Thomas Dekker 1572-1632
English dramalist and essayist.
A prolific author, Dekker wrote, alone or in collaboration, over forty plays, of which seventeen survive. His best-known dramas include The Shoemaker's Holiday, Old Fortunatus, The Honest Whore, and The Witch of Edmonton. He is also noted for having produced numerous pamphlets, such as The Wonderful Yeare, The Belman of London, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, and A Rod for Run-Awayes, which provide detailed pictures of the life of Elizabethan and Jacobean London. Admired in his own time for his writings in both comic and tragic veins, Dekker's reputation fell greatly during the eighteenth century but has been rehabilitated by a number of twentieth-century critics who praise Dekker for his romanticism, his ethical concerns, and his considerable, if sometimes uneven, craftsmanship in both drama and prose.
Dekker was born in London, possibly to a Dutch family, as scholars deduce from both his surname and his evident familiarity with Dutch language in The Shoemaker's Holiday and other works. Nothing is known of his life until the 1590s, when his name began appearing in theatrical documents. A 1594 entry in The Stationer's Register—a record of works licensed for publication—lists a “Tho: Decker” as the author of a drama entitled The Jew of Venice, a work that no longer survives. The next evidence of Dekker's activities dates from 1597, when theater manager Philip Henslowe recorded in his professional diary the hiring of Dekker to write and adapt plays for his company, the Lord Admiral's Men. Subsequent entries in Henslowe's diary indicate that during his tenure with the Lord Admiral's Men, Dekker had a hand in the composition or revision of dozens of plays, at times working with as many as three or four other writers. In the opening years of the seventeenth century, Dekker became involved in “the War of the Theaters,” a literary quarrel in which Ben Jonson ridiculed both Dekker and John Marston in several plays, most notably Poetaster (1601). Dekker responded by mocking Jonson in Satiro-Mastix. Or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet. Dekker wrote steadily for Henslowe until 1603, when the death of Elizabeth I, followed shortly by an outbreak of the plague, resulted in the closing of London's theaters. For the time deprived of the means to support himself by playwriting, Dekker turned to composing prose pamphlets. The epidemic prompted Dekker to publish The Wonderful Yeare, a collection of anecdotes, religious meditations, and lamentations for those who died. Surprisingly, in 1604 Dekker was jointly commissioned with Jonson to compose the pageant celebrating the coronation of James I. The two writers remained antipathetic to one another, however, and each published separately his share in the pageant, which was titled The Magnificent Entertainment. With the reopening of the theaters Dekker returned to drama, writing both parts of The Honest Whore in 1604-05. About two years later Dekker appears to have stopped writing for the stage, and for the next five years he concentrated exclusively on producing pamphlets. He returned to playwriting in 1611, but this activity was soon terminated as he was imprisoned for debt. He was, however, able to continue composing pamphlets, and he published several while in prison. After his release in 1619, Dekker worked with Samuel Rowley, John Ford, and others, creating such works as The Virgin Martir and The Witch of Edmonton. Dekker died sometime around 1632.
As a result of the varied conditions and diverse genres in which Dekker wrote, scholars find that his work as a whole is hard to characterize. One of his hallmarks, however, is comic, often raucous, banter. Even his religious play The Virgin Martir includes bawdy dialogue, which is given to the pagan antagonists of the title character Dorothea, contrasting their sensuality with her sanctity. Dekker is also often credited with a profound sensitivity to the plight of the poor, the laboring classes, and, particularly, the victims of persecution. Several critics have pointed out that the speeches of jailed prostitutes in Part Two of The Honest Whore indict society's indifference to poor women as a major cause of prostitution. In addition, Mother Sawyer, the eponymous witch of Edmonton, is sympathetically portrayed, making a pact with the devil only in response to her neighbors' cruel taunts regarding her ugliness and poverty. The Shoemaker's Holiday, perhaps Dekker's most popular work, is commonly regarded as a celebration of working-class life. This comedy depicting the rise of Simon Eyre to the position of Lord Mayor offers several portraits of honorable tradespeople and laborers. Dekker's compassion for the poor and suffering is also reflected in his pamphlets; for example, The Wonderful Yeare castigates those of his contemporaries who, fearing contagion, refused to nurse or comfort victims of the plague.
