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Thomas Dekker Biography | Poet

Photo of Thomas Dekker

DEKKER (or Decker), THOMAS (c. 1570-1641), English dramatist, was born in London. His name occurs frequently in Henslowe’s Diaryduring the last three years of the 16th century; he is mentioned there as receiving loans and payments for writing plays in conjunction with Ben Jonson, Drayton, Chettle, Haughton, Wilson, Day and others, and he would appear to have been then in the most active employment as a playwright. The titles of the plays on which he was engaged from April 1599 to March 1599/1600 are Troilus and CressidaOrestes FuresAgamemnonThe Gentle CraftThe Stepmother’s TragedyBear a BrainPagge of PlymouthRobert the SecondThe Whole History of FortunatusPatient Grissel,Truth’s Supplication to CandlelightThe Spanish Moor’s TragedyThe Seven Wise Masters. At that date it is evident that Dekker’s services were in great request for the stage. He is first mentioned in the Diary under date 8th of January 1597/1598, as having sold a book, i.e. the manuscript of a play; the payments in 1599 are generally made in advance, “in earnest” of work to be done. In the case of three of the above plays, Orestes Fures,Truth’s Supplication and The Gentle Craft, Dekker is paid as the sole author. Only The Gentle Craft has been preserved; it was published anonymously in 1600 under the title of The Shoemaker’s Holiday. It would be unsafe to argue from the classical subjects of some of these plays that Dekker was then a young man from the university, who had come up like so many others to make a living by writing for the stage. Classical knowledge was then in the air; playwrights in want of a subject were content with translations, if they did not know the originals. However educated, Dekker was then a young man just out of his teens, if he spoke with any accuracy when he said that he was threescore in 1637. And it was not in scholarly themes that he was destined to find his true vein. The call for the publication of The Gentle Craft, which deals with the life of the city, showed him where his strength lay.

To give a general idea of the substance of Dekker’s plays, there is no better way than to call him the Dickens of the Elizabethan period. The two men were as unlike as possible in their habits of work, Dekker having apparently all the thriftlessness and impecunious shamelessness of Micawber himself. Henslowe’s Diary contains two notes of payments made in 1597/1598 and 1598/1599 to release Dekker from prison, and he is supposed to have spent the years between 1613 and 1616 in the King’s Bench. Dekker’s Bohemianism appears in the slightness and hurry of his work, a strong contrast to the thoroughness and rich completeness of every labour to which Dickens applied himself; perhaps also in the exquisite freshness and sweetness of his songs, and the natural charm of stray touches of expression and description in his plays. But he was like Dickens in the bent of his genius towards the representation of the life around him in London, as well as in the humorous kindliness of his way of looking at that life, his vein of sentiment, and his eye for odd characters, though the random pickings of Dekker, hopping here and there in search of a subject, give less complete results than the more systematic labours of Dickens. Dekker’s Simon Eyre, the good-hearted, mad shoemaker, and his Orlando Friscobaldo, are touched with a kindly humour in which Dickens would have delighted; his Infelices, Fiamettas, Tormiellas, even his Bellafront, have a certain likeness in type to the heroines of Dickens; and his roaring blades and their gulls are prototypes of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht. Only there is this great difference in the spirit of the two writers, that Dekker wrote without the smallest apparent wish to reform the life that he saw, desiring only to exhibit it; and that on the whole, apart from his dramatist’s necessity of finding interesting matter, he cast his eye about rather with a liking for the discovery of good under unpromising appearances than with any determination to detect and expose vice. The observation must also be made that Dekker’s personages have much more individual character, more of that mixture of good and evil which we find in real human beings. Hack-writer though Dekker was, and writing often under sore pressure, there is no dramatist whose personages have more of the breath of life in them; drawing with easy, unconstrained hand, he was a master of those touches by which an imaginary figure is brought home to us as a creature with human interests. A very large part of the motive power in his plays consists in the temporary yielding to an evil passion. The kindly philosophy that the best of natures may be for a time perverted by passionate desires is the chief animating principle of his comedy. He delights in showing women listening to temptation, and apparently yielding, but still retaining sufficient control over themselves to be capable of drawing back when on the verge of the precipice. The wives of the citizens were his heroines, pursued by the unlawful addresses of the gay young courtiers; and on the whole Dekker, from inclination apparently as well as policy, though himself, if Ben Jonson’s satire had any point, a bit of a dandy in his youth, took the part of morality and the city, and either struck the rakes with remorse or made the objects of their machinations clever enough to outwit them. From Dekker’s plays we get a very lively impression of all that was picturesque and theatrically interesting in the city life of the time, the interiors of the shops and the houses, the tastes of the citizens and their wives, the tavern and tobacco-shop manners of the youthful aristocracy and their satellites. The social student cannot afford to overlook Dekker; there is no other dramatist of that age, except Thomas Middleton, from whom we can get such a vivid picture of contemporary manners in London. He drew direct from life; in so far as he idealized, he did so not in obedience to scholarly precepts or dogmatic theories, but in the immediate interests of good-natured farce and tender-hearted sentiment.

