A CRITICAL STUDY OF SHAKESPEAREAN CHRONICLE PLAYS

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Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward the Second, is often regarded as the first epoch-making English chronicle or historical play. Although there were earlier attempts to create historical drama in England, these efforts appear “more like epic poem than dramatic composition, loosely constructed giving the entire life of a king or hero” (Theater history). It was in the hands of Christopher Marlowe that the chronicle play became fully realised. It was in Marlowe’s Edward the Second that:

The English history play was pulled up into the tenseness of true drama. The characters are bold and vivid, conceived amply as taking part in history. Here too is something of the power of Marlowe’s “Mighty line” and the skill which can portray great figure overborne by the consequences of his own folly. Edward II is the first fine historical drama in English language and aside from Shakespeare’s, tragedies, the, best in existence (Theater history).

Marlowe’s Edward the Second has been discussed earlier on. This unit will examine Shakespeare’s chronicle play in its ambivalent position on leadership.

Read also: A CRITICAL STUDY OF SHAKESPAREAN TRAGEDY

The Chronicle Play

The chronicle or historical play refers to the drama produced from the people’s history. Encyclopeadia Britannica’s Guide to Shakespeare states that “plays of this type lay emphasis on the public welfare by pointing to the past as a lesson for the present and the genre is often characterised by its assumption of a national consciousness in its audience”. This means that the chronicle play is a drama of intensely nationalistic feeling. England produced so many historical plays during their most optimistic years, the Elizabethan period. It is argued that the chronicle play is an extension of the medieval morality play. It is seen as a moral tool, and as it appears, the English playwrights used the genre of drama to:

teach their subjects obedience to their king, to show the people the untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions, and insurrections, to present them with the flourishing estate of such as live in obedience, exhorting them to allegiance, exhorting them from all traitorous and felonious stratagems (Encyclopeadia Britannica Guide to Shakespeare).

The implication of the above statement is that the chronicle play is a drama of patriotism and that it primarily exhibits characters of certain magnitude in actions of importance, actions that have far-reaching effects on the whole national population. The king is usually the centre of attraction. However, the historical play is not usually telescopic because sometimes historical facts are distorted for the purposes of heightening dramatic effect. Occasionally, according to Downer (1950: 109), “non – historical incidents – usually involving characters from low life” are introduced “to enliven and add to the amusement of the chronicle”. Downer states that “the 10 years which preceded the opening of the 17th century witnessed the greatest prosperity of the chronicle history and again in the hands of Shakespeare, its reshaping into a unique vehicle for tragedy”.

Shakespeare’s Chronicle Play

In the 1590s, Shakespeare thrilled the English audience with plays showing incidents from their recent past history. In these plays, the playwright dramatised the activities of kings and statesmen and demonstrates how they affect the people whom they frequently drag into needless wars. Shakespeare showed interest in the nature and function of a ruler, drawing his materials from the state of the politics of his own country, England. Most of Shakespeare’s chronicle plays were written during the stable period of Queen Elizabeth I, and as such, some of them reflected the patriotic zeal of the period.

Ostensibly though, the plays examined the wrangling that characterised the English monarchy in the recent past. According to Bevington (1972) “Shakespeare examines the strengths and weaknesses of the English monarchy, and searches for a definition of the ideal ruler through negative and positive example”. Bevington cites King John is an example of a leader with poor and undesirable quality of leadership. He argues that:

Shakespeare refuses to glorify the king’s reign into anti-catholic defiance, as a more rabidly protestant dramatists had done. Instead, he portrays a whimsical tyrant and murderer of his kinsmen, so evil that well – meaning Englishmen must actively consider the prospect of overthrowing him.

Some Shakespearean historical plays examine factionalism in courts, civil unrests and war. The three Henry VI plays and Richard III in the words of Frye (1982):

treat the years between 1422 and 1485, during which English hold upon France was lost and English society itself was disrupted by civil war between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, each striving for the possession of the throne. When these “wars of Roses” were ended by the founding in 1485 of the Tudor dynasty in King Henry VII, the country turned away from the bitterness of civil strife, and the reign of the founder’s grand-daughter Elizabeth I saw England reach one of the high points in human history. It was during her reign that Shakespeare looked back upon the bloody years of the preceding century and wrote what amounts to a “secular morality” in the series of four plays on the evils of civil strife.

This period of great disorientation and internal crises prompts a statement in the Encyclopeadia Britannica Guide to Shakespeare that “the Shakespearean English history play told of the country’s history at a time when English nation was struggling with its own sense of national identity and experiencing a new sense of power”.

However, internal and external aggressions were reduced by Queen Elizabeth I who ascended the throne of England in 1588. She put an end to the civil wars, staves off the Roman Catholic power and defeated the great Spanish Armada. The historical plays that followed show England as an unravel power in the world led by a powerful monarch. The English supremacy and patriotic zeal is exemplified by Henry V, which Bevington cites as an illustration of Shakespeare’s portrayal of a positive leader, and Downer (1950), as “a symbol of exuberant patriotism that gave England hope after the victory over the Spanish Armada”. Frye (1982) states that:

Some three or so years after he had completed the minor tetralogy, Shakespeare began his second and greater cycle plays on English history. The cycle was begun in 1595 – 96 with Richard II, continued in succeeding years with the two parts of Henry IV, and concluded in 1599 with Henry V. Each of the four plays and the cycle itself shows an advance in unity and coherence over earlier group.

Above all, these four plays examine the concept of degree and order which as has been discussed in unit one, is a fundamental guiding principle of the Elizabethan society. According to Frye (1982):

The four plays are neatly structured in terms of relationships, foils, and antithesis, which initially move out from Richard II to other characters. In the first play, King Richard has the legal title to reign but lacks the ability to rule, whereas the princely cousin Henry Bolingbrook has all the necessary qualifications for leadership of a nation but lacks the legal right of succession to the crown.

Frye argues that it is this huge antithesis that provides the needed dramatic conflict, especially, as Bolingbrook has to take the crown by force. For Frye, therefore, the thematic antithesis of order and disorder which so intrigued Shakespeare throughout his career – is reiterated: once legitimacy is broken, civilisation is shaken to its foundations, and the Bishop of Carlisle predicts that “the blood shall manure the ground/and further ages groan for this foul act”.

The predicted chaos is dramatised in the two parts of Henry IV. However, in Henry V, order is restored, and as Frye maintains, in the last play of the cycle, “we see the theme of order – disorder – order worked out to a conclusion which suits dramatic propriety and historical accuracy at once” (p.71).

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