Christian values], the license of fiction, suitability of period [i.e., a period neither so remote as to appear uncivilized by contemporary standards nor so close to the present as to hamper unduly the poet's freedom of invention], and grandeur and mobility in the incidents.”4

The plays include, of course, elements of both comedy and tragedy, but, taken as a cycle,5 they define the ideal leader, the public man, the English hero in peace as well as war. There could not be, of course, as in classical epic, one central hero, and Tillyard, in fact, has tellingly restated the old notion that Shakespeare's real hero was the nation itself. In a general sense this is undeniable, but it is surely possible, without contradicting him, to say that Shakespeare builds up through the ten plays, as Spenser does in The Faerie Queene, a kind of composite hero through examples both negative and positive. Richard III and Henry V may represent the most obvious extremes, but the plays present us with a succession of heroic types, some of them very limited and hardly any unflawed, who nevertheless embody some of the qualities desirable in a public man—physical valor, patriotism, honesty, wisdom, generosity, loyalty, responsibility, justice, humility, as well as other qualities that Shakespeare numbered among the king-becoming graces.6 The constant allusion to the heroes of classical epic as well as to such illustrious native figures as Richard the Lion-hearted, Edward III, and the Black Prince has the effect of heightening the heroic tone. The great profusion of stirring exhortations of troops, formal challenges flung back and forth, and speeches of diplomatic exchange have a similar effect. With the succession of heroic types goes a whole chain of anti-heroes, many of whom are very moving or humorous in their weaknesses. Shakespeare's interest in the histories, then, is not limited to the figure of the ideal king, but includes the loyal public servant, the wise counselor, the brave soldier, and the righteous churchman as well. It might be added that the medium of blank verse was ideally suited to such epic celebration, for it had after all been used first in English by the Earl of Surrey, himself a courtier and man of action, for his famous translation of Virgil's Aeneid.

But Shakespeare found it necessary to show the personal and private side of his public men, not only for the sense of depth and wholeness that would be missing without it, but in order to capitalize upon the tension between epic generality and detachment on the one hand, and comic or tragic involvement on the other—in other words to reconcile epic with dramatic requirements. Shakespeare's two most tragic kings in the cycle, Henry VI and Richard II, are tragic because they are temperamentally unsuited to bear public responsibility, and his most comic king, Richard III, is even more unsuited to bear it because he turns the acquisition of power into a monstrous private joke.

The tension between public and private worlds in the histories relates to another contrast fundamental to the series—that between order and chaos; for this conflict too may be seen in terms of epic or ideal order violated by comic or tragic disruptions. Almost all the important thematic contrasts of the history cycle—Peace against War, Love against Hate, Rise against Fall, Divine against Human power, Legitimacy against Illegitimacy, Strength against Weakness, Pleasure against Duty, Ceremony against Informality, Innocence against Guilt—can be subsumed under the two principal contrasts already mentioned: Order vs. Chaos and Public vs. Private Life.

The subtle and complex dramatic form which the greatest Elizabethan plays exemplify is based not on unity of action (in the Aristotelian sense) but on multiple actions related to each other, as musical themes are related, by repetition and variation—by a system of ironic contrasts and parallels. This principle of organization, though of course Shakespeare uses it elsewhere, was perhaps especially significant to him in the history plays because of the special problems of ordering in dramatic compass the epic sweep and multitudinousness of the chronicle source material.

What I propose to argue in this essay is that Shakespeare often found it convenient to organize his system of contrasts and parallels in the histories with reference to another traditional literary dichotomy—one exploited almost contemporaneously by Tasso in Jerusalem Delivered, Spenser in The Faerie Queene, and Sidney in The Arcadia—that between epic and pastoral. I must warn readers at the outset that I am using the term “pastoral” very elastically, for to the formal pastoral drama of Tasso and Guarini, the drama that Jonson and Fletcher were later to imitate in England, Shakespeare owed comparatively little. His tradition was rather the rustic, spontaneous, and popular pastoralism of his native country—the tradition to which the medieval nativity plays, the popular romances, the Robin Hood ballads, and other folklore contributed much, and in which the word “shepherd” could suggest a various world of lovers, poets, holiday humor, nobles disguised as peasants, and Christian simplicity.7 The familiar Renaissance contrasts of court vs. country and art vs. nature, for instance, lie very close to its heart. My central point is that by drawing upon this pastoral tradition directly and also indirectly by making the audience aware of nature and the natural world through language, character, action, and setting, Shakespeare was able to dramatize more effectively some of the ironic contrasts between public and private life and between order and chaos that give the history plays their special richness.


Shakespeare introduces the pastoral tradition most schematically in the earliest plays—those that make up the Henry VI trilogy. Probably the most obvious and familiar example occurs in the third part where “Holy Harry of Lancaster” (as he was sometimes called in the sixteenth century) contemplates the advantages of the shepherd's life as the battle of Towton rages around him. He sits upon a molehill which reminds us ironically of another molehill earlier in the play upon which the ambitious York aspirant to the crown, Richard Plantagenet, has been ritually mocked, crowned with paper, and murdered. As the king sits, meditative and withdrawn, wishing he had only sheep to tend instead of warring subjects, he watches an emblematic little morality play on the unnaturalness of civil war in which a son kills his father unwittingly and a father kills his son:

This battle fares like to the morning's war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!
Would I were dead, if God's good will were so!
For what is in this world but grief and woe?
O God! methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run—
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours brings about the day,
How many years a mortal man may live;
So minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
O yes, it doth! a thousandfold it doth!
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.

(3H6, II.v.1-54)

Shakespeare is dramatizing several ideas in this scene. Henry represents the timorous warrior and incompetent king who retreats from the harsh realities of his reign into an imaginary, golden world where “the lion fawns upon the lamb” (3H6, IV.viii.49). But the king's pastoral daydream characterizes him also as a kind of Holy Idiot (like Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin). The molehill is an emblem of his humility (just as the contrasting molehill was a bitter mock of his Yorkist rival's reaching at mountains). His meditation throws the unnatural savagery of the civil war into vivid relief, and Shakespeare forges a symbolic link between the golden world of pastoral and the eternal world of Henry's religious commitment. A few scenes later, King Henry, now unsuccessfully disguised, becomes a deer in his own deer-park and is taken prisoner by two of his own gamekeepers to be delivered over to the new York claimant, Edward IV. He is only too willing to make a spiritual kingdom of his cell, where he may be a king, as he says, “in mind”:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not deck'd with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is call'd content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.

(3H6, III.i.62-65)

The pastoral motif here betokens Shakespeare's concern with the conflict between private and public values and their relation to order in the universe, the state, and the individual soul. Henry's golden world, his “crown of content,” contrasts finely with Richard of Gloucester's idea of a golden world. For him, as for Tamburlaine, the perfect bliss and sole felicity is the sweet fruition of an earthly crown (“the golden time I look for”) and, like one “lost in a thorny wood,” he will hew his way to it “with a bloody axe” (3H6, III.ii.127-181). In the penultimate scene of 3 Henry VI the worlds of force and spirit are effectively juxtaposed through metaphor: Richard murders Henry in the Tower of London, and Shakespeare transforms the pastoral associations used earlier into ritual sacrifice. The protective jailer, suddenly dismissed from the room, becomes the timorous shepherd driven from his charge, and Henry, “the harmless sheep,” “yield[s] his fleece” ( and “make[s] a bloody supper” (V.v.85) for the ravenous wolf. Such imagery becomes nearly automatic throughout the early tetralogy. Peace, order, and innocence are repeatedly thought of in terms of the shepherd with his sheep; and the ruthless forces of power that turn the pastoral landscape into a scene of slaughter are imaged in terms of preying wolves and foxes.

The idea of the king as shepherd is very old. Northrop Frye8 tells us it can be traced to ancient Egypt; but for European writers it derives mainly, of course, from Biblical tradition, for Christ was the prototype of the good shepherd (the bonus pastor) who was also king of the universe. To Elizabethan audiences who were used to being told that kings were a sort of gods on earth, deputies elected by the Lord, anointed, crowned, planted many years, the analogy would not have seemed in the least strange. Furthermore, it was useful to poets and dramatists because, by enshrining a paradox, it focussed upon a fundamental conflict in the nature of kingship—the conflict between power and humility. Hall's Chronicle (1548) calls so warlike a king as Henry V “a shepherde whom his flocke loued and louyngly obeyed”;9 nor is it surprising to find the figure employed in history plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries. In Greene's James IV (1589-92) Douglas laments the king's defection from responsibility (“Oh haplesse flocke whereas the guide is blinde” [II.ii.2]10), and Robert of Artois in Edward III (1592-95) refers to his sovereign as “the true shepeard of our commonwealth” (I.i.41).11 James Shirley elaborates the idea in one of his early plays, The School of Compliment (1624):

A shepherd is a king, whose throne
Is a mossy mountain, on
Whose top we sit, our crook in hand,
Like a sceptre of command.
Our subjects, sheep grazing below,
Wanton, frisking to and fro.(12)


Shakespeare gradually modifies this idea in the later history plays until the rather artificial and conventional image of the shepherd disappears, but the pastoral longing for escape from public duty to a quieter, simpler, more anonymous and contemplative world, continues throughout the histories until it merges with the potentially tragic concept of kingly isolation.

Prince Arthur, the rightful heir to England's crown but a helpless pawn in the game of international power-politics, dreams of the pastoral life in King John:

                                                            By my christendom
So I were out of prison and kept sheep,
I should be as merry as the day is long!


The Lady Constance bemoans her lost hopes for him, sitting like the shepherds of pastoral elegy, upon a grassy knoll:

                                                  my grief's so great
That no supporter but the huge firm earth
Can hold it up. Here I and sorrows sit;
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.


Even when Shakespeare drops the pastoral imagery and puts the longing for humble anonymity in more realistic and varied terms, he seems repeatedly to have his royal characters express attitudes which may be called “pastoral” in the sense of anti-heroic—when they imagine themselves as monks, beggars, and commoners or indulge themselves in escapist roles such as that of poet or tavern roisterer. Crookback Richard, who describes himself as “a plain man” of “simple truth” (R3, I.iii.51-52), and who is forever glancing heavenward with such utterances as “I thank my God for my humility” (II.i.72), parodies Henry VI's desire for the contemplative life with mordant irony as he woos the London citizens:

Alas, why would you heap this care on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty.


This is the man of whom Buckingham has just said with such comic unction:

When holy and devout religious men
Are at their beads, 'tis much to draw them thence,
So sweet is zealous contemplation.


Richard II, Shakespeare's first study in depth of a man caught tragically between his ceremonial image of himself and his own private emotions, lapses periodically into a kind of sentimental pastoral role. Returning from Ireland, he stoops to pat the gentle earth of his kingdom in affectionate greeting while his active fantasy conjures up a poetic landscape in which nettles, adders, and toads annoy the feet of Bolingbroke's invading army; he threatens to exchange his sceptre for a palmer's walking staff and his gorgeous palace for a hermitage. Or, again, he half welcomes “worldly loss”:

Say, is my kingdom lost? Why, 'twas my care;
And what loss is it to be rid of care?


For a moment, he recognizes, like Wolsey, “the blessedness of being little” (H8, IV.ii.66). Becoming a spectator at his own tragedy, he sits upon the ground (like a shepherd) to tell sad stories of the death of kings, he muses on the theme of time (as Henry VI does on his molehill), and comes at last, unlike Henry, to the perception that he has played “in one person many people, / And none contented.”

                                                            Sometimes am I king:
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again; and by-and-by
Think that I am unking'd.


In Richard II, the pastoral idea of escape from responsibility is connected with Richard's feeling for the beauty of his emerald isle and his love of words and artificial postures. For Richard, as for Duke Senior in As You Like It, “sweet are the uses of adversity.”

The insomniac Henry IV expresses a familiar pastoral attitude when, weighed down under a crown that has become a “polish'd perturbation,” a “golden care” (2H4, IV.v.23), he wishes for the uncomplicated condition of an ordinary subject (III.i.4-31). And his son takes up the same theme when, wandering incognito among his soldiers in the dark hours before Agincourt, he ruminates half-enviously upon the lackey who “all night / Sleeps in Elysium” (H5, IV.i.290-291). “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (2H4, III.i.31) captures a sentiment that Shakespeare's own sovereign probably appreciated, for Walton in his idyllic treatise on fishing records the story “that our good Queen Elizabeth did … often wish her self a Milkmaid all the moneth of May, because they are not troubled with cares, but sing sweetly all the day, and sleep securely all the night.”13

In the last play of the ten, Shakespeare returns to the more conventional symbolism of pastoral. There we see Henry VIII, not as a second Bluebeard or the heavy, brooding figure of Holbein's familiar portrait, but as a monarch young and buoyantly romantic. He interrupts Wolsey's gay banquet in the masquing costume of a French shepherd and, temporarily forgetting matters of state, loses his heart to pretty Anne Bullen. For Shakespeare, then, in the history plays, the worlds of pleasure, naturalness, contemplation, carelessness (in the root sense), art, and romance may all be seen as versions of pastoral. They remind us of that “infinite heart's-ease” (H5, IV.i.253) which, all too often, kings must neglect and private men may enjoy.

But pastoral symbolism may also serve ironically to emphasize disorder and unnaturalness. Since pastoral values typically suggest some sort of peaceful, civilized social norm, the abandonment or perversion of these values usually signifies anarchy. It is as if Shakespeare were reminding us that particular historical disorders may be rooted in some fundamental crime against Nature herself, in a violation of natural law. Some such purpose seems to lie behind Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan of Arc, whose dark character in Holinshed he manages to blacken further. Although she is “by birth a shepherd's daughter” who “waited on … tender lambs” (1H6, I.ii.72-76), she repudiates the pastoral world that is her lot, and, assisted by hellish powers, helps to turn a peaceful land into a battlefield. Shakespeare makes her into a sort of female Tamburlaine (who was also a shepherd to begin with)—a conqueror, not only of the English, but of her own sovereign. The Dauphin inverts traditional order in one scene by acknowledging her his vanquisher:

                                                  Thou art an Amazon
And fightest with the sword of Deborah.
Let me thy servant and not sovereign be.

(1H6, I.ii.104-111)

At the end of the play she is revealed to be not only a witch but a lascivious hypocrite arrogant enough to claim that royal blood runs in her veins. Shakespeare makes the moral contrast between order and disorder unmistakable when her own father, a humble shepherd content with his lot, curses Joan as unnatural, and reflects that it would have been better if “some ravenous wolf had eaten thee” “when thou didst keep my lambs afield” (V.iv.30-31).

Jack Cade, “born under a hedge” (2H6, IV.ii.55), is another of Shakespeare's falsely aspiring and misplaced rustics. His rebellious energies create the very chaos that Henry VI's inept rule has courted and portend the even greater chaos that the rising house of York already threatens. Cade, like Joan, claims royal descent with a bogus tale of mixed-up twins that might come straight out of some pastoral romance. His watchwords are ignorance and brute force, and he sits on London Stone, a kind of surrogate king, and imagines a silly communist utopia where the exercise of reason in any form is a hanging offense and where “the passing conduit” shall “run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign” ( The frightening commonwealth that Cade dreams of is a sort of peasant's brave new world, a parody version of the legendary golden world that Gonzalo later imagines in The Tempest (II.i.147-156) and that Shakespeare partly derived from the fifteenth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses and Montaigne's delightful essay on cannibals. But Cade's imaginary order is really the very opposite of Gonzalo's idyllic primitivism. Cade's idea of the state of nature, because it is uncultivated by art or learning, is savage and unnatural. Dick Butcher cries out in his enthusiasm for reform, “let's kill all the lawyers” (2H6, IV.ii.83); and Cade says to his rabble army, “then are we in order when we are most out of order” (IV.ii.199-200).

The priestly function in medieval and Renaissance life was traditionally idealized, of course, as the Christian pastor's cure of souls, his selfless responsibility for the spiritual health of his flock. If this standard could be met by such lowly men as Chaucer's country parson (“He was a shepherde” able to “drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse” and “good ensample” who “waited after no pompe and reverence”), how much more was it to be enjoined upon the great prelates of the church whose very symbol of episcopal authority was the crozier or shepherd's crook. The mere presence of the lords spiritual in the histories reminds us of the historic pastoral commitment to be in the world without quite being of it, but of course many of Shakespeare's ambitious clerics fall very short of this ideal and behave in fact like lords temporal. Malicious or worldly churchmen like Cardinal Beaufort in Henry VI, Cardinal Pandulph in King John, the Archbishop of York in Henry IV, or Wolsey in Henry VIII dramatize the great gulf between an order based upon Christian grace and charity (the order of the Good Shepherd) and the perverted greed for riches, power, and privilege that makes a mockery of their pastoral calling. Such are the corrupt clergy that Milton was later to attack through St. Peter's words in Lycidas—those who “for their bellies' sake, / Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold,” or “scramble at the shearers' feast / And shove away the worthy bidden guest.” Prince John of Lancaster strongly, if a little smugly, rebukes Archbishop Scroop's perversion of his pastoral function:

My Lord of York, it better show'd with you
When that your flock, assembled by the bell,
Encircled you to hear with reverence
Your exposition on the holy text
Than now to see you here an iron man,
Cheering a rout of rebels with your drum,
Turning the word to sword, and life to death.

