Thomas Dekker

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Thomas Dekker was also known in his time as a prolific pamphleteer. His pamphlets are characterized not by a failure of moral judgment, as some critics have charged, but by a deliberate strategy of refraining from gratuitous finger-pointing. The Wonderful Year (1603), for example, presents two long poems that are supposed to be the prologue to a play and a summary of its action and, in a prose section, that action—stories of English reaction to the death of Elizabeth I; Dekker leaves the reader to decide whether there is a thematic relationship in the tripartite structure of the work, which links the death of Elizabeth and the devastating plague of 1603, whether these disasters are to be regarded as retribution for England’s sins, and whether the accession of James represents God’s gift of unmerited grace. Such implications are there, but the author draws no final conclusions. In this and other pamphlets, Dekker typically adopts the role of observer-reporter, who, like the Bellman of London, carries his lantern into the darkest corners of his dystopian world to reveal the deepest degradations of the human spirit. In this regard, like modern social critics, he is content to “tell it like it is”; the selection of specific detail furnishes the didactic underpinning of his vision. In works such as The Bellman of London (1608) and the different versions of Lanthorn and Candlelight (1608, 1609; revised as O per se O, 1612; Villanies Discovered, 1616, 1620; and English Villanies, 1632, 1638, 1648), the reader discovers an alarming truth: The social and political organization of the underworld is a grotesque parody of polite society and the Jacobean establishment. Thus, rogues and thieves have their own laws, codes of ethics, and standards of “scholarship,” which hold a wide currency in both town and country. As demonstrated in The Gull’s Hornbook (1609), they have even developed their own professional language. In this world, God is not an immediate presence, although he may work out his providential purposes in the hearts and minds of human beings; Dekker, however, is chiefly interested in sociological rather than theological sins, as seen in The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606), in which he carefully adapts the traditional medieval framework to fit his own experience of life in the city of London. Even in his numerous descriptions of Hell, Dekker presents an essentially secular view of the afterlife, designed to show that the community of rogues is an integral part of the Jacobean commonwealth.

Another significant feature of the pamphlets—significant for an understanding of the plays—is the evidence they give of Dekker’s familiarity with and manipulation of a wide range of literary forms and conventions. The Wonderful Year combines elements of narrative journalism, the frametale, the morality play, and the jestbook. The Seven Deadly Sins of London involves some knowledge not only of the medieval tradition of the sins but also of morality drama, estates satire, and pageants. The Bellman of London parodies the Utopian travelogue, while The Gull’s Hornbook should be read in the tradition of education books such as Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528). Such a review only scratches the surface of Dekker’s diverse reading and interests; it is only in works such as Four Birds of Noah’s Ark (1609), modeled on contemporary prayer books, that the author maintains a relatively simple structure. An awareness of Dekker’s breadth is of the first importance for a reading of his plays, which also draw on a multiplicity of forms. To some extent, the plays also represent a necessary thematic balance to the moral vision of the pamphlets, for in...

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his drama, Dekker provides the role models usually missing in his prose works— protagonists such as Moll inThe Roaring Girl, the saintly Dorothea in The Virgin Martyr, and the Subprior in If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It, who rise above worldly temptations. Such characters suggest that, while it is often impossible to make clear moral distinctions in a world in which knaves and politicians are easily confused, one can successfully rely on one’s own moral intelligence. The key to this steadfast vision might well be summarized by a brief passage from The Seven Deadly Sins of London: “Wee are moste like to God that made us, when wee shew love to another, and doe most looke like the Divell that would destroy us, when wee are one anothers tormentors.”

Achievements

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Although he had a hand in some aspect of the creation of at least seventy plays, it is unfair to dismiss Thomas Dekker as a mere refurbisher of old plays, for there is no question that his frequent collaboration with lesser dramatists was a necessity forced on him in his constant struggle against bankruptcy. His equally frequent collaborations with such outstanding dramatists as Thomas Middleton , John Webster , and John Ford indicate that he was held in high esteem as a playwright. In fact, a fair estimate of his achievement may never be possible, since at least forty-five of his plays have not survived, and much of the work attributed to him remains a matter of critical conjecture. On the other hand, extant plays, such as Old Fortunatus and Satiromastix, that are attributed solely to Dekker reveal little sense of moral, thematic, or structural unity. The playwright’s handful of genuine masterpieces, including The Shoemaker’s Holiday, the two parts of The Honest Whore, and If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It, conclusively prove, however, that he was capable of transcending the difficulties that mar his lesser works.

