University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


Shakespeare began his career as a dramatist by writing the first of a series of plays remarking upon English history from the Middle Ages through the reign of Henry VIII. Most notable of this historic chronicle are the eight plays, or two tetralogies, that dramatize the tumultuous period of civil conflict between 1399 and 1485. Some critics of Shakespeare's tetralogies have argued Shakespeare's intent to produce a single, unified, and providentially-ordered chronicle in which the deposition of Richard II may be viewed as the nascent event for the civil wars that culminated in Tudor accession to the crown. Nevertheless, more recent scholarship has disregarded this notion, preferring instead to view the two tetralogies as separate entities for which there is no compelling evidence that Shakespeare intended a relationship, much less a sweeping thematic narrative spanning eight plays. However, I suggest that Shakespeare had a Medieval source, the dramatic chronicles of biblical history known as the Corpus Christi plays, from which he may have derived the pattern for connecting together seemingly disparate episodes in history into one richly-textured historiographic body. Through the examination of corresponding scenes from each tetralogy, I demonstrate that Shakespeare's history plays are indebted to the Corpus Christi cycle drama for idea, imagery, and their essential form as an architecture of figural connections. Together, I conclude, these elements impart a greater didactic significance to Shakespeare's history plays and substantiate the conception of Shakespeare's two tetralogies as an important and coherent unit.