Titling the History Plays

The Staunton Newsleader’s review of 2 Henry IV opens by criticizing the play’s title.

For a man who had more than his share of creative chops, William Shakespeare could come up with some pretty dull titles. The “Henry Whichever, Part Whatever” plays are chief examples, as their titles absolutely fail to reflect, or even hint at, the theatrical glory lurking behind them.

This statement caught my eye because the same idea came up here on the blog a couple of weeks ago, when I talked about 1 Henry VI. Are the titles of the history plays really that great a barrier? It strikes me as a slightly odd criticism — it’s not like Hamlet or Othello give you any more to go on as titles. Is it the numbers that people find intimidating? How might a different title alter perception of the play?

I’ll refrain from giving too pedantic a lecture about playhouse traditions and the early modern publishing industry, and simply say that there’s really no way to pin this exclusively on Shakespeare, as he may well not have been responsible for titling his own plays during his lifetime, and he certainly hasn’t controlled what we call them in the centuries since his death. Many of the history plays appear under alternate titles in Henslowe’s Diary or with variations in the titles between different printings. Additionally, many of the histories did have fuller, more descriptive titles in their printed forms. I submit, for your consideration:

  • Richard II, alternately (in the 1615 quarto) The Tragedy of King Richard II, with new additions of the Parliament Scene, and the Deposing of King Richard
  • 1 Henry IV, alternately (in the 1598 quarto) The History of King Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff
  • 2 Henry IV, in full in the Folio The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Containing his Death and the Coronation of King Henry the Fifth
  • Henry V, alternately (in the 1600 quarto) The chronicle history of Henry the Fifth, with his battle fought at Agincourt in France, Together with Ancient Pistol
  • 2 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1594 quarto) The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the Tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the crown
  • 3 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1595 octavo) The The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixth, with the Whole Contention between the two Houses, Lancaster and York
  • Richard III, alternately (in the 1597 quarto) The tragedy of King Richard the third Containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of the detested life, and most deserved death, or, in the Folio, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, with the Landing of Earl Richmond, and the Battle at Bosworth Field.

More descriptive, certainly, but also perhaps a bit too cumbersome for easy marketing purposes. There’s a lesson in here about what publishers thought would sell a book, what audiences had made popular (is Ancient Pistol really the highlight of Henry V?), and it might be something teachers of the history plays would find worth exploring with students. It’s also worth noting how many of those titles “give away” major plot points and character deaths — the very things we consider “spoilers” today. (I will, I’m sure, be encouraging profitable discussion on these matters in next year’s Henry V study guide).

So, just for fun, I propose a game. Retitle the histories! Keep it to, oh, seven words or less — something more like how the comedies or romances are conventionally titled — so we can aim for the happy medium between the short character-based titles and the lengthy expository titles (glorious though those are). What do you want to emphasize out of the play? Who do you think is the central figure, or what’s the main event? Play with me in the comments here or on Twitter.

My suggestions so far:

For Henry V: simply, Agincourt
For Richard II: The Deposition of the King
For 1 Henry VI: A War Won by Witchcraft

As far as 2 Henry IV is concerned, our own Dr. Ralph Cohen, who directed the play, suggests these alternatives in the season program: Fat Jack and the Two Harrys or The Flim Flammer Knight’s Dream.

I’ll compile everyone’s suggestions into a later post, and we can talk about what everyone finds most interesting, most pertinent, or most marketable for these plays, judging by the proposed titles.

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