Thomas Dekker

Thomas Dekker the dramatist--there are records of several contemporaries with this name--was born in London about 1570, but no details of his family relations or of his education are known. The first record of his work is a payment to him in January, 1598, as a member of Henslowe's group of dramatists. For the next six years he was actively engaged in playwriting, chiefly under Henslowe, first for the Admiral's men and later for Worcester's, and he continued to write plays sporadically during the remainder of a comparitively long life. From early in the seventeenth century, however, he devoted most of his time to the composition of prose pamphlets, which are among the best records of London life in his day. The most important are The Bellman of London (1608) and The Gull's Hornbook (1609). In spite of his prolific literary output, Dekker lived a life of hardship as a result of debt. He borrowed money of Henslowe in 1598 to secure his release from prison, and in 1619 he had been in prison some years. He may have been the Thomas Dekker who was buried in 1632; he was certainly dead by 1640 or 1641.

In his connection with Henslowe, Dekker had a hand in over forty plays, only a few of which survive. The Shoemaker's Holiday and Old Fortunatus he wrote alone, but most of his work was done in collaboration with Henslowe's writers, chiefly with Drayton, Chettle, and Wilson, but not infrequently with Jonson, Day, Haughton, Munday, Heywood, Middleton, and Webster. The group exploited many fields--the classics, romance of many periods, history, especially English chronicles, and, to a considerable extent, contemporary life. Thus the French civil wars of the period were stretched to four plays, at least two plays were domestic tragedies, and several apparently dealt with the lower levels of English life. Of the individual plays extent, Old Fortunatus, printed in 1600, is Dekker's best romance. Patient Grissel, written with Chettle and Haughton in 1598 in the spirit of the domestic play, inaugerated a vogue of the patient wife. In 1601 Dekker was drawn into the stage quarrel and acquitted himself well in Satiromastix, a reply to Jonson's Poetaster. The Honest Whore of 1604 is the first of a series of dramatic studies in which contact of London gallants with the rising merchant class is depicted. The more realistic Westward Ho and Northward Ho, written with Webster, followed soon after, and The Roaring Girl, in which he collaborated with Middleton, about 1610. Among the later plays, The Virgin Martyr, written with Massinger about 1620, and The Witch of Edmonton, with Ford and Rowley about 1621, are masterly tragedies. Appropriately Dekker also made his contributions to the great civic pageants in London.

Dekker and the group of writers to which he belonged represent the culmination of Elizabethan drama proper. The literary decade extending from the first known publication of work by Lyly and Peele in 1584 to the death of Kyd shows the dramatists utilizing a wide range of story and history and developing not only a variety of characters from both the real and the supernatural world, but also a variety of structural devices and styles. For a period of a little over a decade from the middle of the nineties, the early literary drama continued with even grater imaginative ferver and range of style, as illustrated in the work of Shakespeare. Significant new forces, however, were producing a more searching and realistic interpretation of character and a more critical attitude to structure and style. In these respects the drama of this decade prepares for the early Stuart drama or indeed merges with it, for the later work of most of the men represented here is at times for Jacobean than Elizabethan. In Dekker the reaction is indicated not so much by the loss of the romantic or idealizing tendency of the age as by the centering of it on contemporary life, as a result no doubt of the growing wealth and splendor of courts and cities and of man's new adventures in travel, exploration, and war. With old elements of romance Dekker blends new ones of commerce in the portrayal of the merchant class. Primarily, however, he reflects the infinite Elizabethan zest of life, even in realistic scenes.

The Shoemaker's Holiday is first mentioned by Henslowe under date of July 15, 1599, evidently having been written during the preceding six weeks. A court performance was secured for it on the night of January 1, 1600, and it was printed in the same year by Valentine Sims. Other quartos appeared in 1610, 1618, 1624, 1631, and 1657, each one being a reprint of its immediate predecessor. The plot of The Shoemaker's Holiday is derived from the three shoemaker stories that make up the first part of Thomas Deloney's Gentle Craft (1598). The last story, "Simon Eyre," which furnished Dekker with most of his material for the play, is Deloney's romanticized account of a historical figure, who rose from the position of upholsterer and draper (in Delaney, shoemaker) to become a wealthy lord mayor of London (1445-46). To the other two stories Dekker is indebted for suggestions for characters. He may also have made use of popular ballads for the incident of Ralph, Jane, and Hammon.

The first part of The Honest Whore was printed by Valentine Sims in 1604 (other editions appeared in 1605, 1615, 1616, and 1635), and the second part by Elizabeth Allde in 1630, with the original subtitle considerably expanded: "With the humors of the patient man, the impatient wife; the honest whore, persuaded by strong arguments to turn courtesan again; her brave refuting those arguments; and lastly, the comical passages of an Italian Bridewell, where the scene ends." Although the title pages of both plays give Dekker alone as the author, from a passage in Henslowe's diary it appears that Middleton collaborated with him on the first part. Middleton's exact part in the play cannot be determined, but modern scholars are inclined to agree with Dyce that his "share is comparitively small." The source of the plots and characters has never been discovered. It is probable that the plays are compounded of characters whom Dekker had known in the London streets and of stuff of his own imagination, with the use, however, of some conventional motives, especially in the story of Hippolito.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays Ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. 553-54.

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Thomas Dekker

Thomas Dekker

Dekker: Monologues

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