Appraisals of Dekker's works have varied widely over the years. While in the seventeenth century Jonson satirized him as “Demetrius Fannius,” an impoverished and incompetent “dresser of plays” in Poetaster, William Fennor praised Dekker as “the true heire of Appolo” in his The Comptor's Commonwealth (1617), and Edward Phillips lauded him as “a high-flier in wit” in his Theatrum poetarum anglicanorum (1675). In the eighteenth century Dekker was generally held in low esteem. For instance, Charles Dibdin, writing in 1795, censured the structure of Dekker's plays and maintained that it was “very probable that [Dekker] could not have been half so well respected as he was,” were it not for his famous rivalry with Jonson. Subsequent critics frequently charged Dekker's plays with poor construction, though his reputation rose again in the early nineteenth century, when critics such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb praised him for the imaginative situations and believable characterizations in his dramas. Both Lamb and Hazlitt expressed admiration for Dekker's lyrical qualities, as did many later critics. In the Victorian period a number of writers lauded Dekker's compassion for the lower classes while condemning his coarse language and sexual humor. Early twentieth-century opinion continued to reproach Dekker's dramatic technique and considered the quality of his verse uneven and generally inferior to that of his prose.
Significantly, many critics now judge one of Dekker's greatest strengths to be his versatile prose style, which, as demonstrated in his pamphlets as well as his plays, is capable of both dignified formality and lively colloquialism. Recent commentary has increasingly examined Dekker's drama in the context of his overall literary output, with many critics finding a consistent moral view expressed throughout his work. Other modern scholars have challenged the notion that Dekker's plays are poorly integrated, citing thematic patterns, unified plots, consistency of characterization, and other evidence of Dekker's craftsmanship. With such studies has come a heightened appreciation of Dekker as an artist who, as Larry S. Champion has asserted, “genuinely deserves a considerably higher place in the development and maturation of Elizabethan-Jacobean-Caroline drama than most previous critics have been willing to acknowledge.”
The Jew of Venice 1594?
Black Bateman of the North, Part 1 [with Henry Chettle, Michael Drayton, and Robert Wilson] 1598
The Civil Wars of France 3 parts [with Drayton] 1598
Conan, Prince of Cornwall [with Drayton] 1598
Earle Godwin and His Sons 2 parts [with Chettle, Drayton, and Wilson] 1598
The Famous Wars of Henry I and the Prince of Wales [with Chettle and Drayton; also known as The Welshman's Prize] 1598
Hannibal and Hermes [with Chettle, Drayton, and Wilson] 1598
The Mad Man's Morris [with Drayton and Wilson] 1598
Pierce of Winchester [with Drayton and Wilson] 1598
The Triangle (or Triplicity) of Cuckholds 1598
Worse Afeard than Hurt [with Drayton] 1598
Agamemnon [with Chettle; possibly the same play as Orestes' Furies] 1599
Page of Plymouth [with Ben Jonson] 1599
The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatas 1599
The Shoemaker's Holiday. Or The Gentle Craft. With the Life of Simon Eyre, Shoomaker, and Lord Maior of London 1599
The Stepmother's Tragedy [with Chettle] 1599
The Tragedy of Robert II, King of...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Thomas Dekker: A Partial Reappraisal,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring 1966, pp. 263-77.
[In the following essay, Berlin contends that Dekker's works demonstrate that the playwright is “genuinely moral and often angry,” adding: “When he can draw clear moral lines, solidified by a love for the class which originally drew these lines, he presents aesthetically satisfying drama.”]
