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Updated: Aug 19, 2020

A Portent:

George Peele’s main claim to fame may well be the most energetic of the Elizabethan University wits and perhaps the most versatile (though Christopher Marlowe was more skilled). Whatever their talents, most of the other stuck largely to one style or genre. John Lyly and Robert Greene wrote mostly romantic comedies, for instance, and Thomas Kyd concentrated on tragedy. By contrast, Peele tried his hand in a wide variety of genre, including history, pastoral romance, tragedy, and civic pageant.

Two things Peele had in common with most of his fellow university wits were his short life and appallingly brief literary career. He died at the age of thirty-six, while Thomas Nashe was dead at thirty-four, Kyd at thirty-six, Greene at thirty two, and Marlowe at twenty-nine. Peele’s career as a professional dramatist lasted only about ten years or so. He had barely begun to express his literary powers when death cut him short, and an examination of his surviving plays shows a marked improvement in quality over time. Had he lived another twenty years and continued writing plays, he might have become one of the greatest of English dramatists.

What Peele did manage to do in his short stint in the theater was to help in the ongoing and rapid transformation of English native drama, especially for consumption by public audience. On the one hand, he familiarized these audiences with mythological characters and stories that had long been the subjects mainly of private theatrical productions in the schools and the royal court. Peele also captured the homely, picturesque aspects of English country life without making its characters sound base and illiterate. In fact, he was an excellent poet who, along with Lyly and Marlowe, did much to improve the language of the dramas presented in the theaters and other public venues. Thus, Peele is best seen as one of a group pioneers who paved the way for greater artists such as Shakespeare and Jonson. One of Peele’s modern biographers wrote:

Out of this glorious period, the Golden age of English Literature, emerges…..a writer whose life was as intense, colourful, and turbulent as the era itself. The Elizabethan Age was one of daring discoveries, intrepid explorers, and bold pioneers. George Peele was of that age, that age of pioneers. His life was short and crowded; he traced with a brilliant and fitful light a brief trail across the sky, a portent of much greater things to come.

James Peele and the Civic Pageants:

George Peele was probably born in the parish of St. James Garlickhithe, in London, not far southeast of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral. The register of St. James preserves the record of a baptism of a child named George Peele on July 25, 1556; and though the chance exists that he was not the dramatists, most modern scholars accept that he was.

His father, James Peele, was a Londoner who served as chief administrator for Christ’s Hospital, which adjoined Christ’s Church, an important Elizabethan landmark. The elder Peele kept the hospital’s records and did his best to look after his family, which included his first wife, Anne, and at least five other children besides George. The family dwelled in modest quarters nestled on the church grounds.

In his spare time, James Peele also dabbled in writing a popular form of entertainment of his era, the civic pageant. He must have passed on his enthusiasm for these presentations to his son, for the younger Peele later composed some of the finest examples of the genre. The civic pageants were not formal plays with structured plots, character development, and so on. They were instead brief outdoor displays of pomp and ceremony intended to celebrate important civic events, especially the inauguration of the lord mayor of London. The new mayor, along with other dignitaries, town officials, soldiers, musicians, and various colorfully costumed entertainers, took part in a gala parade through the city’s street. Scholars Leonard Ashley describes one that took place in 1553:

Two tall men led the way, bearing great streamers emblazoned with [the coat of] arms [of the new mayor’s family]. Then came [men dressed] in blue silk playing a drum, a flute, and a fife, followed by two woodmen in green. . . . wearing shields on their backs, carrying clubs and burning fire-works. . . . These woodmen. . . . . were standards for all pageants. After the woodmen marched six-teen trumpeters blowing lustily, then seventy men in blue gowns, caps and hose, each with a shield and javelin. [Then came the musicians], the lord mayor himself, with two henchmen [bodyguards], and finally the aldermen and sheriffs.

At some point, the procession stopped for a short while and watched a pageant presented atop a wooden platform erected on a wagon. Some of the entertainers posed or performed mimes, while others presented speeches congratulating and flattering the new mayor and singing the praises of London and England. James Peele became proficient at writing these speeches, as George Peele did later.

