Thomas Dekker

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Thomas Dekker Drama Analysis

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Critical condemnation of Thomas Dekker as “a moral sloven” or as a hack with a marginal understanding of dramatic structure is chiefly based on unsympathetic readings of such early plays as Old Fortunatus, Patient Grissell, and Satiromastix. To some extent, the adverse assessments are justified, for these plays are quite severely lacking in structural coherence. Part of the problem, however, may lie in the sheer intransigence of Dekker’s sources. The fact that Dekker did possess a keen sense of dramatic structure and moral integrity can easily be demonstrated by an analysis of two of his finest works, The Shoemaker’s Holiday and The Honest Whore, Part II.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday

Based on Thomas Deloney’s prose narrative The Gentle Craft (1597-c. 1598), The Shoemaker’s Holiday reveals its structural strategy in the opening scene, in which a discussion between Sir Roger Otley, Lord Mayor of London, and Sir Hugh Lacy, the powerful Earl of Lincoln, is animated by the latent hostility that divides the landed nobility and the wealthy, self-made citizenry of London. Both men fear an elopement between the earl’s nephew, Rowland Lacy, and Rose, the Mayor’s daughter. Rather than expose his treasury to the frivolous exploitation of a courtly son-in-law, Sir Roger has ordered his daughter into rustic banishment. The earl, to avoid besmirching the family dignity and turn his nephew’s attention elsewhere, has arranged to have his nephew lead one of the regiments about to invade France. Lacy, however, leaves his command in charge of his cousin Askew, but before he can escape, he is temporarily interrupted by a shoemaker, Simon Eyre, and his men, who try, unsuccessfully, to intercede for the newly married journeyman Rafe, who has been pressed for service in France. Realizing the futility of his plea, Eyre then encourages Rafe to fight for the honor of the gentle craft of shoemakers. The poignant departure scene is highlighted by the generous monetary gifts showered on Rafe and by Rafe’s gift of a pair of monogrammed shoes he has made for Jane, his bride. Rafe’s obedience provides a stark contrast to the irresponsibility of Lacy, who, though he insists on Rafe’s loyalty, has no intention of fulfilling his own patriotic duty. Meanwhile, Jane’s distress is reflected in a parallel scene in which Rose learns of Lacy’s orders to leave for France. Lacy, however, has decided to use his knowledge of the shoemaker’s trade learned on an earlier trip to Germany, to find work with Eyre, who will be shorthanded without Rafe’s services. In the following scene, the audience is entertained by the lively bustle of Eyre’s shop as he drives his men into honest industry and heaps torrents of loving abuse on his wife, Margery, when she tries to exert a little domestic authority over his employees. Lacy, now posing as Hans Meulter, a Dutchman who speaks only broken English, appears to apply for a job but is hired only because of the strong support of Hodge and Firke, Simon’s other workmen. This scene reinforces the central theme of class conflict, because it demonstrates both that true love knows no social barriers and that a resourceful courtier can humble himself to the level of mere apprentice.

By stark contrast, in act 2, Dekker introduces the character of Hammon, an upstart citizen who, in the hope of impressing the exiled Rose, dresses in the height of fashion and ludicrously affects the language of courtly love. Even though his suit is favored by Sir Roger, Hammon is sternly rebuffed when he proposes marriage to Rose. Ironically, Sir Roger is far more impressed by the citizen who...

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apes courtly manners and speech than by the true nobility of Lacy, who is willing to sacrifice all, including social status, for the sake of love. In the third scene, Lacy repays his employer’s kindness by introducing him to a Dutch captain who sells Eyre a cargo of valuable merchandise at a great bargain. In order to impress the captain and effect the deal, Simon disguises himself as an alderman, a post he later achieves.

