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1. The Chronicle Play is a peculiarly English Form—Its Difference from
other Historical Dramas—Supplies the Place of the Epic— Treatment of National Annals by the Playwrights.-II. Shakspere's Chronicles - Four Groups of non-Shaksperian Plays on English History.III. Legendary Subjects — Locrine '—"The History of King Leir.'IV. Shakspere's Doubtful Plays—Principles of Criticism- The Birth of Merlin.'-V. Chronicle-Plays Proper—“Troublesome Reign of King John'-'True Tragedy of Richard III.'—'Famous Victories of Henry V.?— Contention of the Two Famous Houses.'-VI. "Ed. ward III.'— The Problem of its Authorship-Based on a Novella and on History—The Superior Development of Situations.-VII. Mar. lowe's · Edward 11.'—Peele’s ‘Edward I.'—Heywood's · Edward IV:Rowley's Play on Henry VIII.–VIII. The Ground covered by the Chronicle Plays-Their Utility-Heywood's 'Apology' quoted.-IX. Biographies of Political Persons and Popular Heroes—Sir Thomas More '--'Lord Cromwell'— Sir John Oldcastle'-Schlegel's Opinion criticised--Sir Thomas Wyatt'-Ford's ‘Perkin Warbeck'-Last Plays of this Species.—X. English Adventurers— Fair Maid of the West'-'The Shirley Brothers '-'Sir Thomas Stukeley'—His Life -Dramatised in "The Famous History,' &c.- Battle of Alcazar.'—XI. Apocryphal Heroes— Fair Em’-Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green'-Two Plays on the Robin Hood Legend-English Partiality for Outlaws-Life in Sherwood - George a Greene'-Jonson's “Sad Shepherd'-Popularity in England of Princes who have shared the People's Sports and Pastimes.
N.B. The Historical Plays discussed in this chapter will be found as follows: •Locrine,' "The Birth of Merlin,' 'Lord Cromwell,' in the Tauchnitz edition of Shakespeare's ‘Doubtful Plays ;' «King Leir,' • Troublesome Reign of King John,' “True Tragedy of Richard III.,' • Famous Victories of Henry V.,''Contention of the Two Houses,' in W. C. Hazlitt's “Shakespeare's Library ;' • Edward III.' in Delius' PseudoShakspere'sche Dramen ;' Marlowe's, Peele's, Heywood's Chronicles in Dyce's editions of Marlowe and Peele and Pearson's reprint of Heywood; Rowley's 'When You See Me, You Know Me,' in Karl Elze's reprint ; • Sir Thomas More, in the Old Shakespeare Society's Publications ;
'Sir Thomas Wyatt,' in Dyce's Webster,' and “Perkin Warbeck' in Gifford's • Ford ; ' • The Famous History of Sir Thomas Stukeley' in Simpson's 'School of Shakspere,' and 'The Battle of Alcazar’in Dyce's · Peele ;' • Fair Em’in Delius ; «The Blind Beggar' and • The Shirley Brothers' in Bullen's Day;' • Dick of Devenshire' in Bullen's · Old Plays;' the two plays on 'Robert, Earl of Huntingdon,' in Hazlitt's • Dodsley,' vol. viii.; George a Greene'in Dyce's 'Greene.'
I. The Chronicle Play is peculiar to English literature. The lost tragedy by Phrynichus, entitled. The Capture of Miletus,' which is said to have cost the poet a considerable fine from the Athenian people, and the triumphal pageant of · The Persæ,' in which Æschylus sang the pæan of the Greek race over conquered Asia, cannot be reckoned in the same class as the Chronicles of Shakspere and his predecessors. Nor do the few obscure plays produced by Italian authors upon events in their national history, whether we take into account Mussato's ·Eccelinis' or the popular Representation of Lautrec, deserve this title. Coleridge has remarked that our Chronicle Play occupies an intermediate place between the Epic and the Drama. It is not, like the Wallenstein' of Schiller or Victor Hugo's 'Roi s'ainuse,' an episode selected from the national annals, and dramatised because of its peculiar tragic or satiric fitness. Its characteristic quality is the dramatic presentation in a single action of the leading events of a reign. The Chronicle Plays, which in
. the Elizabethan age probably covered the whole field of English history, had for their object the scenic exposition of our annals to the nation. sessed that series intact, we should see unrolled before us, as in a gigantic and unequal epic, the succession
If we posTHE CHRONICLE PLAY.
of events and vicissitudes from mythic Brute to the defeat of the Armada.
