For the Methode of a Poet historical is not such, as of an
Historiographer. For an Historiographer discourseth of
affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the
times as the actions, but a Poet thrusteth into the middest,
euen where it most concemeth him, and there recoursing to
the thinges forepaste, and diuining of thinges to come, maketh
a pleasing Analysis of all.
-- Edmund Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to The Faerie Queene
That eight of the ten Shakespearean histories are arranged into tetralogies--two sequences of four plays each--suggests an important point about the form of the history play as opposed to the form of the other major genres, comedy and tragedy--namely, that the history play (almost by the nature of its subject) is an open, as opposed to a closed, form. 1 History is a continuum, and any historical drama must, in an important sense, commence in medias res. Of course, each of the four plays in the two tetralogies has its own organic structure and may be performed as a self-contained unit. But all these plays contain prominent references to what went before as well as predictions or foreshadowings of what is to come, so that an important part of our experience of a history play consists of being caught up dramatically in the stream of events as these impinge upon us immediately, while being constantly made aware that there are longer vistas of cause and effect that cannot be ignored.
Comedy is a self-contained and generally closed form because it creates its own fictional world tied to a completed narrative and a set of characters who exist only to fulfill the particular requirements of the fiction. When Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It or Bassanio and Portia in The Merchant of Venice join hands as married couples in the fifth act, the drama is over, and the world they have brought to life before us ceases to exist except as memory. These plays do not encourage us to imagine the young