Biblical tragedy
George Peele’s David and Bethsabe
in The genres of Renaissance tragedy
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This chapter surveys the handful of extant biblical plays written or translated during the last quarter of the sixteenth century to offer an overview of this complex and generically diverse group of plays. The descriptions found on their title pages provide a snapshot of the multiplicity of their tone and identity, with some termed comedies, some tragedies, and others using the trope of the looking glass to gesture at the homiletic mode of the de casibus tradition. The chapter argues that these varied descriptions permit the modern reader a more nuanced understanding of the continuities between these biblical plays and the earlier models of liturgical drama from the pre-Reformation past, with George Peele’s David and Bethsabe (1590) as a case in point. The play draws on the tradition of King David as an exemplar of lust and treachery, but Peele offers a more complex account of David’s reign by including the rebellion of his son Absalon and the planned accession of his heir Solomon. The play scrutinises providential monarchy as a model of kingship and tackles other topical issues such as the responsibilities of the monarch to govern and receive advice.

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