The first scene of act 3 renews Sir Roger’s entertainment of Hammon as a suitable husband for Rose, but once again Rose firmly rejects the proposal, much to her father’s disgust, and when he learns of Lacy’s desertion, Sir Roger’s suspicions are highly aroused. In the second scene, Simon’s men play on Margery’s vanity by suggesting how she should respond to the news that Simon has been elected High Sheriff of London. The festivities are dampened by the unexpected return of Rafe, who has suffered the amputation of a leg. His grief is doubled when he discovers that Jane has secretly left the Eyre household. His distress, however, is swept aside by the triumphal entrance of Eyre, wearing the sheriff’s chain of office. The third scene, in which Sir Roger honors Eyre at a banquet, is pivotal to the main plot, for it provides an opportunity, when Simon’s men perform a morris dance, for Lacy to reveal his identity to Rose. This scene also reinforces the striking contrast between the pretentious gravity of Sir Roger and the bluff good nature of Simon Eyre. Margery’s amusing efforts at courtly decorum also provide an ironic commentary on citizen snobbery. Having been unsuccessful in his pursuit of Rose, Hammon subsequently proposes to Jane, now working as a seamstress, and when she rejects him on the grounds that she is still married, Hammon concocts a false report of Rafe’s death in battle. In spite of her evident grief, Hammon relentlessly presses his case until Jane agrees to marry him.

Act 4 begins with excited speculation that Simon will become the next Lord Mayor, but the shoptalk is interrupted by Rose’s maid, Sybil, who has been sent to arrange a secret meeting between Rose and Lacy. In the following scene, Rafe learns that Jane is going to marry Hammon when Hammon’s servant is dispatched to Eyre’s shop to have a pair of shoes made after the exact model of those which Rafe had given Jane. The wily Firke promises to devise a scheme to prevent the marriage. In scene 3, Lacy is surprised during his secret assignation with Rose by Sir Roger, yet he eludes detection by pretending, in the character of Hans, to measure Rose for shoes. When, shortly after, Sir Hugh is announced, Hans and Rose manage to slip away undetected. When Sybil eventually reveals their elopement, Sir Hugh, fully aware of his nephew’s experience as a shoemaker in Wittenberg, realizes how he has been duped. At this point, Firke enters with the shoes that Rose had actually ordered and, seeing the danger to Hans, manufactures a story that misdirects the two enraged elders to St. Faith’s, where a marriage, but that of Hammon and Jane, is scheduled. It is important to note that Dekker uses pairs of shoes throughout act 4, in both the main plot and the subplot, to effect the union or reunion of souls.

In the opening scene of act 5, Simon Eyre, who has been elevated to the office of Lord Mayor, agrees to intercede on behalf of Rose and Lacy to the king himself, who has accepted an invitation to dine with him that same day. Simon undertakes this potentially dangerous mission because he will not “forget his fine Dutch journeyman.” In the scene following, Rafe, Firke, and Hodge intercept Hammon and his men who are escorting Jane to St. Faith’s. Realizing that her husband still lives, Jane immediately rejects Hammon, while the shoemakers give his men a sound thrashing. Sir Hugh and Sir Roger appear at this moment, only to discover that Firke has deceived them, for Rose and Lacy have already been married at the Savoy. Finally, Eyre and his men entertain the king at a great banquet, dedicating the day to their gentle craft and their patron Saint Hugh. This saint’s association with the city of London suggests good fortune not only for shoemakers but also for Lacy, who as the Earl of Lincoln’s heir and as a shoemaker himself, embodies the best of both worlds. In spite of the earl’s vigorous objections, the king, responding graciously to Eyre’s humble petition, pardons Lacy’s desertion. The shoemaker-mayor, “one of the merriest madcaps” in the land, carries the day, and the king reconciles Sir Roger and Sir Hugh to the marriage of Lacy and Rose.