(2H4, IV.ii.4-10)

We see the true standard of Christian behavior when Henry VI, more a priest than a king, prays for the soul of Cardinal Beaufort, who has served him so treacherously, or when Wolsey moralizes on his own fate:

                                                  O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but serv'd my God with half the zeal
I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.
The hopes of court! My hopes in heaven do dwell.

(H8, III.ii.454-459)

When Shakespeare is not reinforcing the various aspects of the pastoral theme by contrasts in action and characterization, he often seems to do so obliquely by evoking a sense of ideal landscape through imagery and setting. One cannot read the histories consecutively without being struck by the constant prevalence of natural imagery. As early as Titus Andronicus Shakespeare had begun “to warble his native woodnotes wild,” and, indeed, we are never very far from the out-of-doors throughout Shakespeare's poetry. But in the history plays especially, landscape is often symbolic of moral attitude rather than merely decorative or atmospheric. Shakespeare shares with Wordsworth that pastoral impulse that makes poets turn to the countryside for reflections on man's experience in the bustling world, that looks to Nature as a teacher. Certain stock metaphors constantly recur. Health and unhealth in the body politic are regularly imaged by figures drawn from husbandry. Commonwealths as well as individual fortunes bud, ripen, and wither.14 Another of Wolsey's speeches illustrates Shakespeare's typical practice:

Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do.


Weeds in gardens, caterpillars eating leaves, and cankers in roses stand, of course, for various evils. Genealogical relationships are traditionally associated with trees or vines, and one gets in the histories the constant linking of blood with growth and vegetation. Bolingbroke, at the end of Richard II, sees himself as a plant watered by the scarlet rain of his rival's murder:

Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.


The landscape mirrors the values of peace and war, so that, typically, cedars (like Warwick) yield “to the axe's edge” (3H6, V.ii.11), branches (like Rutland) are “lopp'd” when their “leaves put forth” (3H6,, and “sweet” plants (like Prince Edward) are “untimely cropp'd” (3H6, V.v.62). The soil of England “daub[s] her lips with her own children's blood,” “trenching war channel[s] her fields” and “bruise[s] her flow'rets with … armed hoofs” (1H4, I.i.5-8), soldiers “Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds” (H5, I.ii.194), a “crimson tempest … bedrench[es] / The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land” (R2, III.iii.46-47), or a dynastic crisis changes the complexion of England's face to “scarlet indignation” and “bedew[s] / Her pastures' grass” with blood (R2, III.iii.98-100). If Shakespeare had liked Stendhalian titles, he might have called the entire cycle “The Red and the Green.”

Seasonal imagery is of course vital to the pastoral tradition (The Shepheards Calendar springs instantly to mind), and accordingly in the history plays glorious summers succeed winters of discontent. But sometimes, as in Richard III, what ought to be a rebirth turns out to be a hideous storm of terror. In Richard II, the Duchess of York, referring to the new king's favorites, asks her son: “Who are the violets now / That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?” York warns him:

Well, bear you well in this new spring of time,
Lest you be cropp'd before you come to prime.


Political mutability has its familiar analogue in the cycles of nature, and Shakespeare puts it to eloquent use.

Security, coolness, ease, natural order are traditionally associated with the countryside, but for Shakespeare ideal landscapes are populated, controlled by human beings, methodized (as Pope might say) so as to analogize natural law. Behind this symbolism, of course, lies the Christian Neo-Platonic habit of regarding nature as a second book of revelation. Shakespeare's attitude often seems akin to that of Duke Senior in As You Like It who,

                                                                                exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.


There was also the possibility of analogy, often ironically employed, between the green landscape of England and the Biblical garden of Paradise. Shakespeare exploits this parallel in the famous allegorical garden scene of Richard II where a pair of gardeners, following the pastoral tradition that goes back to Virgil, discuss their betters and moralize at length upon the misgovernment of England in the language of pruning, weeding, and the propping up of limbs. The land which Gaunt earlier describes as “This other Eden, demi-paradise” has fallen from its prelapsarian state to the condition of a mere “pelting farm” (II.i.42-60). Under Richard's slovenly care, as the names of his sycophants, Bushy and Green, may help to symbolize, it has become an unweeded garden. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.

The Duke of Burgundy in a lovely speech from Henry V sees the disordered countryside of France, that “best garden of the world,” in the same terms:

                    all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in it own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach'd,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder'd twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery.
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs.


War has its heroic side in Henry V, but here it is seen as a violation of natural law revealed in a landscape that forfeits “both beauty and utility.”

So often in Shakespeare a scene is placed in a garden or forest,15 not for the sake of realistic background or local color but for ethical or thematic suggestiveness.16 This partly explains why ordinarily we get no complete and sometimes no clear impression of place in the verse.

One of the most illuminating examples of Shakespeare's use of emblematic setting occurs in the famous Temple Garden scene of 1 Henry VI, where with ingenious wit and ceremonial rhetoric he dramatizes the growing faction between the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York. The whole episode is an extended metaphysical conceit in dramatic form. The plucking of the red and white roses with its accompanying verbal quarrel constitutes both a prophecy and a pastoral reduction of the fratricidal war to follow. In this sense it serves as an analogue to the Fall. The garden setting establishes, in fact, a whole complex of interrelated ironies. As in Richard II, it is a foil to set off the sickness and chaos in the state against the health and order in nature. Indeed, this contrast becomes the more emphatic because the garden adjoins an ancient school of law. Moreover, the garden is rich in connotations that go back to medieval literary tradition. We recall the gardens of Chaucer's Troilus and Canterbury Tales that often mingle the erotic associations of The Romance of the Rose with the idea of gardens as types of Eden and therefore allegories of sacred order, divine love, and human charity.17 The birth of a national blood feud therefore takes place in a setting that normally connotes love, whether secular or religious. In the great chain of being, the rose was traditionally at the top of the floral hierarchy and hence analogous to royalty. This idea became associated in medieval religious tradition with the symbolism of martyrology,18 and Shakespeare seems to draw upon this association again in later plays when he describes the kissing lips of the little princes in the Tower as “four red roses on a stalk” (R3, IV.iii.12) and calls Richard II “My fair rose” (R2, V.i.8) or again, “that sweet lovely rose” (1H4, I.iii.175). The color contrast is symbolic too: Shakespeare exploits its ironic possibilities when he makes the traditional symbolism of white for innocence and red for love prefigure pale fear and gory death:

Now, Somerset, where is your argument?
Here in my scabbard, meditating that
Shall dye your white rose in a bloody red.
Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses;
For pale they look with fear, as witnessing
The truth on our side.
                                                                      No Plantagenet!
'Tis not for fear, but anger, that thy cheeks
Blush for pure shame to counterfeit our rose.

(1H6, II.iv.59-66)

The plucking of the roses, then, becomes the emblem of natural law violated. It expresses in iconographic form the same sentiment that one of the remorseful murderers in Richard III utters:

                                                                                We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature
That from the prime creation e'er she fram'd.


King Henry, sitting on his molehill, later notices “The red rose and the white … The fatal colours of our striving houses” (3H6, II.v.97-98) on the mangled face of the boy slain by his father.

Gardens, orchards, parks, and forests keep reappearing in the history plays. In her husband's garden the Duchess of Gloucester (2H6, I.iv) dabbles with black magic by involving herself with the notorious witch Margery Jourdain and two sinister priests.19 There by blasphemous invocations and other occult ceremonies—to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning—they raise “a spirit” who, in riddling fashion, foretells the deposition of the king and the deaths of York, Somerset, and Suffolk. Richard Plantagenet allies himself with Warwick the kingmaker in another garden scene (2H6, II.ii). Strolling together in a “close walk” (II.ii.3), later described as “this private plot” (II.ii.60), they plan to root up the red rose and plant the white, biding their time until their enemies “have snar'd the shepherd of the flock / That virtuous prince, the good Duke Humphrey” and the hour be ripe to stain their swords “With heart-blood of the house of Lancaster” (II.ii.66-74). The walled garden or hortus conclusus (as it was called in the Middle Ages) is traditionally the place for quiet contemplation and retirement. Yet here the contemplation runs on political murder—as it does later for Brutus in still another garden. The ordered gardens become ironic settings in which to mirror impending chaos, to commune with evil forces, to sow seeds of destruction, to contemplate the annihilation of all that's made with green thoughts in a green shade. Shakespeare gives us a comic scene of ambitious contemplation later on when Falstaff tells Shallow in the latter's “arbour” (2H4, V.iii.2) that “the laws of England are at my commandment” (V.iii.142).

In Shakespeare, as in Spenser (cf. the episodes in Book VI of The Faerie Queene where Serena is nearly devoured by cannibals or in which Pastorella is kidnapped by brigands and her father murdered), violence and savagery seem constantly to menace the idyllic aspects of the green world. In 2 Henry VI, Alexander Iden (one can scarcely overlook the symbolic overtones of a name spelled “Eden” in the 1587 edition of Holinshed) contemplates his own garden in a typically pastoral vein:

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 worthy 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.


When Jack Cade leaps the garden wall in order to steal food (see IV.x.8-9), we have chaos breaking in upon order, and Iden has to kill him in order to re-establish the natural equilibrium. Perhaps Shakespeare suggests in this scene as he does later in As You Like It that the separation between the world of affairs and the pastoral world can never be complete.

Of course, all the Shallow scenes in 2 Henry IV with their delightful local color serve to underscore the traditional pastoral contrast of court with country. The rambling chatter about grafting pippins, sowing the headland with red wheat, settling debts with “a couple of short-legg'd hens” (V.i.28), and selling “a score of ewes” (III.ii.55) or “a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair” (III.ii.42) dramatizes a world removed from civil war and indicates that the distance between Gloucestershire and Westminster Palace, where the king lies stricken, is more than a matter of miles. The point, incidentally, has not been lost on producers of the play. Sir Frank Benson in 1864 brought out the country quality of the scenes at Shallow's “through the visible and vocal presence of sheep, pigeons, and fowls,” and subtler modifications of his idea have marked more recent productions.20

Richard of Gloucester sends the Bishop of Ely to order strawberries from a garden in order to break up a council meeting and suddenly change the atmosphere from one of natural amity and established law into a little reign of terror. The contrast between the strawberry garden outside and Richard's shrunken arm inside, “like a blasted sapling, wither'd up” (R3, III.iv.68), points one of the morals Shakespeare desires us to draw from the scene. Indeed, the strawberry itself, as Lawrence J. Ross has recently shown in a significant article, was emblematic of both “the good or uncorrupted man” and “the seemingly good man, the hypocrite.”21 He traces the symbolism of the strawberry as an apparent good which conceals evil to a passage in Virgil's Eclogues (III, 92-93), and also points out the idyllic connotations of the fruit in classical and Christian literature and art. For instance, in Ovid's Metamorphoses (I, 104) the strawberry typifies the food of the pastoral Golden Age; and, as signifying the fruit of the spirit, it traditionally “appears near the blessed or in the Eden of unfallen Adam and Eve in representations of the celestial or earthly paradise.”22 King John dies in an “orchard” whither he has been brought in the hope that “the open air … would allay the burning quality / Of that fell poison which assaileth him” (V.vii.7-10). The fresh air of the orchard cannot restore his health, but the shift of the final action to a natural setting does foreshadow the cure of England's ills and the restoration of natural order to the state. In both plays, details of setting with “pastoral” overtones help to define moral contrasts that are significant in the total structure.

Natural settings sometimes seem to agree with actions in the later plays too. The rebels of 2 Henry IV are betrayed into dispersing their forces at a place in Yorkshire called Gaultree Forest. Holinshed's spelling (“Galtree”) again brings out more clearly the ironic connotations of the name. Queen Katherine's lady-in-waiting in Henry VIII tries to cheer her mistress's heavy heart by singing a pastoral lyric in which Orpheus creates a poetic landscape as different as might be from the dolor of her palace apartment:

Orpheus with his lute made trees
And the mountain tops that freeze
          Bow themselves when he did sing.
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung, as sun and showers
          There had made a lasting spring.


But a little later in the scene the queen seems to identify herself with the flower of a poetic landscape, herself indulging in the pathetic fallacy that is so marked a feature of the song:

                                                                      Like the lily
That once was mistress of the field and flourish'd,
I'll hang my head and perish.

The reverse symbolism appears in Cranmer's great prophecy where Shakespeare compliments James I by identifying him with a cedar of Lebanon with its obvious biblical overtones:

                                                            He shall flourish
And like a mountain cedar reach his branches
To all the plains about him. Our children's children
Shall see this and bless heaven.(23)


Symbolic weather is an adjunct of natural setting, and Shakespeare frequently employs it in the same way—that is, to point up how the actions of men are reflected or prophesied in physical nature. Richard III notices that the sun “disdains to shine” on Bosworth field and draws the ironic inference: “A black day will it be to somebody” (V.iii.279-281). The bloody sun appearing “Above yon busky hill” (V.i.2) at Shrewsbury foretells the “dread correction” (V.i.111) that waits upon the rebel forces in 1 Henry IV: “The southern wind / Doth play the trumpet … And by his hollow whistling in the leaves / Foretells a tempest and a blust'ring day” (V.i.3-6). The blasted bay trees in Richard II are obviously related to the same literary technique, for Shakespeare includes them among the portentous and unnatural “signs” that “forerun the death or fall of kings” (II.iv.15).

To summarize then, Shakespeare uses the pastoral motif and its extension in details of landscape, imagery, and setting both to mirror and to challenge ideas of order and disorder in the great world of affairs. The green world becomes for Shakespeare what Northrop Frye has called a “complex variable,” a kind of archetypal symbol which functions in such a way as to express a continuing tension between the ideal and the actual as it affects both the individual and the state. The “pastoral” emphasis shows us, as it were, the underside of epic. It permits points of rest between the excursions and alarums. By allowing for reflection, sometimes choric reflection, upon the action, it helps to evoke what is timeless in the context of speeding time. The contrast partly enables Shakespeare to dramatize history in both long and short perspective at once—and in a way that ultimately humanizes the grand as well as the trivial in the lives of men and nations. To put it another way, the complementary relationship of epic and pastoral in the history plays illustrates afresh the truth of Dryden's wise and splendid words about Shakespeare:

He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All [my italics] the images of Nature were still [i.e., ever] present to him. …24

As Shakespeare's dramatic powers matured, he relied less and less exclusively on traditional and iconographic devices, and was able more and more to realize contrasts between the private and the public, between order and chaos with greater psychological subtlety—that is to say, through the creation of richly contrasting and complementary characters. Time and again throughout the history plays, comic or semi-comic actions and characters are used to parody the heroic and tragic aspects of the story and thereby to qualify simplistic attitudes. By this means orthodox political and moral notions that a less humane poet might accept uncritically are constantly re-examined and submitted to new tests of validity. Pistol's nearly meaningless bombast, a tissue of shreds and patches from theatrical rant, does not cancel the stirring effect of Henry V's great martial speeches, but it does force us to reconsider them in a new light. Faulconbridge's wiseacre remarks, interjected while international diplomacy is being conducted, make us aware of the pretension and hypocrisy that public utterances so often cloak. The two Henry IV plays, as C. L. Barber has shown persuasively in a recent book,25 are Shakespeare's greatest achievement in this way. There we watch Prince Hal grow up by experiencing what is best and worst in the divided but linked worlds of tavern and court, the two kingdoms of Falstaff and Bolingbroke. The point, of course, is that each of the two kingdoms deepens and qualifies our understanding of the other by virtue of the dramatic interaction between them. William Empson, in fact, has suggested that structures of this kind are built upon a version of pastoral;26 but the element of parody in the histories is a subject in itself and deserves full discussion in a separate essay.

The reflection of order and disorder through pastoral and through the evocation of physical nature in the history plays raises but does not answer some of the great metaphysical questions of the Renaissance. Nature in one of its aspects suggests the possibility of an ordered and harmonious cosmos in Hooker's terms—a great universal garden created, tended, and brought to ultimate fruition by a supreme and loving Gardener. This is the kind of order that critics have usually seen as lying behind Shakespeare's histories. But the plays, though they have their moments of peace, are never very far removed from war, which, if it involves heroism, also involves butchery of the innocent. The savage realities of dynastic struggle, of power, of the human ego asserting itself politically, do not permit us to forget that, in its other aspect, nature is Hobbesian—red in tooth and claw.

