3.1.8. Peele, The Old Wives Tale


3.1.8 George Peele, The Old Wives Tale (written after Sept. 1593; ed. 1595)

A pleasant conceited Comedie, played by the queenes majesties players.
Written by George Peele. Printed at London by Iohn Danter... 1595


Despite their attempts over the last three-hundred years, experts in English language and literature have been unable to date George Peele's cheeky and imaginative burlesque The Old Wives Tale – this despite the date being quite apparent. According to the literature available on the subject, the short work was published no earlier than 1590 and no later than 1594. The research acknowledges that the content of the burlesque deals with the quarrel between Harvey and Nashe, which began in September 1592. However, as the subtitle indicates that the play was put on by the “Queen's Men”, who were banned from performing in Summer 1592 until the end of 1593 because of the outbreak of the plague, the assumption is that it was written around 1591 and performed before Summer 1592. The reason behind this is that following the ban on theatre, the Queen's Men only performed in London between January and April 1594, and there is no evidence that the play was performed during this period of time.

But yet there is no evidence of a performance in 1592 either! And after Spring 1594 the Queen’s Men set off across the country with their plays.

It is astonishing, beyond belief in fact: To begin with, Frenchman P. H. Cheffaud recounts the story of the ban on theatre in his treatise on Peele (1913) and dates The Old Wives Tale to 1591, only to immediately proceed to present material containing references to the quarrel between Harvey and Nashe. Cheffaud asserts that the comic knight 'Huangebango' is in no uncertain terms a caricature of Gabriel Harvey: he talks like Harvey, is vain like Harvey, boasts like Harvey, makes promises he does not keep like Harvey, uses hexameter like Harvey and, if that were not enough: Huangebango even quotes Harvey! George Peele issues Master Bango with Harvey's renowned “stockings” and a “two-hand sword”.

Why with a “two hand sword”, one might ask?

Because in Strange Newes (January 1593) Thomas Nashe wrote of Gabriel Harvey: “An old Fencer, flourishing about my ears his two hand sword of Oratory and Poetry, peradventure shakes some of the rust of it on my shoulders”. Not content with “two hand sword”, Peele's anti-hero proclaims: "You may term me an old fencer, indeed I was once John Burlegh's scholar".

So did Nashe copy from Peele? – No. Nashe was one of two protagonists in an argument that did not begin until September 1592. Nashe had a reason to talk about a “two hand sword of Oratory and Peotry”, not Peele! Moreover, having not published anything for eleven years, Gabriel Harvey was not present as a figure of public interest in 1591. Why then, in this particular year, should Peele bring to stage the “old Fencer”? And how might he have hoped to have raised a cheer through a caricature lacking in contemporary historical background? (See notes below.)

If the notion of academics jumping to conclusions were not so massively widespread, then it would not be necessary to waste words here over an incorrect date.

- Frank S. Hook (1970): “Huanebango is simply a stock figure adapted from the ruffler tradition for a role in a folklore comedy; no personal satire is involved.”

- Frank Argolino (2005): “Huanebango, like the various evil giants in The Faerie Queene, can be seen as an analogy to Spanish Catholicism and its imperialistic posture.”

- Chiaki Hanabusa’s (2012) argument that the speakers name "Simon" (used just once in the copy of 1595) refers to the actor Simon Jewell, who was a member of the theater company The Queen's Men and died in August 1592, is offered as evidence that the play was completed and staged before 1592. Alexander Dyce’s explication (1829) seems more obvious: “Simon; but as it is not prefixed to any other speech in the scene, I suppose it is put by mistake for Steeven, which is the name of the Churchwarden”  ‘Steeven Loach’.)

The stubborn fixation over an accepted set of  “historical parameters” (whether it be persisting performance dates of the Queen's Men - or folklore tradition - or anti-Catholic resentment – or an oversight by the printer in the rendering of the name of a speaker) at any rate prevents one from getting a clear view of the whole picture.