In adapting Deloney’s novel for the stage, Dekker drastically revised the character of Simon Eyre, who in Deloney’s work seems much more like Dekker’s Sir Roger Otley, a ceremoniously grave and ambitious man who plots his rise to power. Thus, Dekker suppresses the darker side of the bargaining for the Dutch merchandise and creates in Simon an irrepressible force for good. Furthermore, although Deloney’s Eyre believes in thrift and hard work, Dekker’s Eyre is less motivated by purely economic considerations than he is by an exhilarating sense of the value of work as work. It is also important to note that The Shoemaker’s Holiday is not a dynamic play, for Dekker’s treatment of his main characters permits no internal conflict, no self-discovery, and no essential growth. Simon, Lacy, Rose, and the shoemakers remain, throughout, perfectly secure in the holiness of their hearts’ affections, and their knowledge is instinctive rather than based on systems of moral philosophy or codes of social behavior. In the very integrity of their words and actions, their lives exemplify the theme of the comedy: that love and nobility transcend such considerations as wealth, class consciousness, or political status. Although Simon Eyre achieves all the social distinctions that mean most to men such as Sir Roger and Sir Hugh, he remains completely oblivious to them. His love of life, his concern for his men, and his innate patriotism are never corrupted. From beginning to end, he remains “the merriest madcap” in the land, whose triumphs are based on goodwill and honest industry. It is also significant that his victory over class prejudice is realized through the royal intervention of the legendary King Henry V, who recognizes in Eyre’s raucous good humor a strain of genuine nobility that escapes the pettier understanding of such men as Sir Hugh and Sir Roger. In fact, it is tempting to see in Eyre and his men a group of individuals who represent the exact social obverse of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his predatory followers.

Throughout the play, Dekker skillfully interweaves the various strands of plot to achieve both a structural and thematic unity, not only in the resolution of the romantic intrigues but also in the establishment of a new social order that sweeps aside the trivial differences that divide courtiers and citizens. Beginning with the class conflict developed in the initial debate between Sir Roger and Sir Hugh, each consecutive scene either opposes or reinforces the class harmony that must eventually prevail in the final scene. Lacy’s decision to work as a tradesman and the friendship and loyalty he finds in the assistance of Hodge and Firke counterpoise the noble pride of the Earl of Lincoln. The truth of Lacy’s love for Rose, for which he risks all, is neatly balanced against the unscrupulous conduct of Hammon, whose romantic affections and courtly love language are offset by Lacy’s true nobility and Rafe’s simple devotion to Jane. Rose and Jane suffer the anguish of forced separation from their lovers, and both are reunited in scenes that involve the manufacture and delivery of shoes from Eyre’s premises. Sir Roger’s preference for Hammon provides a ludicrous commentary on the blindness of class snobbery, as do Margery’s feeble attempts at gentility and decorum. The one flaw in Lacy’s behavior, his desertion from patriotic duty, is structurally necessary to justify his employment in Eyre’s shop and thematically essential to provide the reason for the king’s intervention against the feuding parents. The act of royal clemency, in turn, affirms the primacy of love and resolves the theme of class conflicts, and the royal pardon itself is based on the king’s affirmation of Simon Eyre as the exemplar of social and political harmony.

The Honest Whore, Part II

Dekker’s greatest work, however, is The Honest Whore, Part II, a tragicomedy using most of the characters from the first part (written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton ), in which is dramatized the moral conversion of the whore Bellafronte by Hippolito, the son-in-law of the Duke of Milan. In the resolution of The Honest Whore, Part I, the scoundrel Matheo has been forced to marry Bellafronte because he had been initially responsible for leading her into a life of sin. The subplot of the first part features the tempting of Candido, a patient man who triumphs over the constant humiliations heaped on him by his shrewish wife Viola.

The second part of The Honest Whore begins with Bellafronte and an unnamed scholar waiting to make petitions to Hippolito. His summary dismissal of the scholar is ominous, for the clear implication is that the scholar is willing to sell his genius for money. The suggestion that the scholar is an intellectual prostitute, however, may be more a reflection on the prince’s mind than on the scholar’s integrity. On the other hand, Hippolito does listen to Bellafronte’s request that he intercede on behalf of the profligate Matheo, who has been condemned for killing a man in a duel. At the same time, finding himself strangely attracted to the fallen woman whom he had once redeemed, he also promises to reconcile her, if he can, to her estranged father Orlando Friscobaldo, who had abandoned his support when she resorted to prostitution. Hippolito makes good his promise in the following scene when he intercepts Orlando and urges him to forgive his daughter, who has turned away from sin. The old man appears totally intransigent in his repugnance for Bellafronte and rebukes Hippolito for disturbing his peace, although secretly he resolves to keep an alert watch over Bellafronte and her disreputable husband. In the third scene, a number of gallants visit the linen-draper Candido, who has remarried after Viola’s unexpected death. Urging him to subdue the pettish whims of his new bride, lest she too turn into an untamable shrew, they together devise a scheme in which Ludovico Sforza, in the role of an apprentice, will test her mettle.