Many of the characters in the histories, from Henry VI to Katherine of Aragon, die patiently confident of a Christian heaven; yet the total dramatic action of the plays in which these characters appear, as well as of the other histories written in between, puts more emphasis upon the vanity of human wishes than upon man's eternal hopes. In Henry VIII, to be sure, Queen Katherine is vouchsafed a supernal vision. Figures in a sort of pastoral ballet hold a garland of bays above her head in an action clearly meant to symbolize spiritual victory. But Shakespeare wrote that play only three years before his death, and, in any case, many scholars still think Fletcher's hand was stronger in it than his own. The earlier plays are concerned more with Nature and less with Grace, and they are not so affirmative in tone. They contain that which points forward to the half-sunny world of Arden Forest and beyond it to the pastoral sweetness of Cymbeline and the “great creating nature” of Perdita's flower garden. But the histories also anticipate a view of nature in which Ophelia, driven mad by disorders she cannot comprehend, can drown beneath a willow in a weeping brook—in which Lear can stagger about a heath, “Crown'd with rank fumiter,” with “hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flow'rs, / Darnel, and … all the idle weeds that grow / In our sustaining corn” (IV.iv.3-6).

When we learn from Hostess Quickly that Falstaff died babbling “of green fields” (H5, II.iii.17),27 it is moving to think of that loveable reprobate departing this world with that most pastoral of psalms, the twenty-third, on his lips. We should like to think that the Lord is his shepherd and that he comes at last to lie down in green pastures. But Nell Quickly, who is outrageously sentimental and no theologian, may very well miss the point. Surely it is not without significance that she mistakes Abraham's bosom for Arthur's. There is much in the history plays that looks forward to the great tragedies—those profound dramas in which man's hopes about universal order are so terribly shaken. Shakespeare does not let us forget that in this world—the world of history—we fear evil even as we create it, and that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.


  1. Readers familiar with the voluminous scholarship on Shakespeare's histories will recognize my considerable indebtedness to such important standard works as J. D. Wilson's introductions to his New Cambridge editions of the individual plays, E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1951), Irving Ribner's The English History. Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957), Alfred Harbage's As They Liked It (New York, 1947), M. M. Reese's The Cease of Majesty (London, 1961), and L. B. Campbell's Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, 1947). I have also found useful W. W. Greg's Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama (New York, 1959), Edwin Greenlaw's “Shakespeare's Pastorals,” SP, XIII (1916), 122-154, and Madeleine Doran's Endeavors of Art (Madison, 1954). The text of Shakespeare cited throughout is The Complete Works, ed. G. L. Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  2. Only once, I believe, in the English speaking theatre have all ten plays been consecutively performed when the Pasadena Playhouse of California acted them in 1935. Stage and television performances of parts of the cycle have become much more common recently, both in England and America. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon devoted its four hundredth anniversary season (1964) to a series of seven plays which embraced both tetralogies; the three parts of Henry VI were abridged into two plays, the second being renamed Edward IV.

  3. One of the best modern discussions of this aspect of the histories, to which I am indebted in what follows, is Una Ellis-Fermor's “Shakespeare's Political Plays” in The Frontiers of Drama (London, 1948), pp. 34-55.

  4. I quote Graham Hough's translation of Tasso's words from his illuminating analysis of the Italian poet's Discorsi dell' Arte Poetica e in particolare sopra il poema eroico; see A Preface to “The Faerie Queene” (New York, 1963), p. 55. Tasso's remarks appear to have served him as a prolegomenon to Jerusalem Delivered.

  5. Some critics of course have tended to ignore Henry VIII as a history play, influenced in most cases by the much disputed claim for Fletcher's partial authorship and by the play's remove in time and style from the earlier histories. An influential exception is G. Wilson Knight's important essay in The Crown of Life (London, 1948), pp. 256-336, which argues with force, incidentally, that the play is Shakespeare's unaided work. But Tillyard omits it from consideration in Shakespeare's History Plays, as does Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare's “Histories,” while R. A. Foakes in his New Arden edition asserts “that it cannot be fitted into the scheme of the earlier histories” (p. xlii). Reese in The Cease of Majesty says that “In the main” it “is conceived in the spirit of the later romances, with a good deal of pageantry and spectacle” and that here Shakespeare “does not trouble to revive the political themes” of the earlier plays (p. 333). No one, I think, would now deny the important thematic and stylistic relationship to Shakespeare's other “last plays,” but from the standpoint of genre in the Renaissance sense, such considerations are secondary. Heminge and Condell classed Henry VIII with the other English histories because obviously it contained historical characters, dealt with historical events, and in the birth of Elizabeth and Cranmer's prophecy dramatized the fulfillment of those national hopes for “smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days” (R3, V.v.34) that had concluded the preceding play in the Folio collection. And if this were not sufficient reason to group Henry VIII with the other histories, there were additional grounds, for the most prominent theme of the drama, the rise and fall of persons of state, was one that had preoccupied Shakespeare continuously throughout all nine of the earlier dramas.

  6. In Macbeth Malcolm speaks of these,

    As justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,
    Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
    Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.


  7. It is often forgotten that even within the somewhat frigid conventions of the formal pastoral, touches of realism and humor have a way of creeping in. Jerry H. Bryant in “The Winter's Tale and the Pastoral Tradition,” SQ, XIV (1963), 387-398, helps correct the usual oversimplification.

  8. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 143.

  9. (London, 1809), p. 112.

  10. Specimens of Pre-Shakespearean Drama, ed. J. M. Manly (Boston, 1897).

  11. The Shakespeare Apocrypha, ed. C. F. T. Brooke (Oxford, 1918).

  12. The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley, ed. W. Gifford and A. Dyce (London, 1833), I, 65.

  13. The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation, ed. John Thompson (New York, 1962), p. 72. It is interesting that Venator's reminiscence is provoked by a singing of Raleigh's popular pastoral lyric, “Come live with me, and be my Love.”

  14. Caroline Spurgeon in Shakespeare's Imagery (New York, 1936), pp. 216-224, calls attention to the vegetative imagery that pervades the histories. She fails, however, to explore its significance very deeply. Richard D. Altick's “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II,PMLA, LXII (1947), 339-365, contains a splendid treatment of the earth-husbandry imagery and its relation to other themes in the single play he discusses.

  15. The quartos and Folio, of course, rarely specify locations of scene in the form of stage directions; garden settings, like most other settings in Shakespeare, are more reliably and more effectively established by references to place in the dialogue itself. In the following analysis I have tried to provide the necessary evidence of setting in each case by means of appropriate quotation or, at least, specific reference to Shakespeare's own words.

  16. Though I would argue that this technique has a special appropriateness to the history plays, where the theme of social and political order is so heavily stressed, it is by no means unique there, for Shakespeare also uses natural settings symbolically in both the comedies and tragedies. In The Merchant of Venice (V.i), for instance, a landscape near Portia's house stirs the romantic Lorenzo to lyrical reflections on the relationship of love, music, and cosmic harmony. Clearly the idyllic atmosphere in which the wind “gently kiss[es] the trees” (V.i.3) and “the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” (V.i.54) reinforces an ideal of natural moral order against which the unnatural values of Shylock are ultimately measured. And it is not difficult to find similar examples in the tragedies. The romantic orchard in Romeo and Juliet where the moon “tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops” (II.ii.108) serves to emphasize the central contrast between young love and old hatred; and Shakespeare heightens the unnaturalness of King Hamlet's murder by having the crime committed with symbolic irony in an orchard. Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy had already used the latter device: Horatio is suddenly hanged in the leafy arbor where he has been making love to Belimperia, and his grief-crazed mother later chops it down and curses the entire garden in an act of symbolic retribution.

  17. See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. R. Trask (New York, 1953), pp. 183-202; also D. W. Robertson, Jr., “The Doctrine of Charity in Mediaeval Literary Gardens: a Topical Approach through Symbolism and Allegory,” Speculum, XXVI (1951), 24-49.

  18. Frye goes so far as to recognize “a secular Eucharist symbol in the red and white rose” (Anatomy of Criticism, p. 284); he points to their historical union in “the reigning head of the church” (p. 195) and quotes Richard III (p. 363): “And then, as we have ta'en the sacrament, / We will unite the White Rose and the Red” (V.v.18-19).

  19. The quarto specifies that the conjurors are brought “to the backside of [Eleanor's] Orchard” (I.ii) and mentions a tower to which she ascends. The Folio omits this detail, but it is clear from the action that the same setting applies. In the sixteenth century “garden” and “orchard” were often interchangeable terms (see OED).

  20. See A. C. Sprague, Shakespeare's Histories (London, 1964), pp. 88-89.

  21. “The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare,” Studies in the Renaissance, VII (1960), 229.

  22. Ibid., p. 233.

  23. See R. A. Foakes's New Arden edition of Henry VIII (London, 1957), pp. xxxi and 176.

  24. “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” in Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Ker (Oxford, 1961), I, 79.

  25. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), pp. 192-221.

  26. Some Versions of Pastoral (London, 1950), pp. 27-86. I am heavily indebted to the chapter entitled, “Double Plots: Heroic and Pastoral in the Main Plot and Sub-Plot.”

  27. Theobald's famous emendation has of course been challenged, but no one has yet suggested words so appropriately in character. Falstaff knew his Bible, as he reveals when he refers to “Pharoah's lean kine” (1H4, II.iv.520) and to “Dives that lived in purple” (III.iii.36), and he could imagine himself as a weaver singing psalms (cf. II.iv.146). Sir Walter Greg has defended the reading persuasively on paleographical grounds in “Principles of Emendation in Shakespeare,” Aspects of Shakespeare (British Academy, 1933), pp. 129, 155, 172.

Lister M. Matheson (essay date 1995)

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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 fatalism—in his last moments the roi fainéant becomes a man of action imbued with “desperat manhood” (as a marginal note in Holinshed puts it), who refuses to “go gentle into that good night.” Derek Traversi characterizes the murder as “no more than a pedestrian piece of melodramatic writing,”1 but a consideration of Shakespeare's sources shows that the manner of Richard's death represents a choice among conflicting current accounts and that the language has been carefully constructed. The purposes of the present essay are: first, to suggest that Shakespeare was indebted not only to Raphael Holinshed but also to Edward Hall for his account of Richard's death; second, to trace to its direct textual origins the version of Richard's death chosen by Shakespeare (the texts printed below are generally known, but they have not previously been collected in one location and some of their relationships have been imperfectly recognized); finally, to discuss briefly why Shakespeare chose from those known to him the particular version of Richard's death that he did and the implications of that choice. Three options were open to him: death as a result of forced starvation; death as a result of grief or involuntary starvation; or death at the hands of Sir Piers de Exton, fulfilling directly or indirectly the wishes of Henry IV. A fourth option available to the chroniclers—a profession of ignorance as to the circumstances—can be ruled out for the dramatist.

Those parts of the relevant scenes in Richard II, act 5, that portray the immediate incitement to the murder, its execution, and the murderer's report thereof to Bolingbroke, now crowned as Henry IV, are given here at length to facilitate comparison with the sources.2

                                        [Scene iv. Windsor Castle.]

Manet Sir Pierce Exton &c. [Servant].

Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake?
“Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”
Was it not so?
These were his very words.
“Have I no friend?” quoth he. He spake it twice
And urged it twice together, did he not?
He did.
And speaking it, he wishtly looked on me,
As who should say, “I would thou wert the man
That would divorce this terror from my heart!”
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let's go.
I am the king's friend, and will rid his foe.


                                        [Scene v. Pomfret Castle.]
[Lines 1-97: Richard meditates on his fate and “this all-hating world” (line 66); he converses with one of his former grooms until a keeper enters with food.]
My lord, will't please you to fall to?
Taste of it first, as thou art wont to do.
My lord, I dare not. Sir Pierce of Exton,
Who lately came from the king, commands the contrary.
The devil take Henry of Lancaster, and thee!
Patience is stale, and I am weary of it.

[Beats the Keeper.]

Help, help, help!

The Murderers [Exton and Servants] rush in.

How now! What means Death in this rude assault?
Villain, thy own hand yields thy death's instrument.

[Snatches a weapon from a Servant and kills him.]

Go thou and fill another room in hell.

[Kills another.]Here Exton strikes him down.

That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire
That staggers thus my person. Exton, thy fierce hand
Hath with the king's blood stained the king's own land.
Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high;
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.


As full of valor as of royal blood!
Both have I spilled. O, would the deed were good!
For now the devil, that told me I did well,
Says that this deed is chronicled in hell.
This dead king to the living king I'll bear.
Take hence the rest, and give them burial here.


                                        [Scene vi. Windsor Castle.]
[Lines 1-29: Bolingbroke, as King, receives reports of the deaths of Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt, Kent, and others and passes judgment on the bishop of Carlisle.]

Enter Exton, with [Attendants bearing] the coffin.

Great king, within this coffin I present
Thy burried fear. Herein all breathless lies
The mightiest of thy greatest enemies,
Richard of Bordeaux, by me hither brought.
Exton, I thank thee not; for thou hast wrought
A deed of slander, with thy fatal hand,
Upon my head and all this famous land.
From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed.
They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murderèd.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
But neither my good word nor princely favor.
With Cain go wander thorough shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.
[Lines 45-52: Bolingbroke protests his sorrow to the assembled lords, vows a pilgrimage to the Holy Land “To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” (line 50), and leads Richard's funeral procession offstage. The play ends.]

Shakespeare's favorite primary source for English history was, of course, the posthumous second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). This was a modernized version of the edition of 1577, with a continuation to January 1587 and with new material added to the earlier annals by the editors, often from sources already used in the first edition.3 For the reigns of Henry IV through Henry VIII, Holinshed had used as a major source Edward Hall's Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (Richard Grafton, 1548, 2nd ed. 1550; John Kingston, ca. 1560).4 Although Holinshed tones down much of Hall's purple prose and improves the rather prolix style, his work is often so close to the Vnion, even quoting verbatim, that it is frequently difficult, sometimes impossible (and for literary study often irrelevant) to determine on purely textual grounds whether Shakespeare was using Hall or Holinshed in particular instances.

The second edition of Holinshed is generally accepted as having provided Shakespeare with the principal historical source material for Richard II, with only a general debt to Hall for providing “the moral scheme, the point of departure, and the insistence on the continuity between Richard's reign and Henry IV's”5 and a few points of historical detail. Accordingly, Bullough (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare) and those editions that include sources have printed Holinshed's account as the immediate source of Richard's death. However, a close comparison suggests that Shakespeare was influenced by Hall's account of the murder, perhaps attracted by its more melodramatic flavor.6 I print Hall's narrative here from the 1550 edition,7 followed by indications of how Holinshed differs in substance:

[fol. xiiij] For poore Kyng Rycharde, ignorant of all this coniuracion [i.e., the rebellion on his behalf], kepte in myserable captiuite, knowyng nothyng but that he sawe in his chamber, was by Kyng Henry adiudged to dye, because that he, beyng synged and tickeled with the last craftie policie of his enemies, would deliuer hymselfe out of all inwarde feare and discorde, and cleane put away the very grounde whereof suche frutes of displeasure might by anie waie bee attempted againste hym, so that no man hereafter shoulde either fayne or resemble to represente the persone of Kyng Rychartde [sic]. Wherefore some saye he commaunded, other talke that he condiscended, many wryte that he knewe nat tyll it was done, and then it confirmed. But howe so euer it was, Kyng Rycharde dyed of a violent death, without any infeccion or naturall disease of the body.

The common fame is that he was euery daye serued at the table wyth costely meate lyke a kyng, to the entent that no creature should suspecte any thyng done contrary to the order taken in the parliament, and when the meate was set before hym, he was forbidden that he should not once touche it, ye not to smell to it, and so died of famyn, which kynd of death is the moost miserable, most vnnaturall, ye and most detestable that can be, for it is ten tymes more painefull then death (whiche of all extremities is the moost terrible) to die for thirst standyng in the riuer, or starue [fol. xiiij, verso] for hunger, besette wyth twentie deintie dysshes.

One writer whyche semed to haue muche knowledge of Kyng Rychardes affayres sayeth that Kyng Henry, syttyng at his table, sore syghyng saied, “Haue I no faytheful frende whiche wil deliuer me of hym whose life will be my death, and whose death will be the preseruacion of my lyfe?” This saiyng was muche noted of them whiche were present and especially of one called Sir Piers of Exton.

This knight incontinently departed from the court with eight stronge persones and came to Pomfret, comaundyng that the esquier whiche was acustomed to sewe and take the assaye before Kyng Rychard should no more vse that maner of seruice, saiyng, “Let hym eate well nowe, for he shall not long eate.”

Kyng Rychard sate downe to dyner and was serued without curtesie or assaye; he, muche meruaylyng at the sodayne mutacion of the thyng, demaunded of the esquier why he dyd not his duety. “Sir,” saied he, “I am otherwise commaunded by Sir Pyers of Exton, whiche is newely come from Kyng Henry.” When he heard that worde, he toke the caruyng knife in his hande and stroke the esquier on the head, saiyng, “The deuell take Henry of Lancastre and the together.” And with that worde Sir Piers entered into the chamber wel armed, with eight tall men in harneis, euery man hauing a byll in hys hande. Kyng Rycharde, perceiuyng them armed, knewe well that they came to his confusion, and puttyng the table from hym valiauntly toke the byll out of the firste mannes hande, and manly defended hymselfe, and slewe foure of them in a short space.