No, George Peele's unambiguous allusion to Thomas Nashe’s Strange Newes (Jan. 1593) and Gabriel Harvey’s Pierces Supererogation (Sept. 1593) show that the burlesque is also intended to be a ‘personal satire”, and that it was penned after September 1593. William Shake-speare was familiar with Peele's play and himself alluded to it in Loves labors lost. And he might have recognized himself as “The knight of the neat’s feet, good Bustegustecerydis.”


[Scene Three]

Enter Huanebango with his two hand sword [1], and Booby the Clown.


Gammer [grandmamma], what is he?


O this is one that is going to the conjurer, let him alone, here what he says.


Now by Mars and Mercury, Iupiter and Ianus [2], Sol and Saturnus, Venus and Vesta, Pallas and Proserpina, and by the honour of my house Polimackeroeplacydus, it is a wonder to see what this love will make silly fellows adventure, even in the wane of their wits and infancy of their discretion[3]. Alas, my friend, what fortune calls thee forth to seek thy fortune among brazen gates, enchanted towers, fire and Brimstone, thunder and lightning. Beauty, I tell thee, is peerless,  and she precious whom thou affectest [4]: do off these desires, good countryman; good friend, run away from thyself, and so soon as thou canst, forget her, whom none must inherit but he that can monsters tame, labours achieve, riddles absolve[5], loose enchantments, murther magic, and kill conjuring: and that is the great and mighty Huanebango.


Hark you, sir, hark you. First know I have here the flirting feather, and have given the Parish the start for the long stock [stockings][6]. Now, sir, if it be no more but running through a little lightning and thunder, and riddle me, riddle me, what’s this, I’ll have the wench from the Conjurer if he were ten Conjurers.


I have abandoned the Court and honourable company, to do my devoir [chivalric duty][7] against this sore Sorcerer and mighty Magician: if this Lady be so fair as she is said to be, she is mine, she is mine. Meus, mea, meum [8], in contemptum omnium Grammaticorum [in spite of all grammar].


O falsum Latinum! [9] the fair maid is minum, cum apurtinantibus gibletes and all.[10]


If she be mine, as I assure myself the heavens will do somewhat to reward my worthiness, she shall be allied to none of the meanest gods, but be invested in the most famous stock of

Huanebango Polimackeroeplacydus, my Grandfather; my father, Pergopolyneo [11]; my mother, Dionora de Sardinia, famously descended.


Do you hear, sir? Had not you a Cousin that was called Gustecerydis?


Indeed, I had a cousin that sometime followed the Court infortunately, and his name Bustegustecerydis.


O Lord, I know him well. He is the knight of the neat’s feet [ox’ feet].[12]


O, he loved no Capon better; he hath oftentimes deceived his boy [page] of his dinner. That was his fault, good Bustegustecerydis.


Come, shall we go along? Soft, here is an old man at the Cross. Let us ask him the way thither. Ho, you Gaffer [grandfather], I pray you tell where the wise man the Conjurer dwells.


Where that earthly Goddess keepeth her abode; the commander of my thoughts, and fair Mistress of my heart.[13]


Fair enough, and far enough from thy fingering, son.


I will follow my Fortune after mine own fancy, and do according to mine own discretion.


Yet give something to an old man before you go.


Father, methinks a piece of this Cake might serve your turn.


Yea, son.


Huanebango giveth no Cakes for Alms; ask of them that give gifts for poor Beggars[14]. Fair Lady, if thou wert once shrined in this bosom, I would buckler [defend] thee harantara![15]



Father, do you see this man? You little think he’ll run a mile or two for such a Cake[16], or pass for [care for] a pudding. I tell you, father, he has kept such a begging of me for a piece of this Cake; whoo, he comes upon me with a superfantial substance[17], and the foison [plenty] of the earth, that I knew not what he means: If he came to me thus and said, my friend Booby or so, why, I could spare him a piece with all my heart; but when he tells me how God hath enriched me above other fellows with a Cake: why, he makes me blind and deaf at once. Yet, father, here is a piece of Cake for you, as hard as the world goes.