In all the serious parts of Dekker’s plays there is a charming delicacy of touch, and his smallest scraps of song are bewitching; but his plays, as plays, owe much more to the interest of the characters and the incidents than to any excellence of construction. We see what use could be made of his materials by a stronger intellect in Westward Ho! which he wrote in conjunction with John Webster. The play, somehow, though the parts are more firmly knit together, and it has more unity of purpose, is not so interesting as Dekker’s unaided work. Middleton formed a more successful combination with Dekker than Webster; there is some evidence that in The Honest Whore, or The Converted Courtesan, which is generally regarded as the best that bears Dekker’s name, he had the assistance of Middleton, although the assistance was so immaterial as not to be worth acknowledging in the title-page. Still that Middleton, a man of little genius but of much practical talent and robust humour, was serviceable to Dekker in determining the form of the play may well be believed. The two wrote another play in concert, The Roaring Girl, for which Middleton probably contributed a good deal of the matter, as well as a more symmetrical form than Dekker seems to have been capable of devising. In The Witch of Edmonton, except in a few scenes, it is difficult to trace the hand of Dekker with any certainty; his collaborators were John Ford and William Rowley; to Ford probably belongs the intense brooding and murderous wrath of the old hag, which are too direct and hard in their energy for Dekker, while Rowley may be supposed to be responsible for the delineation of country life. The Virgin Martyr, one of the best constructed of his plays, was written in conjunction with Massinger, to whom the form is no doubt due. Dekker’s plays contain a few songs which show him to have been possessed of very great lyrical skill, but of this he seems to have made sadly little use. His poem of Canaans Calamitie—if indeed it be his, which is hard to believe—is exceedingly poor stuff, and the verse portion of his Dreame, though containing some good lines, is, as a whole, not much better.

When Gerard Langbaine wrote his Account of the English Dramatic Poets in 1691, he spoke of Dekker as being “more famous for the contention he had with Ben Jonson for the bays, 940than for any great reputation he had gained by his own writings.” This is an opinion that could not be professed now, when Dekker’s work is read. In the contention with Ben Jonson, one of the most celebrated quarrels of authors, the origin of which is matter of dispute, Dekker seems to have had very much the best of it. We can imagine that Jonson’s attack was stinging at the time, because it seems to be full of sarcastic personalities, but it is dull enough now when nobody knows what Dekker was like, nor what was the character of his mother. There is nothing in the Poetaster that has any point as applied to Dekker’s powers as a dramatist, while, on the contrary, Satiromastix, or the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet is full of pungent ridicule of Jonson’s style, and of retorts and insults conceived in the happiest spirit of good-natured mockery. Dekker has been accused of poverty of invention in adopting the character of the Poetaster, but it is of the very pith of the jest that Dekker should have set on Jonson’s own foul-mouthed Captain Tucca to abuse Horace himself.

