History is one of the three main genres in Western theatre alongside tragedy and comedy, although it originated, in its modern form, thousands of years later than the other primary genres. For this reason, it is often treated as a subset of tragedy. A play in this genre is known as a history play and is based on a historical narrative, often set in the medieval or early modern past. History emerged as a distinct genre from tragedy in Renaissance England. The best known examples of the genre are the history plays written by William Shakespeare, whose plays still serve to define the genre. History plays also appear elsewhere in British and Western literature, such as Thomas Heywood's Edward IV, Schiller's Mary Stuart or the Dutch genre Gijsbrecht van Aemstel.
Plays with some connection to historic narratives date to the beginnings of Athenian theatre. For one, although many early Greek plays covered subjects that modern audiences consider myth (rather than history), the Greeks did not make such a distinction, incorporating their stories of their gods into the same overarching narrative that included stories of their kings. Furthermore, the earliest surviving work of theatre, The Persians records an event that was entirely historical, even under the modern understanding of history. A key difference between The Persians and a history play in the modern sense is the incorporation of supernatural elements into the narrative of the Salamis. Additionally, it primarily dramatizes the Persian reaction to the battle, information that would have been at best a secondary concern for the Greek historian. Thus, although it concerns a verifiable historic event, it differs substantially from the modern genre of "history plays" in that it doesn't conform to the modern understanding of history (by presenting unvarifiable supernatural elements as fact) and in that its goals didn't entirely parallel those of ancient Greek historians.
A significant development in the evolution of the history play occurred during the Middle Ages with the rise of mystery plays. Theatre in the Middle Ages arose from traditions surrounding the mass, a ritual that, due to the orthodox theological position that the eucharistic sacrifice reenacts (and even recreates) the sacrifice on the cross, has profound similarities to theatre (and to the types of rituals that gave rise to theatre in ancient Athens). While the regular Sunday liturgy was like theatre, the traditions that evolved around the Easter service were theatre. Specifically the "Quem quaeritis?", explicitly involved the portrayal of characters by the priest and the acolyte.
With this as a starting point, medieval theatre makers began crafting other plays detailing the religious narratives of Christianity. Plays about saints, especially local saints, were particularly popular in England. These plays conformed to the goals of contemporary historians, often closely paralleling "Lives of the Saints" books. They are generally not included in the modern understanding of history plays, however, because they differ significantly from the modern understanding of history by unquestioningly including supernatural phenomena as key elements. The final step in the origin of the modern history play, therefore, would require, as a prerequisit, the evolution of the modern understanding of history.
The modern history play originated in the Tudor dynasty of England as an expression of the rapidly expanding field of historical literature, which included not just plays and history books, but also historic poetry. While the trend of increasing historical literature has its roots in Medieval England, it reached a new level of intensity after the ascension of Henry VII with the perceived need to show the justification of the Tudor's position in the monarchy. The motivations of renaissance playwrights generally coincided with those of renaissance historians, so, although England produced many historical works during the Middle Ages, these works were almost completely ignored in favor of more recent historical narratives.
The history play first took its modern form in Tudor England. Under the influences of the saint plays of medieval England, as well as morality plays, the Tudor history play gradually emerged as an equivalent expression of the good works of secular heroes (particularly kings). Magnyfycence written by John Skelton in 1519 names his characters in the traditional fashion of a morality play, with the lead bearing the name "Magnificance" and primary adversaries bearing names such as "Folly". Through the plot line and the characters' relationships with each other, however, Skelton assures that his contemporaries in the audience will easily recognize the identities of Henry VII in the title character and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in Folly. John Bale's Kynge Johan, written 1538, takes another significant step toward the emergence of the secular history play by specifically naming the historic figures associated with his allegorically named characters.
Christoper Marlowe's Edward II (1592) was profoundly influential in the development of the history play. While earlier English history plays tried to incorporate as much information as possible from their sources, Marlowe focused on the events that would contribute to his play from a storytelling perspective. In doing so, he not only provided the link between history and tragedy which would be elemental to later English Renaissance history plays but also set a new standard for effective use of the history play as propaganda,.
Although the history play evolved in England in a time when theatre in general was often viewed with suspicion, it was held up, even among theatre's critics, as an example of what could be valuable in the art form. A significant factor in the favorable treatment that history plays received was the social function that commentators of the time believed that plays of this genre provided. For Thomas Nash and Thomas Heywood, for example, the English history play immortalized English heroes of the past and created a sense of national pride in audiences. Generally speaking, history plays sought to accomplish the goals of historians using the dramatic medium. In the case of playwrights in Renaissance England, this often amounted to historical propaganda in theatrical form.
The First Folio separated Shakespeare's plays into Tragedies, Comedies and Histories, perhaps because Shakespeare himself supported such a tripartition of theatrical genres, Polonius declaring in Hamlet the arrival of "the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history...". In general, their categorization of history plays only included those plays concerning the reigns of recent English monarchs. Many of Shakespeare's other plays, however, could be fit into a more general definition of history plays. Julius Caesar for example concerns the actual historical events surrounding Caesar's assassination. The compilers of the First Folio may have had an awareness of the arbitrariness of this genrifcation, since they did not include Troilus and Cressida in the table of contents (which specifies the genre of each play as "Comedies" "Tragedies" and "Histories") and because they placed the play immediately after the tragedies and before the comedies listed in the table of contents.
A consistent theme in historical drama of both Shakespeare and his English contemporaries revolved around questions of who had legitimate claim to participate in the affairs of the state. While Shakespeare's treatment of such questions tended to be more royalist, his contemporaries were no less exclusionary. An example of this trend is the question of the inclusion or exclusion of bastards in the line of succession in The Life and Death of King John
Regardless of whether they were classed as such in the first folio, Shakespeare's history plays are considered the defining works of the genre. Later playwrights of history plays would either follow his stylistic model, or at least have an acute awareness of their stylistic differences with Shakespearean histories.
Following the Restoration, history plays immediately began being written for the English stage. They had, however, lost much of the momentum that they had gained during the Tudor and Stewart eras. Even the most esteemed genre of English Renaissance theatre, the tragedy, (to which the history genre had been closely tied from the beginning) had fallen almost completely out of favor for the dominant genres of the tragicomedy and the comedy. Productions of history plays often had an intentionally revivalist character. For example, Shakespeare's plays, including his histories, were extremely popular in the form of adaptations.
Popular recently authored history plays include James Goldman's The Lion in Winter. Criticized as ahistorical it tests the boundaries of the genre, while also poking fun at its conventions. Although, in many respects it has more in common with absurdist comic domestic drama, it retains an essentially historic core. George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan has received widespread praise, and has even been compared favorably to Shakespeare's histories. The temporal boundary of history plays is tested in Stuff Happens by David Hare, which chronicles the events leading up to the Iraq War with only two years separating the author from his subject. The play focuses heavily on the use of exact quotes, with all public speeches given by the main characters being taken word for word from actual quotes.