In last week’s blog, Kim Gilchrist asked what we should call plays that dramatize people or events from the past, drawing attention to the difficulties arising from the term ‘history play’ and introducing some of the questions that we hope will be explored in our upcoming conference. This week, Amy Lidster offers a few thoughts on the use of ‘history’ and its variants in early modern playbooks. How is the term used as part of title pages, head-titles, running titles, and contents pages, and what can this tell us about history as a dramatic genre?
For modern scholarship, Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) has offered the most influential categorization of early modern plays, especially in relation to ‘histories’. The title of the Folio – M[aste]r William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – implies that Shakespeare’s plays fit neatly into three genres, and the contents page assigns each play (with the exception of Troilus and Cressida) to one of these categories. The Folio’s construction essentially defines ‘histories’ as dramatizations of events from the reigns of medieval English monarchs and creates the impression of a clearly demarcated genre. But it represents only one book (and one publishing enterprise) from the period, and, in fact, the advertised dramatic divisions of ‘Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies’ are challenged within the Folio itself: Richard III is located under the category of ‘Histories’, but its head-title in the Folio is ‘The Tragedy of Richard the Third’ and its running title is ‘The Life & Death of Richard the Third’. This generic ambiguity can be witnessed in the publishing history of Richard III as an individual playbook: it was advertised in eight single-text editions printed between 1597 and 1634 as a ‘tragedy’ on its title page.
Looking beyond Shakespeare’s plays, a quick survey of early modern playbooks provides many other examples of porous generic categories and suggests that the term ‘history’ was not used or understood in a consistent way during the period. First published in 1590, the two parts of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine were advertised on their collected title page as ‘two Tragicall Discourses’. They were, however, entered in the Stationers’ Register (on 14 August 1590) as ‘twooe commicall discourses’ and described in publisher Richard Jones’s paratextual address (sig. A2r-v) to the ‘Gentlemen Readers’ as ‘Histories’ (Tamburlaine was loosely based on a historical ruler from the fourteenth century). As in the publication and presentation of Shakespeare’s Folio, Jones’s edition of Tamburlaine offers a retrospective classification, probably informed by his own publishing strategies and efforts to attract a range of buyers. He advertises the plays most prominently as tragedies, but draws attention to his own editorial improvements in this ‘honorable & stately historie’, appealing to the interests of ‘Gentlemen and curteous Readers’ who spend their time in ‘serious affaires and studies’ (which Philip Sidney aligned with the reading of histories). Genre classifications can therefore be seen as strategic, impartial, and designed to suit a particular purpose: they are not an uninvested way of describing a play.
There is no clear evidence that Shakespeare’s Folio served, in the immediate aftermath of its publication, to direct the parameters of the three genres for other publications. Perhaps tellingly, the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio (1647) eschewed the ‘history’ category altogether, advertising the plays as ‘Comedies and Tragedies.’ Publishers of single-text playbooks continued to use ‘history’ as a generic identifier, but often modified by an adjective. John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck (1634), which dramatizes the claims of a pretender to the English throne during the reign of Henry VII, is described as a ‘Chronicle Historie’ on its title page – a designation which is then pointedly explored in the playbook’s paratextual materials. Philip Massinger’s The Great Duke of Florence (1636), which is only loosely connected to historical events, is called a ‘Comicall Historie’, merging two of the categories in Shakespeare’s Folio.
A fascinating catalogue of plays printed at the end of Massinger, Middleton, and Rowley’s The Old Law (1656) as a way of advertising the stock of ‘Comedies, Histories, Interludes, Masks, Pastorels, Tragedies’ available to purchase at Edward Archer’s bookshop assigns each of the plays a generic category on a largely idiosyncratic basis (see sig.(a)1r-(b)4v). Shakespeare’s ‘Henry’ plays (1 and 2 Henry IV, Henry V, 1 to 3 Henry VI, and Henry VIII) are listed as histories, whereas all the ‘Edward’ plays (Peele’s Edward I, Marlowe’s Edward II, ‘anonymous’ and Shakespeare’s Edward III, and Heywood’s 1 and 2 Edward IV) are described as tragedies – an unusual choice because most of these plays do not have an expected ‘tragic’ ending. Edward III, for example, is a celebratory account of England’s successes in the Hundred Years War and ends in triumph. The catalogue lists classical histories sometimes as tragedies (as in Chapman’s Caesar and Pompey) and sometimes as histories (as in Nero). Plays that have no connection to a recognizable past, such as The Old Wives’ Tale, are also listed as histories. Some of these instances probably arise from title-page formulas that are intended to indicate a ‘story’, as in The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice (the terms ‘history’ and ‘story’ were often used interchangeably during the period). In the case of The Old Wives’ Tale, however, the title page of its only edition (from 1595) describes it as ‘A pleasant conceited Comedie,’ which makes its catalogue categorization even more surprising.
The range of idiosyncratic applications of the term ‘history’ in printed books might make us question the usefulness of this designation for modern criticism – a point raised in last week’s blog. If ‘history’ is so indefinable and variable, is it useful as a classification? As the term can be used to indicate a recognizable past as well as simply a ‘story’, can we meaningfully discuss ‘history’ (in the former sense) as a dramatic genre, including how it was used and understood during the period? Despite an inability to be pinned down, dramatic ‘histories’ were clearly a category of interest and debate for early modern dramatists, theatrical companies, publishers, and readers. Writers debated (albeit inconclusively) the scope and purpose of histories – as in Thomas Heywood’s account of ‘domesticke’ and ‘forreigne’ histories in An Apology for Actors (1612, sig. B4r, F3v). Plays display a metatheatrical interest in classification through, among other strategies, induction scenes involving the personification of dramatic genres – as in A Warning for Fair Women’s presentation of Comedie, Hystorie, and Tragedie (1599, sig. A2r-A3v). And playbooks reveal that the use of ‘history’ and its variants in paratextual materials can be part of publishing strategies that aim to position plays for readers. Shakespeare’s Folio is interested in presenting English monarchical history as a clear dramatic category. The phrase ‘true chronicle history’ as it appears on the title pages of Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602), King Leir (1605), Nobody and Somebody (1606), and King Lear (1608) can be explored as an invested designation that advertises the truthfulness of these histories as part of a specific agenda. And the catalogue featured at the end of The Old Law presents genre as one of the distinguishing features of ‘all the plaies that were ever printed’ (sig.(a)1r) and as a key advertising strategy (despite the fact that the absence of an underlying pattern of classification conflates their identities and make them essentially indistinguishable).
As a final thought, perhaps one way of approaching early modern ‘history plays’ and their labels is suggested by Derrida’s ‘The Law of Genre’, which ‘speak[s] of a sort of participation without belonging – a taking part in without being part of, without having membership in a set’ . Derrida highlights the importance of genre, but also of recognizing that a final account will ultimately prove elusive – it is the ‘taking part’ that matters. Early modern playbooks reveal that ideas of genre were everywhere debated and negotiated, sometimes involving a critical and considered strategy in relation to the play(s) (as in Shakespeare’s Folio and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) and other times revealing a less careful reading (as in the catalogue appended to The Old Law). It may be impossible to offer a single critical narrative about the history play and its various labels, but that doesn’t make it a topic that should be avoided – instead, it is one that needs to be, like history itself, regularly explored and retold.
 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, trans. by Avital Ronell, Critical Inquiry, 7:1 (1980), 55-81 (p.59).