The term History Play is commonly used to denote the plays (whether tragedies or comedies) in which the action and the major themes of the play are primarily political rather than individual or social. Though Shakespeare did not distinguish between the genres of his plays, when the collected works of Shakespeare was published by his own colleagues in the Chamberlain's- King's company as the First Folio in 1623, the plays, the editors divided them into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Though some historical plays show the characteristics of tragedy or comedy, they are different from the regular tragedies and comedies in that they deal only with political matters without straying into other social or metaphysical matters. Thus only the political dimensions of the actions and relationships alone are presented.
Shakespeare wrote ten plays dealing English history and four with Roman history. Though the Roman plays can also be included under history plays, usually those plays which represent the political history of England were termed history plays. The history plays developed from the Morality plays of the early centuries. It was the patriotic spirit which prevailed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth because of the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the threat of foreign invasion, which gave rise to this form of drama. The history plays were popularized by the University wits during this time. Shakespeare's professional rivalry with these dramatists like Marlowe, Greene and others made him try his
hand in this field. These plays were also known as chronicle plays as they were based upon the English Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed and others.
The history plays were more realistic than the other plays of Shakespeare because their plots and major characters were part of history. In his plays Shakespeare omitted some minor characters or gave life to some irrelevant historical figures or he altered some minor historical events and introduced some incidents and characters, which had no historic authenticity. He often distorted chronology and events were condensed. But all these changes were aimed at an effective presentation for the stage and for a sense of veracity. Instead of a mere reproduction of facts, Shakespeare aimed in his history plays to represent a realistic picture of the past.
The ten history plays of Shakespeare were divided into two groups of four plays each (the tetralogies) and two single plays unrelated to either group. The First History Cycle written in the early days of Shakespeare's career consists of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. The Second History Cycle consisted of Richard II, Henry IV-Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry VI and was written late in his career. The two unrelated plays were King John and Henry VIII. Shakespeare wrote the two four-play sequences dealing with the full story of the Wars of the Roses.
The minor tetralogy or the First History Cycle consisted of the three Henry VI...