Thanks, son, but list to me:
He shall be deaf when thou shalt not see.
Farewell, my son, things may so hit,
Thou mayest have wealth to mend thy wit.


Farewell, father, farewell; for I must make haste after my two-hand sword that is gone before.

Exeunt omnes.


[Scene Six]

Enter Huanebango, and Corebus [=Booby] the clown.


Soft, who have we here?


O, this is a choleric gentleman! All you that love your lives, keep out of the smell of his two-hand sword. Now goes he to the conjurer.


Methinks the Conjurer should put the fool into a Iuggling box.


Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman,
Conquer him that can,
Came for his lady bright,
To prove himself a knight,
And win her love in fight.


Hoo, ha, Master Bango, are you here? hear you, you had best sit down here, and beg an alms with me.


Hence, base cullion [rascal][18], here is he that commandeth ingress and egress with his weapon, and will enter at his voluntary [at will], whosoever saith no.

A voice of flame and fire: Huanebango falleth down.





[Scene Seven]

Enter two Furies out of the Conjurer’s Cell, and lay Huanebango by the well of life.
... It thunders and lightens, and Huanebango rises up: Huangebango is deaf and cannot hear.


Phylyda phylerydos, Pamphylyda floryda flortos,

Dub dub a dub, bounce, quoth the guns, with a sulphurous huff snuff [19],

Waked with a wench, pretty peat [20], pretty love, and my sweet pretty pigsnie [pig’s eye]

Iust by thy side shall sit surnamed great Huanebango;

Safe in my arms will I keep thee, threat Mars, or thunder Olympus.


Foh, what greasy groom have we here?[21] He looks as though he crept out of the backside of the well, and speaks like a Drum perished at the West end [with a skin broken].


O that I might but I may not, woe to my destiny therefore;[22]

Kiss that I clasp but I cannot, tell me my destiny wherefore?


Whoop! Now I have my dream; did you never hear so great a wonder as this? Three blue beans in a blue bladder, rattle bladder rattle[23].


I’ll now set my countenance and to her in prose; it may be this rim ram ruff is too rude an encounter.

Let me, fair Lady, if you be at leisure, revel with your sweetness, and rail upon that cowardly Conjurer that hath cast me (or congealed me, rather) into an unkind sleep, and polluted my Carcass.


Laugh, laugh , Zantyppa; thou hast thy fortune; a fool and a husband under one.


Truly, sweetheart as I seem, about some twenty years, the very April of mine age[24].


Why, what a prating Ass is this![25]


Her Coral lips, her crimson chin[26],
Her silver teeth so white within,
Her golden locks, her rolling eye,
Her pretty parts, let them go by:
Hey ho, [sh’] hath wounded me,
That I must die this day to see.[27]


By Gog’s [God’s] bones, thou art a flouting knave. Her Coral lips, her crimson chin: ka wilshaw.[28]


True, my own, and my own because mine, and mine because mine, ha ha: Above a thousand pounds in possibility, and things fitting thy desire in possession.


The Sot thinks I ask of his lands; Lob be your comfort [stupidity may be a comfort to you], and Cuckold be your destiny : Hear you, sir; and if you will have us, you had best say so betime.


True, sweetheart, and will royalise thy progeny with my pedigree.

Exeunt omnes.

It can certainly be said that reading of George Peele's short scenes is more pleasurable than that of Gabriel Harvey's incredibly lengthy bouts. Getting any further in the authorship debate (Who wrote the works of Shakespeare) is, in contrast, slight. However, leaving aside the fact that Peele offers us a new nickname for Oxford, his Old Wives Tale still indeed belongs to the treasure texts. Peele’s burlesque brings home the degree to which public interest in the Harbey-Nashe argument had reached boiling point  – and how the time had come to produce the defintive comedy in this curious bit of fun that “Master William” and “the excellent Gentlewoman” had been called to write by Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey. 