Sir Piers, being somwhat dismaied with his resistyng, lepte into the chaire where Kyng Richard was wonte to sitte, while the other foure persones assailed and chased hym aboute the chamber, whiche being disarmed defended him against his enemies beyng armed (whiche was a valiaunt acte), but in conclusion, chasyng and trauersyng from the one syde to the other, he came to the chaire where Sir Pyers stode, whiche with a stroke of his pollax felled hym to the grounde, and then shortly he was rid out of the worlde, without ether confession or receit of sacrament.

When this knyght perceiued that he was deade, he sobbed, wept, and rent his heare, criyng, “Oh Lord, what haue we done? we haue murthered hym whome by the space of two and twenty yeres we haue obeied as kyng and honoured as our souereigne lorde; now all noble men will abhorre vs, all honest persons will disdaine vs, and all poore people will rayle and crie out vpon vs, so that duryng our naturall liues, we shalbe poincted with the fynger, and our posterite shalbe reproued as children of homecides, ye, of regicides and prince quellers.”

Thus haue I declared to you the diuersities of opinions concerning the deathe of this infortunate prince, remittyng to your iudgement whiche you thynke moost trewe, but the very truthe is that he died of a violent death, and not by the darte of naturall infirmitie.

When Atropos had cut the lyne of his lyfe, his body was embaulmed and seared and couered with lead, all saue his face (to the entent that all men myght perceiue that he was departed out of this mortall lyfe) and [fol. xv] was conueyghed to London, where in the cathedrall churche of Saincte Paule he had a solempne obsequie, and from thence conueyghed to Langley in Buckynghamshire, where he was enterred, and after by Kyng Henry the V remoued to Westminster, and there entombed honorably with Quene Anne his wyfe, although the Scottes vntreuly write that he escaped out of prisone, and led a verteous and solitary lyfe in Scotlande, and there dyed and is buryed in the Blacke Friers at Sterlyng.

What trust is in this worlde, what suretie man hath of his life, & what constancie is in the mutable comonaltie, all men maye apparantly perceyue by the ruyne of this noble prince, whiche beeyng an vndubitate kyng, crouned and anoynted by the spiritualtie, honored and exalted by the nobilitie, obeyed and worshipped of the comon people, was sodainly disceyued by theim whiche he moste trusted, betrayed by theim whom he had preferred, & slayn by theim whom he had brought vp and norished, so that all menne maye perceyue and see, that fortune wayeth princes and pore men all in one balance.

(Hall, 15508)

Compare the first paragraph of Hall quoted above and the following section from Holinshed (1587):

And immediatlie after, king Henrie, to rid himselfe of anie such like danger to be attempted against him thereafter, caused king Richard to die of a violent death, that no man should afterward faine himselfe to represent his person, though some have said, he was not privie to that wicked offense.

[After the account of “forced famine,” the 1587 edition adds the following]:

[Margin: Abr. Fl. [i.e., Abraham Fleming] out of Thom. Walsi. pag. 404, 405.] But Thomas Walsingham is so farre from imputing his death to compulsorie famine, that he referreth it altogither to voluntarie pining of himselfe. For when he heard that the complots and attempts of such his favourers, as sought his restitution, and their owne advancement, adnihilated; and the cheefe agents shamefullie executed; he tooke such a conceit at these misfortunes (for so Thomas Walsingham termeth them) and was so beaten out of hart, that wilfullie he starved himselfe, and so died in Pomfret castell on S. Valentines daie: a happie daie to him, for it was the beginning of his ease, and the ending of his paine: so that death was to him daintie and sweet, as the poet saith, and that verie well in brefe,

[Margin: Corn. Gall.]

                    Dulce mori miseris,
                    Neque est melius morte in malis rebus.

[The account of Richard's murder by Sir Piers de Exton is wrongly attributed in the margin to “Thom. Walsin.”; this section ends as follows:]

It is said, that sir Piers of Exton, after he had thus slaine him, wept right bitterlie, as one striken with the pricke of a giltie conscience, for murthering him, whome he had so long obeied as king.9

The actual substance of both accounts is essentially the same, but Shakespeare combines them verbally:

  • 1) Henry Bolingbroke's “rid me of this living fear,” that is, Richard (quoted by Exton in 5.4.2), seems based on Hall's description of Henry's “inwarde feare and discorde,” which is further echoed in Henry's phrase “this terror from my heart” (5.4.9) and Exton's “thy buried fear” (5.6.31). The verb “rid” parallels Holinshed at this point, though Hall later relates that Richard “was rid out of the worlde.”
  • 2) Exton's speech of self-loathing in Hall, only indirectly indicated in Holinshed, is paralleled in the play by Exton's speech of 5.5.113-18. Exton's prediction in Hall that the murderers and their posterity will henceforth be marked outcasts is picked up by Henry, with a verbal parallel to Holinshed's “giltie conscience”: “I hate the murderer. … The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor. … With Cain go wander thorough shades of night, / And never show thy head by day nor light” (5.6.40, 41, 43-44).
  • 3) The addition in Holinshed (1587) that records Walsingham's opinion that Richard died from “voluntarie pining of himselfe” may be echoed earlier in the play when Richard exclaims, “Go to Flint Castle. There I'll pine away” (3.2.209).

Although Hall and Holinshed contained, reasonably handily, the latest historical research and, indeed, much striking language that the playwright took over or adapted, their accounts of the death of Richard II did not exist in a contextual vacuum for their readers and other contemporaries. The essential shape of history that formed the general cultural awareness of sixteenth-century England was already formed before 1548 (or 1577) by a rich tradition of printed and manuscript vernacular chronicles, to which Hall pays halfhearted tribute in his dedicatory preface:

Sithe the ende of Frossarte, whiche endeth at the begynnyng of Kyng Henry the Fourthe, no man in the Englishe toungue hath eitheir set furth their honors according to their desertes nor yet declared many notable actes worthy of memorie dooen in the tyme of seuen kynges whiche after kyng Richarde succeded: Excepte Robert Fabian and one without name, whiche wrote the common English Chronicle, men worthy to be praysed for their diligence, but farre shotyng wyde from the butte of an historie.

(Hall [1550], dedication to Edward VI)

The anonymous “common English Chronicle” is the Middle English prose Brut, and Hall is probably referring to one of its printed editions, although he was undoubtedly aware of the many manuscripts, of which more survive than of any other Middle English work except the Wycliffite translations of the Bible.10

The Brut was first translated into English from Anglo-Norman toward the end of the fourteenth century and originally ended in 1333, to which a continuation had been added to bring the narrative up to 1377; in the course of the fifteenth century the basic English text received various continuations and many individualistic versions of the work were also produced. In 1480 William Caxton made the Brut the first printed chronicle of England (under the title of The Chronicles of England), and it went through a further twelve editions until 1528. The work was owned and read across a wide social spectrum, by priests, monks, merchants, members of the minor gentry, and members of the nobility.11 In terms of both content and style, its influence on historians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was pervasive.

The earliest account in English of Richard's death occurs in the standard Brut continuation of 1377-1419, which was composed soon after its concluding date (probably before 1422), and presents the forced starvation version:

And þanne anon deied King Richard in þe castell of Pountfret yn the Northcuntre, for þere he was enfammed vnto the deth be his keper, for he was kept into iiij or v. dayeȝ fro mete and drynke; and so he made is ende yn þis worlde. Yet moche pepil yn Engelond and yn oþir landeȝ saide þat he was alyue meny yereȝ aftir his deth; but wheþer he were alyue or ded, þi hilde hir fals opynyons and beleue þat þay hadde; and moche pepil aftirward comyn to myschif and to foule deth, as ye schulle here aftirwarde. And whanne King Henry wist and knew warly þat he was ded, he lete sere hym yn þe best maner þat he myȝte and closed hym yn lynnyn cloth, alle saue his visage, and þat was left opon þat men myȝt se and know his person from alle oþer men; and so he was brought to London with torchis lyȝt brennyng vnto Saynt Pouleȝ, and þere he hadde his masse and his dirige, with moche reverence and solempnite of seruiȝe. And fro Pouleȝ was brouȝt ynto þe Abbey of Westmynstre, and þere hadde alle his hole seruiȝe ayen; and fro Westmynstre he was ladd ynto Langeley, and þere he was beryed: on whose soule God haue mercy! Amen!

[CUL MS Kk.I.12, printed in Brie 2: 360/8-26;12 the conspiracy against Henry IV is revealed only after Richard's death.]

This is the version found in the majority of Brut manuscripts that continue beyond 1377 and in Caxton's edition of 1480 and it must have been influential in creating the “common fame” that Hall and Holinshed ascribe to death by forced starvation. The elaboration of the common Brut account found in two manuscripts, BL Harley 53 (ca. 1452-53) and Lambeth 6 (a magnificently illustrated, late fifteenth-century volume that must have been owned by someone of the highest standing), is extremely close in wording to Hall, although, as we shall see, it was not Hall's direct source:

in the first yere of the regne of Kyng Henry the iiijte, Kyng Richard, which þat was put doune of his Rialte, was in þe Castell of Pountfret vndir þe ward of Sir Robert [“Henry” in Lambeth 6] of Watirton, knyght; and þere he was ich day servet [as] a Kyng aught to be, that he myght se it; but he myght come to non þerof; wherfore sone aftir he deyd for honger in prison in þe same Castell; and so he made his ende.

[BL MS Harl. 53, printed in Brie 2: 546/3-9; the order of Richard's obsequies and the projected rebellion agrees with the common Brut description.]

In 1482 Caxton printed John Trevisa's translation of Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon and, like the Chronicles of England, the work remained current into the sixteenth century, being reprinted in 1495 by Wynkyn de Worde and in 1527 by Peter Treveris.13 To bring the Polychronicon narrative up to date, Caxton added a continuation from 1358 to 1461 that he named the Liber ultimus.14 This continuation falls into two parts, the latter of which, from 1419 to 1461, is based on the corresponding section of Caxton's Chronicles of England (1480). The earlier section, from 1358 to 1419, generally agrees in narrative outline with the corresponding section of the printed Chronicles, though occasionally somewhat abbreviated. However, Caxton also uses a variety of sources for additional material: a London civic chronicle, the Grandes chroniques de France (perhaps as printed at Paris in 1477 by Pasquier Bonhomme), the Fasciculus temporum (perhaps a personal copy of the edition published in 1475 in Louvain by Johan Veldener), an unidentified (but clearly minor) source called the Aureus de vniverso and, most important for present purposes, the French Chronicque de la traïson et mort de Richart Deux. From the latter Caxton translates several sections of narrative for the reign of Richard II, including a close though slightly condensed account of Richard's murder by Sir Piers de Exton (correctly transferred from Gravesend Castle in Kent to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire) and the alternative story of voluntary starvation.

It was once thought that Caxton had taken this material from Lambeth MS 84, but the reverse is true.15 The manuscript is an expanded individual reworking of the Brut, first completed in 1479 and then extensively revised after 1482 by the incorporation of material from Caxton's edition of the Polychronicon, including the Exton murder and the voluntary starvation version, together with the Brut account of forced starvation as found in BL Harley 53 and Lambeth 6 (to which the compiler has appended a quaint vision experienced by Richard). Remarkably, Edward Hall seems to have known this manuscript directly.

To Caxton, therefore, belongs the honor of having first introduced into England the version of the murder portrayed in Shakespeare. Many of the surviving manuscripts of the Traïson et mort can be associated with the ducal library of Burgundy,16 with which Caxton seems to have been familiar during his long residence at Bruges, though it must have been between 1480 and 1482 that he decided to adopt the Traïson's account of Richard's end. The Liber ultimus text follows, collated with that of Lambeth MS 84 (designated L):17

Whanne [And whan L] Kyng Henry sawe that these lordes [the dukes of Surrey and Exeter and the earls of Salisbury and Gloucester, with several knights and servants of Richard II, all taken and executed] thus hadde rysen, and assemblyd greete peple to haue putte hym to deth, and for to restore Kynge Rychard ageyne to his crowne and to his royamme, thoughte [he thoughte L] teschue suche peryls. Anone [And anone he L] commaunded Sir Pyers of Exton that he shold goo strayte to Pountfreyte and delyuer the worlde of Kynge Rychard.

And soo he departed fro the kynge and wente to the castel of Pountfret, wher as Kynge Rychard was in prysonne, the whiche was sette at table for to dyne. And anone after, Syre Pyers cam in to the chambre where the kynge was, and eghte [& he broughte viij L] men with hym and eche man an axe in his hond. Trouth it is whan [And whan (Trouth it is om.) L] the kyng sawe Sir Pyers with his felaushippe entre in to the chambre defensably arayed, he shoof the table from hym and sprange in [in to L] the myddes of hem & raughte an axe oute of one of theyr hondes and sette hymself valyauntly at defence. And hymself defendynge, he slowe foure of the eyghte. And whanne the sayde Syre [om. L] Pyers sawe the kynge soo defende hym, he was soore abasshed and gretely aferde, and forthwith [om. L] sterte vpon the place where as Kyng Rychard was wonte to sytte. And as Kynge Rychard foughte and defended hymself, goynge bacwarde, the sayd Syre Pyers smote hym on the heed with his axe that he fyll to gronnde. Thenne cryed Kynge Rychard, “God, mercy.” And thenne he gafe hym yet [om. L] another stroke on the heede, and soo he deyde. And thus was thys noble kynge slayne and murthred.

And whanne the kynge was deede, the knyght that hadde thus slayne hym sette hym doune by the deede bodye of Kynge Rychard and byganne to wepe, saynge, “Alas, what thynge haue we doone? we haue putte to deth hym that hath ben oure kynge and souerayne lord two and twenty yere. Now haue I lost myn honour. Ne [om. L] I shal neuer come in place but I shal be reproched. For I haue done ageynste myn honour.”

After this, the tweluest daye of Marche, was the bodye of the noble Kyng Rychard broughte thurgh London to Powlus, whiche corps [Aftyr this moche peeple in Englonde & other countrees also wolde not beleue þat Kyng Richard was deede, but sayde þat he was alyue many yerys aftyr. Where-for Kyng Herry, whan he wist verryly þat he was dede, he leete cere hym in þe best maner & with dyuers spices & balmes & in a fayre cheste closyd alle in lynyn clothe, saaf his visage, which was lefte opyn þat men myht see & knowe his persone from alle othir men. And thus he was broughte thurgh London to Powlus & his body L] was leyd on a charyotte coueryd with black, and foure baners, wherof tweyne were of the armes of Saynt George and tweyne of the armes of Saynt Edward. And there were an honderd men clothed in black, eche berynge a torche. And the cyte of London hadde thrytty men in whyte, eche berynge also a torche. And the corps was leyd open the vysage [and þe visage of þe dede body was leyde opyn L] that euery man myght see and knowe that it was hys body and that he was soo deede, for many men byleuyd it not. [L adds And from Powlus he was had to Westmenster & þere he hadde his hole masse & diryge also.] And from thennes he was caryed to the Frerys at [of L] Langley and there he was buryed. On whoos sowle God haue mercy. Amen.

The comyn oppynyon of Englysshmen is that Kynge Rychard deyde not after the maner aforesayd, but that he deyde other wyse: that is to wete [but þat he deyde & was famynyd & lakkyd bothe mete & drynke, & yet he was dayle seruyd þere-of lyke a kyng but he myht not towche yt but only see hyt & þerefor his (sic: add hunger) was þe more. And on a tyme, as he lay on his bed of estaate, hym thouhte þere come a fayre woman vnto hym and brought a kercherful of white rosys & bestruyd all his bed therwith, & he fed hym of tho rosys, þat his grete hungre was withdrawe; & whan he woke, hym thoughte his apyted was wel satysfyed, & þerby his lyf contynuyd a day or tweyne the lenger. And some sayeth thus L] that whanne he herde saye that his brother [lordys L] the duc of Excetre, the duc of Surrey, the erle of Salysbury, and the other lordes were deede, he was soo angry and soo sorowfull that he swore that he wolde neuer eete meete, and soo abode foure dayes withoute etynge, as they saye. And whanne that [om. L] Kynge Henry [Herry L] vnderstode that he wolde not ete, he sent to hym two prelates for-to comforte him. And whan they were come, he confessyd hym to one of them, the whiche gaf hym in penaunce that he sholde ete his mete. And whanne he supposed to haue eten, the meete myght not goo doune ne auale in to his stomake, for the conduytes of his bodye were shronken togeder. And thenne sayde the noble Kynge Rychard that it was done and that he muste nedes deye, and soo he deyde [and soo he deyde om. L]. But certes whether he deyde this waye or that other, certaynly he deyde [dede he is L], and was buryed at Langley. God haue mercy on his sowle. Amen. And thenne was Kynge Harry peasyly [peasbly L] kyng.

