- English Historical Drama, 1550–1660: Forms Outside the Canon
Despite the work done by people like Irving Ribner in the 1950s, there is still a critical proclivity toward defining the English history play by Shakespeare's works. Certainly Shakespeare wrote the most famous and enduring history plays, and the success of the Henry VI plays in their time may have spurred imitators and led to a boom in historical drama in the public theaters of the 1590s, but Shakespeare did not invent the history play nor did he exhaust it. In the introduction to this slender collection, the editors promise to address this perception by examining "not only straightforward plays in print or manuscript but also borderline phenomena such as reported historical drama and pseudo-dramatic pamphlets" (17). In short, they take their subtitle seriously and the most exciting essays in the collection do in fact challenge Shakespeare-blinkered assumptions of what a history play is.
Janette Dillon, in "The Early Tudor History Play," sets about to reconstruct three lost shows at Henry VIII's court using extant, and sometimes contradictory, records of those performances. She rejects definitions of the history play based on the Englishness of content and convincingly argues that the conditions the court enforced on entertainments made them necessarily different than those that would be popular on the public stage some sixty years later. These court plays, usually performed before a pan-European audience (none of the three plays Dillon discusses were in English) to celebrate some new treaty or marriage alliance, "were [End Page 1020] negotiating tools, seeking to steer and affirm political decisions and international relations" (50). They blurred the line between history and present, narrative and allegory.
In some ways, they had a liminality similar to the Interregnum closet dramas that Barbara Ravelhofer discusses in her essay "News Drama: The Tragic Subject of Charles I." These plays, often very short and published in pamphlets, were probably never intended to be performed, and yet they drew on various dramatic traditions to depict and comment upon often very recent historical events. They were a form of history writing on the cusps of both journalism and satirical review.
The material that Andrew W. Taylor addresses in "The Reformation of History in John Bale's Biblical Dramas" is very different. He offers a close reading of Bale's three biblical dramas to demonstrate that Bale's vision was necessarily, even polemically, historical. That is, Bale, seeking to emphasize the historical significance of the Reformation, wrote biblical plays that highlight the historical processes that led to and prefigured the restoration of the true Church. To that end he even tweaked the Bible, having a very vocal Noah argue with God on behalf of humanity before coming to recognize that his family represents "an elect and righteous community renewed through God's covenant" (74). If we accept Taylor's argument —and I am inclined to do so —the history play may be less defined by narrative content than historiographic agenda.
The other essays are less exciting. Michael Ullyot, in "Seneca and the Early Elizabethan History Play," traces Seneca's influence on Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville's Gorboduc and Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius. Often called the first English tragedy and history play respectively, these plays represent a "hybridization of the de casibus and Senecan traditions" (102). Ullyot makes a good argument for the political agenda of Gorboduc and the historical sophistication of Richardus Tertius, but his essay does nothing to expand the definition of the history play nor can these plays be seen as outside the canon. Teresa Grant's essay on Samuel Rowley's When You See Me You Know Me and Mark Hutchings's essay on the representation of Turkish history on the English stage do address plays that are not widely known. Both essays carefully situate their plays in their own cultural and political moments but neither asks us to reconsider the form of the...