A recent chatroom discussion about how to tag the question Portrayal of Henry Bolingbroke through different Shakespeare plays led to the question what "Henriad" actually means.

According to Wikipedia, Shakespeare scholars have used the term to refer to the sequence Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V. (These plays were also written in a chronological order that matches the order of the historical events they are inspired by.)

Some scholars have also included the plays inspired by the War of the Roses: Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III. (In this sequence, the play now known as Henry VI, Part 1 was written after the other Henry VI plays.) Since this "tetralogy" was written before the one mentioned above, it is also referred to as the "first tetralogy", while the sequence starting with Richard II is referred to as the "second tetralogy".

"Henriad" can refer to just the "second tetralogy" or can include all of the above plays, except when the term "second Henriad" is used, i.e. as a synonym for "second tetralogy".

Wikipedia tells us that Alvin Kernan "popularized" the term in a article published in 1969. The term sounds like an anglicisation of Henriade, the title of a poem about Henry IV of France (not England) written by Voltaire in 1723. Since popularising a term is not the same thing as coming up with a term, it is not entirely clear whether Kernan was the first scholar to use the term "Henriad" to refer to the second or first tetralogy.

So who was the first scholar to use the term "Henriad" as described in Wikipedia and how was the term originally defined? Was it Kernan or somebody else?

  • The second tetralogy is chronologically (in real-world history) before the first tetralogy? That's confusing.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 10:09
  • 1
    An antedating: C. L. Barber (1954). 'Saturnalia in the Henriad'. English Institute Essays. Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 10:29
  • @GarethRees That's interesting. C. L. Barber's name is at least familiar to me (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy); I had never heard of Kernan.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 10:54
  • 1
    Further antedating: Leonard Dean (1952). 'Richard II: The State and Image of the Theatre'. PMLA 67, pp. 211–218. Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 11:17
  • Ngrams search for "Henriad". Apparently the word cropped up in 1821, but could that have been in a different context? Edit: Ah, apparently Voltaire's Henriade.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 18:57

2 Answers 2


Kernan's 1969 article definitely wasn't the first use of "Henriad" ...

Searching Google Scholar for "Henriad" Shakespeare threw up a few results from before 1950:

  • H. M. McLuhan, "Henry IV, a Mirror of Magistrates", University of Toronto Quarterly 17(2) (1948), 152-160:

    The themes on which Shakespeare descants in the "Henriad" are associated with honour, the desire and the deserving of the praise of good men. [...] In the years of the "Henriad" (1597-1600) the party of the patristic or humanist theologians was fighting very hard in England against the Calvinist and scholastic party.

    It's mentioned here in a couple of throwaway lines, in quotes. This clearly wasn't the first place to coin the term, but the quote marks suggest it might not have been widely accepted terminology then.

  • G. Tillotson, "Peacock, R., The Poet in the Theatre (Book Review)", The Modern Language Review 44 (1949), 117-118:

    When writing Henry V Shakespeare may have felt that the expression of grand patriotic emotion about the launching of a fleet and about Agincourt would fare better if entrusted to poems rather than to action: but the words are words spoken on the stage; they are part of a play played in the theatre, and an effective part of it; Shakespeare did not feel the need to abandon a play for a Henriad.

    I couldn't find the Peacock book to determine whether the word "Henriad" was used there or only in Tillotson's review. A search on Google books suggests that it wasn't used in the book. In any case, it seems that by the late 1940s the term was at least reasonably known among literary scholars.

... but I couldn't find who was the first, only that it goes back at least to Granville-Barker.

An Ngrams search for Henriad wasn't very revealing, as most of the earlier results found were about Voltaire's Henriade. An improved Ngrams search for Shakespeare's Henriad showed nothing before the 1960s. But even this gave some results predating Kernan's 1969 article:

  • The former Australian newspaper Nation Review had an article which mentioned in passing:

    but then neither are the stories which went into the making of Shakespeare's Henriad, Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" or Brecht's "Another Courage."

Searching Google Books for "Henriad" Shakespeare -Voltaire (filtering out results related to Voltaire's Henriade, with which most of the older Google Books results for "Henriad" were concerned) also threw up a few results from before 1960. Most interestingly, from Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Second Series (first published 1930):

Antony breaks from Cleopatra to patch up an insincere peace with Caesar, since Pompey threatens them both; he marries Octavia, and deserts her to return to Cleopatra; war breaks out, Caesar defeats them and they kill themselves. That is the plot ; and every character is concerned with it and hardly a line is spoken that does not relate to it. There is no under-plot, nor any such obvious relief as Falstaff, Nym, Bardolph, Pistol and Fluellen give to the heroics of the Henriad.

This is again a throwaway mention in the context of another play. I couldn't find any "Preface" of Granville-Barker specifically devoted to Henriad plays, but it's conceivable that he might have been the one to coin the term, as his Prefaces to Shakespeare seems to have been pretty influential.

  • Harley-Granville Barker is by far the best known name among those you mentioned; unfortunately, I have only his "Preface" to Hamlet at home. To be continued ...
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 20:44
  • @Tsundoku Yep, that's what I thought, and why it might make sense if he was the one who coined the term - it'd be more likely to become popular if it originated from a well-known / influential scholar.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 5:06

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1935 in The Observer:

It was a good idea to supplement the first part of the ‘Henriad’, now on view at His Majesty's, with its even greater sequel.

They also have an example from a 1944 letter (printed in a 2004 book).

Is there an earlier example of the word? Perhaps, but we don’t know for two reasons:

  • Prefaces to Shakespeare, as mentioned by Rand, is not the 1930 copy. We don’t know therefore if the 1930 copy contains the word (I can’t find it online so far). The version linked is from 1947.
  • This particular OED page was updated in 2019, which I have found means that the research is likely very solid (as opposed to first or second edition entries which I have found can often easily be outdone by anyone with Google Books). It’s very possible that they looked into Prefaces in Shakespeare but I have no evidence either way.
  • Ah, great find. Is it possible to find out who said that in the Observer? (I also spent a lot of time hunting online for the original 1930 version of Prefaces to Shakespeare, to no avail.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 5:05
  • @Randal'Thor It’s on newspapers.com, which I don’t subscribe to so I’m not sure where I could see the actual page. But the OCR leads me to believe the author is Ivor Brown.
    – Laurel
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 8:41
  • Ivor Brown is a familiar name. It would be interesting to find out whether that letter was published in a literature section of The Observer; otherwise, I'm not sure how it could have influenced Shakespeare scholarship.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 9:03
  • @Tsundoku One article probably wouldn’t have much of an effect, but that’s ok. If Ivor Brown used the word here in the newspaper, how many times did he use it elsewhere? Was he even the person to coin it or did he hear it from someone else who was spreading it around? Words often circulate orally (or in inaccessible places like personal letters) before they are written down.
    – Laurel
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 13:11
  • Should I edit my question to clarify that I'm looking for the earliest recorded usage by a scholar? If it was used orally before that, we're unlikely to find a trace of it, as you rightly point out.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 14:12

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