Within twenty-five years of Caxton's Liber ultimus and the compilation of Lambeth 84, Robert Fabyan completed his New Chronicles of England and France, which also contains the murder by Exton.18 In 1504 Fabyan completed the bulk of his work, ending with the accession of Henry VII in 1485, though a later continuation to 1509 is probably also by him. Fabyan used the prose Brut and Caxton's print of the Polychronicon as major sources, and his abbreviated account of Richard's death appears to have been primarily derived from the Liber ultimus, though there are details, here and in the earlier truncated account of a quarrel between Richard and the duke of Gloucester, that suggest that Fabyan was also using the original Traïson. He notes very cursorily the notion of famine, commenting “but this [the Exton story] of moost wryters is testyfyed & allegid.” Such an assessment is extremely curious, since this is not the clear opinion of his English sources. Perhaps he is giving greater credence to the French account here or perhaps he has misread Caxton's account. Whatever the original circumstances, however, this assessment must have circulated fairly widely, for the New Chronicles went through seven printings from its posthumous publication in 1516 to 1559 and was an important and respected source for later sixteenth-century chroniclers. Fabyan's full account, together with his record of Richard's Latin epitaph (later borrowed by Abraham Fleming for the 1587 edition of Holinshed), also given in English translation with a stanza of commentary by Fabyan himself, is as follows:

[Margin: Trucidatur Richardus.] Than it foloweth in the story of kynge Henry, whan he had fermelye consyderyd the great conspyracy agayne hym by the forenamyd lordys and other persones entendyd and imagenyd to his dystruccyon, & agayn releuynge Rycharde late kynge, he, in avoydynge of lyke daunger, prouyded to put the sayd Rycharde out of this present lyfe; and shortlye, after the opynyon of moost wryters, he sent a knyght, named syr Piers of Exton, vnto Pountfreyt castell, where he with viii other in his companye, fell vpon the sayde Rycharde late kynge, and hym myserably in his chaumbre slewe; but not without reuengement of his deth: for, or he were fellyd to the grounde, he slewe of the sayd viii iiii men, with an axe of theyr owne; but lastely he was woundyd to deth by the hande of the sayde syr Piers of Exton, & so dyed. After execucyon of which dedely dede, ye sayd syr Piers toke great repentaunce; in so moche that lamentably he sayd, “Alas! what haue we done, we haue now put to deth hym that hath ben ouer soueraygne and drad lorde by the space of xxii yeres, by reason whereof I shall be reprochyd of all honoure wheresoer I after this daye become, and all men shall redounde this dede to my dyshonour and shame.” Other opynyons of the dethe of this noble prynce are lefte by wryters, as by waye of famyne & other; but this of moost wryters is testyfyed & allegid. Whan the deth of this prynce was publysshed abrode, he was after opyn vysaged layed in the mynster of Pounfrayt, so yat all men myght knowe and see that he was dede. And the xii daye of Marche folowynge, he was with great solempnyte brought thoroughe the cytie of London to Paulys, & there layed open visaged agayn, to the end that his dethe myght be manyfestlye knowen, whiche was doutfull to many one, and speciallye to suche as oughte to hym fauoure. And then after a fewe dayes the sayd corps was caryed vnto the freris of Langley and there enterryd; but after he was remouyd by kynge Henry ye v in the firste yere of his reygne, and with great honoure and solempnyte conueyed vnto the monastery of Westmynster, and there within the chapell of seynt Edwarde, honourably buryed vpon the South syde of seynt Edwardys shryne, with this epytaphy vpon his toumbe as foloweth.

Prudens et mundus Richardus, iure secundus
Per fatum victus iacet hic sub marmore pictus.
Verax sermone fuit et plenus ratione,
Corpore procerus, animo prudens vt Omerus,
Ecclesiam fauit, elatos subpeditauit,
Quemuis prostrauit regalia qui violauit.

Whiche versys are thus to be vnderstande, in our vulgare and Englysshe tonge, as foloweth.

Parfyght and prudent Rycharde, by ryght the seconde,
Vaynquysshed by fortune, lyeth here nowe grauen in stone.
Trewe of his worde, and therto well resounde.
Semely of persone, and lyke to Omer as one.
In worldely prudence, and euer the Churche in one
Vp helde and fauoured, castynge the proude to grounde,
And all that wolde his royall state confounde.
But yet alas! thoughe that this metyr or ryme
Thus doth enbelysshe this noble pryncis fame,
And that some clerke which fauoured hym some tyme
Lyste by his cunnynge, thus to enhaunce his name,
Yet by his story apperith in hym some blame.
Wherefore to pryncys is surest memory,
Theyr lyues to exercyse in vertous constancy.

Whan this mortall prynce was thus dede and grauen, kynge Henry was in quyet possessyon of the realme, [etc.; Fabyan goes on to relate the riches found in Richard's treasury, “as wytnessyth Polycronycon”].19

As noted earlier, Fabyan and Caxton are named by Edward Hall as two of his principal English sources. For Richard's death, however, Hall returned to the English prose Brut for the enforced famine version; remarkably, it appears that Hall's direct source was the unique text of Lambeth MS 84, which, like Hall, calls this the generally accepted version. He then turned to the French Traïson for the full Exton story, containing, for example, the episode between Richard and his food-tasting esquire (Shakespeare's keeper). The number of ax blows that fell Richard is reduced to one. A couple of details presumably came from Lambeth MS 84, such as the eight (rather than seven) accomplices and Exton's dismay at Richard's spirited resistance. That Henry IV does not directly order Richard's murder and Exton acts as the result of the new king's transparent hints at the dinner table represents a major innovation, duly reproduced by Holinshed and reflected in Shakespeare.

There has been considerable disagreement whether Shakespeare knew directly the Traïson and Jean Creton's mainly metrical Histoire du Roy d'Angleterre Richard II, which were only available in manuscript.20 Peter Ure has argued that even Holinshed knew the Traïson only through the partial English translation written in the hand of John Stow in BL MS Harley 6219 and that the French work was not necessarily readily available in England in the late sixteenth century.21 While it is true that all the surviving manuscripts of the Traïson are found in French and Belgian libraries, Caxton, Stow, and Hall certainly, and Fabyan possibly, had access to the text (though the manuscript identified by Benjamin Williams as at least belonging to the type used by Stow is also, interestingly enough, of the same type as used by Caxton).22 The identification of the language in Holinshed's marginal reference to “an old French pamphlet belonging to John Stowe” suggests that it was the original text rather than the partial translation to which he was referring.23 The “French pamphlet that belongeth to master John Dee” or “master Dees French booke” to which Holinshed also refers can be identified with Lambeth MS 598, a copy of Creton, in French, which contains Dee's signature and the date 1575.24 There are some general similarities between Shakespeare and the two French historical works, especially parallels drawn between Richard and Christ, but the evidence is not conclusive whether the dramatist knew these narratives.

Similarly, one can speculate which, if any, of the older English chronicles underlying the sixteenth-century historical writers might have been known to Shakespeare. There is a good chance that he was acquainted with both the immensely popular prose Brut (Chronicles of England) and the Liber ultimus of the Polychronicon through one of the many subsequent printings of Caxton's editiones principes. Both were standard works, still current though perhaps a little old-fashioned by the late sixteenth century, which provided convenient, basic, and relatively short accounts of Richard's reign and death.

It remains to consider whether Shakespeare made a conscious decision to portray the version of Richard's death that he did. If the comments of Hall and Holinshed regarding popular belief in the various versions are to be taken at face value, Shakespeare has deliberately chosen the most colorful (and melodramatic) but not the commonly accepted account. In effect, Shakespeare would be emphatically disclaiming any pretensions to strict historical accuracy at this point, thus marking his version as an overtly self-conscious literary construct with its own criteria of selection. He would be asserting quite categorically that Richard II is a tragedie, not a chronicle play.

There would have been a certain circumspect political sense to such a decision, given the topicality and touchiness of the question of deposition. We recall that the deposition scene in Richard II, although already written, was omitted from the first three quarto editions and was first published after Queen Elizabeth's death in the fourth edition of 1608.25 It may have been this play (perhaps with the deposition scene) that the conspirators chose to view on the eve of the earl of Essex's short-lived rebellion in February 1601, in order to put steel in their backbones. In the summer following the failed rising and in the context of continuing Catholic agitation for her dethronement, Elizabeth is reported to have remarked, “I am Richard II. Know ye not that?” Parallels between the reigns of Richard and Elizabeth had been drawn earlier.26 Richard seems to have enjoyed a vogue as the accepted type of the monarch most likely to be deposed. At her trial in 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots, had compared the proceedings to what had happened to Richard;27 after Mary's execution Elizabeth sought to disclaim all responsibility.28 In 1592 a correspondent of Lord Burghley reports “a libel” warning James VI of Scotland of Richard II's fate.29 There could, therefore, have been sound political reasons to portray an account of Richard's death that was generally accepted to be historically false.

On the other hand, there are reasons for doubting the accuracy of Hall and Holinshed's assessment. Their “common fame” echoes suspiciously the “common opinion” of Lambeth MS 84 (and of Caxton's Liber ultimus, although Caxton assigns popular belief to the voluntary starvation story). It may well be that Hall and Holinshed were simply following their sources conservatively, thus reflecting the situation in the fifteenth century before the Exton account was introduced into England. Hall does admit doubt whether Henry ordered Richard's death or not and he does offer “the diuersities of opinions concerning the deathe of this infortunate prince, remittyng to your iudgement whiche you thynke moost trewe, but the very truthe is that he died of a violent death, and not by the darte of naturall infirmitie.” His tear-jerking, Marlowesque apostrophe to the horrors of death by starvation may suggest that this was the version that he accepted as historical. Holinshed gives the three versions, though he seems to favor the Exton story since the narration of Richard's obsequies follows naturally thereupon, with no intervening expression of doubt. The Myrroure for Magistrates (1559), Samuel Daniel's Civil Wars (1595), and John Hayward's King Henry the IV (1599) accept the murder by Exton (though Daniel “will not here defile / My unstained verse with his opprobrious name” and it is left to a marginal note to remark “This Knight was Sir Pierce of Exton”).30 Despite Hall and Holinshed, it would appear that the Exton murder had become the “common fame” in the course of the sixteenth century, though there had also arisen some doubt whether Henry was directly responsible. Shakespeare is, then, simply following the general current belief in his choice of deaths. Shakespeare also reflects sixteenth-century doubts over Henry's direct involvement and responsibility—“some saye he commaunded, other talke that he condiscended, many wryte that he knewe nat tyll it was done, and then it confirmed” as Hall wrote.

Arguably, there are a number of parallels between the Exton account of Richard's death and the murder of Thomas Becket. Shakespeare's Sir Pierce reports that he takes his cue from Henry's rhetorical question, “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” (5.4.2; cf. Hall, followed by Holinshed, “Haue I no faytheful frende whiche wil deliuer me of hym whose life will be my death, and whose death will be the preseruacion of my lyfe?”). This is reminiscent of Henry II's rhetorical musings that instigate the murder of Becket, as recorded by Holinshed:31

[Margin: The occasion of the kings words that cost bish. Becket his life.] The king giuing eare to theire complaint, was so displeased in his mind against archbishop Thomas, that in open audience of his lords, knights, and gentlemen, he said these or the like words: “In what miserable state am I, that can not be in rest within mine owne realme, by reason of one onelie preest? Neither is there any of my folkes that will helpe to deliuer me out of such troubles.”

There were some that stood about the king, which gessed by these words, that his mind was to signifie how he would haue some man to dispatch the archbishop out of the waie.32

The physical circumstances of the two deaths are also similar in Holinshed:

  • 1) Both victims are assailed by a group of armed men.
  • 2) Like Richard, Becket offers some resistance, albeit nonlethal: “And herewith taking on other of the knights by the habergeon, he floong him from him with such violence, that he had almost throwne him downe to the ground.”33
  • 3) Both receive their deathblows on their heads, which had been anointed.
  • 4) The murderer(s) are subsequently spurned by their kings: “King Henrie [II] gaue them so litle thankes for their presumptuous act, sounding to the euill example of other in breach of his lawes, that they despairing vtterlie of pardon, fled one into one place, and another into another” (Ellis, 1807-8, 2: 136).
  • 5) Both kings deny complicity in murder: when Henry II finally purges himself he vows “that he neither willed, nor commanded the archbishop Thomas to be murthered, and that when he heard of it, he was sorie for it” (2: 143).
  • 6) Each king receives a penance for the murder: one of the articles of Henry II's penance is that within three years “he should take vpon him the crosse, and personallie passe to the holie land” (2: 143). (The comment in the margin is “O vile subiection vnbeseeming a king!”)

Other parallels existed also. Like Henry IV, Henry II had a namesake son who was riotous in his youth (2: 130-31). Both Richard, in French chronicles and in Shakespeare, and Becket, in hagiographic accounts, are compared with Christ and parallels are drawn between their deaths and the Passion.34

In the late sixteenth century any reminiscences of Thomas Becket's murder would have been highly charged politically and in terms of the characters of Bolingbroke and Richard. From the time of the Reformation, Becket was officially persona non grata, declared by royal proclamation in 1538 “a rebel and traitor to his prince,”35 and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral was destroyed, as were those of other “counterfeated Sainctes.”36 Tudor and Elizabethan antiquarians were assiduous in scratching out of manuscripts that had been in monastic hands the words “pope” (occasionally substituting “bishop of Rome”) and “saint” as a title of Becket (in favor of “bishop”). Chronicles such as Fabyan's, originally published before 1538 and reprinted after that date, were carefully edited and their history altered to show Becket in a vile light.37

Nevertheless, the murders of Richard II (Exton version) and Thomas Becket were similar, and there were other links between these two and Henry IV that were probably known to Shakespeare and his audience, in particular the story attached to the consecration oil used to anoint Henry IV. John Capgrave describes Henry's coronation:

Thus was he crowned on Seynt Edward day and anoynted with þat holy oyle þat was take to Seynt Thomas of Cauntirbury be oure Lady, and he lefte it in Frauns. This oyle was closed in a egel of gold and þat egil put in a crowet of ston, and be reualacion Herry, þe first duke of Lancastir fond it, and brout it hom to Ynglond, and gaue it to þe Prince Edward [the Black Prince], to þis effect, þat aftir his faderes deces he schuld be anoynted with þe same. And aftir þe princes deth it was left in þe kyngis tresory, and neuyr man tok kep þerto til, a litil before þat þe king [Richard] exiled þe Bischop Thomas [Arundel], þis relik was found, and certayn writing þeron, as Thomas of Cauntirbury left it. Than was Kyng Richard glad, and desired of þe bischop to be anoynted new, but he wold not. But for al þat þe kyng bare it with him into Yrland, and whan he was take in his coming ageyn, he dylyuered it to Thomas Arundel, and soo was Herry crowned with þe same.38

Capgrave's account is a shortened adaptation of a popular story given by Thomas Walsingham, who recounts that Richard came across the eagle and ampulla while rummaging around in his ancestors' relics in the Tower of London and that the writing attached to these was a prophecy of Thomas Becket.39 The underlying prophecy, the so-called “Vision at Sens” or “The Ampulla Prophecy,” survives in Latin in many manuscripts and chronicles.40 It was translated into French by Jean Bouchet in the Annals of Aquitaine, which were known to Edward Hall.41 In the late fifteenth century the compiler of Lambeth MS 84 made an English translation of the prophecy, which he found prefixed to a manuscript of the Latin Polychronicon, and inserted it into his account of Becket. The following text has not been printed before:

[Lambeth MS 84, fol. 93] [Margin: A Prophesi.] Also it is red in Policronicon a prophese, wryttyn in Latyn in þe begynnyng of þe booke, þat seyth thus:

Whan I Thomas, Archebisshop of Cauntirbury, was exilid & fled in to Fraunce, & so went to Rome to Pope [erased] Alexandre, then beyng olde, to telle hym þe evyl & malicius customys & abusiouns þat þe kyng of Engelond wolde haue brouht in to þe cherche.

And on a nyhte, as I was in þe cherche of Seint Columbe in my prayours, praying vnto þe queen of heuyn þat she woolde geve vnto þe kyng of Engelond & to his ayeres ful purpose & wyl to amende ther transgressis doon vnto þe cherche, and at Crist of His mercy & beneuolence myhte make them to love þe cherche.

And anon þe blessyd virgin Marie apperyd vnto me, hauyng afore her breste an egil of golde hangyng, & helde in her hande a lytil cruet of stone; she, takyng þe egil from her brest, & put þe cruet into þe egle & shet it fast. And then she toke it me in myn hand, seyng to me thes woordis be ordyr: “This oynement shal serve to annoynte with þe kyngis of Engelond, but nat he þat now regneth nor hereaftyr shal regne, forwhi they ar wykkyd & of evyl disposicioun & yewse moche synne & shal yewse. But ther ar [fol. 93v] kyngis hereaftyr to come þat shal be herewith anoyntyd, & they shal be blessedful & gret subportyrs of holichirche; they shal pesibile recouer þe land lost by her auncestours. There is a kyng of England to come þat shal be first anoyntyd with this oynement, þat shal wynne þe lande lost by his fadyrs afore, that is to sey, Normandy & Aquitaney, withoute resistyng. This kyng shal be grettest of al kyngis, & he shal edifie many chirchis in þe holy lande & wyn þe cite of Babilone, in þe whiche he shal bylde many chirchis. And in what batayle þat þe kyng bere þe egil on his brest, he shal haue þe victorie of his enemyes & evyr augment his kyngdom. And thow art a martir to come.”

