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Peele was christened on 25 July 1556 at St James Garlickhythe in the City of London. His father, who appears to have belonged to a Devonshire family, was clerk of Christ's Hospital, and wrote two treatises on bookkeeping. Peele was educated at Christ's Hospital, and entered Broadgates Hall, Oxford, in 1571. In 1574 he removed to Christ Church, taking his B.A. degree in 1577, and proceeding M.A. in 1579. In that year, the governors of Christ's Hospital requested their clerk to "discharge his house of his son, George Peele." He went up to London about 1580, but in 1583 when Albertus Alasco (Albert Laski), a Polish nobleman, was entertained at Christ Church, Peele was entrusted with the arrangement of two Latin plays by William Gager (fl. 1580-1619) presented on the occasion.
He was also complimented by Gager for an English verse translation of one of the Iphigenias of Euripides. In 1585 he was employed to write the Device of the Pageant borne before Woolston Dixie, and in 1591 he devised the pageant in honour of another Lord Mayor, Sir William Webbe. This was the Descensus Astraeae (printed in the Harleian Miscellany, 1808), in which Queen Elizabeth is honoured as Astraea.
Peele had married as early as 1583 a lady who brought him some property, which he speedily dissipated. Robert Greene, at the end of his pamphlet Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit, exhorts Peele to repentance, saying that he has, like himself, "been driven to extreme shifts for a living." Anecdotes of his reckless life were emphasized by the use of his name in connection with the apocryphal Merrie conceited Jests of George Peele (printed in 1607). Many of the stories had circulated before in other jestbooks, unattached to Peele's name, but there are personal touches that may be biographical. The book provided source material for the play The Puritan, one of the works of the Shakespeare Apocrypha.
Peele died "of the pox," according to Francis Meres, and was buried on 9 November 1596. One of the eight boarding houses at the Horsham campus is now named Peele after George Peele and as a commemoration to the work of the Peele family with the ancient foundation of the Christ's Hospital school.
His pastoral comedy The Arraignment of Paris was presented by the Children of the Chapel Royal before Queen Elizabeth perhaps as early as 1581, and was printed anonymously in 1584. In the play, Paris is arraigned before Jupiter for having assigned the apple to Venus. Diana, with whom the final decision rests, gives the apple to none of the competitors but to a nymph called Eliza, a reference to Queen Elizabeth I.
His play Edward I was printed in 1593. This chronicle history is an advance on the old chronicle plays, and marks a step towards the Shakespearean historical drama. Peele is said by some scholars[who?] to have written or contributed to the bloody tragedy Titus Andronicus, which was published as the work of Shakespeare. This theory is in part due to Peele's predilection for gore, as evidenced in The Battle of Alcazar (acted 1588-1589, printed 1594), published anonymously, which is attributed with much probability to him. The Old Wives' Tale (printed 1595) was followed by The Love of King David and fair Bethsabe (written ca. 1588, printed 1599), which is notable as an example of Elizabethan drama drawn entirely from Scriptural sources. F. G. Fleay sees in it a political satire, and identifies Elizabeth and Leicester as David and Bathsheba, Mary, Queen of Scots as Absalom.
Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes (printed 1599) has been attributed to Peele, but on insufficient grounds. Other plays attributed to Peele include Jack Straw (ca. 1587), The Wisdom of Dr. Doddypoll (printed 1600), The Maid's Metamorphosis (printed 1600), and Wily Beguiled (printed 1606) — though the scholarly consensus has judged these attributions to be insufficiently supported by evidence. Indeed, individual scholars have repeatedly resorted to Peele in their attempts to grapple with Elizabethan plays of uncertain authorship. Plays that have been assigned to (or blamed on) Peele include Locrine, The Troublesome Reign of King John, and Parts 1 and 2 of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, in addition to Titus Andronicus. Edward III was attributed to Peele by Tucker Brooke in 1908. While the attribution of the entire play to Peele is no longer accepted, Sir Brian Vickers demonstrated using metrical and other analysis that Peele wrote the first act and the first two scenes in Act II of Titus Andronicus, with Shakespeare responsible for the rest.
Among his occasional poems are The Honour of the Garter, which has a prologue containing Peele's judgments on his contemporaries, and Polyhymnia (1590), a blank verse description of the ceremonies attending the retirement of the queens' champion, Sir Henry Lee. This is concluded by the sonnet, A Farewell to Arms, quoted by Thackeray in the seventy-sixth chapter of The Newcomes and which served as the title of Ernest Hemingway's novel of the same name. To The Phoenix Nest in 1593 he contributed The Praise of Chastity.
Peele belonged to the group of university scholars who, in Greene's phrase, "spent their wits in making playes." Greene went on to say that he was "in some things rarer, in nothing inferior," to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. This praise was not unfounded. The credit given to Greene and Marlowe for the increased dignity of English dramatic diction, and for the new smoothness infused into blank verse, must certainly be shared by Peele. The most familiar parts of Peele's work are, however, the delightful songs in his plays—from The Old Wives' Tale and The Arraignment of Paris, and the song "A Farewell to Arms"—which are regularly anthologized.
Professor F. B. Gummere, in a critical essay prefixed to his edition of The Old Wives Tale, puts in another claim for Peele. In the contrast between the romantic story and the realistic dialogue he sees the first instance of humour quite foreign to the comic business of earlier comedy. The Old Wives Tale is a play within a play, slight enough to be perhaps better described as an interlude. Its background of rustic folklore gives it additional interest, and there is much fun poked at Gabriel Harvey and Richard Stanyhurst. Perhaps Huanebango, who parodies Harvey's hexameters, and actually quotes him on one occasion, may be regarded as representing that arch-enemy of Greene and his friends.
Peele's Works were edited by Alexander Dyce (1828, 1829–1839 and 1861), A. H. Bullen (2 vols., 1888), and by Charles Tyler Prouty (3 vols., 1952–1970). An examination of the metrical peculiarities of his work is to be found in Richard Lämmerhirt's Georg Peele, Untersuchungen über sein Leben und seine Werke (Rostock, 1882). See also Professor F.B. Gummere, in Representative English Comedies (1903); and an edition of The Battell of Alcazar, printed for the Malone Society in 1907.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Peele, George". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Logan, Terence P.; Denzell S. Smith (1973). The Predecessors of Shakespeare: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.
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