Queens and Queenship in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy (9th August)


The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

Next meeting: 9th August / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In 1592, the pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe wrote that the Elizabethan plays which drew their subject matter from English Chronicles should be celebrated because, through them:

our fore-fathers valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they them selves raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: which, what can bee a sharper reproofe, to these degenerate effeminate dayes of oures?[1]

Nashe was referring to those plays which we now call the ‘English history plays’, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1590s. Whether a result of nationalistic pride, anxieties about the country’s future, or otherwise, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, in particular, saw a proliferation of plays produced which dramatised events of the country’s ‘glorious’ and often bloody past. These plays were well-attended, making these iterations of history accessible to a vast number of theatre-goers. Nashe articulates a notion that dramatising English history was laudable not only for its celebratory patriotism and memorialisation of the past, but also because such plays could have a particular utility: to help to recall and revitalise traditional chivalric values, and to revive a ‘valiant’ national history for the public eye and imagination.

An additional merit of such dramatic renderings of history, Nashe suggests, derives from the fact that they could provide ‘sharp reproof’ of the more indulgent, less masculine Elizabethan days of the early 1590s. In this view, the valour demonstrated in history plays was made all the more vivid by their contrast to the supposedly ‘effeminate’ contemporary moment of their dramatic construction and production. Carol Banks titles an article after Nashe’s words, and provides some discussion of the broader, sixteenth-century connotations of the term ‘effeminate’.[2] According to Banks, Nashe uses the word ‘effeminate’ to mean not only ‘womanish’ – or, perhaps, ‘unmanly’ – but employs its wider definition as ‘a virtual antonym to military valour and honour’. Indeed, there are numerous moments of nostalgia for this apparently dead or dying chivalric code throughout the first tetralogy (perhaps most notably, but not exclusively, through the person of Talbot in 1 Henry VI).

At almost the same moment that Nashe was writing these words, William Shakespeare (possibly with collaborators, and perhaps even with Nashe himself) was writing some of his earliest plays and contributing to the increasingly popular history play genre. In 1591 to 1592, Shakespeare wrote his ‘first tetralogy’ of history plays. He probably began with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (more commonly known as The Second Part of Henry VI, or simply 2 Henry VI), then Richard Duke of York (The Third Part of Henry VI, or 3 Henry VI), before returning to First Part of Henry VI (or 1 Henry VI). Though usually performed in isolation, The Tragedy of King Richard III (more commonly just Richard III) follows on from events of the Henry VI plays to complete the tetralogy; this play was also likely to have been written last of the four.[3] The first tetralogy dramatises a telescopic version of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the period of civil unrest that followed the death of the great English martial king, Henry V. Shakespeare begins with the coronation of Henry VI, depicts the ongoing battles against the French, shows the emergence of a Yorkist line of claimants to the throne and the battles that result from these factionalist divisions, dramatises Richard III’s machinations against his own family, and ultimately concludes with his defeat and the ‘healing’ of ‘civil wounds’ with the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York that is symbolised by the marriage of Henry Tudor (the new King Henry VII) and Elizabeth of York.

Many of Shakespeare’s formative years as a dramatist, then, were spent writing these ‘intensely nationalistic’ (English) history plays.[4] By depicting the rise and eventual victory of the first Tudor king at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare’s earliest plays seem, ultimately, to contribute to the genre’s politically expedient, propagandist aims to contribute to the so-called ‘Tudor myth’ and ‘support the right of the Tudors to the throne’.[5] However, the first tetralogy does not simply serve to straightforwardly glorify the Tudors, aggrandise the past, or offer simple ‘reproof’ to an ‘effeminate’ present in a manner Nashe seems to deem commendable. Rather, these plays explore a number of complex issues that Shakespeare would continue to address throughout his career, for example: what is the nature of divine providence and what happens when it is meddled with? What makes a ruler (a king?) effectual or ineffectual, just or unjust? What role do (and should) women play in political and social action?