And then I besouhte of þe blessidful virgin Marie þat she woolde shew me where þat I myht kepe suche a precius holi relique as þat was. Then she answeryd to me & sayde, “Ther is a man in this cete callid William, whiche is a monke of Seint Ciprian in Pictauensis, & he is vnryhtfully expulsid oute of his place by his abbot. And thow shalt go vnto þe pope [erased] & byd hym to compelle his abbot to resseyue hym ageyne in to his abbey. And take hym þe egil with þe cruet, to bere them into þe cite of Pictauensis & in þe chirche of Seint Gregore, þat is nyh þe cherche of Seint Hillarie, & þere to hide them in þe west ende of þe cherche vndir a grete stone, there to be founde in tyme to come. And be þe hede of a pagan they shal be founde”—and ther she departyd away.

Then I closid this egil in a vessel of lede & toke it to þe monke, biddyng hym do as I was comandyd.

Although the “Ampulla Prophecy” may have been composed earlier, it was readily applied for political purposes to Henry IV, the first king anointed with Becket's sacred unction, and was but one of a number of prophecies whose interpretation strengthened Henry's claim to legitimacy. The sacred oil continued to be used at coronations throughout the fifteenth century.42 Given the emphasis placed on the fact of anointment by Richard and other characters in the play (see 1.2.38, 2.1.98, 2.3.95, 3.2.55, 4.1.127, 4.1.206), it may have had significant resonances for Shakespeare and his audience.

The “Ampulla Prophecy” also indicates the general associative context in which to view Henry's expiatory intention to liberate Jerusalem and his desire in his will, duly honored, to be buried in Canterbury Cathedral, where his tomb stands on one side of the site of Becket's shrine (destroyed in 1538), while that of the Black Prince, Richard's father, stands on the other.43

The golden eagle-shaped ampulla continues to be used in the coronation ceremony; in its present form it dates from the time of Henry IV (perhaps replacing Richard's pendant-sized one), elaborated and reshaped for Charles II.44 Mary Tudor felt that the efficacy of the unction had been tainted by its use in the crowning of her Protestant half-brother Edward VI and sent to the pope for new consecrated oil, but Elizabeth returned to Becket's unction for her coronation.45 One should not push the possible analogies too far however. If the staunchly Protestant Hall intended any parallels between Richard and Becket, then he would have intended them to be drawn to the detriment of Richard.

Behind Shakespeare's account of the murder of Richard II by Pierce de Exton, the beginning of the “continuall discension for the croune of this noble realme” (Hall, 1550, title page), lies a tradition that stretches back through Holinshed, Hall, Fabyan, and Caxton to “diuers other Pamphlettes, the names of whom are to moste men vnknowen” (Hall). Variously described as “our English Chronicles … rustie brasse, and worme-eaten bookes” in Nashe's Pierce Penilesse (86) or as “the leaues of a dog-hay, leaues of a worme eaten Chronicle” in Every Woman in Her Humor (2.1.197-98),46 the late medieval chronicles nevertheless provide the background against which to measure the dramatist's handling of received historical knowledge and attitudes—the mental clutter of fact, falsehood, conjecture, rationalization, legend, myth, prejudice, opinion, and moral judgment that forms a nation's sense of itself, its past, and its place in the world—which Shakespeare shared with his audience.


  1. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from “Richard II” to “Henry V” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), 48.

  2. The text quoted is that of The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Matthew W. Black, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970), with scene locations added.

  3. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 271-74; Geoffrey Bullough, Earlier English History Plays: Henry VI, Richard III, Richard II, vol. 3 of Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge; New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 3:13-14, 362-63.

  4. See Graham Pollard, “The Bibliographical History of Hall's Chronicle,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 10 (1933): 12-17.

  5. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 3:362.

  6. Cf. Gordon W. Zeeveld, “The Influence of Hall on Shakespeare's Historical Plays,” ELH 3 (1936): 317-53.

  7. Here and elsewhere below in quotations from manuscripts and early printed books, the punctuation, capitalization, and division into paragraphs have been modernized. Corrections and minor errors in the texts have been emended silently. Textual variants, variant readings, folio numbers, and editorial comments are enclosed in square brackets.

  8. The Union of the Two Noble Families of Lancaster and York, 1550 (Menston, Yorkshire: Scolar Press, 1970) (a facsimile of Richard Grafton's second edition of 1550). The 1548 edition is printed in Henry Ellis, ed., Hall's Chronicle (London: J. Johnson, F. C. and J. Rivington, 1809).

  9. R. S. Wallace and Alma Hansen, eds., Holinshed's Chronicles: Richard II, 1398-1400, Henry IV, and Henry V (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 24-26.

  10. See Lister M. Matheson, “Historical Prose,” in Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), 210-14; Donald Edward Kennedy, “Chronicles and Other Historical Writing,” in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500, ed. Albert E. Hartung, vol. 8 (New Haven: Archon Books, for The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1989), 2629-37.

  11. Lister M. Matheson, “The Middle English Prose Brut: A Location List of the Manuscripts and Early Printed Editions,” Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography 3 (1979): 265.

  12. Friedrich D. Brie, ed., The Brut or The Chronicles of England, 2 vols., EETS 131, 136 (Part I: Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1906] 1960; Part II: Millwood, N.J.: Kraus Reprint, [1908] 1987).

  13. A. S. G. Edwards, “John Trevisa,” in Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), 143.

  14. J. R. Lumby, ed., Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis (London: Rolls Series, 1882), 8: 522-87 (the text of Caxton's Liber ultimus). See Lister M. Matheson, “Printer and Scribe: Caxton, the Polychronicon, and the Brut,Speculum 60 (1985): 601-7.

  15. Matheson, “Printer and Scribe,” 607-9.

  16. See Benjamin Williams, ed., Chronicque de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre (Vaduz: Kraus Reprint, [1846] 1964), lxxxiii-xcii.

  17. The full Liber ultimus is printed in Lumby. The relevant text from Lambeth MS 84 is edited in Brie 2:590/22-592/21. The present text and collation are reedited from the originals.

  18. For Fabyan, see Kingsford, English Historical Literature, 261-65; Louisa D. Duls, Richard II in the Early Chronicles (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1975), 181-82, 187-88, 246-47; Antonia Gransden, Historical Literature in England, II: c. 1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 245-48; Kennedy, “Chronicles and Other Historical Writing,” 2654-55.

  19. Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, ed. Henry Ellis (London: F. C. and J. Rivington [etc.], 1811), 568-69.

  20. For an overview see Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 354, 369-72; Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 46-51.

  21. Peter Ure, “Shakespeare's Play and the French Sources of Holinshed's and Stow's Account of Richard II,” N & Q 198 (1953): 426-29. For Stow's translation, see Williams, Chronicque de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre, vi-vii.

  22. See Williams, Chronicque de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre, vii; Matheson, “Printer and Scribe,” 605.

  23. Williams, Chronicque de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre, vi; cf. Wallace and Hansen, Holinshed's Chronicles, 7.

  24. Wallace and Hansen, Holinshed's Chronicles, 15, 21, 26; Williams, Chronicque de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre, vii.

  25. Matthew W. Black, ed., Richard II, The Pelican Shakespeare, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970), 17; for an argument that the scene is a late addition, however, see David M. Bergeron, “The Deposition Scene in Richard II,Renaissance Papers (1974): 31-37.

  26. Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1964), 173, 191, 196-97; C. A. Greer, “The Deposition Scene of Richard II,N & Q 197 (1952): 492-93.

  27. William Poel, Shakespeare in the Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, [1913] 1968), 112.

  28. See Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories,” 162, quoting J. E. Neale's Queen Elizabeth (New York, 1936), 279.

  29. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories,” 176.

  30. A Myrroure for Magistrates in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 422; Daniel, in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 457; [John Hayward], The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie the iiii, extending to the End of the First Yeare of His Raigne (London: John Wolfe, 1599), 132.

  31. Theodore A. Stroud, “Shakespeare's Richard II as a Saint Manqué in a Compounded Tragedy,” Iowa State Journal of Research 53 (1979): 203.

  32. Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, ed. Henry Ellis, 6 vols. (London: Johnson, and Rivington, [etc.], 1807-8), 2:134.

  33. Ibid.; Becket's slight resistance undercuts Stroud's argument that by resisting Richard fails to become a “Becket-like martyr” (“Shakespeare's Richard II,” 203-4). It is, however, in accord with Karl F. Thompson's contention that Richard follows the pattern of martyrdom presented in John Foxe's Actes and Monuments, where the faithful die heroically in action; see Thompson, “Richard II, Martyr,” ShQ 8 (1957): 159-66.

  34. Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays, 50; Paul N. Siegel, Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1986), 38-39; Paul Alonzo Brown, The Development of the Legend of Thomas Becket (Philadelphia: n.p., 1930), 134-37.

  35. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Historical Memorials of Canterbury, (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1899), 296.

  36. Ellis, Hall's Chronicle, 826.

  37. Francis Thynne, however, in his Liues of the Archbishops of Canturburie (1568), incorporated in the 1587 edition of Holinshed, describes Becket as “a good souldior both for the church and the kingdome” (Ellis 4: 689). Holinshed himself speaks of “that Romish rakehels ambitious and traitorous heart” (Ellis, Hall's Chronicle, 2:147).

  38. John Capgrave, Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, ed. Peter J. Lucas, EETS 285 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 214 (line 27)-215 (line 10).

  39. Historia Anglicana, ed. Henry Thomas Riley, 2 vols. (London: Rolls Series, 1863-64), 2:239-240. A similar account, in English, is found in certain texts of the Peculiar Versions of the prose Brut and the related text of “Davies's” Chronicle; for the latter, see John Silvester Davies, ed., An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II., Henry IV., Henry V., and Henry VI., Camden Society 64 (London: J. B. Nichols, 1865), 14.

  40. Brown, The Development of the Legend of Thomas Becket, 226n6, 227. Latin texts of the prophecy are printed in PL 190: 391-94; as part of a collection of assorted legends in the Eulogium Historiarum Sive Temporis, ed. Frank Scott Haydon, 3 vols. (London: Rolls Series, 1858-63), 1:406-7; and, with the ampulla's later history, in Walsingham's Annales Ricardi Secundi et Henrici Quarti, a continuation of John de Trokelowe and Henry de Blaneford, Chronica et Annales, ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London: Rolls Series, 1865), 297-300 (see also Chris Given-Wilson, trans. and ed., Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397-1400: The Reign of Richard II [Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993], 201).

  41. Bouchet's French text is printed in John Webb, ed., “Translation of a French Metrical History of the Deposition of King Richard the Second,” Archaeologia 20 (1824): 266-67 (also contains the French text of Jean Creton's Histoire du Roy d'Angleterre Richard).

  42. Percy E. Schramm, A History of the English Coronation, trans. Leopold G. Wickham Legg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), 131-33, 137-38; J. W. McKenna, “The Coronation Oil of the Yorkist Kings,” EHR 82 (1967): 102-4.

  43. J. A. Nichols, Collection of all the Wills … of the Kings and Queens of England [etc.] (New York: Kraus Reprint and AMS Press, [1780] 1969), 203; Stanley, Historical Memorials, 176.

  44. Brian Barker, The Symbols of Sovereignty (Newton Abbot, Devon: Westbridge Books; North Pomfret, Vermont: David and Charles, 1979), 80-82 and plate opposite 84; Tessa Rose, The Coronation Ceremony of the Kings and Queens of England and the Crown Jewels (London: HMSO, 1992), 94 (plate) and cf. 97-99.

  45. Rose, The Coronation Ceremony, 98. Elizabeth complained of the rank smell. The last of the original unction was used at the coronation of James I (Barker, The Symbols of Sovereignty, 82).

  46. Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse, His Svpplication to the Divell (1592), ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Barnes and Noble, [1924] 1966); Every Woman in Her Humor (Anon, 1609), ed. Archie Mervin Tyson (New York and London: Garland, 1980).

Martha A. Kurtz (essay date 1996)

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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 oppositional identities, the boundaries of which are never blurred and which can never overlap or unite. These two assumptions coalesce in the frequently reiterated premise that the history play as a genre is fundamentally antagonistic to women and the “feminine”:

The myth of the history plays involves fathers and sons. It does not involve mothers, daughters, or wives.

Antagonists and consorts, queens and queans, witches and saints: women play almost every conceivable role on Shakespeare's historical stage. But there is one role that no woman can play, that of the hero. Aliens in the masculine world of history, women can threaten or validate the men's historical projects, but they can never take the center of history's stage or become the subjects of its stories.

In the man's world of the history play, the only power the woman can wield is her power to dismay through verbal abuse … The curse of the scold is feared almost as much as the drubbing she supposedly administers to her unfortunate man … but it achieves nothing.

Tudor history was not simply written without women; it was also written against them. Patriarchal history is designed to construct a verbal substitute for the visible physical connection between a mother and her children, to authenticate the … relationships between fathers and sons, and to suppress and supplant the role of the mother.

The feminine offers too powerful a challenge to the idea of history itself for Shakespeare to deal with it in the history plays. The Otherness of the feminine challenges the ethos of power and conquest through aggression; history as a genre must ultimately base itself on that ethos, no matter how it also criticizes it. If we lose interest in the military-political adventure we have lost interest in history itself as a genre.1

An extension of a patriarchal Tudor historiography, the history play is seen by these writers as inherently a “men's world” in which women are the naturally feared and opposing Other whom the genre must minimalize, weaken, and exclude in order to maintain its own generic identity. The domain of the “masculine” is the public life that becomes documented history; its ethos is “power and conquest through aggression.” The domain of the “feminine,” it is implied, is the opposite of this—the private life that is never documented, the ethos that, whether it renounces aggression or pursues it in distinctively “feminine” ways (deception, manipulation, verbal abuse), is ultimately powerless.

We should be cautious about arguments that make such sweeping claims. “Masculine” and “feminine” are notoriously slippery terms, which are more apt to show the qualities that a particular culture in a particular historical moment assigns to men and women than any unchanging truths about gender, and which reduce the complexities of real men and women to gross oversimplifications. To define the “masculine” as an “ethos of power and … aggression” implies that no gentler qualities properly belong to men; if to be “feminine” is to be passive, powerless, and overlooked, then women can never appropriately be powerful or important. Linda Bamber, Phyllis Rackin, and Lisa Jardine are not, of course, speaking about masculinity and femininity in general, but as they are seen in the characters and situations of Elizabethan history plays. We may wonder, however, whether a genre that includes plays as diverse as the Henry VI trio and Sir Thomas More, 1 Henry IV, and Woodstock, is likely to show one point of view about anything, even gender.

There may be some basis for a theory of generic determinism in the case of comedy or tragedy, which by the sixteenth century had a long history of precedents and a few established conventions that undoubtedly did influence the audiences' expectations and the writers' products. The history play, on the other hand, was an invention of the last twenty years of Elizabeth's reign. The playwrights were making it up as they went along; it is difficult to see how they could have been constrained by a genre that they were in the process of creating.2 Printed histories like Holinshed's chronicle or Foxe's Acts and Monuments obviously contributed greatly to the dramatic product, but, in addition to the fact that different chroniclers have demonstrably different biases, we need to remember that many aspects of popular culture also helped to shape most of the so-called “chronicle histories,” as undoubtedly did the different personalities, backgrounds, and interests of the individual playwrights. While some history plays may well be based on a patriarchal ethos that marginalizes or demonizes women, it does not follow that such an ethos is the foundation of the genre as a whole.

It is easy, of course, to see where the idea of a generic opposition to women in the history plays has come from. There are few women characters in any of the best-known plays, and even fewer who exercise any kind of political power. Hotspur's Kate seems paradigmatic: her anxious questions left unanswered, her love brushed aside like a child's toy (“Away, you trifler! Love! I love thee not, / I care not for thee, Kate; this is no world / To play with mammets, and to tilt with lips”), she cannot be told where her husband is going or even where he expects her to go, and she is asked to be “content” with a course of events that soon leaves her a grieving widow (1 Henry IV II.iii.91-3, 118).3 She is not alone. In Richard II, Richard's queen learns of the most important event in her life from a household servant, the gardener—and can only weep and curse helplessly in response, unable to do anything to change the course of events that will lead to her widowhood and exile. She cannot even confront the source of her misery directly, but must take her anger out on the gardener and his plants.4 Almost equally helpless are the trio of women in Richard III, who lament the husbands and children they have lost to Richard's sinister power, and the French princess Katherine in Henry V, who must marry “as it shall please de roi mon père” and the conquering English king (V.ii.261).5 There are a few women in Shakespeare's early histories who take action in an attempt to control their own lives, but, as a number of studies have pointed out, they are ultimately defeated and demonized.6 Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou lead men in battle, but Joan is exposed as a whore and burned at the stake, while Margaret becomes first the “tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide” who commits the most memorable atrocities in a play remembered primarily for its bloodshed and horror, and then the half-mad harridan who haunts the halls of power in Richard III, with no power left of her own except the one she shares with Hotspur's Kate and Richard II's queen—the power to curse (3 Henry VI I.iv.137).7 However strong such women as Joan or Margaret may be for a time, they are ultimately punished for their audacity in exercising power by being reduced to helpless grotesques who are rejected by the masculine forces of their own dramatic world and by the audience.

