Thomas Dekker 1572-1632
English dramalist and essayist.
A prolific author, Dekker wrote, alone or in collaboration, over forty plays, of which seventeen survive. His best-known dramas include The Shoemaker's Holiday, Old Fortunatus, The Honest Whore, and The Witch of Edmonton. He is also noted for having produced numerous pamphlets, such as The Wonderful Yeare, The Belman of London, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, and A Rod for Run-Awayes, which provide detailed pictures of the life of Elizabethan and Jacobean London. Admired in his own time for his writings in both comic and tragic veins, Dekker's reputation fell greatly during the eighteenth century but has been rehabilitated by a number of twentieth-century critics who praise Dekker for his romanticism, his ethical concerns, and his considerable, if sometimes uneven, craftsmanship in both drama and prose.
Dekker was born in London, possibly to a Dutch family, as scholars deduce from both his surname and his evident familiarity with Dutch language in The Shoemaker's Holiday and other works. Nothing is known of his life until the 1590s, when his name began appearing in theatrical documents. A 1594 entry in The Stationer's Register—a record of works licensed for publication—lists a “Tho: Decker” as the author of a drama entitled The Jew of Venice, a work that no longer survives. The next evidence of Dekker's activities dates from 1597, when theater manager Philip Henslowe recorded in his professional diary the hiring of Dekker to write and adapt plays for his company, the Lord Admiral's Men. Subsequent entries in Henslowe's diary indicate that during his tenure with the Lord Admiral's Men, Dekker had a hand in the composition or revision of dozens of plays, at times working with as many as three or four other writers. In the opening years of the seventeenth century, Dekker became involved in “the War of the Theaters,” a literary quarrel in which Ben Jonson ridiculed both Dekker and John Marston in several plays, most notably Poetaster (1601). Dekker responded by mocking Jonson in Satiro-Mastix. Or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet. Dekker wrote steadily for Henslowe until 1603, when the death of Elizabeth I, followed shortly by an outbreak of the plague, resulted in the closing of London's theaters. For the time deprived of the means to support himself by playwriting, Dekker turned to composing prose pamphlets. The epidemic prompted Dekker to publish The Wonderful Yeare, a collection of anecdotes, religious meditations, and lamentations for those who died. Surprisingly, in 1604 Dekker was jointly commissioned with Jonson to compose the pageant celebrating the coronation of James I. The two writers remained antipathetic to one another, however, and each published separately his share in the pageant, which was titled The Magnificent Entertainment. With the reopening of the theaters Dekker returned to drama, writing both parts of The Honest Whore in 1604-05. About two years later Dekker appears to have stopped writing for the stage, and for the next five years he concentrated exclusively on producing pamphlets. He returned to playwriting in 1611, but this activity was soon terminated as he was imprisoned for debt. He was, however, able to continue composing pamphlets, and he published several while in prison. After his release in 1619, Dekker worked with Samuel Rowley, John Ford, and others, creating such works as The Virgin Martir and The Witch of Edmonton. Dekker died sometime around 1632.
As a result of the varied conditions and diverse genres in which Dekker wrote, scholars find that his work as a whole is hard to characterize. One of his hallmarks, however, is comic, often raucous, banter. Even his religious play The Virgin Martir includes bawdy dialogue, which is given to the pagan antagonists of the title character Dorothea, contrasting their sensuality with her sanctity. Dekker is also often credited with a profound sensitivity to the plight of the poor, the laboring classes, and, particularly, the victims of persecution. Several critics have pointed out that the speeches of jailed prostitutes in Part Two of The Honest Whore indict society's indifference to poor women as a major cause of prostitution. In addition, Mother Sawyer, the eponymous witch of Edmonton, is sympathetically portrayed, making a pact with the devil only in response to her neighbors' cruel taunts regarding her ugliness and poverty. The Shoemaker's Holiday, perhaps Dekker's most popular work, is commonly regarded as a celebration of working-class life. This comedy depicting the rise of Simon Eyre to the position of Lord Mayor offers several portraits of honorable tradespeople and laborers. Dekker's compassion for the poor and suffering is also reflected in his pamphlets; for example, The Wonderful Yeare castigates those of his contemporaries who, fearing contagion, refused to nurse or comfort victims of the plague.
Appraisals of Dekker's works have varied widely over the years. While in the seventeenth century Jonson satirized him as “Demetrius Fannius,” an impoverished and incompetent “dresser of plays” in Poetaster, William Fennor praised Dekker as “the true heire of Appolo” in his The Comptor's Commonwealth (1617), and Edward Phillips lauded him as “a high-flier in wit” in his Theatrum poetarum anglicanorum (1675). In the eighteenth century Dekker was generally held in low esteem. For instance, Charles Dibdin, writing in 1795, censured the structure of Dekker's plays and maintained that it was “very probable that [Dekker] could not have been half so well respected as he was,” were it not for his famous rivalry with Jonson. Subsequent critics frequently charged Dekker's plays with poor construction, though his reputation rose again in the early nineteenth century, when critics such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb praised him for the imaginative situations and believable characterizations in his dramas. Both Lamb and Hazlitt expressed admiration for Dekker's lyrical qualities, as did many later critics. In the Victorian period a number of writers lauded Dekker's compassion for the lower classes while condemning his coarse language and sexual humor. Early twentieth-century opinion continued to reproach Dekker's dramatic technique and considered the quality of his verse uneven and generally inferior to that of his prose.
Significantly, many critics now judge one of Dekker's greatest strengths to be his versatile prose style, which, as demonstrated in his pamphlets as well as his plays, is capable of both dignified formality and lively colloquialism. Recent commentary has increasingly examined Dekker's drama in the context of his overall literary output, with many critics finding a consistent moral view expressed throughout his work. Other modern scholars have challenged the notion that Dekker's plays are poorly integrated, citing thematic patterns, unified plots, consistency of characterization, and other evidence of Dekker's craftsmanship. With such studies has come a heightened appreciation of Dekker as an artist who, as Larry S. Champion has asserted, “genuinely deserves a considerably higher place in the development and maturation of Elizabethan-Jacobean-Caroline drama than most previous critics have been willing to acknowledge.”