Thomas Dekker (DEHK-ur), more than any other playwright in Tudor or Stuart England, wrote about contemporary London life, primarily among the merchant class, and imbued most of his realistic plays with a touch of romance. Perhaps this is why his works arouse so much affection and delight, though much of his writing was hastily turned out, frequently with collaborators. Biographical facts about him are relatively sparse, even for an Elizabethan dramatist. He is chiefly remembered as the author of the lively comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday and the satirical The Gull’s Hornbook as well as Ben Jonson’s onetime literary enemy.
In his English Villanies Dekker claims to be threescore years, which suggests he was born around 1572, and in The Seven Deadly Sins he speaks of London as his birthplace. On the evidence of the plays, he likely had a sound, classics-oriented grammar-school education, and some biographers have concluded on the basis of the plays that he fought in what are now the Benelux countries. Others use the same texts to speculate that he may have been of Dutch ancestry, but there is no proof of this, nor of the identification of the playwright with a Thomas Dekker who had two daughters baptized in St. Giles, Cripplegate, London, in 1594 and 1602, and of church registers that record the burial of a Dekker son and daughter in 1598. Neither Dekker’s parentage nor his marriage and family can be identified with certainty.
As a writer he first appears in 1598 in Philip Henslowe’s records, but he may have written for the producer and others before then, perhaps as early as 1593. In 1598 Henslowe paid forty shillings to obtain Dekker’s release from prison, and the theater owner also engineered his release from police custody the following year. During the next few years Dekker was a prolific playwright, writing for the Admiral’s Men (Henslowe’s company), for Worcester’s company, for the Chamberlain’s Men, and for Paul’s Boys.
The first of his surviving plays from this period is The Whole History of Fortunatus, commonly known as Old Fortunatus, which concerns a beggar and is based...
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