History and Tragedy



When, after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, two of his former colleagues in the theatrical company for which he had written, gathered his plays together in the first collected edition of his dramatic works (the First Folio of 1623), they divided them into three kinds, comedies, histories and tragedies. On what principles they decided to include a play in one of these three sections we do not know; the fact that they placed Cymbeline among the tragedies suggests that their decisions were rough and ready and that they had no very scholarly interest in questions of genre.1 The only immediately obvious feature which the histories have in common is that they all deal with the history of England. A case could be made for describing some of Heminge’s and Condell’s ‘histories’ as ‘tragedies’, particularly Richard II and Richard III, both of which have dominant heroes and are distinguished from the other histories in the table of contents by the description ‘The Life and Death’. Again, some of the Folio tragedies could well be considered histories : Julius Caesar has no central, commanding hero of the magnitude of Hamlet or Macbeth and this play, too, is described as ‘The Life and Death’ of Julius Caesar. The superficial evidence suggests, then, that the distinction between Shakespeare’s histories and his tragedies is not as clear-cut as the Folio division implies. Further evidence shows that the two sets of plays are very closely related.


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Notes and References

  1. 4.
    Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Sir Thomas North; reprinted in Tudor Translations (London, 1895) vol. IV, p. 298.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    See L. C. Knights, ‘Shakespeare and Political Wisdom’, Sewanee Review, LXI (1953) 43–55.Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    See Brian Morris, ‘The Tragic Structure of Troilus and Cres sida’, Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959) 481–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 19.
    E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols (Oxford, 1923) vol. IV, p. 263Google Scholar
  5. Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 1300–1600, 2 vols (London, 1963) vol. II, part i, pp. 75–6.Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    Sir Philip Sidney, Defence of Poesie, in Feuillerat (ed.), Works, 4 vols (Cambridge, 1923) vol. III, p. 17.Google Scholar
  7. 22.
    Bacon, Advancement of Learning, Book II, in Spedding (ed.), Works (London, 1870) vol. III, p. 343.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare, in Works (Yale edition, 1968) vol. VII, p. 66.Google Scholar

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© John Wilders 1978

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