Compared to other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, Thomas Dekker has received little critical attention in recent years. It seems that the last word has been said about this profilic dramatist. All the clichés describing him are known and generally accepted by students of the drama. He has become a stereotype—the gentle, tolerant, lovable “moral sloven” who had his hand in too many plays, who occasionally sang a sweet song, who could at times present lively characters. Having been fixed in a formulated phrase, having been pinned, one can hardly see him wriggling on the critical wall. The purpose here is not to demonstrate the falsity of the stereotype, which often hits the truth, but to investigate Dekker's particular qualities of mind and art that produced such a stereotype, and to indicate that Dekker is more angry and more morally earnest than is commonly recognized. The fact is that the epithet “gentle” describes only one side of Dekker's character, and the...
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SOURCE: “Dekker's Drama: Independent Work,” in Thomas Dekker, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 34-83.
[In the essay below, Price surveys the eight surviving plays that Dekker wrote without a collaborator. The critic argues that these were effective pieces that pleased their Elizabethan audiences.]
More than with most dramatists of the English Renaissance, it is necessary to begin a consideration of Dekker's plays with a reminder of how thoroughly this playwright is sustained by the native dramatic tradition. The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599), the most familiar of his works to twentieth-century readers, may be somewhat misleading in this respect; for, despite its romantic love-theme, this comedy is likely to be regarded as marking an advance in realism in its depiction of bourgeois life. Actually, the advance was being made, then and in the next decade, by Ben Jonson and such younger satiric dramatists as Marston and Middleton. In contrast, The Shoemaker's Holiday and Dekker's better plays continued throughout his career to rely on the conventions and devices which he had learned in the early 1590's; and these have little affinity with tragic or satiric realism. Although partitioning the English dramatic tradition into morality, romantic, comic, and chronicle elements may seem at first a needless, pedantic method (so closely are the conventions woven together), such division may nevertheless...
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SOURCE: “Persuasion and Drama,” in Rhetoric in the Plays of Thomas Dekker, Institut für Englishe Sprach und Literatur, 1972, pp. 28-65.
[In the following chapter from her study of the elements of formal rhetoric in Dekker's works, Blow identifies the rhetorical devices used for persuasion and argumentation.]
Except for prologues, aside, and the like, every speech in a play is directed at a dual audience: the theatre audience and the character or characters to whom it is addressed in dramatic context. When Dekker intended a speech to achieve a persuasive purpose within his story framework, he customarily exployed rhetorical figures and principles decorously selected to fit the character of the speaker and the dramatic situation. In regard to the theatre audience, he skillfully utilized the persuasive devices of rhetoric to move the spectators to sympathize with or react against certain characters or themes. In a very basic sense, Dekker used the techniques of the logic of probability—rhetoric—to establish dramatic probability.
Of course the principles of persuasion and the techniques of applying them, which were classified, analyzed, and illustrated in Renaissance handbooks of rhetoric, are principles that are still used and that still work. The traditional art of rhetoric, as Dekker and other Renaissance writers had learned it, merely put at their disposal more tested...
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Criticism: The Shoemaker's Holiday
SOURCE: “The Shoemakers' Holiday, or the Gentle Craft,” in Thomas Dekker: An Analysis of Dramatic Structure, Mouton, 1969, pp. 18-50.
[In the essay below, Conover analyzes the various plots of The Shoemaker's Holiday, concluding that “the individual actions [of the play] are well articulated and … skillful devices have been employed to link the various actions and characters in a meaningful, coherent whole.”]
If a critic were attempting to develop the thesis that Dekker's skills and techniques gradually developed over a period of years that critic would face great difficulties with The Shoemakers' Holiday, or The Gentle Craft. Although it is the earliest of Dekker's extant plays, it is very nearly the best of the whole body of work. As will be seen, the playwright has taken three contrasting sets of incidents and has interwoven them to produce an almost inseparable whole.
