This article was originally published in A Short History of the Theatre. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 198-201.

IN England, the chronicle play seems suddenly to have risen into vogue during the last decade of the sixteenth century. At first it was more like an epic poem than a dramatic composition, loosely constructed, covering the entire life of a king or hero, with not even a long distance acquaintance with the unities. Minor events were often invented, but in the more important happenings the authors usually made an attempt to follow history. Three plays on the subject of King John illustrate the three stages of its development: the morality King John, by John Bale, written sometime before the accession of Mary in 1553; a second play called The Troublesome Reign of King John, written between 1587 and 1591; and a third completely developed tragedy in the romantic style, the King John of Shakespeare. The second of these pieces is a genuine example of the chronicle play. It is written in crude blank verse and contains a satirical episode concerning the monastic system of the period. There is also an early True Tragedie of Richard Third which contains allegorical figures representing Truth and Poetry, is written mostly in rhymed couplets, cn has the pseudo-classic Induction in which the ghost of Clarence walks up and down the stage crying "Vindicta!" Another play on the same subject, Ricardus Tertius, was written in Latin by a certain Dr. Legge. Two dramas of this earlier time, The Famous Victories of Henry Fifth and The Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, formed the basis of Shakespeare's Henry V, and the second and third parts of Henry VI respectively. An early play called Edward III was ascribed to Shakespeare by Edward Capell more than a century and a half after Shakespeare's death, though critical judgment of today has not endorsed his judgment.


In the midst of these efforts, while the chronicle play was still in its inferior stage, it was suddenly lifted into a position of distinction by the production of Marlowe's Edward II. Its appearance was an epoch-making event. For the first time the English history play was pulled up into the tenseness of true drama. The characters are bold and vivid, conceived amply as taking part in the sweep of history. Here too is something of the power of Marlowe's "mighty line," and the skill which can portray a great figure overborne by the consequences of his own folly. Edward II is the first fine historical drama in the English language, and aside from the Shakespearean tragedies, the best in existence.

A long list of historical plays can be made, showing how great was the interest of the public in the presentation of drama dealing with the national chronicles. If the plays mentioned, together with the English historical plays of Shakespeare, Edward I by Peele, Edward IV by Heywood, and perhaps a half dozen others which were popular in their time -- if these plays be taken in the chronological order of their subjects, the reader will have an almost continuous story of England's rulers, with the wars in which the country was engaged, the plots which threatened the safety of the sovereigns, the parasites, women, generals, royal children and court jesters who made up the pageant of four centuries, from the reign of "Kynge Johan" to the time of Elizabeth herself.


Sir Thomas More and The Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell are examples of plays built upon the biography of national statesmen. It is interesting to note that these two celebrated men, both of whom were beheaded by order of Henry VIII, were taken as the subjects of heroic tragedy within the century of their death, and during the reign of Henry's daughter. There were also, in this period, plays founded upon the adventures of pirates and travelers. Sir Thomas Stukeley was one of these adventurers, and his actual career would make almost any melodrama seem pale. Several plays were written around his history, one of which, The Battle of Alcazar, by Peele, contains an account of his death. Stukeley was an imposing figure in his time, mentioned frequently in pamphlets and ballads, one reference classing him with the "proud tragedians, Mohamet, Tamburlaine, and Charlemagne."

A third group of half biographical, half legendary plays is represented by the Robin Hood pieces, whose story is related by Stow. At least three of some merit were produced on this subject: The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington, by Anthony Munday; The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington, by Munday and Chettle; and George a Greene, Pinner of Wakefield, by an unknown author. Considering the lively and dramatic nature of both the Stukeley and Robin Hood stories, we find these plays not at all extraordinary, though there are passages of real vigor and power. The picture of woodland life, in which Robin tempts Marion to go away with him, has more than a touch of Elizabethan delicacy and charm.

There remain the plays founded on famous characters or events of other countries. First of these, not only in time but also in importance, stands Marlowe's Tamburlaine, in two parts, produced at Newington Butts Playhouse before 1587, when its author was twenty-three years of age or younger. It was this play which gave the impetus to the great choir of singers and playwrights who filled the years up to and into the seventeenth century; and it went far towards fixing the type of English historical tragedy. There is, however, in its monstrous and elemental plan, power enough to generate a dozen ordinary tragedies. There are touches of bombast and absurdity, but the play as a whole is neither bombastic nor absurd. It was not only the delight of the Elizabethan public, but in a sense it became a standard according to which the work of subsequent years was measured, and to which every playwright was more or less indebted.

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  • Court Comedies and Masques - An analysis of two groups of sixteenth century plays which belonged neither to the democratic, popular class, nor to the pseudo-classical species fostered by the academic circles.
  • Elizabethan Playhouses, Actors, and Audiences - An overview of Elizabethan theatre; covers regulation and licensing of plays, objections to playhouses, companies of actors, and composition and ownership of plays.

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