- Nashe (January 1593): “Proceed to cherish thy surpassing carminical art of memory with full cups (as thou dost); let Chaucer be new scored against the day of battle, and Terence come but in now and then with the snuff of a sentence, and Dictum puta, we'll strike it as dead as a door-nail. Haud teruntii estimo, we have cat's-meat and dog's-meat enough for these mongrels.”

- Harvey (September 1593): “The best is, where my Answer is, or may be deemed, Unsufficient (as it is commonly over-tame for so wild a Bullock), there She, with as Visible an Analysis as any Anatome, strippeth his Art into his doublet, his wit into his shirt… I desire no other favour at the hands of Courtesy, but that Art and Wit may be her readers, & Equity my judge.”


NOTES: (still need to be to translated)

[1] “Enter Huanebango with his two hand sword”: In Strange Newes (1593) Thomas Nashe mocked his adversary Gabriel Harvey with the words: “he [Richard Harvey] gets an old Fencer, his brother … who, flourishing about my ears with his two hand sword of Oratory and Poetry, peradventure shakes some of the rust of it on my shoulders.” (See 3.1.5 Nashe, Strange Newes, note 56.)  Seizing on Nashe's image, Peele immediately gives his audience of 1594 the opportunity to recognise the comical knight Huanebango (= Juan Y Bango) as being a caricature of the rhetorician and pedant. – It is obvious that Shakespeare, who worked on Loves labors lost in 1594/95, was familiar with Peele’s burlesque. He rewrites the “Braggart” from the original version of LLL into “Don Adriano de Armado”, the fantastical Spaniard.

[2] Now by Mars and Mercury, Iupiter and Ianus”: Even with the first words uttered by his anti-hero Huanebango, Peele skilfully alludes to the warmongering rhetorician, who prizes valour in combat and the authority of Jupiter over mercurial quicksilverness and saturnalian activity. This reminds us of Harvey's call to the Earl of Oxford: “Go, Mars will see you in safety and Hermes attend you; aegis-sounding Pallas will be by and will instruct your heart and spirit” (Gratulationes Valdinenses, 1578) – of his characterisation of Oxford in the satirical poem Speculum Tuscanismi (1580): “Wing'd like to Mercury, fittst of a Thousand for to be employ'd” – and of his confident reassurance in Foure Letters (1592): “But the noble Earl, not disposed to trouble his Iovial mind with such Saturnine paltry, still continued like his magnificent self.” –  It is for precisely this reason that William Shakespeare gets his hero Armado to perform as ‘Hector’ in Loves labors lost (1598) and declares: “The Armipotent Mars, of Launces the almighty, gave Hector a gift, the heir of Illion, a man so breathed, that certaine he would fight; yea, from morne till night out of his Pavilion. I am that Flower.” He rounds off the comedy with Armado saying: “The wordes of Mercury are harsh after the songes of Apollo.”

[3] “even in the wane of their wits and infancy of their discretion”: A unambiguous reference to the Nashe-Harvey dispute. The indiscreet opponents reproach each other for knocking on doors and making indiscretions. Gabriel Harvey of course looked down on his junior, remarking: “Shall I say blessed, or peerless, young Apuleius, that from the swathing-bands of his infancy in Print was suckled of the sweetest nurses” – “seeing the infancy of his fancy” – “this infancy of eloquence” – “when Nashe will indeed accomplish a work of supererogation, let him publish Nashe's Pennyworth of Discretion.”

[4] “and she precious whom thou affectest”: See Gabriel Harvey, Pierces Supererogation (1593): “It is no vainglory to permit with consideration that abused modesty hath affected with discretion.”

[5] “riddles absolve”: This open expression relates to Harvey's great ability to deceive.

[6] “I have here the flirting feather, and have given the Parish the for the long stock”: In Strange Newes Nashe cites his opponent “nor shall Zoilus more flirt [rap, strike] Homer, nor Thersites fling at Agamemnon”, and then continues: “Holla, holla, holla, flirt, fling, what resty rhetoric have we here?” – “The start for the long stock[ings]” references Harvey's affected choice in what he wore. Nashe: “If you want a greasy pair of silk stockings also, to show yourself in at the court, they are there to be had”, and “thou wouldst rather … branch me into thy tiptoe stock” .

