Shakespeare and the History Play

The details
Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 6
Thursday 03 October 2019
Saturday 14 December 2019
20 August 2019


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

This module looks at the English and European "history play" from Elizabethan to Romantic to Modern times. What is the history play? Like the romantic philosopher J.G. Herder and the romantic dramatist Victor Hugo, the course sees modern historical drama as beginning with Shakespeare, who took drama in the direction of history and thus away from the classical genres (tragedy, comedy) prescribed by Sir Philip Sidney (for whom history was too messy for drama).

But what was history? For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, history was becoming more than just Holinshed's Chronicles or the Bible. The Elizabethan history play responded to the radically different kinds of history being written and translated in early modern England: Tacitus, Plutarch, Macchiavelli, More, Hayward and Bacon.

The idea that history might be relative rather than fixed and absolute was as politically dangerous for the Elizabethans as it was attractive to the romantic and revolutionary figures who rediscovered them: Goethe, Schiller, Dumas, Hugo, B├╝chner. Such figures in turn anticipate modern writers of the history play such as Shaw, Brecht, Anouilh, Weiss, Arden and Friels.

The module will explore the history play from the point of view of its generic inventiveness, its modernity (its relativity, skepticism) and its politics (the history play is rarely neutral and characteristically subversive, revolutionary or reactionary). In the first term, the procedure will be to read Shakespeare's history plays in concert with their source histories and their contemporary political impact.

The Romantic and modern plays of the second term will be studied largely as free-standing for the reason that distinct sources are less important than history as an idea. Filmed performances will be drawn on where useful, as will films themselves (eg. The Reader, The Wave) and their fictional or documentary sources.

Module aims

1. To investigate the relationships between drama and history, either in the form of particular written histories or in the form of history as an idea
2. To investigate the generic (or counter-generic) characteristics of historical drama
3. To investigate the relationship between the early modern history play and romantic and modern historical drama
4. To study the growth of historical drama as a recognized variety of drama

Module learning outcomes

1. To acquaint students with a wide variety of historical drama from the sixteenth century to the present.
2. To acquaint students with the variety of history being written in early modern England
3. To acquaint students with a selection of Romantic and modern historical drama

Module information

General Reading:

Henry VI Parts 1-3, (Holinshed)
Richard III (Sir Thomas More)
Richard II (Holinshed & Sir John Hayward)
1 Henry IV & Henry V (Holinshed, Macchiavelli)
Julius Caesar & Coriolanus (Plutarch).
Anon: Woodstock (Holinshed)
Jonson: Sejanus (Tacitus)
Ford: Perkin Warbeck (Bacon)
Milton Samson Agonistes

Learning and teaching methods

Weekly two hour seminar


  • Jonson, Ben; Barish, Jonas A. (1965) Sejanus, New Haven: Yale University Press. vol. The Yale Ben Johnson
  • Shakespeare, William; Cartelli, Thomas. (c2009) Richard III: authoritative text, contexts, criticism, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. vol. A Norton critical edition
  • Shakespeare, William; Cerasano, S. P. (c2012) Julius Caesar: an authoritative text, contexts and sources, criticism, performance history, New York: W. W. Norton. vol. A Norton critical edition
  • Shakespeare, William; McMullan, Gordon. (2003) 1 Henry IV: text edited from the first quarto : contexts and sources, criticism, New York: Norton. vol. A Norton critical edition
  • Corbin, Peter; Sedge, Douglas. (c2002) Thomas of Woodstock: or, Richard the Second, part one, Manchester: Manchester University Press. vol. The Revels plays
  • Munday, Anthony; Shakespeare, William; Jowett, John; Chettle, Henry; Tilney, Edmund; Dekker, Thomas; Heywood, Thomas. (2011) Sir Thomas More, London: Arden Shakespeare. vol. Arden Shakespeare. Third series
  • Shakespeare, William; Forker, Charles R. (2001) King Richard II, London: Arden Shakespeare. vol. Arden Shakespeare. Third series
  • Ford, John. (c1995, 1998) Perkin Warbeck, Oxford: Oxford University Press. vol. Oxford world's classics

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework Essay (4,000 words) 11/12/2019 95%
Practical Participation marks 5%

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Professor John Gillies
LiFTS General Office - email Telephone 01206 872626



External examiner

Prof Duncan James Salkeld
Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature
Available via Moodle
Of 20 hours, 18 (90%) hours available to students:
2 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

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