English literature possesses no national epic. The legends of Arthur formed, it is true, a semi-epical body of romance. But these legends were not purely English in their origin; nor were they digested into the • Mort d'Arthur,' by Sir Thomas Malory, until a comparatively late period. When our language attained the proper flexibility for poetical composition, the age of the heroic Epic had passed away. The great events of our annals, whether mythical or historical, instead of being sung by rhapsodists, were acted by tragedians, in accordance with the prevalent dramatic impulse. But the epical instinct was satisfied by the peculiar form which the Chronicle Play assumed. The authors of these works combined fidelity to facts and observance of chronology with their effort after a certain artistic unity of effect. They fixed attention on tragic calamities and conflicting passions, endeavouring, so far as in them lay, to bring the characters of men in action into striking prominence. As the scientific historian seeks to investigate the laws which underlie a nation's growth, regarding men as agents in the process of evolution ; so, by a converse method, our dramatists fixed their eyes upon the personal elements of history, and kept out of sight those complex influences which narrow the sphere of individual activity. The one process presents us with the philosophy of history, the other with its poetry. Neither mode of treatment is dishonest, though the whole truth is not to be found in either result : for the history of the world, as Hegel remarked, has a double aspect; and the highest aim of the historian is to place the heroes who seem to resume the spirit of their several epochs, in proper relation to the world-spirit. As was right and necessary, the authors of our Chronicle Plays made history subservient to art, and character more potent than circumstance. Yet they abstained from violating the general outlines of the annals which they dramatised. They introduced no figmentary matter of importance,and rarely deviated from tradition to enhance effect. Their chief licence consisted in altering the relative proportion of events, in concentrating the action of many years within the space of a few hours, and in heightening for tragic purposes the intellectual and moral stature of commanding personages. Episodical incidents were freely invented; but always with the object of enforcing and colouring the fact as they received it from the annalists. Only here and there, as in Peele's dastardly libel on the good Queen Eleanor, do we find a deliberate attempt to falsify history for a purpose of the moment. I do not of course mean to assert that any of our dramatists were conscientious in the scientific sense of the word, and that they did not share the common prejudices of their age.
What I wish to insist upon is that they approached the historical drama from the epical point of view, and that their main object was the scenic reproduction of history rather than the employment of historical material for any further-reaching purpose.
Were it not for Shakspere's Chronicle Plays, it might be hardly needful to dwell at considerable length upon this species. But these masterpieces are so unique in their kind, combining as they do fidelity to the main sources at the dramatist's command with perfect artistic freedom in a harmony unparalleled, that it behoves us to consider the crude work of his predecessors. In the best plays of Shakspere's historical series, the heroes of English annals are glorified, but not metamorphosed. That grasp of character which enabled him to create a Hamlet and a Lady Macbeth, was here employed in resuscitating real men and women from their graves. He translated them to the sphere of poetry without altering their personal characteristics. Only, instead of flesh and blood, he gave in his scenes portraits of them, such as Titian or Rubens might have painted, by dwelling on their salient qualities, flattering without Sycophancy, and revealing the dark places of the soul without animosity.
I propose to arrange the non-Shaksperian plays on English history in four groups. The first consists of dramas founded on mythical events.
The second is the body of Chronicle Plays, properly so called. The third is a set of biographical dramas, bringing English worthies or famous characters upon the stage. The fourth
group deals with semi-legendary heroes dear to the English people, or with pleasant episodes in the traditionary lives of their princes.