[7] “to do my devoir”: Certainly Harvey delights at making good use of this term: “I will not fail to tender my devoir” – and: “that have specially rendered their diligent devoir to honour the excellentest women.”

[8] “Meus, mea, meum”: Huanebango’s exclamation appears to refer to the object of his love, who is at once male, female and gender-neutral.

[9] “O falsum Latinum!”: Evidence showing that Shakespeare knew of Peele’s burlesque. See W. Shakespeare, Loves labors lost [V/1] (1598):

Go to, thou hast it ad dungil at the fingers ends, as they say.
Oh I smell false Latine…

[10] “cum apurtinantibus gibletes and all”: In Edward Forsett’s (1553-1630) Pedantius (written in 1581) the Pedant (aimed at Gabriel Harvey) says: “Dii hunc cum omnibus appertinentibus eradicent.” (May the gods destroy this man with all his appurtenances!) – “gibletes”: cod-Latin for ‘giblets’.

[11] “Huanebango Polimackeroeplacydus, my Grandfather; my father, Pergopolyneo”: In Pierces Supererogation (1593) Gabriel Harvey plays with a genealogy that is similarly abstruse: “he might, with my good leave, be the grand General of Asses, or reign alone in his proper dominion, like the mighty Assyrian king, even Phul Assar himself, the famous son of the renowned Phul Bullochus.”

[12] “I had a cousin that sometime followed the Court infortunately, and his name Bustegustecerydis… He is the knight of the neat’s feet”: Neat, an animal of the ox-kind; an ox or bullock. When looked at in conjunction with “infortunately” (Fortunatus Infoelix!), it is obviously to interpret the ‘knight of the neat’s feet’ as being the Earl of Oxford. – Bust: a beat, thrash; gust: a violent rush of wind, a burst; ceryx (Latin): herald. This creation by George Peele is quite possibly one of the funniest aliases for Shake-speare ever devised.

[13] “Where that earthly Goddess keepeth her abode; the commander of my thoughts, and fair Mistress of my heart”: The jibe here pertains to Harvey's adoration of the “excellent Gentlewoman.”

[14] “ask of them that give gifts for poor Beggars”: Harvey called Robert Greene “the prince of beggars” and spoke somewhat superciliously of “woeful Greene and beggarly Pierce Penilesse”. In Strange Newes Nashe rebukes the rhetorician: “O, it is a pestilent libeller against beggars.”

[15] “I would buckler thee harantara!”: See Harvey, Gratulationes Valdinenses, Book III (1578): What if the terrible trumpet should now resound the Taratantara?“ - Nashe called Harvey a ‘paper buckler’; Harvey reciprocated, calling Nashe a ‘swashbuckler with his pen’.

[16] “he’ll run a mile or two for such a Cake”: The cocksure Huanebango (Gabriel Harvey too) is himself a pauper. Harvey goes to efforts to get on the right side of  the “excellent Gentlewoman”, so that she takes him under her wing.

[17] “superfantial substance”: “Superfantial” is a mixture of superfantastical and superficial. In his pamphlets Harvey makes extensive use of the words ‘fantastical’ and ‘superficial’.

[18] “Hence, base cullion”:  Peele recalls Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part 2 (I/3), which was performed in 1592: (QUEEN) “Away, base Cullions.”

[19] “with a sulphurous huff snuff”: The unusual turn of phrase “Huff snuff” originates from Richard Stanihurst's failed translation of Virgil from 1582. - Nashe writes in Strange Newes (1593): “But ah, what news do you hear of that good Gabriel Huff-Snuff, / Known to the world for a fool, and clapped in the Fleet for a rimer?”

