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History Play

A history play is a genre of theatre. It is based on a historical events, usually set sometime in the past with characters from the period. 

The genre “history” is one of three main genres of western theatre. It is featured alongside tragedy and comedy. The best examples, and those which are most commonly read today, were written by William Shakespeare. But, there are other examples written by other playwrights that readers can also explore below. 

History Play Definition and Examples

History Play Definition

A history play is a play that takes place in the past and features characters who  lived during that period or who have the characteristics of people who would’ve lived at that time.

For example, a history play set in medieval England. This type of play would likely feature characters who really lived in that period, with suitable jobs, names, appearances, and more. 

The first history plays can be dated back to Greece and works created for the Athenian theatre. The earliest plays that have what scholars consider to be historical elements also feature elements of the supernatural and what most readers and viewers would consider myth.

The Origins of the History Play

It was during the Middle Ages, and with the rise of mystery plays, that reenactments of past events became popular. With stories from the Bible as a starting point, history plays expanded to retell events from specific moments in more recent history. 

The modern form of history play emerged in Tudor England. With the birth of historical writing during the period, readers and scholars gained a renewed interest in the past and the exploration of its events. Writers connected to the monarchy retold history in a way that sought to reinforce the strength of the Tudors. 

Early examples of history plays include Kynge Johan by John Bale and Magnyfycence by John Skelton. Another quote influential historical play was Edward II, written by Christopher Marlowe in 1592. 

Examples of History Plays 

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

This 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 and is one of the earliest history plays known to modern scholars. It is often cited as one of the most influential early examples. Here is a quote from the play: 

Heavens can witness I love none but you:

From my embracements thus he breaks away.

O that mine arms could close this isle about,

That I might pull him to me where I would!

Or that these tears that drizzle from mine eyes

Had power to mollify his stony heart,

That when I had him we might never part.

The play focuses on the relationship between the King and Piers Gaveston, (a relationship that has been described as sexual or romantic) eventually culminating in Edward II’s murder. This play is a great example of how writers take their information from the sources available to them. For example, this piece was based on information from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles published in 1587. 

Depending on when a play is written, more or less accurate information is going to be available to them. Plus, they may seek out information that fits a particular narrative they want to convey. For example, the writer might be intent on depicting one character as evil and another as good when in reality the truth was far more complicated.

Explore Christopher Marlowe’s poems.

Richard III by William Shakespeare 

This well-loved history play was written between 1592 and 1594. It has been, on occasion, also labeled (or labeled instead) as a tragedy. The play is the conclusion of the tetralogy:  Henry VI, Part 1Henry VI, Part 2, and Henry VI, Part 3. Here is a quote from the play: 

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.

Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I am a villain. Yet I lie. I am not.

The play tells the story of King Richard III of England, who is cast as a deformed villain who is willing to do anything to gain and keep his power. Contemporary historians attribute Richard III with creating a legacy for the deceased king. This is an example of how a play’s popularity can change the historical narrative as it’s understood.

Henry V by William Shakespeare 

Henry V is one of William Shakespeare’s best-known history plays. It was written around 1599 and told the story of King Henry V of England. It specifically focuses on events around the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, which is one of the most important parts of the story. It is part of a group of plays that include Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. Here is a quote from the play: 

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

These lines are part of the King’s famous “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech which is usually cited as one of Shakespeare’s most important. Shakespeare’s audiences would have some prior knowledge of the events that preceded Henry V if they had seen Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. This meant that they were likely more attached to the important characters and therefore, more invested in the outcome of the play. This is less common with history plays than it is with tragedies and romances.

The characters in traditional history plays may come across as flatter and less interesting than the fictional characters in the other genres of theatre. But, Shakespeare’s histories contain some of literature’s most compelling portrayals of real men and women.

Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry


Why is history plays important? 

History plays are important because of the way that they take a history, embellish it, and make it interesting and thrilling for audiences. They can be a source of knowledge as well as entertainment. 

Who wrote history plays? 

History plays, as scholars understand them today, began around the end of the 1500s. They were penned by famed playwrights and poets like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. 

What is Shakespeare’s best history plays? 

Today, Richard III is usually cited as Shakespeare’s most popular history play. This is mostly due to King Richard’s character, deformity, memorable lines, and actions. It is a very dark play, darker than most other examples of a history play. So much so that it is sometimes categorized as a tragedy

What are the elements of history plays? 

History plays take place in the past, contain real characters and fictional characters, and should, as much as possible, remain true to events and context

Related Literary Terms 

  • Dramatization: used to describe a play or film that’s adapted from a novel or a real event.
  • Morality Play: a genre of theatre popular in the medieval and Tudor period. 
  • Play (Theatre): a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes. 
  • Act:  a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
  • Aside: a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
  • Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.

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