Or so the argument goes. Yet, important as it is to recognize the ways in which these women characters are deprived of political power, we should not forget the theatrical effect created by a few women on a stage crowded with men: their gender, highlighted by their costumes, sets them apart and draws a particularly intense attention to everything they say and do, giving them a theatrical power that goes considerably beyond the number of lines they speak or the political power they are able to exercise in their fictional worlds. Kate's role in Henry IV and Isobel's in Richard II are not insignificant simply because the parts are small. Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to emphasize the plight of these helpless women: confined to, but not sheltered by, their domestic existence, they emblematize the suffering that public action often inflicts on private lives. If this is not as gratifying today as portrayals of strong, successful women would be, it nevertheless has the effect of making the women a kind of moral touchstone in the plays. We may be interested in the war and politics that dominate the action, but we cannot fully approve of them when Kate and Isobel are standing by to remind us of the senseless suffering these masculine activities create.8 In productions of Richard III the women—particularly Margaret—are riveting. Their language is almost hypnotic in its intensity and, with the possible exception of the weak-willed Anne, they clearly have the moral high ground. They are the only ones who see Richard as we see him and say what we want to hear said about him, and they, not Richmond, provide a focal point for the audience's sympathies throughout the play. In the end, of course, they are justified and Richard is defeated.9 In the Henry VI plays Margaret can be seen as a different kind of critique of the values of the masculine world of war: what is horrifying in men is more vividly horrifying in her because it is unexpected. We can see the nightmare violence for what it is more clearly in a woman than in a man because we are less accustomed to it there, the way a cigarette looks more shocking in a child's mouth than an adult's.10 Joan's leveling cynicism about the heroics of war has much the same popular appeal as Falstaff's, and if she is satirized and demonized in the last act, the audience will not necessarily forget all that has gone before.11 Each of these women is different in character and social position from the others, but each exercises considerable theatrical power on the audience, and each implies a criticism of the masculine characters and their struggles for political power and conquest.

These are the women in the best-known histories.12 If, as I am arguing, we need to approach the history plays with fewer preformed notions about patriarchal history and the unbending determinism of genre and gender, and more openness to the plays' theatricality and the power that the women in them may exercise on the plays' audiences, we also need to expand our definition of the genre to include plays other than those by Shakespeare. There are many to choose from; in the space that remains I will look at two, Woodstock and Sir Thomas More, each of which complicates in different ways the simple ideas about gender so often attributed to the history plays.

It would be hard to find a more conventionally “feminine” woman than Woodstock's Queen Anne. She is beautiful, tactful, kind, and good. When Richard marries her in the first act, she pleases everyone by her delight in England and her desire to become English (“[L]et me be englishèd: / They best shall please me shall me English call” [I.iii.48-9]).13 She spends her time sewing garments to give to the poor (II.iii). She not only rides sidesaddle herself, she is responsible for introducing that “feminine” approach to exercise to other English ladies, thus—the play's hero declares—teaching them “womanhood” (I.iii.53-61). She is called “virtuous” so often that it begins to sound like another name.

Like Shakespeare's Kate or Isobel she has relatively little to say—about eighty lines—and she spends much of her time in distress: over her husband's bad relationship with his uncles, his extravagance, the condition of the kingdom's poor, and so on. Midway through the play she dies. Yet she is an important character. Her femininity, far from being marginalized or discredited, is treated by the play's central character, Woodstock, as a potentially powerful force for good. He is delighted that she has taught ladies to be more feminine by riding sidesaddle, but it is not only women whom he hopes she will influence. “Afore my God,” he declares to his brothers on the king's wedding day,

I have good hope this happy marriage, brothers,
Of this so noble and religious princess
Will mildly calm his headstrong youth, to see
And shun those stains that blur his majesty.


Richard's “headstrong” ways include extortion, reckless expenditure, and, ultimately, kidnapping and murder. In a world in which the character of one man could mean the difference between life and death for his subjects, a woman's ability to influence her husband takes on political as well as private significance.

Richard, unfortunately, proves to be hard to “calm.” Although he is always affectionate to his wife, he continues to raise taxes to feed his extravagant personal tastes, which include huge feasts and expensive new clothes. Anne, meanwhile, is shown with the ladies of her court packing up “shirts and bands and other linen”—some of it sewn by the queen herself—to send to the poor, and we learn that she has sold her jewels and plate to help relieve the suffering caused by her husband's taxation (II.iii.1.s.d.; 21-3). Her “housewifery” and charity are highly praised by everyone who hears of them, and pose an obviously desirable alternative to the insensitivity and selfishness of the king (II.iii.63). They are also politically powerful. When she is dying, later in the play, Woodstock laments the probable results:

Her charity hath stayed the Commons' rage
That would ere this have shaken Richard's chair
Or set all England on a burning fire.
And—'fore my God—I fear, when she is gone
This woeful land will all to ruin run.


While this popular uprising never occurs, Woodstock's fear of it is a measure of the importance he attaches to Anne's popularity. In the end we find that her influence extends even to the king. Despite his selfishness and cruelty he is so devastated by his wife's death that he suddenly repents of having ordered Woodstock's murder and tries, though unsuccessfully, to have it stopped. With typical extravagance, he orders the house where Anne died to be pulled down:

Down with this house of Sheen, go ruin all!
Pull down her buildings, let her turrets fall:
For ever lay it waste and desolate
That English king may never here keep court,
But to all ages leave a sad report,
When men shall see these ruined walls of Sheen
And sighing say, Here died King Richard's queen.


Like the rebellion Woodstock fears, the ruined palace suggests the importance of Anne to the survival of the kingdom.

Anne's goodness, particularly in the emblematic scene with the shirts and linen, clearly establishes the positive values of the play as something we might call “feminine.” They are not associated exclusively with women, however. Anne's concern for the poor and her willingness to sacrifice her jewels to help them is matched by her great ally throughout the play, Woodstock, who is called “Plain Thomas” in acknowledgment not only of his blunt speech, but also of his preference for frieze coats and plain hose. When pressed by his brothers, he agrees to put on richer clothes for Richard's wedding day and astonishes his nephew by his “golden metamorphosis / From homespun housewifry”; the last word links Woodstock with women in general and the queen in particular (I.iii.75-6). “Plain Thomas” remains uncomfortable in his best clothes, however, and when twitted by Richard about his usual dress, he defends it vehemently:

Ay, ay, mock on. My tother hose, say ye?
There's honest plain dealing in my tother hose.
Should this fashion last I must raise new rents,
Undo my poor tenants, turn away my servants,
And guard myself with lace; nay, sell more land
And lordships too, by th'rood. Hear me, King Richard:
If thus I jet in pride, I still shall lose;
But I'll build castles in my tother hose
Tother hose! did some here wear that fashion
They would not tax and pill the Commons so!


The last lines are a direct dig at Richard and his favorites, whose exotic and expensive costumes are a highly visible sign of their selfishness throughout the play. Vanity and extravagance, so often considered feminine sins, are in this play assigned exclusively to men, while simplicity and unselfishness, feminized by the term “housewifry,” are associated with both the women of the play and its male hero.

“Housewifry” is, in an important sense, what this play is about. Its concern is not so much with public action—with what Linda Bamber calls the “military and political adventures” that she believes are the ethos of the history play as a genre—but with the private lives of public people and their use (and abuse) of domestic economy. Unlike his counterpart in Shakespeare's Richard II, this Richard is not interested in pursuing wars abroad or political maneuverings at home; he only wants to build new buildings and tear down old ones, to try on new clothes and give parties for his friends. His sins are largely a result of his poor housekeeping, the selfish extravagance which forgets that a king's or a lord's private indulgences affect the lives of others. The queen, on the other hand, is a good housekeeper, while Woodstock remembers that a lord's rich clothing spells financial ruin for his dependents and that castle building is best done in plain hose.

If the king prefers parties to politics and war, Woodstock and his brothers also prefer private life—though theirs is a simpler and more wholesome one than the king's. In act III, they retire to Woodstock's country house at Plashey after being dismissed from the court. “I lived with care at court, and now am free,” Lancashire declares, and York agrees:

Come, come, let's find some other talk, I think not on it:
I ne'er slept soundly when I was amongst them,
So let them go.


The description of Plashey is irresistible:

This house of Plashey, brother
Stands in a sweet and pleasant air, ifaith:
Tis near the Thames, and circled round with trees
That in the summer serve for pleasant fans
To cool ye; and in winter strongly break
The stormy winds that else would nip ye too.


If there is an emotional heart of the play, this is it. Domesticity, associated with both women and men, is the ethos of this play, not the public world of action and corruption.

As in other histories, however, the private world is not invulnerable. In Richard II it is the weeping queen who reminds us of its dangers; in the Henry IV plays, it is Hotspur's Kate. In Woodstock, it is a man—Woodstock himself, who is seized from his domestic retreat and carried to his death by a party of masked men that includes the king. The kindly duke's fate seems oddly connected to the absence of his lady. Just before the maskers arrive the duchess is called away to attend to the queen, who has been taken sick. Woodstock urges his wife to hurry, yet she resists; like so many women in the history plays, she has had foreboding dreams of her husband's death and does not want to leave him. Woodstock dismisses her fears and hurries her out of the house, but when he is left alone he is obviously unsettled:

And, but th'important business craves such haste,
She had not gone from Plashey House tonight.


While there is little she could have done to prevent the kidnapping, the scene leaves one with the impression that Woodstock has lost some kind of defense—an impression doubled when we learn that there are few servants left at Plashey, as “most of my attendants [are] waiting on her [the duchess]” (IV.ii.130). Left without his wife and most of his household, Woodstock is peculiarly vulnerable, and no one should be surprised when the king strikes. Although her spoken part is tiny the duchess, like Queen Anne, seems to carry a symbolic importance far greater than the number of her lines. Woodstock is a play more concerned with the need for kindness and domestic economy than with war games and masculine heroics; when the women are gone, “this woeful land will all to ruin run.”

The women of Woodstock are feminine in conventional ways, but other characters respect them and their values are reflected in the play's central male figure; they are neither demonized nor marginalized, despite the smallness of their parts. In the opening scenes of Sir Thomas More, on the other hand, we meet a woman who is in many ways their opposite. Outspoken, brash, violent, and vulgar, Doll Williamson—like Joan of Arc or Margaret of Anjou—has been described as a shrewish transvestite whose violation of all the constraints conventionally placed on feminine behavior mark her as “comic” and “monstrous,” while her close brush with death on the gallows is said to teach the usual lessons about the evils of rebellion and the value of submission to (masculine) authority.14 Yet such a reading ignores the context in which Doll appears—a scene in which authority behaves so outrageously that Doll's outrageous behavior seems the only reasonable response.

When the play opens, two foreigners are wreaking havoc on London's citizens by stealing the food from their mouths and the wives from their beds, all the while sanctioned by an arrangement between their ambassador and the Privy Council that grants them immunity. While one man takes a pair of doves from a carpenter who has just bought them, another tries to drag away the carpenter's wife—Doll Williamson. Confronted by several citizens, the foreigners refuse to pay for the birds and continue to try to take Doll Williamson with them, boasting that they will have any woman they want, “and she were the mayor of London's wife” (I.i.47).15 We learn that one of these men has seduced “the goldsmith's wife … whom thou enticedst from her husband with all his plate,” and then took the goldsmith to court and “mads't him, like an ass, pay for his wife's board” (I.i.10-3). The Londoners are naturally infuriated, and respond with rough poetic justice by burning the houses of the men who have attacked their own home lives.

The most impressive figure in the scenes, however, is Doll. While her husband and his friends are at first “curbed by duty and obedience,” and believe “[y]ou may do anything, the goldsmith's wife, and mine now, must be at your commandment,” she does not submit passively to attack (I.i.51, 42-4). “Purchase of me? Away ye rascal! I am an honest plain carpenter's wife and though I have no beauty to like a husband, yet whatsoever is mine scorns to stoop to a stranger. Hands off then when I bid thee,” she orders de Bard when he first tries to drag her off (I.i.4-7). When he threatens her, she calls him “dog's face” and, a little later, tells him to “[t]ouch not Doll Williamson, lest she lay thee along on God's dear earth,” and orders him to give the doves back to her husband (I.i.9, 60-5). Her threats are effective: de Bard drops her arm abruptly and leaves, to “complain to my lord ambassador” (I.i.69-70). As the Londoners' resentment rises, she continues to urge the men to take action, and puts on armor herself to “make a captain among ye, and do somewhat to be talk of for ever after” (I.i.134-5).

Doll is not alone. Although she is the only female character to appear on stage in this part of the play, the audience is always conscious of her as part of a whole community of women, all of them willing to speak out and fight back against the foreigners' abuse. She speaks, not simply about herself, but about all women: “Hands off proud stranger, or [by] Him that bought me, if men's milky hearts dare not strike a stranger, yet women will beat them down, ere they bear these abuses”; “Ay, and if you men durst not undertake it, before God we women [will]”; “I'll call so many women to mine assistance, as we'll not leave one inch untorn of thee. If our husbands must be bridled by law, and forced to bear your wrongs, their wives will be a little lawless, and soundly beat ye” (I.i.55-58, 95-6, 64-8). Far from being marginalized, women are the dominant power in this part of the play.

These opening scenes give voice to popular grievances, not conservative disapproval of anarchy. Hatred of foreigners, so often seen as a link between these scenes and London's anti-stranger riots of 1593, is coupled with an explosive resentment against class privileges and the arrogance of caste: the foreigner who steals Williamson's doves adds insult to injury when he tells the workingmen that “Beef and brewis may serve such hinds,” and asks, “[A]re pigeons meat for a coarse carpenter?” (I.i.23-4).16 Doll responds to his tone as much as to his actions when she tells him, “And you sir, that allow such coarse cates to carpenters, whilst pigeons which they pay for must serve your dainty appetite: deliver them back to my husband again” (I.i.61-4). Throughout the scene she voices the self-respect and self-assertion we badly want to see in these English citizens who are so outrageously abused. If we laugh, it is not at her but at the ineffective men in the scene—both the law-abiding Englishmen “brideled by law,” whose “milky hearts dare not strike a stranger,” and the Lombards who are so easily defeated by a little resistance, and who run off like whining children to complain to their ambassador about it.17 If she transgresses the boundaries of conventional feminine behavior by being neither silent nor submissive, most of the audience will surely be behind her all the way.

Our allegiance becomes more dangerous, of course, as Doll moves from defending her chastity—a motive that even the most orthodox men might find hard to blame—to burning houses. It has been argued that she and the other rioters are deliberately and systematically undermined in the scenes that follow, until they are no longer sympathetic and we side easily with the authorities.18 Yet while Doll is certainly a diminished figure in the famous scene by Hand D—her two lines suggest that she is now capable of thinking of nothing except “Shrieve More”'s kindness to her brother, “Arthur Watchins”—when Hand S resumes his part she is once again at center stage, as attractive as before. It is remarkable how often her importance in the gallows scene has been overlooked or minimized by modern critics, who focus on Lincoln as “the prime instigator” and main interest of the riot and its aftermath.19 Yet, except for the interposed scenes written by Hands C and D, Doll dominates the riot from beginning to end. Lincoln is allowed four lines before his death; his speech is a model of orthodoxy, instructing the onlookers to learn from him the value of obedience, meekness, and submission. Doll has five or six times as many lines, all of them noticeably lacking in either meekness or submission. She urges Lincoln to die like a man—“Bravely, John Lincoln, let thy death express / That as thou livedst a man, thou diest no less” (II.iv.50-1)—and she speaks his epitaph, undoing the effect of his speech by inviting us to admire, not condemn, what the rioter has earlier said and done:

Farewell John Lincoln; say all what they can:
Thou livedst a good fellow, and diedst an honest man.


Doll continues to hold our attention as she asks, and is granted, the favor of dying before her husband, and then addresses him and her friends at length. “Here I begin this cup of death to thee,” she tells her husband,

Because thou shalt be sure to taste no worse
Than I have taken, that must go before thee.
What though I be a woman, that's no matter,
I do owe God a death, and I must pay him.
Husband, give me thy hand, be not dismayed
Only two little babes we leave behind us,
And all I can bequeath them at this time
Is but the love of some good honest friend
Why, well said, wife, i'faith thou cheerst my heart,
Give me thy hand, let's kiss, and so let's part.
The next kiss, Williamson, shall be in heaven.
Now cheerly lads, George Betts, a hand with thee,
And thine too, Ralph, and thine, good honest Sherwin.
Now let me tell the women of this town
No stranger yet brought Doll to lying down.
So long as I an Englishman can see,
Nor French nor Dutch shall get a kiss of me.
And when that I am dead, for me yet say
I died in scorn to be a stranger's prey.