Education and Career Path:

It is not likely, however, that as a boy George Peele actually aspired to write either pageants or plays for a living. Neither of these were considered legitimate literature at the time, nor did they pay very well. The career path that he and his father mapped out for him is unknown, but a brief review of the young man’s education offers some clues. The primary schools George Peele attended were all in the Christ’s Church complex. From age nine to fourteen, he studied in the “upper school” under a stern headmaster, Ralph Waddington, who emphasized religious instruction as well as Latin and Greek.

Waddington’s goal was to prepare his male students for higher studies at Oxford. And he succeeded in the case of Peele, who left London for Oxford in March 1571. That university consisted of a number of smaller colleges, each of which specialized in one or two areas of study. Peele eventually entered Chirst Church College, the largest of the Oxford subdivisions. The stress there on theology and moral philosophy was strong, and a good many of the graduated went on to become clergymen; so it is entirely possible that he started out with that goal.

Yet Peele did not go on to a life in the Church, and in fact ended up in the theater, a profession that most churchmen viewed as cheap and disreputable. This might be attributable to two factors. First, like so many other young men at Oxford, Peele had some involvement with play presentation. One of his kinsmen, William Gager, who wrote plays in Latin for private productions, later recalled that Peele translated one of the works of the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. Then, after graduation, Peele returned to Oxford to help Gager stage some plays in honor of the visit of a Polish nobleman; Peele apparently supervised the costumes, scenery, and fireworks and other special effects. It may be, therefore, that the young man eventually decided on a career in the theater because he had come to love putting on plays.

The other factors that may have contributed to Peele’s choice of the theater over the clergy was his propensity for “having a good time.” When he reached Oxford, he found himself drawn into the ranks of the more undisciplined element common to college life in all ages, in this case those pleasure-seeking young men who spent more time partying and cavorting at local taverns than studying. Somehow, he did manage to complete his courses and graduate; but the fast-living, somewhat scandalous atmosphere of the London theatre scene may have appeared increasingly attractive to him.

This does not mean that Peele was a ne’er-do-well who did not take the idea of earning a living seriously; in fact, all available evidence suggest that he, like Lyly, Greene, Nashe, and many other young playwrights of that era, was a hard worker who struggled to support himself and his family. (He married a sixteen-year-old girl, Anne Cooke, in 1580, and they subsequently had at least two daughters.) Though over time Peele gained a particularly bad reputation as a playboy and lowlife character, most modern scholars remain unconvinced. ‘There is no proof whatever,” says Ashley, “that Peele was anymore sensual or violent than his age, any more unrestrained than the average Elizabethan or more bohemian than the average writer”.

Flattery for the Queen:

In fact, Peele wasted little time in attempting to make a living in the London theater. Sometime in the early 1580s he wrote The Arrangement of Paris, which was performed at the royal court in front of the Queen. It is the earliest surviving example of a pastoral play, that is, one that takes place in a rural setting and idealizes the pleasures of country life. It is also the first play about ancient mythology in English (rather than Latin), a bold attempt to bring lofty literary themes to the popular stage.

The play’s story is based loosely on the famous myth usually called “The Judgement of Paris.” Paris, a prince of the ancient city of Troy, is tending his flocks on the pastoral slopes of Mt. Ida, when he is called on to choose which of three goddesses, Juno, Minerva, or Venus is the fairest. He chooses Venus, which angers the others two. In Peele’s version, Juno and Minerva arraign Paris (take him to court, here one presided over by the gods), accusing him of bias, and the court eventually defers the case to another goddess, Diana. She prudently refrains from judging among the three divine contestants, awarding the prize instead to a minor goddess, Eliza, who rules a distant, admirable kingdom.“She gives laws of justice and of peace,” Diana declares,

And on her head, as fits her fortune best, she wears a wreath of laurel, gold, and palm; her robes of purple and scarlet dye; her veil of white, as best befits a maid . . . . . This peerless nymph [nature goddess], whom heaven and earth love. . . . . this is she in whom do meet so many gifts in one, on whom our country gods so often gaze”

Eliza and her kingdom are clearly not in the original myth, but rather additions representing Queen Elizabeth and her England. Like so many other London playwrights, Peele hoped to advance himself by flattering the Queen.