Indeed, though the first tetralogy’s primary focus is, as suggested by the plays’ usual titles, on the martial conflicts and political machinations of the kings and key male players of the Wars of the Roses, significant space and importance is also afforded to women: the wives of influential nobleman and the kings’ queen consorts. These figures occupy different and intriguing spaces in a group of plays which dramatise, primarily, a masculine, masculinised conflict. History playwrights ‘remained [largely] committed to a notion of historical truth and are bound by the received record concerning the major events of the past’,[6] ‘records’ referring to (chronicle) accounts by the likes of Thomas More (c. 1519), Edward Hall (1548), and Raphael Holinshed (1577 and 1587) among others. Nonetheless, embellishment of the historical ‘fact’ and/or emphasis on moments the playwright deemed important or interesting was common practice. When Shakespeare writes compelling female characters and addresses the matter of queenship and female rule in the first tetralogy (and in his history plays more generally), therefore, it is difficult to divorce such depictions from the knowledge that they were rendered in a moment of longstanding, independent female sovereignty, of a true Queen Regnant whose (even recent, direct) ancestors were depicted in these plays and their sources.

At the beginning of the 1590s, when Shakespeare was writing his earliest (history) plays, England had been under the rule of a female sovereign for around four decades. Though this was a lifetime for many and, indeed, a lifetime for Shakespeare himself (born in 1564, eleven years after Mary Tudor’s coronation and half a decade into what would become Elizabeth Tudor’s forty-five years on the throne), the question of female rule was no less contentious. When John Knox wrote that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature’ in his 1558 pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, he was contributing to a familiar, longstanding discourse about the (in)appropriateness of female power and authority. By dramatising the actions and voices of the women who sat on the throne of England before the Tudor queens so thoroughly, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy appears to contribute to these (continued) questions about the rights and roles of women, and encourages audiences to interrogate the actions and individuals traditionally valued in our historical accounts.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are there any significant or particularly interesting departures from, or ‘faithful’ similarities to, Hall’s Chronicle in the Shakespeare extracts?
  2. How relevant are Chronicle texts and other sources to the writing of (these) history plays? Is there a sense that Shakespeare is not just striving to represent history, but also to re-present history? If so, why?
  3. Is it appropriate to consider the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III as a cogent ‘tetralogy’? Do the portrayals of Margaret and Elizabeth vary between these plays or even between these scenes?
  4. Can we identify an aesthetic of queenship in these texts? Or, what makes a queen a queen?
  5. Are queens represented positively, negatively, or otherwise in these extracts? Does our reading change/depend on the plays’ late Elizabethan context?
  6. A lot of these scenes focus on (women’s) speech and language as a means of accessing power. Why do you think this is? Is it effective?
  7. How is marriage presented in these texts? What about love and lust?
  8. How do Margaret and Elizabeth respond to the men who proposition, befriend or antagonise them? How do these men respond to them? How are their bodies used (by themselves, or by others)?
  9. The queen’s primary responsibility was often considered to be to produce a legitimate (and preferably male) heir to the throne. How do these scenes represent the queen (as) mother or queen regents?
  10. And finally, what’s up with John Knox?


[1] Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell (1592).

[2] Carol Banks, ‘Warlike women: ‘reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes’?’, in Shakespeare’s histories and counter-histories, ed. by Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 169-181 (p. 170).

[3] Jean E. Howard’s ‘Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth’ gives a good, concise overview of the first tetralogy’s compositional dates. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. 465-474.

[4] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1965), p. 2.

[5] Ribner, The English History Play, p. 2.

[6] Jesse M. Lander, ‘William Shakespeare: The History Plays’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 489-494 (p. 490).


MEMORI seminar ‘Last Things and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure’

On Thursday, the 13th of March, the Medieval and Early Modern Research Initiative will be welcoming Dr Margaret Kean of Oxford University, who will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Last Things and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure’.

For further information, see:


5:15 pm, Thursday, 13th of March, John Percival Rm. 2.48