Critical condemnation of Thomas Dekker as “a moral sloven” or as a hack with a marginal understanding of dramatic structure is chiefly based on unsympathetic readings of such early plays as Old Fortunatus, Patient Grissell, and Satiromastix. To some extent, the adverse assessments are justified, for these plays are quite severely lacking in structural coherence. Part of the problem, however, may lie in the sheer intransigence of Dekker’s sources. The fact that Dekker did possess a keen sense of dramatic structure and moral integrity can easily be demonstrated by an analysis of two of his finest works, The Shoemaker’s Holiday and The Honest Whore, Part II.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday
Based on Thomas Deloney’s prose narrative The Gentle Craft (1597-c. 1598), The Shoemaker’s Holiday reveals its structural strategy in the opening scene, in which a discussion between Sir Roger Otley, Lord Mayor of London, and Sir Hugh Lacy, the powerful Earl of Lincoln, is animated by the latent hostility that divides the landed nobility and the wealthy, self-made citizenry of London. Both men fear an elopement between the earl’s nephew, Rowland Lacy, and Rose, the Mayor’s daughter. Rather than expose his treasury to the frivolous exploitation of a courtly son-in-law, Sir Roger has ordered his daughter into rustic banishment. The earl, to avoid besmirching the family dignity and turn his nephew’s attention elsewhere, has arranged to have his nephew lead one of the regiments about to invade France. Lacy, however, leaves his command in charge of his cousin Askew, but before he can escape, he is temporarily interrupted by a shoemaker, Simon Eyre, and his men, who try, unsuccessfully, to intercede for the newly married journeyman Rafe, who has been pressed for service in France. Realizing the futility of his plea, Eyre then encourages Rafe to fight for the honor of the gentle craft of shoemakers. The poignant departure scene is highlighted by the generous monetary gifts showered on Rafe and by Rafe’s gift of a pair of monogrammed shoes he has made for Jane, his bride. Rafe’s obedience provides a stark contrast to the irresponsibility of Lacy, who, though he insists on Rafe’s loyalty, has no intention of fulfilling his own patriotic duty. Meanwhile, Jane’s distress is reflected in a parallel scene in which Rose learns of Lacy’s orders to leave for France. Lacy, however, has decided to use his knowledge of the shoemaker’s trade learned on an earlier trip to Germany, to find work with Eyre, who will be shorthanded without Rafe’s services. In the following scene, the audience is entertained by the lively bustle of Eyre’s shop as he drives his men into honest industry and heaps torrents of loving abuse on his wife, Margery, when she tries to exert a little domestic authority over his employees. Lacy, now posing as Hans Meulter, a Dutchman who speaks only broken English, appears to apply for a job but is hired only because of the strong support of Hodge and Firke, Simon’s other workmen. This scene reinforces the central theme of class conflict, because it demonstrates both that true love knows no social barriers and that a resourceful courtier can humble himself to the level of mere apprentice.
By stark contrast, in act 2, Dekker introduces the character of Hammon, an upstart citizen who, in the hope of impressing the exiled Rose, dresses in the height of fashion and ludicrously affects the language of courtly love. Even though his suit is favored by Sir Roger, Hammon is sternly rebuffed when he proposes marriage to Rose. Ironically, Sir Roger is far more impressed by the citizen who apes courtly manners and speech than by the true nobility of Lacy, who is willing to sacrifice all, including social status, for the sake of love. In the third scene, Lacy repays his employer’s kindness by introducing him to a Dutch captain who sells Eyre a cargo of valuable merchandise at a great bargain. In order to impress the captain and effect the deal, Simon disguises himself as an alderman, a post he later achieves.
The first scene of act 3 renews Sir Roger’s entertainment of Hammon as a suitable husband for Rose, but once again Rose firmly rejects the proposal, much to her father’s disgust, and when he learns of Lacy’s desertion, Sir Roger’s suspicions are highly aroused. In the second scene, Simon’s men play on Margery’s vanity by suggesting how she should respond to the news that Simon has been elected High Sheriff of London. The festivities are dampened by the unexpected return of Rafe, who has suffered the amputation of a leg. His grief is doubled when he discovers that Jane has secretly left the Eyre household. His distress, however, is swept aside by the triumphal entrance of Eyre, wearing the sheriff’s chain of office. The third scene, in which Sir Roger honors Eyre at a banquet, is pivotal to the main plot, for it provides an opportunity, when Simon’s men perform a morris dance, for Lacy to reveal his identity to Rose. This scene also reinforces the striking contrast between the pretentious gravity of Sir Roger and the bluff good nature of Simon Eyre. Margery’s amusing efforts at courtly decorum also provide an ironic commentary on citizen snobbery. Having been unsuccessful in his pursuit of Rose, Hammon subsequently proposes to Jane, now working as a seamstress, and when she rejects him on the grounds that she is still married, Hammon concocts a false report of Rafe’s death in battle. In spite of her evident grief, Hammon relentlessly presses his case until Jane agrees to marry him.