This play, like Old Fortunatus and If It Be Not Good, is in part based upon a known source. It is a commonplace that Elizabethan dramatists—even the greatest—drew regularly upon both dramatic and non-dramatic literature for plot ideas. When such a source is known or suspected then it is profitable to investigate the playwright's use of the earlier work. It has been generally accepted that Shoemaker's Holiday is based upon Thomas Deloney's prose narrative, The...
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SOURCE: “Dekker's Use of Serious Elements in Comedy: The Shoemaker’s Holiday,” in Serious and Tragic Elements in the Comedy of Thomas Dekker, Institut für Englishe Sprach und Literatur, 1975, pp. 12-36.
[In the following essay, Shirley explores Dekker's mixture of gravity and levity in his depiction of situations and characters in The Shoemaker's Holiday.]
Fredson Bowers notes in connection with The Shoemakers' Holiday, “On 15 July 1599 Henslowe had advanced £3 towards buying the book from Dekker, but the first recorded performance is that at court on 1 January 1600”;1 the first quarto, not listed in the Stationers' Register, is dated 1600. The quarto copy, Professor Bowers points out, did not carry the dramatist's name on the title-page; the Dekker critic feels, however, that the information from Henslowe's diary and internal evidence from the play itself form a sufficient basis for attributing the play solely to Dekker, and he draws from his own previous study2 which concluded that an attempt to establish a theory of collaboration with Robert Wilson in the writing of this play was based on a forgery by J. Payne Collier.3
Professor Bowers' edition of Dekker's drama includes the short introductory piece addressed to all who follow the shoemaker's trade that refers to the presentation of the play before Elizabeth on New Year's Day...
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SOURCE: “Workshop and/as Playhouse: Comedy and Commerce in The Shoemaker's Holiday,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 3, Summer 1987, pp. 324-37.
[In the essay below, Kastan maintains that The Shoemaker's Holiday is “a realistic portrait only of Elizabethan middle-class dreams—a fantasy of class fulfillment that would erase the tensions and contradictions created by the nascent capitalism of the late sixteenth-century.”]
Nothing is proposed but mirth,” Thomas Dekker assures his readers in the dedicatory epistle to The Shoemaker's Holiday. “I present you here with a merry conceited comedy,” he says, a play that had recently been acted before the Queen, that ever enthusiastic though hyper-sensitive theatre-goer, whose pleasure Dekker presents as evidence of the innocence of his offering: “the mirth and pleasant matter by her Highness graciously accepted, being indeed no way offensive.”
Certainly critics have generally taken Dekker at his word. We are told again and again that the play is “indeed no way offensive,” a triumph of middle-class vitality and generosity.1 Its moral anomalies, if acknowledged at all, are subordinated to the genial energies of the exuberant Simon Eyre and his shoemakers. “In The Shoemaker's Holiday,” writes Joel Kaplan, “faith is encouraged in the energy of a madcap lord of mirth who can...
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SOURCE: “The End(s) of Discord in The Shoemaker's Holiday,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 357-72.
[In this essay, Straznicky asserts that The Shoemaker's Holiday “enacts an imaginary appropriation of civic authority and commercial wealth by a group of industrial laborers for whom both privileges were largely a matter of fantasy.”]
The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599) is one of only three Elizabethan comedies named after specific festive occasions.1 While most critics have duly noted the importance of the festival to the play's structural and thematic design, their accounts employ a vague and moralistic vocabulary that is strangely out of keeping with the concrete, even materialistic language of the play itself. Michael Manheim, for example, sees the Guildhall feast as a “victory for the forces of humility and good will,” and Arthur Kinney calls it “the still centre where passion and reason are themselves advanced, but made one and inseparable.”2 Even critics such as Peter Mortenson and David Scott Kastan, who have usefully situated the play within the complex network of social, political, and economic conditions in which it was written and performed, view the play's holiday as a simple generic trick, a shrewd deployment of the ideology of comedy to resolve the discordant labor relations and commercial...
