Thomas Dekker Poetry: British Analysis
Most of Thomas Dekker’s best poetry is found in his plays; unfortunately, since most of his plays were collaborations, it is often difficult to assign particular poetic passages to Dekker, and perhaps even harder to assign the larger poetic designs to him. He is, however, generally credited with most of the poetry in Old Fortunatus and The Honest Whore, Parts I and II. He wrote the delightfully poetic The Shoemaker’s Holiday almost unaided. Mother Sawyer’s eloquent poetry in The Witch of Edmonton so closely resembles portions of his long pamphlet-poem, Dekker, His Dream, as to make it all but certainly his. Songs and verses occupy varying proportions of his journalistic works, from a few lines in The Wonderful Year, to several songs in Lanthorn and Candlelight, to most of The Double PP. In all his plays, verse comprises a significant part of the dialogue.
While the quality of thought and care in organization vary from work to work and almost from line to line in a given work, the quality of the sound rarely falters. According to George Price in Thomas Dekker (1969), one poem long attributed to Dekker, Canaan’s Calamitie (1598), has been excluded from the canon largely because of the inferior music of its verse. Critics often attach words such as “sweet,” “lovely,” “gentle,” and “compassionate” to Dekker’s most popular passages, and the adjectives seem to cover both sound and theme in works such as Old Fortunatus and The Shoemaker’s Holiday.
An old-fashioned production in its own day, Old Fortunatus weaves a morality pageant in which the goddess Fortune and her attendants witness a power struggle between Virtue and Vice with a loose chronicle play about a man to whom Fortune grants a choice. Instead of health, strength, knowledge, and wisdom, old Fortunatus chooses riches. His wealth and native cunning enable him to steal knowledge (in the form of a magic hat). After Fortune claims the old man’s life, his sons Ampedo and Andelocia, inheriting his magic purse and hat, make no better use of them than their father had done. Greedy Andelocia abducts a princess, plays assorted pranks at various courts, and ends up strangled by equally greedy courtiers; virtuous Ampedo wrings his hands, eventually burns the magic hat, and dies in the stocks, unmourned even by Virtue. Structurally, Old Fortunatus has the odd elegance of medieval drama. Fortune, Virtue, and Vice enter the human world five times, usually with song and emblematic show designed to judge men or to point out the choices open to them.
The play’s allegorical pageantry demanded elaborate costuming and equally elaborate verse, ranging from songs in varied meters and tones to dialogues that are often more incantation than blank verse speech:Kings: Accursed Queen of chaunces, damned sorceresse. The Rest: Most pow’rfull Queen of chaunce, dread soveraignesse. Fortune: . . . [To the Kings] curse on: your cries to me are Musicke And fill the sacred rondure of mine eares With tunes more sweet than moving of the Spheres: Curse on.
Most of the chronicle play that is interwoven with the morality pageant employs blank verse liberally sprinkled with prose passages and rhymed couplets. Renaissance notions of decorum set forth rather clear-cut rules governing the use of prose and poetry. An iambic pentameter line was considered the best medium for tragedy and for kings’ and nobles’ speeches in comedy. Madmen, clowns, and letter-readers in tragedy and lower-class characters in comedy can speak prose. Dekker refines these guidelines. He uses prose for musing aloud, for French and Irish dialects, for talking to servants, and for expressing disappointment or depression: The sons mourn their dead father and have their most violent quarrel in prose. Dekker keys form to mood much as a modern songwriter does when he inserts a spoken passage into the lyrics. Even Dekker’s prose, however, is textured like poetry; except for the lack of iambic pentameter rhythm, prose passages are virtually indistinguishable from verse. Typical are the lilting rhythms of the following passage (one of the cruelest in the play): “I was about to cast my little little self into a great love trance for him, fearing his hart was flint, but since I see ’tis pure virgin wax, he shall melt his belly full.”
Sound itself is the subject of much comment in the play. Dekker’s natural gift for pleasing rhythms, his knack for combining the gentler consonant sounds with higher frequency vowels, and his ear for slightly varied repetitions all combine to make Old Fortunatus strikingly beautiful poetry.
The fame of Old Fortunatus, however, rests on more than its sound. Dekker’s imagery deserves the praise it consistently gets. The Princess’s heartless line is one of many that connect melting with the play’s values—love, fire, gold, and the sun—in ways that suggest both the purification of dross through the melting process and the fate of rich Crassus. Other images connect the silver moon and stars with music, and both precious metals with an earth producing fruit-laden trees that men use wisely or unwisely. The allegorical figures with their emblematic actions and costumes would heighten the effectiveness of such imagery for a viewing audience, just as hearing the poetry greatly magnifies its impact over silent reading.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday
In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Dekker shows a more sophisticated use of poetry. As in Old Fortunatus, he shifts between poetry and prose, depending somewhat on the characters’ social class but more on mood, so that in a given scene a character can slip from prose to poetry and back while those around him remain in their normal métier. In the earlier play, however, he made little attempt to connect certain characters with certain sounds or images. In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, characters have their own peculiar music.
The play combines three plots. In the first, Rowland Lacy disguises himself as Hans, a Dutch shoemaker, to avoid being shipped off to war in France, far from his beloved Rose Otley. His uncle, the earl of Lincoln, and her father, Sir Roger Otley, oppose the love match. In the...
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