Dramatic, pathetic, heroic, and defiant to the last, this speech—longer and more colorful than Lincoln's—is the climax of the Ill May Day scenes. The playwright pulls out all the emotional stops, making Doll the focus of our sympathetic attention and anxiety right up to the moment before she is to step off the platform, when a messenger arrives with the king's pardon, obtained by More's intervention at the last moment. The crowd all throw up their hats with relief, and Doll, typically, gets the last word:

And Doll desires it from her very heart,
More's name shall live for this right noble part.


The men in this scene are little more than extras. Doll emerges as the hero of the whole affair—a hero who is at once masculine and feminine. “Lusty,” defiant, physically tough, she could as easily have been played by a man as a boy, yet even when she is in men's clothing we are never allowed to forget that she is a woman; her concern for her husband and her children in her speech before the gallows surely feminizes her as much as her costume and her actions masculinize her. Truly androgynous, she is one of the attractive Amazons who drew so much popular attention during the 1590s and early 1600s, yet unlike the majority of such figures, she is never “reintegrated into conservative ideology” by being demonized or returned to helpless femininity,20 and she exercises real power. As we have seen, Lisa Jardine has argued that the history play is a “men's world” in which “the only power the woman can wield is her power to dismay through verbal abuse … but it achieves nothing.” Doll, however, is clearly effective in winning her freedom and gaining her revenge; although she is arrested with the other rioters and almost hanged, in the end she is released scot-free.

Doll is not the play's only star, of course. She dominates the stage during the first two acts, but the riot introduces the play's title figure, Thomas More, and shows the path by which he moves from relative obscurity to the highest office in the land, the king's reward for his service in calming the rebellion. His entrance moves the play onto a new emotional plane. If Doll is a woman who sets aside traditionally “feminine” behavior to take a violent part in public affairs, More proves to be a man of public affairs with a gentle and decidedly domestic cast of mind. As in Woodstock, these “feminine” qualities are celebrated throughout the play as the hero's greatest strengths.

When the Privy Council receives news that the citizens of London are rioting, Surrey remembers “Master More, / One of the sheriffs, a wise and learned gentleman” (I.iii.85-6) and hopes that

He …
May by his gentle and persuasive speech
Perhaps prevail more than we can with power.


Surrey's hope proves well founded; More does indeed subdue the rioters without show of force. “Gentleness” is his winning suit. His oration is best known for its praise of order and obedience, based on the premise that the king is God's representative on earth, a rebellion against the king a rebellion against God:

For to the king God hath his office lent
Of dread, of justice, power and command,
Hath bid him rule, and willed you to obey.


But although these abstract arguments, with their emphasis on male authority and public order, impress the crowd, they do not bring the riot to an end. A different note, more intimate and personal, is struck at the beginning and end of the speech, in which More imagines

                                                                                          the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage
Plodding to th'ports and coasts for transportation,

and asks the Londoners what treatment they would want to receive if they were to become such homeless exiles (II.ii.80-2, 133-51). This wins the day: “Faith, 'a says true; let's do as we may be done by,” all the citizens exclaim after he reminds them that they too could become homeless, and so they agree to lay down their weapons and go to prison to await the king's mercy (II.iii.152). The appeal to compassion and domestic experience—supposedly “feminine” qualities—proves to have more power than either physical force or what today would be called the “masculine” appeal to abstract reasoning and authority.

Such domestic thinking characterizes More, like Woodstock, throughout the play. His “housekeeping” is praised from beginning to end, first by Doll (“A keeps a plentiful shrievalty,” “Th'art a good housekeeper”) and then by his own servants; it is one of the reasons that the rioters are willing to listen to him at all (II.iii.47, 63; V.ii.15-7).21 Scott McMillin has pointed out that the middle part of the play is a series of interior scenes, demarcated on the stage by the curtained space called for in the stage direction before I.ii and contrasted with the public spaces called for at the beginning and end of the play.22 Within these interior spaces, More is shown “at home”—greeting his friend Erasmus with a practical joke, fussing over the preparations of a banquet for the Lord and Lady Mayor of London (he arranges the chairs himself, and worries about being away from the guests at the same time as his wife), and bringing his wife the news that, as a result of his refusal to sign the king's “articles,” he has resigned his office of chancellor and his public life. More's response to his “fall” from public to private life is, typically, cheerful:

No wife, be merry, and be merry all,
Let's in, and here joy like to private friends;


[H]e that ne'er knew court courts sweet content;


Here let me live estranged from great men's looks:
                    They are like golden flies on leaden hooks.


(His preference for a private, domestic life over a corrupt public one, so familiar from Jonson and other classically trained poets, recalls as well Woodstock and the uncles' satisfaction in their banishment from their nephew's court.) Later More will think of the Tower as “my strong house,” rather than “my prison” (V.i.32), and will ask his family,

Why do you weep? Because I live at ease?
Did you not see, when I was chancellor,
I was so cloyed with suitors every hour
I could not sleep, nor dine, nor sup in quiet?
Here's none of this, here I can sit and talk
With my honest keeper half a day together,
Laugh and be merry. Why then should you weep?


He thinks of himself as a “guest” of the Lieutenant of the Tower, sending thanks to “your good lady” for her entertainment of him there (V.iv.18-9). Even the scaffold is conceived of as a comfortable home: “Here's a most sweet gallery, I like the air of it better than my garden at Chelsea” (V.iv.63-4). This is not just escapism: the domestic cast of mind that calms a public rebellion is powerful enough to bring peace to More himself, even in the face of death.

Like Woodstock, the hero of this play is both a public and a private man. He is frequently shown with his private family—his wife, daughters, son-in-law, and servants—but he enjoys equally warm relations with a kind of extended, public family that includes Doll's brother, a group of actors, a poor old woman, and even a pickpocket (“[Y]ou know that you are known to me / And I have often saved ye from this place,” he tells Lifter in court, before finding a way to save the condemned thief's life [I.ii.52-3]), as well as mayors and sheriffs. His most private moments tend to be interrupted by calls to public business, as his banquet is interrupted by a call to the court, or his conference with his family by the arrival of the Council to demand that he sign the “articles” or go to prison; while his ability to personalize public life, establishing intimate relations with people like Doll through his kindness to her brother, is shown to be the real source of his political strength.

If there is no firm boundary between public and private life in this play, the distinction between “feminine” and “masculine” is equally ambiguous. More is certainly the head of his household, and at the banquet he tells his wife firmly:

                                                                                          [G]ive you direction
How women should be placed, you know it best.
For my lord mayor, his brethren, and the rest,
Let me alone, men best can order men.


At other times he separates himself from a femininity which he defines as weakness, as when he urges his son-in-law not to mourn:

If you will share my fortunes, comfort then:
An hundred smiles for one sigh; what, we are men.
Resign wet passion to these weaker eyes,
Which proves their sex, but grants [them] ne'er more wise.


Yet Doll has shown that women need not be weak, and More does not always dissociate himself from the feminine. In his retirement, he calls his daughters “you that like to branches spread / And give best shadow to a private house” (IV.iv.6-7), and in his last meeting with his family he urges them:

Ever retain thy virtuous modesty.
Live all, and love together, and thereby
You give your father a rich obsequy.


Privacy and modesty have been two of More's most obvious characteristics throughout the play; these lines suggest that his daughters are his spiritual as well as his material heirs. Known for his “gentle and persuasive speech” rather than force and aggression (I.iii.89), rooted in domestic life and surrounded by women in scene after scene, the hero of this history play is as “feminine” as he is “masculine,” and is celebrated as both.

Yet if More is meek and gentle as he goes to his death, he is also defiant. He refuses to the end to bend his conscience and sign the king's “articles,” preferring death to submission, although he continues to declare that “his majesty hath been ever good to me” (V.iv.71-2). The final scene on the scaffold inevitably recalls the scaffold scene at the end of act II and sets up a series of unsettling parallels. The one most frequently noted is that between More and Lincoln, the rebel who actually died reiterating what More had preached to the crowd of rioters—“Obedience is the best in each degree” (II.iv.59).23 Yet More does not finally take his own advice. The more striking similarity in many ways is to Doll, the real focus of attention on the earlier scaffold, as More is on the final one. The stoicism and humor that she showed then are repeated in More at the play's end, when he jokes about what the king will do with his head and how his headache will be cured (V.iv.75-9, 83-4). His defiance echoes hers as well, although it is more quietly expressed.

The parallel between More and Doll suggests a more disturbing similarity in this play: between the foreigners whom Doll resists so vigorously, and the king whom More less obviously, but with no less courage, defies. Both attack private life, the foreigners by seizing men's food and men's wives, the king by choosing to assert his will over a man's private conscience and so destroying the happy family circle with which More is so much identified. When the king is merciful, pardoning the attractive rebels of the opening scenes, he is imaged as a mother, who

                    in the arms of mild and meek compassion
Would rather clip you, as the loving nurse
Oft doth the wayward infant, than to leave you.


When he chooses to execute More, however, he joins Woodstock's King Richard as the enemy of the family, of women (all the women in the play are aligned with More), and of conscientious men. At the core of these histories is an ethos, not of masculine “military adventure” or “aggression” and “conquest,” but of a private and domestic life which belongs to both sexes and which is seen as opposed to, and threatened by, the hostile and destructive power of the crown.24

I am not arguing that all Elizabethan histories have such a domestic center, that women in Elizabethan society enjoyed equality with men, or that there was a politics or a drama that could, by today's standards, reasonably be called feminist. I am suggesting that the obvious disenfranchisement of most Elizabethan women from political power and the brief roles allotted to them in the historical and political drama did not mean that they were necessarily insignificant in such drama. In some plays, at least, the “feminine” is as powerful a force as the “masculine,” both in the audience's sympathies and, at times, in the fictional world of the play itself: the women in Shakespeare's histories are used to critique the excesses of the men who rule their lives, while women in other histories exercise forms of power that are validated, not demonized, by the playwrights who created them. Nor are the masculine characters portrayed exclusively in terms of aggression and lust for power: Woodstock and More are celebrated for their gentleness, their compassion, and their “housewifery,” not their military prowess. Neither gender nor genre limits the ability of the audiences of these plays to identify with and support masculine and feminine heroes alike. 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.


  1. Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 163; Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), p. 147; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester; Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1983), p. 118; Rackin, p. 161; Bamber, p. 142.

  2. Indeed, one may question whether the “history” ever really became a clearly defined dramatic genre, and if it did, what conventions and boundaries governed it. It is, however, a convenient term for plays based on what was known as English history, and I use it in that sense.

  3. William Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1960). Bamber sees Kate here as “merely … a kind of contrast or background from which the hero rides off to his adventure,” a “supernumerar[y] in a world of men” (p. 142).

  4. “Isolated from the arena of power, she can foresee the outcome of the historical action before it occurs, and she can report it after it is complete, but she can do nothing at all to affect its course” (Rackin, p. 163).

  5. William Shakespeare, King Henry V, ed. J. H. Walter, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1954). See Bamber, p. 138, and Marilyn L. Williamson, “‘When Men are Rul'd by Women’: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy,” ShakS 19 (1987): 41-60, 56, on the helplessness of the women in Richard III, and Bamber, p. 143; Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 94; and Lance Wilcox, “Katherine of France as Victim and Bride,” ShakS 17 (1985): 61-76, on Katherine.

  6. See, among others, Theodora A. Jankowski, Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 77-102; Bamber, pp. 135-8, 140; Marcus, pp. 80-3, 94; Rackin, pp. 153-8, 197-8; and Williamson, pp. 41-2.

  7. William Shakespeare, The Third Part of King Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1964).

  8. Kate and Isobel are joined by Mortimer's Welsh wife, with her evocative tears; the anxious (if comic) duchess of York; and Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly—all victims in one way or another of the values of the masculine world. One can, of course, argue that sympathy with these characters is a result of a modern, politicized feminist consciousness, but the similarity between Kate and Brutus's wife Portia—and the difference in the ways they are treated by their husbands—suggests that Shakespeare did not necessarily share Hotspur's view of women as unworthy of men's confidence, while the war Hotspur raises against King Henry is certainly not endorsed by the play.

  9. Rackin acknowledges that the women in Richard III are “all gifted with the power to prophesy and curse and articulate the will of providence,” but seems to feel that this power is negligible (p. 177). For a point of view similar in some ways to mine, see Madonne M. Miner, “‘Neither mother, wife, nor England's queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Lenz et al. (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 48, 52. It is not always noticed that Elizabeth beats Richard at his own game at the end of the play, seeming to give in to his request for her daughter's hand (“Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!”) but actually betrothing her to Richmond. William Shakespeare, King Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), IV.iv.431, IV.v.6-8.

  10. Bamber, on the other hand, argues that “Margaret's actions are unnatural because unwomanly”—in other words, that they would be natural in a man—and Angela Pitt says that she is “totally evil and unnatural because she lacks womanly qualities. In their place she has those that are the glory of a man but grotesque in a woman” (Bamber, p. 137; Pitt, Shakespeare's Women [Newton Abbott: David and Charles; Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981], p. 153; cf. Jankowski, p. 102). Monstrosity is not confined to women, however: Margaret is more than matched by Richard III, while Clifford, York, and Cade are far from humane.

  11. Joan's earthy appeal has often been acknowledged. See Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc,” ELR 18, 1 (1988): 40-65, for a particularly fine discussion of the ways in which Joan's portrait is complicated by attractive ambiguities.

  12. Eleanor and Constance in King John are also strong characters who operate in the public arena. Rackin acknowledges this, but agrees with Virginia Mason Vaughan that their disappearance midway through the play is “a necessary condition for the restoration of patriarchal historical discourse” (pp. 177, 184 n. 45). One could, however, argue that the loss of the women is one of the causes of the darkness that most audiences agree falls over the play in its last acts.

  13. Woodstock: A Moral History, ed. A. P. Rossiter (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946). References will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text. I have silently emended Rossiter's sometimes confusing punctuation.

  14. Charles R. Forker and Joseph Candido, “Wit, Wisdom, and Theatricality in The Book of Sir Thomas More,ShakS 13 (1980): 85-104, 100.

  15. Sir Thomas More: A Play by Anthony Munday and Others, ed. Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1990). References will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

  16. Gabrieli and Melchiori believe that the name of one of the foreigners—Caveler—was “suggested by the pun on ‘caviller,’ a quibbling disputant,” but it may be meant to be pronounced “cavalier,” with aristocratic implications (p. 60, note 14.1).

  17. If we had been meant to laugh at Doll, the playwrights could easily have called for her to dress in bits and bobs of old kitchen gear like Ambidexter in Cambyses: “Enter the VICE, with an old capcase on his head, an old pail about his hips for harness, a scummer and a potlid by his side, and a rake on his shoulder” (Thomas Preston, Cambyses, King of Persia, in Drama of the English Renaissance, vol. 1: The Tudor Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin [New York: Macmillan, 1976], ii.1.s.d.). Doll's arrival in II.i dressed for battle “in a shirt of mail, a headpiece, sword, and buckler” suggests that she is to be taken seriously (More II.i.1.s.d.). She and her community of women participate in the long-standing folk tradition that actually tolerated “unruly women” as critics of authority. See Natalie Z. Davis, “Women on Top,” Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 124-51.

  18. Scott McMillin, The Elizabethan Theatre and “The Book of Sir Thomas More” (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), p. 141. Richard Helgerson agrees: while he finds it significant that the rebels are initially presented seriously, “no less significant is the fact that the resistance crumbles,” and “[i]n revisions of the original text, the rebellion is systematically carnivalized” (Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992], p. 221).

  19. Gabrieli describes her as “heroic,” but most writers echo Judith Doolan Spikes in focusing on Lincoln (Vittorio Gabrieli, “Sir Thomas More: Sources, Characters, Ideas,” Moreana 23 [1986]: 17-43, 39; Spikes, “The Book of Sir Thomas More: Structure and Meaning,” Moreana 11 [1974]: 25-39, 28).

  20. Jackson argues that such treatment was conventional even in admiring treatments of the “woman warrior” (pp. 59-60).

  21. “Housekeeping” refers to his hospitality, of course, not to domestic chores, but it conveys the importance of the home to More.

  22. McMillin, pp. 96-112.

  23. See, for instance, Gabrieli and Melchiori, pp. 6, 31.

  24. There are other similarities between the two plays: both exist only in manuscript and both bear signs of censorship. Richard Helgerson assumes that both were Philip Henslowe plays, which, he argues, tended to be concerned more with “the innocent suffering of common people and their defenders,” and less with “civil war or foreign conquest” than Shakespeare's histories (pp. 234-5).


Criticism: Historiography And Literature


Criticism: Politics And Ideology