Although often mentioned as one of the earlier Elizabethan plays, The Old Wives’ Tale has not had a very distinguished critical or theatrical history. It was largely ignored in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while nineteenth century critics did little more than compare it contemptuously to John Milton’s Comus (1637), for which it was probably a partial source. The twentieth century gave the play a more favorable critical reading, but theatrical revivals beyond occasional amateur performances have been lacking.
The Old Wives’ Tale was a highly innovative play when first written, and the passage of more than four hundred years has made it no less uncommon. First, it is a play with a frame; the main action is a play within the play. Unlike in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594, pb. 1623), which also uses a frame, in George Peele’s play the characters remain on stage and comment from time to time on the action. The result is an unusual intimacy, and at the same time a certain aesthetic distance from the action. A closer and more useful comparison can be made with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), in which there is a play within the play, in this case with an audience that comments on the action. In Shakespeare’s play, however, the audience is courtly and can only laugh at the foolish efforts of the “bumpkin” actors to dramatize the story of Pyramis and Thisbe, or at best sympathize with their good intentions. The audience sees the action largely as the court party does. In The Old Wives’ Tale, however, the audience is drawn into the fantastic fairy-tale world of the story.
The old wife who tells the story and her husband are presented as crude rustics, but their speech is not made comic, as is usually the case with Elizabethan rustic characters, and the parental attitude they take toward the three pages the husband has found lost in the woods is accepted by the young men. The pages belong to a more educated class than their hosts, but their age acts as a bridge for the audience. They are close enough to childhood to make the audience accept their uncritical interest in a fairy story, and yet educated and adult enough that their acceptance leads the audience to...
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