The origins of the English history play – Excerpt: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and War

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and WarWhat is the English history play? “A dramatic study of civil conflict in England,” writes David Bevington in this excerpt from the newly published Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and War. “Above all, its purpose is to explore the causes, the struggles, the personal motivations of the major participants, and the means by which civil conflict is intermittently brought under control.”

The excerpt below comes from “Shakespeare on Civil and Dynastic Wars” by David Bevington, the third chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and War, edited by David Loewenstein and Paul Stevens.


Civil and dynastic conflict was a hot topic in the 1590s. Spain’s attempt to invade England with her Great Armada fleet in 1588 was freshly remembered. The English gratefully attributed their victory on that occasion to God, the weather, and the expert seamanship of Sir Francis Drake and other naval commanders. The Earl of Leicester then followed up on the armada triumph by helping the Protestant Dutch defend themselves against Philip II of Spain.

Accompanying disruptions on the civil front were no less threatening. Mary Queen of Scots abdicated the Scottish throne in 1567 after the sensational murders of her Catholic counselor David Rizzio and then the Earl of Darnley, Mary’s husband, and her marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, with whom Mary was suspected of having connived in the murder of Darnley. Mary took refuge in England and remained there under house arrest until her execution in 1587. As granddaughter of Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) and James IV of Scotland, Mary Stuart was the direct heir to the Tudor throne if Queen Elizabeth should die without heirs. Mary’s son by Lord Darnley, James, inherited her throne as James VI of Scotland when she abdicated. After her death in 1587, James was direct heir after Elizabeth to the English throne as well. Elizabeth, urged by her counselors to marry, was courted by the French duc d’Alençon and others, including the Earl of Leicester. She consented with great reluctance to the execution of Mary Stuart but did not marry or name a Protestant heir.

During her tempestuous life, Mary was inevitably the focus of several Catholic attempts to seat her on the English throne, including the notorious Babington conspiracy of 1586 to which Mary appears to have given her written consent. Catholic sentiment was still strong, especially in the north of England, where an armed insurrection known as the Northern Rebellion had been put down in 1569 only by determined military force. The leadership of this resistance movement included names like Northumberland (the Percy clan), Westmorland, and Norfolk that would play a prominent role, albeit with different holders of those noble titles, in Shakespeare’s history plays. During the 1570s and 1580s, Jesuit clergymen were coming secretly from the Continent as part of a determined effort of the Catholic church to persuade wavering worshippers to return to the Catholic fold. A number of the clergymen who held sway as schoolmasters at the King Edward VI grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare as a youth presumably studied, were Catholic. All through the 1580s, English authorities wondered anxiously whether English Catholics would rally to King Philip’s invasion attempt of 1588. Philip and his generals assumed that they would. The English lords themselves, including the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who had adopted the Catholic faith in 1576, were at considerable pains to reassure Elizabeth that they were politically loyal to her even if they chose to worship as Catholics. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, was continually busy keeping track of suspected or known dissidents. Arrests and interrogations were common.

Under these extraordinary circumstances, the newly born English history play took up religious and dynastic conflict as its most pressing topic. The most important writer of these plays by far was William Shakespeare, though Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, and others soon joined in. They had few dramatic precedents. An anonymous play of the late 1580s, The Famous Victories of Henry V, had introduced that prince to the stage, complete with his escapades in the company of a Falstaff-like roguish older man named Sir John Oldcastle, but that was a rare instance, and in any case was more interested in depicting Henry’s wayward youth than in depicting dynastic conflict. To the significant extent to which Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays in the years 1589 to 1592 were first in the attempt to grasp the momentous issue of England divided against herself in civil war, they are truly the originals of the English history play as it was to flourish on the London popular stage in the 1590s.

What in fact is an English history play? David Kastan has deftly shown us that the label does not really describe a literary or dramatic genre. From the Athenian fifth century BCE and Aristotle in the fourth century on down to the Renaissance, critics and theorists had categorized drama largely in terms of tragedy and comedy. Each had its characteristic structure and suitable types of characters, royal figures, and gods on the one hand and young lovers, tyrannical fathers, bawds, pimps, and such on the other. How could a play like 1 Henry VI or 2 Henry IV be described in these terms? An English history play turns out to be a drama, of serious and/or comic features, ending happily or unhappily as occasion demands. Its name bears no relation to generic form. An English history play is a play about English history.

Yet to this neutral definition we can perhaps add this important qualifier: as invented and practiced by Shakespeare and then by Marlowe and others, the English history play was and is a dramatic study of civil conflict in England, with important ramifications for foreign involvement as well. Above all, its purpose is to explore the causes, the struggles, the personal motivations of the major participants, and the means by which civil conflict is intermittently brought under control. It is a story with implications about civil discord at all times and in all places, but its usual concern (excepting a few plays like Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s King John and Henry VIII) is with English history of a very particular time, from the early years of the fifteenth century down to Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

The English history play is thus a study of the anarchic period that led up to the commencement of the Tudor regime to which Shakespeare’s spectators in the early 1590s were subjects. Under these circumstances, the English history play could serve the crucial role of analyzing and celebrating the coming to power of Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII and by implication her own successful reign. The timeliness of this celebration was vividly underscored by the ongoing struggle in England between Catholicism and Protestantism and by the increasing awareness that Elizabeth would not bear children. What then would happen to England at her death?


© Cambridge University Press, 2021.

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