The phrase “my three-score years” in the dedicatory epistle to the 1632 edition of English Villanies suggests that Thomas Dekker was born in 1572, probably in the City of London. His broad knowledge of Latin literature suggests that he received a grammar school education, although all such speculation about his early years is mere conjecture. Because he was ranked by Francis Meres, in 1598, among the best English writers of tragedy, he must have begun writing plays as early as 1595; his name first appears in Philip Henslowe’s diary in 1598 as the author of the lost play Phaeton, and he may also have collaborated with Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, and William Shakespeare in The Booke of Sir Thomas More (c. 1595-1596). Numerous other references in Henslowe’s papers and on the title pages of published plays show that Dekker remained extremely busy from 1598 to 1613, writing for the Lord Admiral’s Men and occasionally for the Children of Paul’s. He was also constantly in debt during this period and was forced to supplement his income by the publication of pamphlets. In 1613, he was imprisoned for debt for the third time and remained in the King’s Bench prison until his eventual release in 1619. During his last years, Dekker wrote several plays for the Palsgrave’s Men and published several more pamphlets. He apparently refused to attend church from 1626 to 1629 in order to avoid being arrested for debt and was consequently indicted for recusancy. It is believed that he was buried in the parish of St. James, Clerkenwell, on August 25, 1632. The fact that his widow, Elizabeth, refused administration of his will suggests that Dekker had no estate to administer and that death came as his final release from the specter of debtors’ prison.
Few specifics of Thomas Dekker’s life are known. He was probably born in 1572, although this date is conjectural. He may have served as a tradesman’s apprentice or a sailor before beginning (in 1595?) to write plays for companies of actors. By playwriting and pamphleteering, he kept himself alive for the next thirty-seven years. The date of his marriage is uncertain, but it is known that his wife, Mary, died in 1616. Dekker lived his life almost completely in London, first in Cripplegate and later in Clerkenwell. He was imprisoned for debt on three occasions and once for recusancy. Presumably the Thomas Dekker who was buried in August, 1632, in Clerkenwell parish was the playwright and pamphleteer.
Although Dekker’s personal life is mostly subject to conjecture, his professional career can be more closely followed. It revolves around three intertwining themes: the dramatic collaborations, the pamphlets, and a lifelong struggle against poverty. No one knows how Dekker’s career started, but by 1598, he was writing plays alone or jointly for Philip Henslowe. Henslowe owned and managed the Rose Theatre, where he commissioned writers to compose plays for his prime tenants, an acting company called the Lord Admiral’s Men. In 1598 alone, Dekker had a hand in fifteen plays (all now lost) that Henslowe commissioned. The sheer quantity indicates how audiences must have clamored for new productions, and some of the titles indicate the taste of the age for popularizations of history (The First Civil Wars in France), reworkings of classical tales (Hannibal and Hermes), and current stories of eccentric persons or scandalous events (Black Batman of the North). All the plays on which Dekker worked had catchy titles: The Roaring Girl: Or, Moll Cutpurse (pr. c. 1610), The Honest Whore, The Witch of Edmonton, and Match Me in London (pr. c. 1611-1612), to name a few.
As early as 1600, Dekker was writing for companies other than the Lord Admiral’s Men. In the course of his career, he would write for the leading acting companies of the time: the Children of St. Paul’s, the Prince’s Men, the Palsgrave’s Men, and the Players of the Revels. More varied than his employers were his collaborators: As a young man Dekker worked with Michael Drayton, Jonson, George Chapman, Henry Chettle, and even Shakespeare. When he returned to the theater as an older man, the new young scriptwriters—a veritable “Who’s Who” of Jacobean dramatists, including John Ford, Samuel Rowley, John Marston, Philip Massinger, and John Webster—worked with...
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Thomas Dekker (DEHK-ur), more than any other playwright in Tudor or Stuart England, wrote about contemporary London life, primarily among the merchant class, and imbued most of his realistic plays with a touch of romance. Perhaps this is why his works arouse so much affection and delight, though much of his writing was hastily turned out, frequently with collaborators. Biographical facts about him are relatively sparse, even for an Elizabethan dramatist. He is chiefly remembered as the author of the lively comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday and the satirical The Gull’s Hornbook as well as Ben Jonson’s onetime literary enemy.
In his English Villanies Dekker claims to be threescore years, which suggests he was born around 1572, and in The Seven Deadly Sins he speaks of London as his birthplace. On the evidence of the plays, he likely had a sound, classics-oriented grammar-school education, and some biographers have concluded on the basis of the plays that he fought in what are now the Benelux countries. Others use the same texts to speculate that he may have been of Dutch ancestry, but there is no proof of this, nor of the identification of the playwright with a Thomas Dekker who had two daughters baptized in St. Giles, Cripplegate, London, in 1594 and 1602, and of church registers that record the burial of a Dekker son and daughter in 1598. Neither Dekker’s parentage nor his marriage and family can be identified with certainty.
As a writer he first appears in 1598 in Philip Henslowe’s records, but he may have written for the producer and others before then, perhaps as early as 1593. In 1598 Henslowe paid forty shillings to obtain Dekker’s release from prison, and the theater owner also engineered his release from police custody the following year. During the next few years Dekker was a prolific playwright, writing for the Admiral’s Men (Henslowe’s company), for Worcester’s company, for the Chamberlain’s Men, and for Paul’s Boys.
The first of his surviving plays from this period is The Whole History of Fortunatus, commonly known as Old Fortunatus, which concerns a beggar and is based...
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