• Teresa Grant
  • Barbara Ravelhofer
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


Every introduction to a collection about the ‘history play’ must perforce grapple with the thorny issue of definitions. Critical attention will probably never result in a satisfactory agreed answer to the question ‘What is a history play?’ To the present day, ‘history play’ and ‘historical drama’ are interchangeable definitions used to categorize such newly emerging subgenres as the ‘women’s history play in America’, the ‘contemporary British history play’, or, indeed, the ‘Third Reich history play’.1 Yet scholars of the early modern period most commonly associate the term with Shakespeare’s history cycles of the 1590s. G. K. Hunter defined it as ‘a play about English dynastic politics of the feudal and immediately post-feudal period’, in short, ‘a play about barons’ which appealed to a patriotic audience while also highlighting governmental weaknesses.2 Critics have argued that the genre faded away as the Stuart regime continued, with John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck (1633) often cited as the last ‘history play’ of note.3 In an influential essay D. R. Woolf has blamed ‘social and technological change’ for the demise of the chronicle, and with it, the history play which relied on the former as a source. In Woolf’s view, the weighty descriptive narratives progressing by calendar year were superseded by cheaper newsbooks, almanacs, antiquarian writing and analytical histories inspired by Tacitus and Machiavelli; this variety of new forms provided historical information in a more flexible fashion, catered for a wider stratum of readers and thus relegated the comparatively expensive folio chronicle to the status of a niche product.4


Sixteenth Century Early Modern Period Present Collection Henry VIII English History 
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© Teresa Grant and Barbara Ravelhofer 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Teresa Grant
  • Barbara Ravelhofer

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