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...
(The entire section is 1067 words.)