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Peele, George (c. 1556–c. 1596) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

peele’s london born school

As with a number of Tudor authors, there is a degree of uncertainty regarding both the birth and death of George Peele. Citing as evidence the 1556 baptismal register for the St. James Garlickhithe parish—“The 25 Iulye, George peele”— Leonard Ashley surmises that this indeed refers to the dramatist, while other critics suggest Peele may have been born as late as 1558. What is certain, however, is that Peele was born in London and was one of at least five children born to James Peele and his first wife, Anne. Peele’s father proved to be a man of some learning and notoriety in his own right: he was a salter and citizen of London, he published two books on bookkeeping (constituting the first known book in English on double-ledger accounting), he arranged (and probably wrote) material for the annual lord mayor’s pageants, and he became clerk of a London charity home and school, Christ’s Hospital.

In 1565, young George Peele entered grammar school at Christ’s Hospital, where his father was employed, after which he moved to Oxford, matriculating at Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College) in 1571, becoming a student at Christ Church by 1574, and in turn earning a B.A. in 1577 and an M.A. in 1579. Little is known of Peele’s university days, except that he translated Euripides’ Iphigenia , the translation of which was commended by fellow student and Latin dramatist William Gager. Though Peele’s translation is lost, its very existence underlines Peele’s long-standing interest in classical antiquity, which was to permeate so much of his literary production throughout his career. A byproduct of Peele’s school years is that he received the notorious/glorious appellation of being a “university wit” (other figures in the crowd included Thomas Nashe,* John Lyly,* Robert Greene,* and Thomas Lodge*).

In 1580 Peele married Anne Cooke (aged sixteen), the only child of a prosperous London merchant who died the same year, leaving Peele and his new bride a legacy of £250, along with sundry lawsuits that accompanied the sum. The following year Peele moved from Oxford to London (whether or not Anne joined him is a matter of conjecture), where he was to remain, probably beginning his professional literary career at that time. In 1583 Peele was given a rather ponderous sum of £23 by his former college, in all likelihood for his contribution to an entertainment honoring Albert Alesco, the count Palatine of Siradia (Poland). However, making a decent living by the pen, as numerous other Elizabethan writers were to discover, was exceedingly difficult, and indeed Peele was dogged by Grub Street financial hardship virtually to his dying day. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and pitiable anecdote of Peele’s life is his sending, by means of his ten-year-old daughter, a pathetic letter to Lord Burghley, along with a copy of his “olde poem,” A Tale of Troy , begging his lordship for financial relief, saying amid billows of flattery, “Longe sickness hauing so enfeebled me maketh bashfullness allmost become impudency”; Burghley’s response was to file Peele’s desperate plea with other crank letters. Peele died that same year (1596), Francis Meres averring, probably inaccurately, “As Anacreon died by the pot; so George Peele by the pox.” Whether deservedly or not, after his death, Peele earned the reputation of a dissolute and debauched bohemian who was a stranger to clean living. A weighty portion of this undesirable notoriety was garnered from the at times very funny but most certainly apocryphal Merrie and Conceited Jests of George Peele ; but that Peele’s name would even be a hanger on which to pin such jests has been for some critics in itself telling evidence of Peele’s profligacy. As for other contemporary references to Peele, Thomas Nashe, in his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon , referred to Peele as “the Atlas of poetrie, & primus verborum artifex .”


Most of the critical attention on Peele has concentrated on The Old Wives Tale and, to a lesser extent, on The Arraignment of Paris . Beyond the individual glories of each of these two plays, they exhibit two characteristics endemic to Peele’s literary career: his use of classical mythology and his tireless experimentation. Concerning the former, Peele is forever drawing allusions from Olympus (as with The Arraignment of Paris and some of his poems) or treating the myths and legends of the classical world as his subject. As for experimentation, for better or for worse, Peele was original to the core, not only with metrical forms—in Peele they are legion—but in subject matter and in trying different genres and even mixing them together, Peele was constantly going in different directions and trying new things. Thus, he was a remarkable innovator.

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