Thomas Dekker

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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.


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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),...

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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 him.

Since his employers and collaborators changed so often, it is not surprising that at least once the intense dramatic rivalry characteristic of the age embroiled Dekker in controversy. In 1600, he was drafted into the brief but vitriolic “War of the Theatres,” which had begun in the previous year when Marston satirized Jonson as a boorish and presumptuous poet. Jonson returned the compliment by poking fun at Marston in two plays and tried to anticipate a Marston-Dekker rejoinder with a third play, Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment (pr. 1601), which compares them to “screaming grasshoppers held by the wings.” Marston and Dekker retaliated with Satiromastix: Or, The Untrussing of the Humourous Poet (pr. 1601), an amalgam of tragic, comic, and tragicomic plots, portraying Jonson as a slow-witted and slow-working poet for hire.

In 1603, Dekker was forced to find another line of work when an outbreak of the plague closed the theaters. He produced a pamphlet, The Wonderful Year, which recounted the death of the queen, Elizabeth I, the accession of James I, and the coming of the disease that scourged humankind’s folly. In the next six years, Dekker published more than a dozen pamphlets designed to capitalize on readers’ interest in current events and the city’s criminal subculture. In his pamphlets, as in his plays, Dekker provides a panorama of cutpurses, pimps, courtesans, apprentices, and similar types; he paints scenes of busy streets and records the sounds of loud voices, creaking carriages, and thumped pots. Dekker’s purpose is not that of the local colorist who preserves such scenes simply because they typify a time and place. Rather, his interest is that of the moralist who sees the side of city life that the upper classes would like to ignore and that the academics shrug off as part of the necessary order of things.

Dekker himself knew this low world intimately—at least he never seems to have gotten into the higher. Unlike his fellow writers Jonson and Shakespeare or the actor Edward Alleyn, Dekker could not or did not take advantage of the aristocracy’s interest in the theater to secure for himself consistent patronage and financial stability. Playwriting seems to have brought Dekker only a few pounds per play: Despite his prodigious outburst of fifteen collaborations in 1598, he was arrested for debt that year and the next. Fourteen years later, while both publishing pamphlets and writing plays, Dekker was again imprisoned for debt at the King’s Bench, a prison notorious for its mismanagement. He remained in debtors’ prison for six or seven years (1613-1619).

No wonder, then, that money is one of Dekker’s favorite themes and gold one image to which he devotes loving attention. He neither worships the almighty guinea nor scorns sinful lucre. On one hand, Dekker likes money: His best characters make shrewd but kindly use of the stuff; they work, and their labor supports them. He sometimes sees even confidence games as offshoots of a healthy capitalistic impulse. Old Fortunatus’s claim, “Gold is the strength, the sinnewes of the world,/ The Health, the soule, the beautie most divine,” may be misguided, but Dekker understands the impulse. He forgives prodigals easily. On the other hand, Dekker expects generosity from moneymakers. Even virtuous persons who do not use their wealth well come to bad ends; those who refuse to help the needy he assigns to the coldest regions of hell. According to Pendry in Selected Prose Writings, the use of money is for Dekker an index of morality: Virtue flows from its proper use and vice from its improper.

The last decade of Dekker’s life was a repetition of the previous three. He wrote for the theater, published pamphlets, and teetered on the edge of debt. Though his life was hard and his social rank was low, Dekker generally wrote as if his literary trade was, like the shoemaker’s, a truly gentle craft.