Act 2 begins with Matheo’s return from prison, although it is immediately apparent that he has not changed his ways, a fact that sorely distresses Bellafronte, who has now been reduced to virtual destitution. Their quarreling is interrupted by Orlando, who has disguised himself as his own servingman, Pacheco. When he and Matheo exchange disparaging remarks about her father’s honesty, Bellafronte will not tolerate their insults, even though the old man has abandoned her to humiliation and direst poverty. Reassured by this successful testing of his daughter’s virtue, Orlando offers his services to Matheo and gives him money for safekeeping. When Hippolito visits Bellafronte, Orlando quickly discerns the drift of the prince’s interest in his daughter and watches anxiously to see how she will react to even greater temptations. Later, however, she dispatches Pacheco with a letter and a diamond she wishes to return to Hippolito. She also gives the old man a cryptic message that rejects the prince’s lecherous designs. In the following scene, Candido reduces his new wife to submission after challenging her to a duel with yardsticks. This scene highlights the virtue of a wife’s loyalty and obedience to her husband in a test that clearly parallels Bellafronte’s support for a far less worthy husband.

Act 3 opens with Orlando’s delivery of Bellafronte’s letter not to Hippolito but to Infelice, who subsequently confronts her husband with positive proof of his treachery. Hippolito feigns contrition but nevertheless resolves to give full rein to his lust. With “armed Devils staring in [his] face,” like Angelo in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (pr. 1604), the young prince is less captivated by Bellafronte’s beauty than by her persevering virtue. In the meantime, Orlando returns to find that Matheo has squandered all the money he had entrusted to him and has even robbed his wife of her gown, which he intends to sell to satisfy his desire for a cloak and rapier. Matheo even urges her to return to her profession in order to keep him supplied with ready cash. After the husband’s angry departure, Orlando consoles his daughter and plots an appropriate revenge. Bellafronte’s trial is further reflected in the following scene, in which Candido’s wife is tested by the gallants who lure the husband into a protracted discussion of his wares while Lieutenant Bots, a denizen of the local stews, tries unsuccessfully to lure her into prostitution.

Orlando appears in his own person, in the first scene of act 4, to accuse Matheo and Bellafronte of maintaining a bawdy house, but his daughter disclaims her past and pleads with the old man not to leave her destitute, since poverty may drive her back into a life of sin. After engaging in a shouting match with Matheo, Orlando storms out of the house, only to return moments later in the guise of Pacheco, who commiserates with Matheo and promises to help him burglarize his father-in-law’s house. After the husband’s departure, Hippolito appears and argues with Bellafronte in the hope of making her turn “whore/ By force of strong perswasion.” His argument, however, is unconvincing, because he merely reverses the claims he had presented in his earlier conversion speech in Part I; Bellafronte triumphs because her arguments are firmly based on the real shame and degradation she has actually experienced as a whore. Though soundly defeated in this exchange, the prince swears to press his case “even to Hell’s brazen doores.” In scene 2, Orlando enlists the duke’s aid in having Matheo arrested for theft committed against two peddlers who are actually Orlando’s own men in disguise. Aware of Hippolito’s infidelity to Infelice, the duke also orders the arrest of all harlots and bawds, including Bellafronte. In the third scene, the gallants, including Matheo, entertain Bots and Mistress Horseleach and lure the unsuspecting Candido into drinking their health while Orlando delivers the stolen goods for their appraisal. When the trap is set, the constables arrive, first to arrest the bawdy-house keepers and Candido, and second to apprehend Matheo for theft and possession of stolen goods.