Works.—The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus (1600); The Shomakers Holiday. Or The gentle Craft. With the humorous life of Simon Eyre, shoomaker, and Lord Maior of London (1600); Satiromastix. Or The untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602); The Pleasant Comodie of Patient Grissill (1603), with Chettle and Haughton; The Honest Whore. With The Humours of the Patient Man, and the Longing Wife (1604); North-Ward Hoe (1607), with John Webster; West-Ward Hoe (1607), with John Webster; The Whore of Babylon (1607); The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat. With the Coronation of Queen Mary, and the coming in of King Philip (1607), with John Webster; The Roaring Girle. Or Moll Cut-Purse(1611), with Thomas Middleton; The Virgin Martir (1622), with Massinger; If It Be Not Good, the Divel is in it (1612); The Second Part of the Honest Whore. With the Humors of the Patient Man, the Impatient Wife; the Honest Whore, perswaded by strong Arguments to turne Curtizan againe; her brave refuting those Arguments. And lastly, the Comicall Passages of an Italian Bridewell, where the Scaene ends (1630); A Tragi-Comedy: Called, Match mee in London (1631); The Wonder of a Kingdome (1636); The Witch of Edmonton. A known true Story. Composed into a Tragi-Comedy (1658), with William Rowley and John Ford. The Sun’s Darling (1656) was possibly written by Ford and Dekker, or may be perhaps more correctly regarded as a recast by Ford of a masque by Dekker, perhaps his lost play of Phaëton. The pageants for the Lord Mayor’s shows of 1612 and 1629 were written by Dekker, and both are preserved. His tracts are invaluable for the light which they throw on the London of his time, especially in their descriptions of the circumstances of the theatre. Their titles, many of which are necessarily abbreviated, are: Canaans Calamitie, Jerusalems Miserie, and Englands Mirror (1598), in verse; The Wonderfull Yeare 1603. Wherein is shewed the picture of London lying sicke of the Plague (1603); The Batchelars Banquet (1603); a brilliant adaptation of Les Quinze Joyes de mariage; the Seven Deadly Sinnes of London (1606);Newes from Hell, Brought by the Divells Carrier (1606), reprinted in the next year with some interesting additions as A Knights Conjuring; Jests to make you Merie (1607), with George Wilkins; The Belman of London: Bringing to Light the most notorious villanies that are now practised in the Kingdome (1608); followed by a second part and enlarged editions under other titles; The Dead Tearme (1608); The Ravens Almanacke, foretelling of a Plague, Famine and Civill Warre (1609), ridiculing the almanac makers; The Guls Horne-booke (1609), the most famous of all his tracts, providing a code of manners for the Elizabethan gallant, in the aisle of St Paul’s, at the ordinary, at the playhouse, and other resorts; Worke for Armorours, or the Peace is Broken (1609); Foure Birds of Noahs Ark (1609); A Strange Horse-Race (1613); Dekker his Dreame ... (1620), in verse and prose, illustrated with a woodcut of the dreamer; and A Rod for Run-awayes (1625). This long list does not exhaust Dekker’s work, much of which is lost.

Authorities.—An edition of the collected dramatic works of Dekker by R. H. Shepherd appeared in 1873; his prose tracts and poems were included in Dr A. B. Grosart’s Huth Library (1884-1886): both these contain memoirs of him, but by far the most complete account of his life and writings is to be found in the article by A. H. Bullen in the Dictionary of National Biography. See also the elaborate discussion of his plays in Mr Fleay’s Biographical Chronicle (1891), i. 115, &c., and, for his quarrel with Ben Jonson, Prof. J. H. Penniman’s War of the Theatres (Boston, 1897) and Mr R. A. Small’s Stage Quarrel between Ben Jonson and the so-called Poetasters (Breslau, 1899). A selection from his plays was edited for the Mermaid Series (1887; new series, 1904) by Ernest Rhys. An essay on Dekker by A. C. Swinburne appeared in The Nineteenth Century for January 1887.


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