Peele, George (DNB00)
|←Peel, William||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44
PEELE, GEORGE (1558?–1597?), dramatist, born about 1558, belonged to a family supposed to have been of Devonshire origin. His father, James Peele, was a citizen and salter of London, and for many years held the office of clerk of Christ's Hospital (cf. State Papers, Dom. Eliz. Addenda, xxiii. 28). At the same time he taught and wrote on book-keeping, and it is claimed for him that he was the first to introduce the Italian system into this country. But it is improbable that he had a knowledge of Italian. His earliest publication was ‘The maner and fourme how to kepe a perfecte reconyng, after the order of the moste worthie and notable accompte, of Debitour and Creditour, set Foorthe in certain tables, with a declaracion thereunto belongyng, verie easie to be learned, and also profitable not onely vnto suche that trade in the facte of Marchaundise, but also vnto any other estate, that will learned the same,’ London, 1553, dedicated to Sir William Denzell, knt., treasurer of the queen's majesty's wards, and governor of the company of Merchant Adventurers. Sixteen years later Peele republished the work, enlarged fourfold, as ‘The Pathewaye to perfectnes in th' accomptes of Debitour and Creditour: in manner of a Dialogue, very pleasaunte and proffitable for Marchauntes and all other that minde to frequente the same: once agayne set forth and very much enlarged,’ London, 16 Aug. 1569. Both editions are in the British Museum.
George was a ‘free scholar’ at Christ's Hospital at all events from 1565 to 1570 (Bullen, pp. xiii–xiv). In March 1571 he entered at Broadgates Hall, now Pembroke College, Oxford; but from 1574 to 1579 he was a member of Christ Church, whence he graduated B.A. 1577, and M.A. 1579. Wood states that at the university Peele was esteemed a noted poet, and it is supposed that while at Oxford he wrote his ‘Tale of Troy,’ which he described in the first impression of 1589 as ‘an old poem of mine own.’ During his residence in the university he also translated one of the Euripidean ‘Iphigenias.’ The performance of this tragedy was celebrated in two Latin poems by Dr. William Gager [q. v.] of Christ Church; and in one of these the writer alludes to the social gaieties, together with the academical successes, of Peele's Oxford career.
The gaieties Peele appears to have continued after leaving Oxford for London; for on 19 Sept. 1579 the governors of Christ's Hospital, who had contributed 5l. to his B.A. fees, bound over his father to ‘discharge his house’ before Michaelmas ‘of his son George Peele, and all other his household’ (including apparently a younger son James) ‘which have been chargeable to him’ (court-book entries, ap. Bullen, p. xv).
Turned out of the precincts of the hospital, Peele seems to have embarked on a career of work and dissipation. He returned to Oxford in June 1583 to aid in the production of Gager's comedy ‘Rivales’ and tragedy ‘Dido.’ He was then married and had acquired some land in his wife's right, but had not otherwise attained respectability. His earliest known play, ‘The Arraignment of Paris,’ was, as Mr. Fleay shows, acted before 1584, and, in all probability, early in 1581. His first pageant bears date 1585.
There seems sufficient proof that he was a successful player as well as a playwright. Fleay (English Drama, ii. 154) concludes that Peele left the lord admiral's company of players (Henslowe) and joined the queen's men in 1589 (the document representing him as in that year a sharer in the Blackfriars Theatre is discredited). In the ‘Jests’ (v. infra) he is said to have announced a theatrical performance at Bristol; but he may not have meant to take part in it himself. In a supplementary ‘Jest’ he and John Singer [q. v.], a well-known actor, are said to have ‘ofttimes’ played at Cambridge; but this anecdote dates from the time of Charles I. He doubtless added to his income by addressing for payment literary tributes to private patrons. Verses of his in praise of Thomas Watson appeared in 1582 with that poet's ‘Ekatompathia’ (Bullen, ii. 359). The Earl of Northumberland, the ‘Mæcenas’ of the ‘Honour of the Garter,’ seems to have presented him with a fee of 3l.