[20] “pretty peat”: The most famous “pretty peat” (a word from petit, little) can be found in Taming of the Shrew I/1:

Gentlemen, that I may soon make good
What I have said, Bianca, get you in:
And let it not displease thee, good Bianca,
For I will love thee ne'er the less, my girl.
A pretty peat! it is best
Put finger in the eye, an she knew why.

[21] “Foh, what greasy groom have we here?”: Harvey was proud of this dark complexion. In book IV of Gratulationes Valdinenses (1578) he says of himself: “Atra coma est: color et fortasse subitalus” (His hair is black, and his complexion, maybe, dark as from touch of the Italian sun.) In Have with You to Saffron Walden (1596), he is mocked by Nashe: “That word complexion is dropped forth in good time, for to describe to you his complexion & composition entered I into this tale by the way, or tale I found in my way riding up to London. It is of an adust swarth choleric dye like resty bacon or a dried skate fish, so lean and so meagre that you would think (like the Turks) he observed 4 Lents in a year.”

[22] “O that I might but I may not, woe to my destiny therefore”: Leaving no wishes left unsatisfied, George Peele borrows these lines verbatim from Gabriel Harvey's poem “Encomium Lauri” (Praise of the Laurel) in Three proper and wittie familiar Letters (1580). – Harvey writes:

Fain wod I crave, might I so presume, some farther aquaintance;
O that I might? but I may not: woe to my destiny therefore.
Trust me, not one more loyal servant longs to thy Personage.

Of course Peele knew that Harvey's praise of the laurel was mocked by Nashe.

“Greene awaked him out of his self-admiring contemplation, he had nothing to do but walk under the yew-tree at Trinity Hall, and say:

What may I call this tree? An yew-tree? O bonny yew-tree,
Needs to thy boughs will I bow this knee, and vail my bonneto.

Or make verses of weathercocks on the top of steeples, as he did once of the weathercock of All Hallows in Cambridge:

O thou weathercock that stands on the top of the church of All Hallows,
Come thy ways down if thou dar’st for thy crown, and take the wall on us.

O heathenish and pagan hexameters, come thy ways down from thy doctorship, & learn thy
primer of poetry over again, for certainly thy pen is in a state of a reprobate with all men of
judgement and reckoning.”

[23] “Three blue beans in a blue bladder, rattle bladder rattle”: Proverbial. See Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: “Three blue beans in a blue bladder,” a rattle for children.”

[24] “the very April of mine age”: An allusion to Sir Arthur Gorge’s poem “The gentle season of the Year”: “So, in the April of mine age, / My lively colours do assuage / Because my sunshine is deprived.” (Phoenix Nest, 1593.)

[25] Why, what a prating Ass is this!”: A discreet reference to the extensive use of the term “Ass” in the quarrel between Harvey and Nashe.

[26] “Her Coral lips, her crimson chin”: The Rape of Lucrece was entered at the Stationers' Register on the 9th May 1594. By this date, however, the epic poem might have already been printed and submitted. At any rate, the following lines are from Shakespeare:

With more than admiration he admir'd
Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,
Her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.

In all likelihood, Peele’s burlesque was written at some point between October 1593 and March 1594. (Unless the Queen's Men did indeed perform the play across England in 1594/1595.) In any case, the author had the opportunity to add in a few additional rhymes before it went to print in April 1595.

[27] [1] “Her golden locks, her rolling eye, / Her pretty parts, let them go by: / Hey ho, hath wounded me, / That I must die this day to see”: Spenser’s verse from The Shepheardes Calender (1580) goes:

Per[igot]. And if for graceless greef I die,
Wil[lye].  hey ho graceless grief,
Per. Witness, she slew me with her eye:
Wil. let thy folly be the prief [proof] ...
 Per. So learn’d I love on a holly eve,
Wil. hey ho holliday,
Per. That ever since my heart did grieve.
Wil. now endeth our roundelay.

[28] “ka wilshaw”: A riddle. Ka =chough =jackdraw. OED: “The direct source may have been an onomatopoeia: ká, k ‹ohookacu›.”