At his best, Dekker was an excellent lyric poet, as illustrated in the pastoral scenes of The Sun’s Darling and the poignant love songs and laments that appear throughout his works. He was also the master of lively and racy dialogue, particularly in the characterization of clowns, rogues, citizens’ wives, and old men. Owing to his creation of such memorable characters as the voluble Eyre and his uppity wife Margery (The Shoemaker’s Holiday), Orlando Friscobaldo and the scoundrel Matheo (The Honest Whore), Scumbroth and the devils (If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It), and Elizabeth Sawyer (The Witch of Edmonton), Dekker has gained a reputation as a “realist.” Although it is true that he is at his best among the shops and stalls of London, it is more accurate to recognize Dekker as a dramatist who breathed new life into essentially old forms and conventions, for the roots of his invention lie in the chronicle play, folklore, the mystery plays, and moral interludes of the previous age. His dramatic preferences are clearly revealed in his typical choice of subject, such as legendary biography (in The Shoemaker’s Holiday), Prudentian psychomachia (in Old Fortunatus), medieval hagiography (in Patient Grissell and The Virgin Martyr), anti-Catholic polemic (in The Whore of Babylon), and the use of diabolical temptation similar to that found in such old plays as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (in If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It). Dekker’s drama, more fully than that of any of his contemporaries, demonstrates the continuing vitality of medieval themes and conventions in Renaissance theater. His greatest achievement was to re-create these traditions on the Jacobean stage with moral force and perspicuity.

Other literary forms

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Thomas Dekker (DEHK-ur) was a prolific author. Although his canon is not easily fixed because of works presumed to be lost, disputed authorship, and revised editions, the sheer number of his publications is impressive. Dekker was primarily a dramatist. By himself, he composed more than twenty plays, and he collaborated on as many as forty; more than half of these are not extant today. His plays come in all the genres that theater-hungry Elizabethans loved to devour: city comedies, history plays, classical romances, and domestic tragedies. Additionally, Dekker published about twenty-five prose tracts and pamphlets that catered to a variety of popular tastes: descriptions of London’s lowlife, collections of humorous and scandalous stories, and jeremiads on the nation’s sins and its impending punishment at the hands of an angry God. Dekker found time between writing for the theater and the printing press to compose complimentary verses on other poets’ works and to twice prepare interludes, sketches, and songs for the pageants honoring the Lord Mayor of London.

The best edition of the plays, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker (1953-1961), is edited by Fredson Bowers in four volumes. Those tracts dealing with the calamities befalling Stuart London are represented in The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker (1925; F. P. Wilson, editor). The bulk of Dekker’s prose and verse is collected in the occasionally unreliable The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker (1884-1886, 4 volumes; Alexander B. Grosart, editor). A more readable and more judicious sampling of the tales and sketches is found in Selected Prose Writings (1968; E. D. Pendry, editor).

Achievements

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A writer such as Thomas Dekker, so prolific in output, necessarily produces a lot of chaff with his wheat. His plays often lack tightly knit plots and carefully proportioned form; his prose works, especially those satirizing the moral lapses of contemporaries, sometimes belabor the point. Two literary virtues, however, continue to endear Dekker to readers, virtues common to both plays and pamphlets, to both verse and prose.

First, Dekker is always a wordsmith of the highest rank. Although Ben Jonson complained of Dekker and his collaborators that “It’s the bane and torment of our ears/ To hear the discords of those jangled rhymers,” hardly any reader or critic since has shared the opinion. Since the seventeenth century, Dekker has been universally acknowledged as a gifted poet whose lyrical ability stands out in an age well-stocked with good lyric poets. Charles Lamb’s famous pronouncement that Dekker had “poetry for everything” sums up the commonplace modern attitude. Not only Dekker’s verse in the plays, however, but also his prose deserves to be called poetic. Dekker’s language, whatever its form, is characterized by frequent sound effects, varied diction, and attention to rhythm. Thoroughly at home with Renaissance habits of decorative rhetoric, Dekker seemingly thought in poetry and thus wrote it naturally, effortlessly, and continually.

