Thomas Dekker, an Englishman of probable Dutch descent, was a true son of London, as his plays, and especially The Shoemaker’s Holiday, attest. Happy in its blending of quasi-history and ordinary London life, this plot contains young lovers, noblemen, solid merchants, artisans, and even a king. Surely the theme and treatment gave the play wide popularity in Dekker’s own day. This drama, with its appeal to patriotic instincts, formed part of the Lord Admiral’s Men’s answer to the popular history plays being written at the moment by William Shakespeare, who wrote for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Dekker derived his plot from a prose tale, The Gentle Craft (c. 1597-1598) by Thomas Deloney.
The first performance of The Shoemaker’s Holiday was given for Queen Elizabeth’s court. At that time the drama scene in London was experiencing a state of transition; the earlier romantic style of Robert Greene and John Lyly now seemed superficial and escapist, but the darkly realistic comedies of Ben Jonson or the later Shakespeare had not yet been written. As comic drama, The Shoemaker’s Holiday is an excellent example of the transitional period that produced it. Dekker possessed an uncanny talent for mingling realism and romanticism, and this, his first extant play, belongs to two strikingly contradictory literary currents. On the one hand, The Shoemaker’s Holiday is probably the best illustration of romantic comedy that readers have. Yet, at the same time, subtle, but frequent, realistic touches make the play an effective tool for discussing the transition in English comedy from romance to realism that can be pinpointed as occurring roughly at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The tone of exuberance—zest for life—that filters through The Shoemaker’s Holiday may reflect the youthful Dekker who wrote the play. Though he lived for another generation, he never wrote anything better than this early comedy. A poet at heart, Dekker collaborated in writing more than thirty plays and was known as a hack. He was in and out of debtor’s prison much of his life.
The play’s realistic undercoating—found in the street scenes and whenever the shoemakers are onstage—suggests that even at an early age Dekker was already aware of the dramatic possibilities of realism in comedy. Realism became increasingly evident in his later plays, especially The Honest Whore (1604-1605).
The romantic essence of The Shoemaker’s Holiday may well lie in the absence of a palpable evil, of really dangerous villains in the play. In terms of the genre, it exhibits all the motifs and thematic conventions of romantic comedy. The standard theme of “rival wooers,” for example, is carried out through Rowland and Rose and, in the subplot, through Rafe and Jane. Dekker carries the theme through its conventional turns as the true love between these couples is blocked by disapproving and...
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