Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By George Peele (1556–1596)

GEORGE PEELE’S life is shrouded in mystery; but enough is known of him to say that he was a man of education, who, like so many of his fellow Elizabethan playwrights, lived fast and died young. He formed one of the group of pre-Shakespearean dramatists, who stand for the transitional period between the older moralities—those crude attempts at stage allegory—and the craftsmanship of the master-poet. Neither the birthday nor the death-day of Peele is known. He is believed to have been born in Devonshire. His father was a London merchant, who had the distinction of writing a work on bookkeeping said to have introduced the Italian system to England. The son was an Oxford man, and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1577, and his degree of Master of Arts two years later. Before he left the University he was recognized as a poet, and was marked for his tendencies to social gayety; a trait that became still more pronounced when he went up to London, where he was ejected from his father’s house, and joined the roystering set of blades known as the University wits, who wrote plays and poems and burned life’s candle at both ends. He was reputed a sad wag, as the untrustworthy volume ‘The Jests of George Peele’ testifies. He foregathered with Nash, Marlowe, and Greene, and by tradition haunted the tavern and the green-room,—a dissolute scribbler in whom was a spark of genius, and who, however irregular his habits, dying in mid-manhood left literary work which declares him, after all, an industrious author. He made five dramas, and besides published a number of volumes of poems and pageants. The first drama, ‘The Arraignment of Paris,’ probably presented in 1581, is a pastoral treatment, mostly in heroic couplets, of the myth of the awarding of the golden apple, with a naïve patriotic application,—making Venus, who wins the prize of beauty, yield it in turn to Queen Elizabeth. ‘The Famous Chronicle of Edward I.’ (1593) shows the writer struggling towards the true historical tragedy. It has some effective scenes but little poetry, and as a whole is confused and ill-welded. ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ (1592) is a vigorous play, but lacks construction. ‘The Old Wives’ Tales’ (1595) is a rollicking farce, stuffed with nonsense, and one of those inchoate dramatic performances very characteristic of the earlier English playwrights, but far removed from a serious art purpose. Its main significance lies in its having supplied Milton with ‘Comus.’ It is in his last play, ‘David and Bethsabe,’ printed in 1599, that Peele reached his high-water mark of imaginative poetry. It deals with the Bible story in a spirit of sensuous romanticism, and contains lovely passages of blank verse of the amatory and descriptive sort, handling that measure with a skill such as only Marlowe of the forerunners of Shakespeare has surpassed. The piece lacks dramatic force, being idyllic in motive and manner. A pastoral drama, ‘The Hunting of Cupid,’ known to have been written by Peele, has been lost. This author’s miscellaneous writings include three pageants or court spectacles, and half a dozen volumes of poems,—the most elaborate of which is ‘The Honor of the Garter,’ a blank-verse gratulatory address to several noblemen, and containing in its dedication a fine tribute to his dead friend Marlowe. Some of Peele’s lyrics, found in his plays or in his various volumes of verse, are among the most beautiful in the whole range of Elizabethan song; and no representation of his work can omit them. They became popular at once, and were printed in various song collections of the time. A man of considerable culture, he shows both classic and Italian influence in his writing; but his occasional rich, smooth, fanciful utterance was his by birthright, and merits forgiveness for his dramatic shortcomings. As a playmaker he did not do so much in preparing the way for Shakespeare as other contemporaries like Lyly or Greene. But he surpassed them in his occasional lyric touch and tone.