George Peele was an inveterate experimenter in verse form, types of drama, and subject matter. His five extant plays are extremely diverse: The Arraignment of Paris is a mythological pastoral with touches of a court masque; The Battle of Alcazar is a historical melodrama with a revenge motif; Edward I is a historical chronicle with elements of romantic comedy; The Old Wives’ Tale is a folklore play; and David and Bethsabe is a biblical tragedy. Some of these plays are imitative, combining the influences of other writers, but the last two in particular show Peele breaking new ground. Their diversity is a tribute to Peele’s academic background, which gave him the learning to range widely. At the same time, an academic stiffness permeates his work, again less so in the last two plays. The diversity and experimentation that characterize his work suggest that Peele was only completing his apprenticeship and reaching his stride as a dramatist when he died at the age of forty.
Except for The Old Wives’ Tale, all of Peele’s extant plays are concerned with politics, in particular the behavior of rulers. This interest is consistent with Peele’s work in other genres, his pageants for the Lord Mayor and his occasional poems celebrating patriotic or court events. Apparently Peele identified closely with the Elizabethan political order, possibly because he saw himself playing an important role in it. To some extent, too, he was on a political bandwagon: Like all the English, he was stirred by the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the prevailing patriotic fervor accounts for his chauvinism and his anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish sentiments. Like other playwrights of the time, he no doubt was also happy with the stability under Elizabeth I and concerned about the uncertain succession after her death. Therefore, he wrote plays that examined the behavior of rulers and subjects and offered implicit advice to both. Even The Old Wives’ Tale cannot entirely be exempted here, since its general admonitions about charitable behavior certainly apply to the political context.
The Arraignment of Paris
Peele’s three earliest extant plays, awkward apprentice efforts for the greater part, all take up the behavior of rulers. Of the three plays, The Arraignment of Paris is the least clearly political and also the best written. A veritable anthology of verse forms—fourteeners, heroic couplets, blank verse, and assorted songs—The Arraignment of Paris, as befits a pastoral, maintains a leisurely pace and a light touch, except for a brokenhearted nymph and the death of a lovesick shepherd. The tyranny of lovers in the play is paralleled by the tyranny of the gods, as the Trojan shepherd Paris discovers when he has to judge a beauty contest among three goddesses, Juno, Pallas, and Venus. Paris awards the prize, a golden ball, to Venus, and in consequence Juno and Pallas arraign him before a court of the gods for “indifference.” The other gods treat the golden ball like the hot potato it is, and they skirt their difficulty by setting Paris free and getting Diana, the virgin goddess, to rejudge the contest. Diana neatly solves the problem by turning to the audience and handing the symbolic prize to Elizabeth I:
In state Queen Juno’s peer, for power in arms,And virtues of the mind Minerva’s mate:As fair and lovely as the queen of love:As chaste as Diana in her chaste desires.
Peele’s message is clear: The English have a good queen, one not prone to the capricious and irresponsible behavior of mere gods.
The Battle of Alcazar
If Elizabeth I epitomizes the good ruler who “gives laws of justice and of peace,” The Battle of Alcazar displays a variety of bad rulers. The worst of them is Muly Mahamet, the Moorish usurper of Barbary who slaughters his own uncle and brothers so that his son may succeed him. One uncle, Abdelmelec, survives and, returning to claim his rightful throne, unseats Muly Mahamet. Crying revenge, Muly Mahamet goes to Sebastian, the young king of Portugal, to ask for help, and Sebastian is rash enough to offer it. For the expedition, Sebastian gets an offer of collaboration from Philip, the Spanish king, but at the last moment, the conniving Spanish king reneges. With his modest force, Sebastian goes off to Barbary, there to die on the desert battlefield of Alcazar, along with Abdelmelec, Muly Mahamet, and most of both armies. Significantly, Sebastian is killed by his own soldiers for leading them into disaster. Suffering the same fate at the hands of his Italian mercenaries is the English adventurer Tom Stukley, sidetracked on his way to becoming the Catholic king of Ireland. In case the audience misses the point, each act is preceded by a choruslike “presenter” and a grisly dumb show—for example, “To them enter Death and three Furies, one with blood, one with dead men’s heads in dishes, another with dead men’s bones.” Thus, in The Battle of Alcazar, Peele not only shows how blessed the English are in their ruler but also indulges in some typically vehement anti-Catholic propaganda.
The blank verse of The Battle of Alcazar is full of rant, but the language in Edward I, mostly a mixture of blank verse and prose, is considerably better. Edward I also provides relief from the wars with some pleasant scenes of comedy, romance, and Welsh rebels playing Robin Hood. The inconsistency of mood, however, causes the long play to fall apart, especially the twist into domestic tragedy at the end. There is also inconsistency of character; it is...
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