Peele's wanton mode of life involved him in endless anxieties. He may indeed be held innocent of part, or possibly of the whole, of the discreditable escapades detailed in the ‘Merry conceited Jests of George Peele, sometime a Student in Oxford,’ which was entered in the ‘Stationers' Registers’ in 1605, and of which the earliest known edition appeared in 1607, nine years or more after his death. The only extant copy is in the library of Mr. W. Christie-Miller of Britwell Court, Buckinghamshire. Later editions were issued about 1620, and in 1627, 1657, and 1671. Like other publications of the sort, this is largely a réchauffé of earlier collections of facetiæ (the edition of 1627 is reprinted by Dyce, and by Mr. Bullen, vol. ii.). But suspiciously personal touches occur occasionally. He states that he resided on the Bankside, and describes his voice as ‘more woman than man;’ and mention is made of his wife and of a ten-year-old daughter. One of ‘Peele's Jests’ was dramatised in the comedy of the ‘Puritan, or the Widow of Watling Street,’ 1607, ludicrously misattributed to Shakespeare; the hero, George Pyeboard, is supposed to be Peele (‘peel’ = a baker's board for shoving pies in and out of the oven). Collier and Fleay conjecture that Peele was also portrayed as the ‘humorous George’ of the prologue to ‘Wily Beguiled’ (first known to have been printed in 1606, but probably of much earlier date in its original version).
Robert Greene appealed at the close of his ‘Groatsworth of Wit’ to Peele as one driven, like the writer himself, ‘to extreme shifts’ to avoid a life of vice. In Dekker's tract, ‘A Knight's Conjuring,’ 1607, he is represented as a boon companion of Marlowe and Greene. Peele paid a beautiful tribute to the dead Marlowe in the ‘Honour of the Garter’ (ll. 60–3); and Nash eulogised Peele as ‘the chief supporter of pleasance now living, the Atlas of poetry, and primus verborum artifex’ (‘Address’ prefixed to Greene's Menaphon, 1587). Peele took no prominent part in the many controversies in which his associates were engaged; although in the ‘Old Wives' Tale’ he cites in ridicule a hexameter from the poem of Gabriel Harvey [q. v.], which was satirised by Nash in the course of his fierce contest with Harvey [see Nash, Thomas, 1567–1601].
In May 1591, when Queen Elizabeth visited Lord Burghley's seat of Theobalds, Peele was employed to compose certain speeches addressed to the queen which deftly excused the absence of the master of the house. In January 1596 he sent his ‘Tale of Troy’ to the great lord treasurer through a ‘simple messenger,’ ‘his eldest daughter, necessity's servant.’ His lyrics were popular in literary circles, and were included in the chief anthologies of the day (‘The Phœnix Nest,’ 1593; ‘England's Helicon’ and ‘England's Parnassus,’ 1600; ‘Belvidera, or the Garden of the Muses,’ 1610). The date of his death is unknown. In 1598 Francis Meres, in his ‘Palladis Tamia, Wit's Treasury,’ mentions him as having died of a loathsome disease. Samuel Rowlands, in his lines on ‘The Letting of Humour's Blood in the Head-vein,’ 1600, on the virtues of charnico, seems to allude to his death, as well as to the deaths of Greene and Marlowe (see Warton, Hist. of English Poetry, ed. W. C. Hazlitt, 1871, iv. 418. A forged letter, dated 1600, from Peele to Marlowe, cited by Dyce, p. 327 n., was first printed in Berkenhout, Biogr. Lit. p. 404).
Peele's works fall under the three divisions of (i) plays, (ii) pageants, and (iii) ‘gratulatory’ and miscellaneous verse.
