This could refer to a single play that is split up into individual episodes that inform audiences about the broad history of a person, group, family, country, or more. The term ‘Chronicle Play’ is also used to refer to groups of separate plays. For example, William Shakespeare’s various history plays, many of which are meant to be read or viewed in succession and have a bearing on one another.
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Chronicle Play Definition
A chronicle play is a dramatic work that taps into real historical events, contexts, and any other information the writer can find about the people alive at the time to speak about a specific, meaningful moment in history.
For example, a chronicle play may detail the economic rise and downfall of a country as it enters and exits a war. Or another example might feature a single main character who deals with the aftermath of the Great Depression and then the horrors of World War I. Various historical events are included, as is some content purely meant to entertain.
Examples of Chronicle Plays
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe is one of the best-known history plays written in England; it is also one of the first. Marlowe researched the play based on information he found in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1587. His play was published in 1592 and has the full title of The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. The play is part of the early modern period and the Renaissance. Here is a quote from the play:
I must have wanton Poets, pleasant wits,
Musitians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please:
Musicke and poetrie is his delight,
Therefore ile have Italian maskes by night,
Sweete speeches, comedies, and pleasing showes,
And in the day when he shall walke abroad,
Like Sylvian Nimphes my pages shall be clad,
My men like Satyres grazing on the lawnes,
Shall with their Goate feete daunce an antick hay.
The play focuses on the reign of Edward II and his relationship with Piers Galveston. It concludes with Edward’s murder.
Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 by William Shakespeare
During his lifetime, William Shakespeare composed ten history plays. They span a period from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. Included in the ten are Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3. In the first of the three, Henry VI Part 1, Shakespeare explores the loss of England’s claim on French territories and the repercussions, including the lead-up to the Wars of the Roses. Here are the opening lines of the play:
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death:
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long.
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.
Shakespeare focuses on the arguing nobles and how overwhelmed the King becomes in the second play. The conflict, which some are trying to avoid and others are trying to instigate, feels inevitable. In the final part of the series of plays, Shakespeare depicts the horrors of the Wars of the ROses. The trilogy, scholars suggest, may not have been written in chronological order.
Interestingly, the three plays are also usually grouped together with Richard III to form a teratology, that is, a group of four. Readers or audiences learn about Richard’s scheming and various machinations to maintain his power in this final play. Consider these opening lines from the play:
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures
In this beautiful and telling quote, Richard informs the listeners or the audience, about his family’s troubles. He speaks about the War of the Roses and uses further weather-related imagery to describe the clouds over the House of York.
William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote the best-known chronicle plays. But, chronicle plays are not confined to the early modern period, the Elizabethan period, or the Renaissance. There are interesting contemporary examples as well.
A chronicle is a literary work that conveys historical details over a period of time. This information is relayed in successive order. This means that the beginning of the book, pamphlet, or other literary form includes the earliest known information about the time period or event and the end of the literary work pertains to the last details.
A history play is a drama that is based, as much as possible, in fact. But, readers and audience members should not be surprised to find fictional details interspersed with nonfiction.
Related Literary Terms
- History Play: a genre of theatre. It is based on a historical events, usually set sometime in the past with characters from the period.
- Documentary: a genre of non-fictional filmmaking. It is used for the purpose of sharing real-life events as they happened.
- Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
- Bildungsroman: a literary genre that focuses on coming of age stories, following a character’s progression towards adulthood.
- Act: a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
- Read: Henry I by William Shakespeare
- Read: Richard III by William Shakespeare
- Read: Edward II by Christopher Marlowe