A Diverse Theatrical Corpus:

If this device was an attempt to gain Peele a position as a court dramatist, it failed. No other invitations to perform at court materialized, and he thereafter concentrated on turning out material for the public stages. Another play based on mythology, The Hunting of Cupid, soon followed; unfortunately only a few fragments of it survive. Then came several plays that have survived complete: The Battle of Alcazar (ca.1588), The Old Wives’ Tale (ca.1589), Edward I (ca.1590-1593), and The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (published in 1599 but written at an unknown earlier date).

One is immediately struck by the wide variety of themes and genres of these works.Paris and Cupid were lightweight pastoral romances; Alcazar a tragedy about swashbuklers in wartime; Wives’ Tale a comic fairy tale; Edward a historical drama; and David and Bethsabe a biblical drama, in fact the only Elizabethan play based solely on the Bible. In writing these plays, Peele showed a creative versatility and flexibility matched by few other playwrights of the period.

Performances of the works in this diverse theatrical corpus also infused the public theatres with poetic verses of unusual quality and beauty. Peele’s dramatic poetry reached its height of beauty and effectiveness in David and Bethsabe, which one nineteenth-century English critic called “the earliest fountain of pathos and harmony that can be traced in our dramatic poetry.” Both actors and audiences must have been delighted in the dreamy words of love spoken by David.

Commemorative Poems and Pageants:

Peele also utilized his abilities as a poet to make extra money outside the professional theater. Among the poems he composed for ceremonial and commemorative occasions were A Congratulatory Eclogue, The Honor of the Garter, and The Praise of Chastity. In at least one case, such verse were motivated as much by Peel’s deep sense of patriotism as the need for cash. In 1588, Spain launched its mighty Armada, which the English forces defeated. In retaliation, in April 1589 Elizabeth sent the so-called counter-Armada, a fleet of some 150 ships, to capture the rich Azores island group and overthrow the Spanish King. To commemorate the launch, Peele penned the seventy-six-line A Farewell to Norris and Drake, honoring the expedition’s two leaders in the title. In a note accompanying the poem, Peele wrote:

Your virtues famed by your fortunes, and fortunes renowned by your virtues. . . . Together with the admiration the world has worthily conceived of your worthiness, have at this time encouraged me . . . . to send my short farewell to our English forces. . . .[I dedicate this poem to them] beseeching God mercifully and miraculously. . . . to defend fair England, that her soldiers may in their departure be fortunate, and in their return triumphant.

Though written in prose, the letter displays the obvious hand of a poet in its frequent examples of alliteration: famed/fortunes, world/worthily, farewell/forces, and mercifully/miraculously.

Still another way Peele applied his poetic talents was in writing speeches for the same London lord mayor’s pageants his father had. For the inauguration of Sir Wolstan Dixi, on October 29, 1585, George Peele supplied The Device of the Pageant Borne Before Wolstan Dixi, Lord Mayor of the City of London.The opening speech of the work, the earliest surviving complete text of a lord mayor’s pageant begins with a song of praise for the city itself. Here, Peele’s sense of patriotism shines through: Lo lovely London rich and fortunate, famed through the World for peace and happiness, is here advanced and set in Highest seat.” The speaker goes on to thank God and to praise Queen Elizabeth. Then several children, assuming the roles of London, the Thames, Loyalty, the Soldier, the Sailor, Science, and others give speeches. (in an actual performance, they stood on the pageant wagon, a sort of float, accompanied by costumed clowns, devils, and other characters, as well as fireworks display.)

A Rapid and Fatal Decline:

It is unknown what Peele earned each year from his dramatic and poetic endeavors. Whatever it was, it evidently was not enough to make ends meet, for he fell increasingly into debt in the early 1590s. Making matter worse, he seems to have endured some kind of chronic illness that sapped his strength. On January 17, 1595, he wrote a letter begging for aid from Lord Burleigh, the same nobleman whom Lyly had asked for help in getting a position at Oxford. He hoped that Burleigh would buy it, affording him some ready cash. But for his own reasons, the lord ignored the plea. After this rebuke, Peele’s decline was rapid and fatal. A London church register recorded his death less than two years later on November 9, 1596.

Fortunately foe Peele, the passage of several centuries and some serious evaluation of his plays have been kinder to him; today, people judge him for his talents rather than for how he may have lived his life. And he is now rightfully seen as one of the innovative popular dramatists from whom the master Shakespeare learned his craft.


Great Elizabethan Playwrights by Don Nardo

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