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Criticism: The Honest Whore
SOURCE: “The Social and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Dekker,” in Emporia State Research Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, December 1955, pp. 1-36.
[In the following excerpt, Thornton evaluates the relative virtue and integrity of the various strata of society depicted in The Honest Whore.]
But gentlemen, I must disarme you then, There are of mad-men, as there are of tame, All humourd not alike: we have here some, So apish and phantasticke, play with a feather, And tho twould grieve a soule to see Gods image So blemisht and defac'd, yet doe they act Such anticke and such pretty lunacies, That spite of Sorrow they will make you smile: Others agen we have like hungry Lions, Fierce as the wilde Bulls, untameable as flies, And these have oftentimes from strangers sides Snatcht rapiers suddenly, and done much harme, Whom if you'l see, you must be weaponlesse.
The Honest Whore, I (1604)
In discussing the plots of [The Honest Whore], I & II,1 it is expedient to combine the two as one drama, since one is, actually, the sequel to the other. The plots are succinctly put forth in the original titles accorded the two plays. The 1604 edition of HW, I is described as “A Booke called The humours of the patient man, The longinge wyfe and the honest whore.”2 The 1630 edition of HW, II is entitled: “The Second Part of the Honest...
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SOURCE: “The Early Years—Romantic Comedy, Satire,” in Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, Peter Lang, 1985, pp. 11-53.
[In the excerpt below, Champion analyzes the construction of the two parts of The Honest Whore. He judges Part II a masterpiece, comparing its structure to that of “Shakespeare's most effective comedies.”]
Whatever the critical complaints about parts of the canon, Dekker's work at its rare best ranks, as A. H. Bullen has observed, “with the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama.”1 And in any description of those moments, the two parts of The Honest Whore invariably place high on the list.2 Yet, a comparison of these plays—like that of Westward Ho and Northward Ho—reveals significantly different levels of craftsmanship and, at the same time, provides clear evidence why Part II is one of his greatest works.3 In both plays the attempt (as in Shakespeare's problem comedies) is to create, not the stylized, one-dimensional puppet of situation comedy, but rather a more complex character who is forced to confront a viable force of evil and to make ethical and moral decisions and who—in the course of the action—experiences a credible and genuine development. In these stage worlds the power of evil is real; and the characters, struggling on the fringe of comedy, must cope with the actual consequences...
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SOURCE: “Gender and Eloquence in Dekker's The Honest Whore, Part II,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XV, No. 3, September 1989, pp. 249-62.
[In this essay, Comensoli argues that in the second part of The Honest Whore, “Dekker has included women in the Renaissance dictum that the practice of eloquence is ‘the practice of power’.”]
In Part I of The Honest Whore (1604), which Dekker co-authored with Middleton, the courtesan Bellafront tries to seduce the Count Hippolito, whose oration on the evils of her trade converts her to virtue (II.i.321-456).1 Hardin Craig has noted that Hippolito's formal diatribe, which effects Bellafront's conversion, “is in the form of the forensic declamations” written by young men “in schools and universities” during the sixteenth century: “The force of persuasion establishes remorse of conscience in her [Bellafront's] heart by presenting to her a true picture of her trade, and her conversion follows as a matter of necessity.”2 Taking Craig's observation one step further, we note that Hippolito's declamation contains three elements which are traditionally associated with forensic rhetoric: the first is persuasion through judgement of former action, in this case the evil of Bellafront's trade (lines 326-423); the second is epideictic function, or the praise of virtue and the blame of vice, which informs all...
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Criticism: The Roaring Girl
SOURCE: “Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn 1984, pp. 367-91.
[In the essay below, Rose argues that The Roaring Girl, with its depiction of the cross-dressing Moll Frith, presents “an image of Jacobean society as unable to absorb one of its most vital and complex creations into the existing social and sexual hierarchies.”]
