Peele was a few years older than either Marlowe or Greene, and had published a rhymed play before Marlowe began to write, but we place him after these two, because he probably followed them as a writer for the public stage. He was a gentleman by birth, took the degree of M.A. at Oxford (Broadgates Hall, now Pembroke College) in 1579, and possessed some land in right of his wife: but, eschewing the steady professions, he went up to London in 1581, and soon became known as one of the authors whose living was gained by their wits. He was a conspicuous figure in the same dissipated circle as Marlowe and Greene: and acquired such notoriety as a profligate wit that a body of "Merry Conceited jests" was fathered upon him — apparently without much mistake of paternity.
The plays attributed to Peele in Mr. Dyce's edition are The Arraignment of Paris (1584, a rhymed play, written for private representation before the Queen by the children of the Chapel); The Chronicle History of Edward I. (1593); The Battle of Alcazar (1594); The Old Wives' Tales (1595, supposed to be the basis of Milton's Comus); David and Bethsabe (1599, the best of Peele's Plays); Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes (1599). He was frequently employed to devise pageants, and several of these have been preserved. He wrote also a poem in heroic couplets, The Tale of Troy, and various miscellaneous poems. His extant works are not so numerous as Greene's; and he would seem to have been a much less productive writer. His literary career was twice as long as Greene's. In the Jests we are told that "George was of the poetical disposition, never to write so long as his money lasted:" and if we may trust that authority, he had many madcap and unscrupulous ways of "raising the wind," from nominal borrowing to downright cozenage.
Peele was a man of softer and subtler make than Greene: a handsome person with a thin womanish voice; of light and nimble fancy, and smooth ingenious execution: without the faintest desire to use honest means in procuring a livelihood. Poor Greene was not very scrupulous, but he thought it necessary to justify his keeping company with blackguards; he worked hard, advocated high morality, and suffered occasional visitations of conscience. Peele's choice of subjects does not betray any stifled morality in him. The most marked hint of the writer's personality appears in the ingenuity of his compliments direct and indirect to his audience. The denouement of The Arraignment of Paris is an audacious compliment to Elizabeth. The idea is that the judgment of Paris is called in question, as being unjust and partial; Paris is arraigned before a council of the gods; the matter is referred to the arbitration of Diana; and she, to keep the peace of Olympus, awards the apple to Elizabeth, a peerless nymph, a paragon, as stately us Juno, as wise as Minerva, as lovely as Venus, and as chaste as Diana herself. His two chronicle histories had, a large adventitious interest for the time, as gratifying the prevailing English hatred of Spain and Popery. Elinor, the Spanish queen of Edward I., is represented as a monster of cruelty and pride: and Stukely, the hero of The Battle of Alcazor, is a renegade Englishman, commissioned by the Pope to raise a rebellion in Ireland. Most Elizabethan dramatists paid incidental compliments to Elizabeth and to their country: Peele seems to have deliberately aimed at securing patronage by making whole plays a bolus of flattery. Spenser's Faery Queen and Lyly's Midas as well as his Endymion, were also designed to flatter Elizabeth; but Spenser and Lyly used a decorous veil of allegory.
It pleased the erratic Nash to commend Peele in 1587 "as the chief supporter of pleasance now living, the Atlas of poetry, and primus verborum artifex," — "chief engineer of phrases." This was in opposition to Marlowe. Posterity has certainly reversed this haphazard judgment as regards the general power of the rival poets: it is universally allowed that "Marlowe had a far more powerful intellect than Peele, and a far deeper insight into the human heart" — was, in short, a poet of immeasurably higher order. On the matter of skill in blank verse, Campbell and Mr. Payne Collier are at variance. Campbell spoke strongly in favour of Peele: "There is no such sweetness of versification and imagery to be found in our blank verse anterior to Shakespeare." Mr. Collier ascribes this honour to Marlowe, pointing out the fact that Peele did not write a complete play in blank verse till Marlowe had set the example, and declaring his best blank verse to be for the most part monotonous. Mr. Collier is too truculent on this point of versification. The general strain of the two poets is so very different, that one cannot decide the question by counting their pauses and their trochaic and monosyllabic endings. The versification of David and Bethsabe is undoubtedly sweet. Blank verse would not have been suitable for The Arraignment of Paris, a piece moving with almost pantomimic gaiety. Peele acted with judgment in reserving blank verse for the formal orations of Paris and Diana.