Act 4 begins with excited speculation that Simon will become the next Lord Mayor, but the shoptalk is interrupted by Rose’s maid, Sybil, who has been sent to arrange a secret meeting between Rose and Lacy. In the following scene, Rafe learns that Jane is going to marry Hammon when Hammon’s servant is dispatched to Eyre’s shop to have a pair of shoes made after the exact model of those which Rafe had given Jane. The wily Firke promises to devise a scheme to prevent the marriage. In scene 3, Lacy is surprised during his secret assignation with Rose by Sir Roger, yet he eludes detection by pretending, in the character of Hans, to measure Rose for shoes. When, shortly after, Sir Hugh is announced, Hans and Rose manage to slip away undetected. When Sybil eventually reveals their elopement, Sir Hugh, fully aware of his nephew’s experience as a shoemaker in Wittenberg, realizes how he has been duped. At this point, Firke enters with the shoes that Rose had actually ordered and, seeing the danger to Hans, manufactures a story that misdirects the two enraged elders to St. Faith’s, where a marriage, but that of Hammon and Jane, is scheduled. It is important to note that Dekker uses pairs of shoes throughout act 4, in both the main plot and the subplot, to effect the union or reunion of souls.
In the opening scene of act 5, Simon Eyre, who has been elevated to the office of Lord Mayor, agrees to intercede on behalf of Rose and Lacy to the king himself, who has accepted an invitation to dine with him that same day. Simon undertakes this potentially dangerous mission because he will not “forget his fine Dutch journeyman.” In the scene following, Rafe, Firke, and Hodge intercept Hammon and his men who are escorting Jane to St. Faith’s. Realizing that her husband still lives, Jane immediately rejects Hammon, while the shoemakers give his men a sound thrashing. Sir Hugh and Sir Roger appear at this moment, only to discover that Firke has deceived them, for Rose and Lacy have already been married at the Savoy. Finally, Eyre and his men entertain the king at a great banquet, dedicating the day to their gentle craft and their patron Saint Hugh. This saint’s association with the city of London suggests good fortune not only for shoemakers but also for Lacy, who as the Earl of Lincoln’s heir and as a shoemaker himself, embodies the best of both worlds. In spite of the earl’s vigorous objections, the king, responding graciously to Eyre’s humble petition, pardons Lacy’s desertion. The shoemaker-mayor, “one of the merriest madcaps” in the land, carries the day, and the king reconciles Sir Roger and Sir Hugh to the marriage of Lacy and Rose.
In adapting Deloney’s novel for the stage, Dekker drastically revised the character of Simon Eyre, who in Deloney’s work seems much more like Dekker’s Sir Roger Otley, a ceremoniously grave and ambitious man who plots his rise to power. Thus, Dekker suppresses the darker side of the bargaining for the Dutch merchandise and creates in Simon an irrepressible force for good. Furthermore, although Deloney’s Eyre believes in thrift and hard work, Dekker’s Eyre is less motivated by purely economic considerations than he is by an exhilarating sense of the value of work as work. It is also important to note that The Shoemaker’s Holiday is not a dynamic play, for Dekker’s treatment of his main characters permits no internal conflict, no self-discovery, and no essential growth. Simon, Lacy, Rose, and the shoemakers remain, throughout, perfectly secure in the holiness of their hearts’ affections, and their knowledge is instinctive rather than based on systems of moral philosophy or codes of social behavior. In the very integrity of their words and actions, their lives exemplify the theme of the comedy: that love and nobility transcend such considerations as wealth, class consciousness, or political status. Although Simon Eyre achieves all the social distinctions that mean most to men such as Sir Roger and Sir Hugh, he remains completely oblivious to them. His love...
(The entire section is 3949 words.)