Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 15. Renewed interest in English history and the beginnings of English Historical Drama

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

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 15. Renewed interest in English history and the beginnings of English Historical Drama

Fortunately, more wholesome influences were brought to bear on the popular stage by the renewed interest in English history which followed the national triumph over the Armada, and which the publication of chronicles enabled dramatists to gratify. Thomas Legge’s Richardus Tertius, acted at St. John’s college, Cambridge, in 1573, 1579 and 1582 (if all the dates in the MSS. are correct), is a remarkable early example of the treatment, after the Senecan manner, of a subject taken from comparatively recent national history. This, in itself, distinguishes it from earlier Latin plays, such as Buchanan’s Jephthes and Johannes Baptistes and Grimoald’s Archipropheta, which treated scriptural subjects after the classical model, and from later tragedies, such as Gager’s, which were classical both in matter and form. But, in spite of the numerous manuscripts in which Richardus Tertius has come down to us, and the references to it by Harington, Nashe and Meres, Churchill, in his excellent treatise on the subject, seems to imply too much when he says that “to Legge was due the turning of the drama in England in an entirely new direction.” The character of the earliest surviving history plays in the vernacular suggests that the impulse to their composition was not academic but popular, and their models not classical tragedy, at first or second hand, but miracle-plays, the methods of which they apply to national history, as had been done in France more than a century before.