GEORGE PEELE, "the veriest knave that ever escaped transportation," was a Poet of no mean rank in the Elizabethan galaxy. He was a native of Devonshire, and took his degree of M.A. in Christ Church College, Oxford: he afterwards came to London, where he was appointed PoetLaureate to the Corporation, in which capacity he had the ordering of the City pageants. He was a good pastoral writer; and Wood informs us that his plays "were not only often acted with great applause in his life-time, but did also endure reading, with due commendation, many years after his death."
Peele was almost as famous for his tricks and merry pranks, as Scogan or Tarlton; and as there are books of theirs in print, so there are also of his, particularly one, which has lately been reprinted, entitled "Merrie conceited Jests of Geo. Peele, Gentleman, sometime Student of Oxford: wherein is shewed the course of his life how he lived. A Man very well known in the City of London and elsewhere." The Editor might have added, "better known than trusted;" for these "jests," as they are called, might with more propriety be termed the tricks of a sharper: one of them, for instance, representing him as inviting a gentleman of property to sleep at his house, and absconding the next morning with his guest's clothes and money.
Steevens has suggested that the character of Pieboard (evidently a pun upon the name), in the comedy of "The Puritan," one of the seven plays falsely attributed to Shakspeare, was intended for Peele; and the coincidence between several of the incidents in that play, and those related in the "Jests," proves this conjecture to be well-founded. Take the "Jest of George and the Barber," as an example: George Peele had stolen a lute from a Brentford barber, (for barbers, in those days, were in the habit of keeping musical instruments in their shops, for the amusement of their customers,) who followed him to London, and demanded it. George vows that he was just about to send for it from a gentleman in the City, (to whose daughter he had lent it,) that he might return it. In fact, Peele had made away with it, to gratify some of his extravagancies, being in want of money, and being also, as the "Jests" say, "of the poetical disposition — never to write so long as his money lasted;" but he promised to take the barber to the gentleman's house, to whom he had to read a Mask, or Pageant, which he had written. The barber accompanies him to the dwelling of an Alderman, whose porter Peele knew; and while the barber and porter are conversing at some distance, Peele, making action as if he were reading poetry, in fact applies to the Alderman to let him escape at the back door. He pretends that he only wishes to avoid bailiffs, who are pursuing him; and "the kinde gentleman, little dreaming of George Peele's deceit, tooke him into the parlor, gave him a brace of angels, and caused one of his servants to let George out at the garden doore."
In the play, the Story of the Barber is judiciously omitted, and Pieboard is represented as really hunted into cover by Puttock and Ravenshaw, a bailiff and his follower, or, as they were then called, "two serjeants." He makes them believe that a gentleman of fortune is about to purchase the device of a Mask of him for five pounds, and that he is on his way to him to receive the money. They agree to accompany him, and he resorts to the same trick of poetical action, while making his supplication. After a most pitiful speech, by which he works on the easy nature of the gentleman, he discloses his scheme of escape, on which the latter exclaims, "By my troth, an excellent device!" One of the bailiffs whispers the other, "An excellent device, he says; he likes it wonderfully:" and his fellow replies, "Oh, there's no talk on it; he's an excellent scholar, and specially at a Mask." Thus the serjeants fall into the trap, and Pieboard escapes out of it.
Peele "was living," says Wood, "in his middle age, in the latter end of Queen Elizabeth, but when or where he died I cannot tell; for so it is, and always hath been, that most poets die poor, and consequently obscurely, and a hard matter it is to trace them to their graves."
It is lamentable to think that such should have been the life and such the death of a Poet who could write verses like the following, which form the Prologue to his "Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe; with the Tragedy of Absalom;" a piece of which Hawkins justly says, that it "abounds with the most masterly strokes of a fine genius, and a genuine spirit of poetry runs through the whole."
Of Israel's sweetest singer now I sing,
His holy style and happy victories;
Whose Muse was dipt in that inspiring dew,
Archangels 'stilled from the breath of Jove,
Decking her temples with the glorious flow'rs
Heav'ns rain'd on tops of Sion and Mount Sinai.
Upon the bosom of his ivory lute
The cherubims and angels laid their breasts;
And when his consecrated fingers struck
The golden wires of his ravishing harp,
He gave alarum to the host of heaven,
That, wing'd with lightning, brake the clouds, and cast
Their crystal armour at his conqu'ring feet.
Of this sweet Poet, Jove's Musician,
And of his beauteous son, I press to sing.—
Then help, divine Adonai, to conduct,
Upon the wings of my well-temper'd verse,
The hearers' minds above the tow'rs of heaven,
And guide them so in this thrice haughty flight,
Their mounting feathers scorch not with the fire
That none can temper but thy holy hand:
To thee for succour flies my feeble Muse,
And at thy feet her iron pen doth use.