Second, Dekker’s heart is always in the right place. His sympathetically drawn characters seem to come alive as he portrays the people, sights, and events of Elizabethan London. Dekker is often compared with Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare for his sense of the comédie humaine, for knowing the heights and depths of human experience and for still finding something to care about afterward. Dekker’s keen observations of life underlie his sharp sense of society’s incongruities.

Bibliography

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Adler, Doris Ray. Thomas Dekker: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. An annotated bibliography of works on Dekker. Index.

Berlin, Normand. “Thomas Dekker: A Partial Reappraisal.” Studies in English Literature 6 (1966): 263-267. Although brief, this analysis of Dekker is important because it demonstrates that the playwright is a more complex person and writer than suggested by his most popular work, the cheerfully optimistic The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Berlin sees Dekker as “essentially a stern moralist” who sometimes, when theatrical conditions demand, compromises his morality.

Brown, Arthur. “Citizen Comedy and Domestic Drama.” Jacobean Theatre 1 (1960): 66-83. Brown compares Dekker with Thomas Heywood and Ben Jonson, two fellow dramatists, and concludes that Dekker’s work is “the least complicated by adherence to literary, or even moral, theory.” Brown also shows how Dekker’s understanding of his craft and audience is apparent in the plays.

Champion, Larry S. Thomas Dekker and the Tradition of English Drama. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. This straightforward commentary deals primarily with the dramatic structure and tone of the plays, but also shows how Dekker often experiments with new approaches. Also discusses Dekker’s links with his contemporaries.

Conover, James H. Thomas Dekker: An Analysis of Dramatic Structure. The Hague the Netherlands: Mouton, 1966. Traces the development of the plots of Dekker’s major plays (including The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Honest Whore, Old Fortunatus, and Satiromastix) and concludes with a chapter on the structural traits he believes are peculiar to Dekker’s works.

Correll, Barbara. The End of Conduct: Grobianus and the Renaissance Text of the Subject. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. In her scholarly study of Renaissance literature, Correll examines Dekker’s The Gull’s Hornbook. Bibliography and index.

Dekker, Thomas. The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Edited by Stanley Wells and Robert Smallwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. More than a reprint of the play, this edition provides a study of the text and the editors’ historical introduction, including an examination of the play’s relationship with contemporary life and drama and its place in Dekker’s work, a stage history, analysis, and a reprint of source materials.

Gasper, Julia. The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A critical analysis of Dekker’s plays that focuses on his treatment of kings and rulers as well as of Protestantism. Bibliography and index.

Hunt, Mary Leland. Thomas Dekker: A Study. 1911. Reprint. Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. The first book-length study of Dekker’s life and work—prose as well as plays. It remains useful not only for the critical summaries of the works but also for its chronological treatment of the poet’s life. Of special interest are the comments about Dekker’s friendships in the theater and his collaborators. Since M. T. Jones-Davis’s two-volume, 1958 study, Un Peintre de la vue londonienne, Thomas Dekker, circa 1572-1632, is not in English, Hunt’s book is a worthwhile substitute.

Krantz, Susan E. “Thomas Dekker’s Political Commentary in The Whore of Babylon.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 35, no. 2 (Spring, 1995): 271. Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon is one of the first texts to recast Elizabethan England nostalgically as a form of covert criticism of the Jacobean court. An examination of the Gunpowder Plot and its effect on the pro-Henrician and anti-Spanish themes of the play is offered.

McLuskie, Kathleen. Dekker and Heywood: Professional Dramatists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A comparison of Dekker and Thomas Heywood, as well as a description of the theater of England during their lives. Bibliography and index.

Price, George R. Thomas Dekker. New York: Twayne, 1969. Price provides all the standard virtues of the Twayne volumes: a succinct chronology, a chapter on the life, and three chapters of analysis followed by a summarizing conclusion. The detailed notes and annotated bibliography make this study an excellent starting place for students of Dekker.

Twyning, John. London Dispossessed: Literature and Social Space in the Early Modern City. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. This study focuses on Dekker’s descriptions of London and of city and town life in England during his lifetime, including how they were portrayed in his literary works. Bibliography and index.

Waage, Frederick O. Thomas Dekker’s Pamphlets, 1603-1609, and Jacobean Popular Literature. 2 vols. Salzburg: Universität für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977. Although these two scholarly volumes do not deal directly with Dekker’s plays, they are full of commentary on Dekker’s ideas and his life. The first chapter on Dekker’s career, 1603-1609, is informative, and the seventeen-page bibliography offers researchers a good beginning point.

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