The final act begins with Ludovico informing Hippolito of Bellafronte’s arrest, the news of which drives the prince into a frenzy of rage. He races off to storm the Bridewell, where the duke and Infelice lie in wait for him. All the interwoven threads of intrigue are carefully drawn together in the long final scene as Orlando and the duke confront Matheo and Hippolito with the enormity of their behavior. Still disguised as Pacheco, Orlando orchestrates the arraignment of Matheo, who first tries to pin the blame on Bellafronte and then on Pacheco himself. He even accuses Hippolito and Bellafronte of whoring, claiming to have caught them together in bed. When Infelice demands justice against the bewildered Bellafronte, Hippolito confesses his miserable failure in trying to tempt Bellafronte; at this moment, Orlando casts off his disguise to exonerate his daughter of Matheo’s malicious accusation, while at the same time certifying the veracity of the prince’s confession. Matheo is saved from the charge of theft because the men he had robbed are Orlando’s own servants. Matheo is not pardoned for his merits, or even in the hope that he will reform, but as a reward for Bellafronte’s patient loyalty to him. Similarly, Candido, who remains the soul of patience, is elevated to the rank of “king’s counselor.” Hippolito is ignored but is doubtless restored to Infelice’s good graces.

It was a stroke of realistic genius on Dekker’s part to leave Matheo only grudgingly repentant at the end of the play, for his insolent prodigality and his cruelty toward Bellafronte make it impossible for his crimes merely to be whitewashed. The main point of the resolution is to demonstrate how completely the “whore” has overcome the obstacles that have constantly threatened her progress. In Part I, Bellafronte’s conversion becomes the continuing butt of scurrilous jests and innuendos, which partly suggest that she will be unable to sustain her penitence and purity of moral purpose. Her final victory in Part II is earned against almost insuperable odds, in spite of the seemingly mitigating fact that her father has been watching over her, for there is no question that Orlando undertakes his role with a view to testing fully her reformed character. The implication is clearly that he will once again abandon Bellafronte if she suffers a relapse. In fact, her conversion to chastity in Part I would ultimately have proven unconvincing had not Dekker submitted her to the protracted trials and grief of Part II, for which Matheo’s thorough, unrelenting evil is thematically essential.

It seems likely that Dekker was attracted to a reexamination of the temptation theme after his less than successful effort at reworking the legend of patient Griselda. Unlike the saintly Grissell, who has never experienced the pleasures of forbidden life and who is never seriously threatened by Gwalter’s cruelty, Bellafronte undergoes a series of much more realistic temptations. Her chastity is severely tested not because her resolution is weak but because she faces the constant fear of degrading poverty and starvation. In this light, Hippolito’s importunate lust represents no serious threat because her resistance is firmly based on the clear recollection of the disgust and shame she has actually experienced as a prostitute. On the other hand, Matheo’s repulsive suggestion that she return to her “profession” poses a genuine threat because it represents a terrifying dilemma: She must choose between a return to prostitution or continued resistance to her husband’s will. The stripping away of her self-respect reaches its nadir with Matheo’s theft of her gown, which is sold to feed his uncontrollable greed. It is at this point that Orlando knows he must intervene to uncloak Matheo’s villainy, but he only makes this decision when he is thoroughly convinced that her steadfast resistance to temptation is genuine.

Structurally, the subplot provides consistently strong reinforcement of the trial theme in the main plot, particularly since it involves not only the enduring patience of Candido, whose unassailable virtue reminds one of Grissell’s, but also the successful resistance of Candido’s new wife to the schemes of Bots, Horseleach, and Ludovico. The duke’s Milan, plagued as it seems by all the seven deadly sins, is Dekker’s re-creation of the Jacobean London so vividly depicted in the rogue pamphlets. In such a world, Hippolito, Matheo, the bawds, prostitutes, and gallants “doe most looke like the Divell that would destroy us, when wee are one anothers tormentors,” and they are frequently described in terms of diabolic imagery. Furthermore, true to Dekker’s basically Arian moral thought, Bellafronte demonstrates that love, obedience, and perseverance are the constant virtues of a distinctly possible reformation. In this play and in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Dekker left at least two works that demonstrate architectonic unity and a keen sense of moral values. For this achievement, he deserves to be ranked among the excellent second-rank dramatists of the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage.


Thomas Dekker Poetry: British Analysis