George Peele Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many of the facts about George Peele’s life are unknown or uncertain. What little is known is to some extent eclipsed by a highly unreliable biographical source, The Merry Conceited Jests of George Peele (1607), which depicts him as a rascal. Published by an unknown author eleven years after Peele died, the jest book is merely a traditional collection of old pranks and tricks, here ascribed to Peele. Despite the jest book’s apparently fictional nature, biographers have been unable to resist its suggestions, especially in combination with Francis Meres’s statement (in Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, 1598) that Peele died of syphilis: “As Anacreon the poet died by the pot: so George Peele by the pox.” Thus, a tradition has grown up that pictures Peele variously as a wastrel, a street person, and a Bohemian who frequented the White Horse Tavern and caroused with fellow writers and University Wits.

The truth is probably more somber, or at least more sober. Peele spent much of his London childhood in the environs of Christ’s Hospital, a public home for orphans and indigent old people managed by his father, James Peele, a solid middle-class citizen and author of two works on double-entry bookkeeping. Peele attended school at Christ’s Hospital until his midteens, when he entered Christ Church College of Oxford University. Here he proceeded to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 1577 and a master of arts degree in 1579. He also...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

George Peele studied at Oxford University. After leaving the university he wrote for the stage and produced various patriotic occasional poems, of which the best known are Polyhymnia, The Honour of the Garter, and Anglorum Feriae. These poems suggest that he moved in court circles, and the same impression is left by his play The Arraignment of Paris, which was performed before Elizabeth I by the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Assessment of the Peele canon offers many difficulties because some of his works are missing, and the extent of his collaboration with other playwrights is unknown. Peele did improve as a dramatist throughout his career. His latest plays, David and Bethsabe and The Old Wives’ Tale, are generally considered to be his best.

Very little is known about Peele’s life, except that his final days were spent in poverty and sickness. He was evidently very much a public figure in his own day, but although his Oxford education fitted him to be a gentleman, he had difficulty maintaining this social rank. Anecdotes about him abound, and his reputation as a jester survived long after his death. The character George Pieboard (a reference to a baker’s peel or shovel) in the pseudo-Shakespearean comedy The Puritan Widow (1607) doubtless presents him as his contemporaries saw him.

Peele’s dramatic talent was not for depicting character but for spectacle and for the poetic mode. Of his lyrical gifts there can be no doubt, and the songs in his plays have a verbal felicity that is almost Tennysonian. The Arraignment of Paris and The Old Wives’ Tale are successful within their limits precisely because they exist at a gentle and unconstrained pastoral level which allows full scope for lyricism. David and Bethsabe, which draws freely on Samuel and The Song of Solomon, is a notable attempt to present Hebrew pastoral, but the general effect is marred by Peele’s attempts to bring off the more heroic parts of his material in the grand Marlovian manner. There is probably a measure of topical satire in The Old Wives’ Tale, but the merit of the play lies in its deft and impalpable presentation of a tale of magic and spells. It has affinities with Comus (1634), and it is likely that Peele’s work influenced John Milton far more than is generally recognized.