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peele plays play piece

Though Peele is known today chiefly as a pioneering (though minor) dramatist and forerunner to the Elizabethan heavyweights, there are actually three literary genres of writing for which Peele is known: his poems (of which there are less than ten), his pageants for the lord mayor of London (of which Peele wrote at least three, though probably more, only two of which survive— The Device of the Pageant Borne before Wolstan Dixi 1585 and Descensus Astraeae 1591), and his plays (of which five remain, while at least two— The Hunting of Cupid and The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek —have been lost).

Peele’s first literary endeavors were thoroughly classical in their subject matter. Though not published until 1589, A Tale of Troy was probably written early. This poem of nearly 500 lines in heroic couplets offers a reader’s digest version of the fall of Troy from before Paris’ birth to Aeneas’ landing in Carthage. Thus, A Tale of Troy is, in many ways, a rather characteristic piece not only because of the subject matter; here Peele presents to the reader the golden apple, the rape of Helen, the gathering of the Greek forces, the sacrificing of Iphigenia, Cassandra, the deaths of Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, the fight for Achilles’ armor, the suicide of Ajax, the wooden horse, Sinon, Pyrrhus slaying Priam, the mourning of Hecuba, the flight of Acneas—it’s all there. One often notices when reading Peele (and this is especially true of his three lesser plays) that he simply tries too hard to get everything in, the result often being episodic and disunified plots, little depth in characterization, and a static and elliptical feel to the entire piece. Such a mélange has led some critics to complain (I think justly) that one gets the sense they are viewing pageants or a slide show rather than plays.

Also written in the early years of the 1580s was The Arraignment of Paris , a far more successful effort because of both his varying of verse forms and his varying from the official mythological account of a hard-line classical purist. The variation for which he is most noted is the enormous piece of flattery wherein Diana gives the golden apple and paeans of hyperbolic praise to none other than Queen Elizabeth.* Peele’s next effort, The Battle of Alcazar (1589), has both the feel of a patriotic, post-Armada piece with the addition of all the exotic background, Senecan rant, and blood and thunder, which fittingly place it chronologically amid The Spanish Tragedy, The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine , and Titus Andronicus —plays with which it has numerous affinities. Like The Battle of Alcazar, Edward I (p. 1593) and David and Bethsabe (c. 1592–94) have affinities with the chronicle history play, and these three are the least favored of Peele’s five extant plays. Edward I will forever be unpopular, for it is simply a bad play: the plot was madly conceived, full of discontinuity and confusion: the characterization is poor; and the best that can be said of the poetry is that some of it is not bad; it is truly torturous to read and is, all in all, a play that cannot help but make the judicious grieve. Although David and Bethsabe is not a great play, a few would argue it is a better effort than Edward I . Though it is episodic and, arguably, follows the biblical source too assiduously, there are nevertheless flashes of sonorous lyric beauty rarely found in the dramas that antedate it. Very little has been written about these, the lesser plays of Peele’s and his minor works (though many seem to see these as one and the same).

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