The central figure in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's city comedy The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-1611) is a woman named Moll Frith, whose distinguishing feature is that she walks around Jacobean London dressed in male clothing.1 It should be stressed that Moll is not in disguise: she is neither a disguised player, a man pretending to be a woman; nor is she a disguised character, whose role requires a woman pretending to be a man. Unlike the disguised heroines of romantic comedy, Moll seeks not to conceal her sexual identity, but rather to display it. Although certain of the Dramatis Personae in The Roaring Girl occasionally fail to recognize her immediately, the fact that Moll is a woman is well known to every character in the play. She simply presents herself in society as a woman wearing men's clothes. Demanding merely by her presence that people reconcile her apparent sexual contradictions, she arouses unspeakable social and sexual anxieties...
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SOURCE: “Play-making, Domestic Conduct, and the Multiple Plot in The Roaring Girl,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 249-66.
[In the following essay, Comensoli contends that the three plots of The Roaring Girl together “convey the concern at the heart of the play with the degeneration of marriage and the family, a tension sustained in the antithesis between the household (consistently portrayed as the seat of spiritual and emotional stasis and confinement) and the city (the hub of multifariousness and freedom).”]
Moll Cutpurse, the central character of Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-1611), is based on the notorious roarerMary Frith who frequented the Fortune Theater in man's apparel. Mary was described by a contemporary as “a very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle” who “sported only in boys' play and pastime,” scorned girlish endeavors such as “sewing or stitching,” and showed “rude inclinations.”1 While Moll Cutpurse does many of the things her real-life counterpart did—she wears men's clothes, carries a weapon, and mixes in taverns with members of the underworld—she also punishes lecherous gallants through her skillful sword-fighting and promotes the love-marriage of Mary Fitzallard and Sebastian Wengrave. T. S. Eliot was the first to praise The Roaring Girl as...
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SOURCE: “Rehabilitating Moll's Subversion in The Roaring Girl,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 37, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 317-35.
[In this essay, Baston insists that “Moll's defiance is reinvented in The Roaring Girl in order to be contained, enervated, and eventually incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus.”]
On 12 February 1612 in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton, John Chamberlain included an account of the punishments of three women. Of the first two he writes: “The Lady of Shrewsberie is still in the Towre rather upon wilfulnes, then upon any great matter she is charged withall: only the King is resolute that she shall aunswer to certain interrogatories, and she is as obstinate to make none, nor to be examined. The other weeke a younge mignon of Sir Pexall Brockas did penance at Paules Crosse, whom he had entertained and abused since she was twelve years old.”1
But what do we learn from this account? Certainly something about the subjugation of women at this time—a subjugation that seems to recognize no class boundaries. Lady Shrewsbury's refusal to answer certain questions amounts to “wilfulnes” for which she is imprisoned. Although in this case she is refusing to answer the king, willfulness in a woman was tantamount to a crime.2 The second unfortunate, the unnamed “young mignon” of Sir Pexall Brockas, was...
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Adler, Doris Ray. Thomas Dekker: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Annotated bibliography of primary and secondary works relating to Dekker.
Brown, Arthur. “Citizen Comedy and Domestic Drama.” In Jacobean Theatre, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 63-83. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 1. London: Edward Arnold, 1960.
Argues that Dekker “wrote in a popular and romantic vein” which was more concerned with plot than was the rhetorical and intellectual drama of such playwrights as Ben Jonson.
Gasper, Julia.The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 241 p.
Focuses on the religious and political aspects of Dekker's plays.
Gregg, Kate L. Thomas Dekker: A Study in Economic and Social Backgrounds. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1924, 112 p.
Considers the evidently contradictory judgments of mercantile capitalism expressed in Dekker's works, which generally laud commerce as the source of many blessings, yet condemn hardships brought about by the inequalities it produced.
Hoy, Cyrus. Introductions, Notes, and Commentaries to texts in “The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker” Edited by Fredson Bowers. 4...
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