‘A taking part in without being part of’: Categorizing early printed playbooks

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?

First Folio

Contents page from Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), Schoenberg Centre for Electronic Text & Image

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.

Shakespeare Quartos Project

Richard III, 1597 title page, British Library

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.

BF Folio

Beaumont and Fletcher Folio (1647), State Library of New South Wales


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, to 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.


From the ‘Catalogue of all the plaies that were ever printed’, appended to The Old Law (1656), Archive.org (Boston Public Library)


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).

Shakespeare Quartos Project

King Lear (1608), British Library

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’ [1]. 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.

Amy Lidster


[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, trans. by Avital Ronell, Critical Inquiry, 7:1 (1980), 55-81 (p.59).


If it isn’t a History Play, then what is it?

(Or, trying to shoehorn a non-Euclidean peg into a pigeonhole)

What should we call it when a group of people stand up in front of another group of people and pretend to be some other people who once lived in the remote or recent past? And what do we call it when the words they speak (words standing in for the words spoken by those people who once lived in the remote or recent past) are written down and printed in a book or preserved in a manuscript?

Perhaps we call it a “history play,” although many of us might be uncomfortable using this term for plays that portray a version of the ancient past that today we accept as fictional, such as King Lear, or a play about an early modern provincial murder with no kings or queens in it, such as Arden of Feversham. By “history play” we’ve come to mean plays of English medieval history, principally those by Shakespeare canonised after his death as “Histories” on the title-page of the 1623 folio. Yet even these, as has long been recognised, include acutely ahistorical elements – the demons conjured by Joan of Arc, John Cade’s anachronistic printing press, everything done by the Boar’s Head gang – by this measure, Upstart Crow is a species of history play – a knowingly fictionalised account of characters named after people who once lived, with the occasional verifiable fact or event stirred into the containing fantasia. And if we accommodate the notion that “history” might be determined by reception, then the term expands further, perhaps infinitely: If a biblical literalist reads George Peele’s David and Bethsabe, then or now, what are they reading? By this measure, the medieval mystery cycles are also history cycles. Or perhaps we can do away with the term and think again. But if we don’t call it a history play what do we call it when a group of people stand up in front of another group of people and pretend to be some other people who once lived in the remote or recent past?

In Second Fruits, John Florio presents an imagined dialogue in which one “Henry,” closely echoing Sidney’s Apologie for Poesie, complains that plays in England are “neither right comedies, nor right tragedies” but are rather “representations of histories without any decorum”. By “histories,” of course, Henry just means any old narrative, factual or otherwise, (such as, perhaps, The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice); and by “decorum” he means the classical unities that not many playmakers seem to have cared much about, to Ben Jonson’s hilarious dismay (it’s nice to imagine that the entire development of early modern English dramaturgy was a collective effort to annoy first Sidney and then Jonson).

But this description, “representations of histories without any decorum,” might resonate differently for us. A play claiming to present a version of past events is indeed a “representation,” a concept also used by Thomas Nashe to describe 1 Henry VI, by the player. And the notion of decorum and its lack might be adopted to describe the digressions, alterations and inserted fictions necessary for the adaptation of past truth to present entertainment. This is a shaping procedure as true for Braveheart or The Crown as it was for Tamburlaine (Heywood said that the historical figure was “personated” by a player, a far more uncanny term for the relationship between the dead and their willing vessels).

But “representations of histories without any decorum” hardly covers our needs. More recent terms do much for performance but little to accommodate the textual record of these performances. Benjamin Griffin’s term “playing the past” (2001), and Brian Walsh’s “performance of history” (2009) both valuably redirect our attention to the material and performative focus of pretending to be other people who (may have) once lived; but they do little to accommodate the playbooks and manuscripts that contain and preserve these events. We could call these objects “textual records of the performance of history,” but I don’t think it’ll catch on. What possible term can accommodate performance and print, material that is at once both “true and fayned” (as John Stow confusingly described the plays performed in London) and which, even when obvious fictions such as clowning and demons are removed, still depends upon the spectator or reader’s understanding of the past in order to determine a sense of historicity?

What kind of epistemological problem is it when we can’t find a suitable term for the very thing with which we’re trying to engage? Are we missing something? Do you have the answer?

Kim Gilchrist

Welcome to Changing Histories!

This is the website for the 2019 Changing Histories conference. We are aiming to challenge and interrogate established notions of what constituted the “history play” and performed history in the early modern period. “History” might include material we would now consider as romance, myth or fable. The plays themselves were often bewildering hybrids of apparent history and manifest fiction. Below is the title page for the c.1603 play No-body and Some-body, which includes the mythic British king Elidure and character No-Body, who is literally nobody (as you can see, he has no body). Yet the play is marketed as a “True Chronicle History”. Changing Histories seeks to embrace such apparent paradoxes and contradictions in relation to the history play, which was often neither “true,” “chronicle,” nor “history”.

Equally, many dramatic subjects that are far more securely historical are rarely included by scholars in accounts of the early modern history play. Dramas about Middle Eastern rulers, European history, the crimes and tragedies of middle-class England, and even current witch trials proliferated during the early modern period. Should we consider these, too, as history plays?

If you are interested in attending or submitting an abstract, please see our call for papers. We look forward to hearing from you!