I. Plays.—1. ‘The Arraignment of Paris’ was presented to the queen by the chapel children, probably in 1581 (see Fleay, English Drama, i. 152), and certainly before 1584, when it was anonymously printed. Copies are in the British Museum and in the Capell collection at Trinity College, Cambridge. Peele's authorship is attested by Nash. The idea of this piece—the trial by Diana, with whom Queen Elizabeth is easily identified, of Paris for error of judgment in giving the apple to Venus—was apparently original, though possibly the nucleus may be traceable to Gascoigne (see F. E. Schelling in Modern Language Notes, Baltimore, April 1893). Malone conjectures that Spenser is the Colin of this play, and that Spenser retorted upon Peele under the name of Palin in ‘Colin Clout's Come Home Again’ (ll. 392–3). Peele's diction is fearlessly affected, and the versification various and versatile. There is little blank verse, as compared with the rhymed lines. Some of the lyrics became popular, and one of them (‘Fair and Fair,’ &c.) is singled out for eulogy by Charles Lamb. 2. ‘The Famous Chronicle of King Edward I, surnamed Edward Longshanks,’ &c., &c., printed 1593, may have been acted two or three years earlier (the arguments of Fleay, English Drama, ii. 157, are not strong). This production—a chronicle history—marks a phase of the transition from the historical morality of the type of Bale's ‘Kynge Johan’ to the national historical tragedy of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Peele's play, although in its spirited opening and elsewhere it is dramatically effective and displays its author's classical and Italian reading, possesses little poetical merit. Its farcical scenes are calculated to make the judicious grieve; and its more serious portion, mostly adapted from Holinshed, recklessly embodies lying scandal about the good Queen Eleanor, ‘assimilated’ by Peele from a ballad (for which see Dyce, pp. 373–4) launched in the later Tudor spirit against a princess of Castilian birth. Copies of the first edition are in the British Museum, Bodleian Library, and the collection of Mr. Locker-Lampson at Rowfant. The second edition was issued in 1599, and is to be found in the British Museum, and in the libraries of Mr. Huth and Mr. Locker-Lampson. 3. ‘The Battle of Alcazar,’ printed in 1594, was in all probability acted before the spring of 1589 (cf. Peele, Farewell, &c.) It was assigned to Peele in ‘England's Parnassus’ (1600), and the internal evidence is conclusive (see Dyce and Læmmerhirt). ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ is the play mentioned by Henslowe as ‘Muly Mulocco,’ the name of one of its characters, on 29 Feb. 1592, and later (Diary, ed. Collier, p. 21, et al.). The conduct of its action is vigorous, and it has flights of exuberantly virile rhetoric which fit it for comparison with Marlowe's ‘Tamberlaine.’ But the play is more clumsily constructed. A presenter introduces each act, and there is a series of dumb-shows (cf. Dr. Brinsley Nicholson's note, ap. Bullen, i. 211 sqq.). Copies of this, the least rare of Peele's dramatic works, are in the British Museum, and at Britwell, Rowfant, and elsewhere. 4. ‘The Old Wives' Tale,’ printed in 1595, is held by Fleay (English Drama, ii. 154–5) to have been acted five years earlier, by way of a retort to Gabriel Harvey's attack upon Lyly. The latter, dated 5 Nov. 1589, was not published till 1593. The theory appears to rest on the very slender fact that one hexameter is quoted in the play from Harvey's ‘Encomium Lauri’ in his ‘Three Proper and Familiar Letters’ (1580). This romantic interlude, or farce, is pervaded, more particularly in its induction, by an irresistible flood of high spirits, which, on the stage as elsewhere, covers a multitude of nonsense. The plot was indebted to Ariosto, as well as probably directly to Apuleius, and other classical sources. In its turn it conveyed suggestions to Milton (whose acquaintance with Peele's writings probably also included ‘Edward I’) when transfusing the materials for ‘Comus.’ The only copies known are in the British Museum and at Bridgwater House. 5. ‘The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe, with the Tragedy of Absalon,’ was not printed till 1599. Copies are in the British Museum, at Britwell and Rowfant, and in the Huth collection. The date of its composition remains uncertain, although Fleay (English Drama, ii. 153–4) considers it an allegory of the state of affairs which led to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. It appears to have been reproduced in 1602 (Henslowe, Diary, p. 241; cf. Fleay, u.s.) In construction it is of the chronicle history type. Its original text is the Old Testament, to which Peele is supposed to have resorted in order to disarm the existing prejudices against stage-plays. Possibly he made use of some unknown mystery or early religious play. The diction is generally pleasing, and the verse, if rather monotonous, is fluent, and rises to impressiveness in a few florid passages. The piece lacks dramatic characterisation and effect.
