Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 10. Variety in theme and treatment

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits

§ 10. Variety in theme and treatment

Even this brief list, however, shows the variety in his work: the masque, in The Hunting of Cupid, and something very closely related to it, in The Araygnement of Paris; the chronicle history, in Edward I, and, very probably, in The Turkish Mahomet, an even more marked mingling of romance and so-called history; something like an attempt to revive the miracleplay, in King David and Fair Bethsabe; and genuine literary satire on romantic plays of the day, in The Old Wives Tale. Whether this variety means that he merely turned his attention hither and thither as chance called him, or that he was restlessly trying to find his own easiest and best expression amid the many inchoate forms of the drama of the moment, it is perfectly clear that his inborn dramatic gift was slight. Neither dramatic situation nor characterisation interests him strongly. After years of practice, he is not good in plotting. Even where he is at his best in characterisation, in such little touches as the following, he cannot sustain himself at the pitch reached:

  • (Queen Elinor presents her babe to its uncle, Lancaster.)
  • Q. ELINOR. Brother Edmund, here’s a kinsman of yours:
  • You must needs be acquainted.
  • LANCASTER. A goodly boy; God bless him!—
  • Give me your hand, sir:
  • You are welcome into Wales.
  • Q. ELINOR. Brother, there’s a fist, I warrant you, will hold a mace as fast as ever did father or grandfather before him.
  • Uneven in characterisation, loose in construction to the point of recklessness, so extravagant in diction that, at moments, one even suspects burlesque, Peele leaves a critical reader wondering whether he was merely over-hurried and impatient of the work he was doing, or genuinely held it in contempt. Certainly, the chief merit of the fantastic Old Wives Tale is its clever satire on such romantic plays as Common Conditions. Peele, in his play, makes fun of just those qualities in the current drama which Sidney criticised in his Defence of Poesie—the myriad happenings left untraced to any sufficient cause, the confusion caused by this multiplicity of incident, and the lavish use of surprise. The Old Wives Tale confuses the reader as much as any one of the plays which it ridicules; but, when seen, it becomes amusing and, in respect of its satire, a fit predecessor of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. As the first English play of dramatic criticism, it deserves high praise.