The occasional ranting in Edward I., and the prevailing extravagance of the Battle of Alcazar, are remarkable as coming from the same pen as The Arraignment of Paris, and David and Bethsabe. I can hardly believe that the bombast of Muly Mahamet — whom even more than Tamburlaine Shakespeare had in his eye in the burlesque of Pistol — was a serious expression according to the author's notions of art: we reconcile it with Peele's character only by supposing it to have been an audacious experiment in rivalry of the heroics of Tamburlaine. It seems to have succeeded. The incident burlesqued in "Feed and grow fat, my fair Calipolis," was specially famous. The Moor, Muly Mahamet, with his wife Calipolis and his son, are fleeing before the army of Abdelmelec, when Calipolis grows faint from hunger. Muly rushes off the stage shouting — "Famine shall pine to death, and thou shalt live;" and re-enters with a piece of flesh upon his sword—
Hold thee, Calipolis, feed, and faint no more;
This flesh I forced from a lioness,
Meat of a princess, for a princess meet:
Feed, then, and faint not, fair Calipolis;
For rather than fierce famine shall prevail
To gnaw thy entrails with her thorny teeth,
The conquering lioness shall attend on thee.
Jove's stately bird with wide-commanding wings
Shall hover still about thy princely head,
And beat down fowl by shoals into thy lap;
Feed, then, and faint not, fair Calipolis.
This incident struck the popular fancy very much like Tamburlaine's entrance in a car of gold drawn by two kings with bits in their mouths; and offered a bright mark for Shakespeare's ridicule. Pistol's strong language about the Furies, Pluto's damned lake, Erebus, and tortures vile also, seems to be founded on passages in the same play. In the explanation of the dumb-show before Act I. we find the following:
Till Nemesis, high mistress of revenge,
That with her scourge keeps all the world in awe,
With thundering drum awakes the God of War,
And calls the Furies from Avernus' crags,
To range, and rage, and vengeance to inflict,
Vengeance on this accursed Moor for sin.
In the dumb-show before Act II. Nemesis again uses her drum, and—
'Larums aloud into Alecto's ears,
And with her thundering wakes whereas they lie
In cave as dark as hell and beds of steel,
The Furies, just imps of dire revenge.
In Act I. Muly Mahamet Seth exclaims—
Sheath not your swords, soldiers of Amurath,
Sheath not your swords, you Moors of Barbary,
That fight in right of your anointed king,
But follow to the gates of death and hell,
Pale death and hell, to entertain his soul;
Follow, I say, to burning Phlegethon,
This traitor-tyrant and his companies.
Muly Mahamet himself ends off Act IV. with an apostrophe to the Furies, and a mad frenzy of imprecation:—
You bastards of the Night and Erebus,
Fiends, Furies, hags that fight in beds of steel,
Range through this army with your iron whips.
And lastly for revenge, for deep revenge,
Whereof thou goddess and deviser art,
Damned let him be, damned, and condemned to bear
All torments, tortures, plagues, and pains of hell.
We see in these passages where Pistol may have caught his trick of repeating emphatic words. The facetious Peele in all likelihood piled up these agonies for popular effect with hardly less sense of their ludicrous extravagance than Shakespeare himself.
In strange contrast to these mad explosions are the rich fancy and tender feeling of David and Bethsabe and the delicate airy wit of The Arraignment of Paris. Campbell has quoted the finest passage in David and Bethsabe, but the following is not much inferior. It is David's exclamation at the sight of Bethsabe approaching in obedience to his summons:
Now comes my lover tripping like the roe,
And brings my longings tangled in her hair.
To joy her love I'll build a kingly bower,
Seated in hearing of a hundred streams,
That for their homage to her sovereign looks,
Shall, as the serpents fold into their nests
In oblique turnings, wind their nimble waves
About the circles of her curious walks;
And with their murmur summon easeful sleep
To lay his golden sceptre on her brows.
The following is also a sweet picture, although, perhaps, the sweetness is too surfeiting:
The time of year is pleasant for your grace,
And gladsome summer in her shady robes
Crowned with roses and with painted flowers,
With all her nymphs shall entertain my lord,
That, from the thicket of my verdant groves,
Will sprinkle honey-dews about his breast,
And cast sweet balm upon his kingly head.
The sprightly art of the Arraignment would seem but stale in a quotation. The most elaborate joke in it seems intended to ridicule the amorous pining of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar. Colin is introduced bewailing the cruelty of Love, and commiserated by his friends Hobinol, Diggon, and Thenot: shortly afterwards his hearse is brought in, and shepherds sing welladay over his untimely death. His sweetheart Thestylis woos and is rejected by a "foul crooked churl." Our knowledge of the personal jealousies and friendships of the period is imperfect and perplexing; but it is probable that the "Palin" whom Spenser mentions in Colin Clout as "envying at his rustic quill" was George Peele, and that this was the expression of the envy.