Besides the above, Peele wrote: 6. ‘The Hunting of Cupid,’ a lost pastoral drama licensed 26 July 1591 (see Arber, Stationers' Registers, ii. 278), which, from a manuscript statement by Drummond of Hawthornden, seen by Dyce, appears to have been printed before 1607 (see the fragments chiefly lyrical, put together by Dyce, pp. 603–4).
He has further been credited on inadequate evidence with the authorship of ‘Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes,’ 1599. The external evidence—a manuscript note in a very old hand on the title-page of a copy of this play—is trifling. The list of parallel phrases (rather than parallel passages) in plays certainly by Peele compiled by Læmmerhirt is unconvincing; and, on the whole, Fleay and Bullen (Symonds declines to offer an opinion) may be followed in their refusal to burden Peele's reputation with the authorship. Peele has also been credited with ‘The Life and Death of Jack Strawe,’ 1593, portions of the ‘First and Second Parts of Henry VI,’ ‘The Troublesome Reign of King John’ (printed in 1591), ‘The Wisdom of Doctor Doddipoll’ (printed in 1600), and ‘Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany’ (published as Chapman's in 1654). In ‘Wily Beguiled,’ first known to have been printed in 1606, he may possibly have had a hand.
II. Pageants, &c.—1. ‘The Device of the Pageant borne before Woolston Dixie, Mayor [of London], 29 October 1585’; printed in 1585. The only copy known is in the Bodleian Library. This is the first lord mayor's pageant of which a printed text is known to exist (see Fairholt, Lord Mayors' Pageants, Percy Society's publ. 1843, pt. i. pp. 24–6). 2. ‘Descensus Astrææ,’ written for the mayoral solemnity of Sir William Webbe, 29 Oct. 1591. While Astræa is the queen, Superstition appears as a friar, and Ignorance as a monk (ib. pp. 27–9). The only copy known is in the Guildhall Library. 3. ‘Speeches to Queen Elizabeth at Theobalds,’ composed for an entertainment devised for the queen's visit in 1591 to Lord Burghley's country seat. Of the three ‘Speeches,’ the first was in part printed by Collier in his ‘History of English Dramatic Poetry,’ 1831 (see new edit. 1879, i. 275–6); the second and third afterwards came into his hands, and were printed by Dyce, and afterwards by Mr. Bullen.
