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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Marlowe and Kyd

§ 12. His treatment of the Chronicle Play

Two illustrations may be offered of Marlowe’s transforming power: one, his treatment of the chronicle play; another, his creation of blank verse as a dramatic instrument.

The first examples of the English chronicle play belong to the early eighties of the sixteenth century. Historical personages appear in the drama of the transition, but neither in their treatment nor in their setting do we find anything which approaches what we must understand by a chronicle play or “history.” The use of historical material by the stage represents three artistic intentions, more or less distinct. The first is didactic or satirical, and offers the key to some of the leading changes in the later morality. It appears early in the treatment of Bible story; later, in the humanising of allegorical characters, as in the identification of Herod with “Cruelty”; later still, in the introduction of historical characters such as cardinal Pandulfus and Stephen Langton. The second is patriotic in motif, the expression of a strong national consciousness stirred by the political fervours of Elizabethan England, and stimulated on the literary side by the appearance of a multitude of prose works on historical subjects. Here, we have the true beginnings of the dramatic “history” ushered in by such plays as the old Henry V and Jack Straw; defined later by Peele and Marlowe in their Edwards; and, by the end of Elizabeth’s reign, already exhausted, after the masterpieces of Shakespeare. The third, the romantic, showing an interest in history because it offers an artistic relief from contemporary conditions, hardly falls under consideration at this point. Something of its mood appears in the mythical tales crudely dramatised in the early Tudor period and utilised by the Elizabethans; but it was its strangeness, the opportunity given to fancy and emotion, which attracted the playwrights. It is the “unhistorical” sentiment of the romantic revival of a later century which turned to the Middle Ages for the sheer delight of treading forgotten paths and escaping from the present.

It is a reasonable question whether there is any such genre as the chronicle or history play, for the term, in its strictest sense, means no more than a play, presumably a tragedy, which draws its subject from the national annals. The “history play,” like the historical novel, is, at its best, an effort to analyse, by dramatic means, the development and effect of character. Rarely has it set itself the task of the general interpretation to which the historian proper is committed. Being a study of character which is incidentally historical, it does not stand apart from the accepted dramatic categories. The Elizabethan habit, familiarised in the division of Shakespeare’s plays into “tragedies,” “comedies” and “histories,” has exaggerated the value of the distinction. The true interest of the matter is that, in the popular appeal to history during the stirring close of the sixteenth century, not a few of the greater playwrights found their opportunity for the delineation of character in less tragic circumstance: seldom, perhaps only in Shakespeare, and in him not often, is the historical interpretation, the “truth” of the “true” tragedies, of any concern. Marlowe’s merit as the beginner of the history play so-called lies in his humanising of the puppets of the Kynge Johan type, not in the discovery for us of the true Edward.