Both Marlowe and Shakespeare famously turned to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles for inspiration for some of their most famous plays, including the former’s Edward II and the latter’s Macbeth and Cymbeline. Exploring what made this volume so appealing to some of the Western world’s greatest playwrights will in turn shed light on their own work.
Holinshed published Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland first in 1577 and then in 1587; it consisted of three volumes corresponding to each region. However, the origins of the project date to 1548 when London printer Reyner Wolfe conceived of the idea to create a cosmography of the world with the histories of each nation. He turned to the work of John Leland, working on chronologies and drawing up-to-date maps. The project was a vast undertaking, so he hired Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison; sadly, Wolfe died in 1573 and saw his project pass solely to Holinshed and Holinshed’s own assistants.
The first edition included numerous woodcuts and though it was lengthy and large in size (2835 folio pages), it sold well. The second edition was more expensive but also sold well, and was clearly a source of inspiration to poets and playwrights by this time. Differences between the two editions include spelling and style as well as length, with the second edition clocking in as much longer. The Holinshed Project explains, “In physical appearance, as well as content, changes were made between the two editions. That of 1587 was printed in a larger folio format, using a greatly superior font, and without the woodcuts that had ornamented its predecessor, but using elegant ornamental initial letters. Perhaps the often lengthy résumés which preface each chapter of the pre-1066 history of England were also intended to compensate for the disappearance of the woodcuts.”
The Holinshed Project describes the work thusly: “[it is] at once the crowning achievement of Tudor historiography and the most important single source for contemporary playwrights and poets . . . Among the authors and revisers were moderate Protestants (Raphael Holinshed, John Hooker), militant Protestants (William Harrison, Abraham Fleming), crypto-Catholics (John Stow), and Catholics (Richard Stanihurst, Edmund Campion). The upshot was a remarkably multi-vocal view of British history not only because of the contrasting choices of style and source material but also because the contributors responded very differently to the politics and religion of their own age.” Due to the variety of voices and different compilation times of the materials, there are contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities. Accounts of real kings and queens are alongside stories of giants and mythic rulers. Some passages were famously censored at the time of publication, such as the anti-Catholic passage about the Babington plotters’ execution for trying to topple Queen Elizabeth in favor of Mary Stuart.