III. Miscellaneous Writings.—1. ‘A Farewell, &c., to Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake, Knights, and all their brave and resolute Followers,’ 1589, in spirited blank verse. The only copies known are in the British Museum and at Britwell. 2. ‘The Beginnings, Accidents, and End of the Fall of Troy.’ This piece was first published with the ‘Farewell’ in 1589. An edition, printed apparently from a revised copy, appeared in 1604 as a thumb-book, measuring 11/4 inch by 1 inch, and having two lines only on a page. A copy, believed to be unique, was sold by Messrs. Sotheby & Co. in 1884. The reference in this short and commonplace epical version, in rhymed couplets, of the Trojan story to the episode of Troilus and Cressida may conceivably have suggested to Shakespeare a full dramatic treatment of the theme (1609). 3. ‘An Eclogue Gratulatory, entitled: “To the Right Honourable and Renowned Shepherd of Albion's Arcadia, Robert, Earl of Essex, for his Welcome into England from Portugal,”’ 1589; a ‘pastoral’ in rhymed quatrains—as full of archaisms as is the ‘Shepherds' Calendar.’ The only copy known is now in the Bodleian Library. 4. ‘Polyhymnia; describing the immediate Triumph at Tilt before Her Majesty on the 17th of November last past, &c.; with Sir Henry Lea's Resignation of Honour at Tilt to Her Majesty, and received by the Right Hon. the Earl of Cumberland,’ 1590, in flowing blank verse. An account of the proceedings celebrated is in Segar's ‘Honour, Military and Civil,’ 1602. 5. ‘The Honour of the Garter, displayed in a Poem Gratulatory, entitled: “To the worthy and renowned Earl of Northumberland,”’ 1593. This, the most elaborate of Peele's non-dramatic productions, was written (in blank verse) to commemorate the installation as knights of the Garter of several noblemen and gentlemen, including Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland [q. v.] The poem introduces the well-known legend as to the foundation of the order. Copies are in the British Museum, Bodleian Library, and Dyce collection, and at Britwell. 6. ‘Anglorum Feriæ, England's Holidays, celebrated the 17th of November last,’ 1595, was first printed in 1830 from a manuscript now in the British Museum. It celebrates in blank verse the appearance of a noble company at tilt, in honour of the birthday of the queen.
Besides the above, Peele wrote lines to Thomas Watson (1582) and the ‘Praise of Chastity’ (in ‘The Phœnix Nest,’ 1593), and has been ‘credited’ with ‘A Merry Ballet of the Hawthorn-tree,’ first printed in Ritson's ‘Ancient Songs,’ 1790, from a manuscript in the Cottonian Library, signed ‘G. Peele,’ in a much more modern hand than that of the ballad (Dyce). Collected editions of Peele's works were edited by Dyce in 1829–39, and by Mr. A. H. Bullen in 1888.
Peele is one of the most prominent figures among those of Shakespeare's ‘predecessors’ and earlier contemporaries. In his manipulation of his own language for metrical purposes he was skilful, and now and then wonderfully successful. His blank verse, usually fluent though monotonous, rises here and there to grandeur and force; and scattered through his plays and pastorals are more than one lyric of imperishable charm. His text is so largely corrupt as to make generalisations unsafe, but he seems hardly to have mastered the management of rhyme. In constructive power as a dramatist he was, as far as the plays to be with certainty ascribed to him are concerned, consistently deficient; and he ‘exercised far less influence over the development of our drama than either Lyly or Greene, not to mention Marlowe’ (Symonds, Shakspere's Predecessors, p. 564). Yet his fancy was quick and versatile, and his dramatic writings derived their effectiveness, not only from the varied brilliancy of his imagery, but also from the occasional strength of his feeling, which readily reflected the popular and patriotic sentiment of his age (see The Battle of Alcazar, A Farewell, &c.). The growth of his powers had been stimulated by a university training, and his works abound in classical allusions; but he was not often markedly felicitous in his employment of them. He had, for better or worse, imbibed something, too, of the spirit of his Italian sources. His method of literary workmanship was assimilative, and he subsequently served at times the purposes of the greatest of literary assimilators, Milton.[Dyce's Account of George Peele and his Writings, in the Dramatic and Poetical Works of Robert Greene and George Peele (1861, Dyce's first edition of Peele's Works, with Life, was published in 3 vols. in 1829–39); Mr. A. H. Bullen's Works of George Peele, 2 vols. 1888, introduction; Fleay's Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1891, ii. 150–162; Symonds's Shakspere's Predecessors in the English Drama, 1884, pp. 537 seqq.; Collier's History of English Dramatic Poetry, 3 vols. (new edit. 1879); Ward's History of English Dramatic Literature (1875), i. 203–13; Læmmerhirt's George Peele, Untersuchungen über sein Leben und seine Werke (Rostock, 1882).]