Thomas Dekker (c. 1572 – August 25, 1632) was an Elizabethan dramatist and pamphleteer, a versatile and prolific writer whose career spanned several decades and brought him into contact with many of the period's most famous dramatists.
Little is known of Dekker's early life or origins. From references in his pamphlets, Dekker is believed to have been born in London around 1572, but nothing is known for certain about his youth. His last name suggests Dutch ancestry, and his work, some of which is translated from Latin, suggests that he attended grammar school.
Dekker embarked on a career as a theatre writer in the middle 1590s. His handwriting is found in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, though the date of his involvement is undetermined. More certain is his work as a playwright for the Admiral's Men of Philip Henslowe, in whose account book he is first mentioned in early 1598. While there are plays connected with his name performed as early as 1594, it is not clear that he was the original author; his work often involved revision and updating. Between 1598 and 1602, he was involved in about forty plays for Henslowe, usually in collaboration. To these years belong the collaborations with Ben Jonson and John Marston which presumably contributed to the War of the Theatres in 1600 and 1601. Francis Meres includes Dekker in his list of notable playwrights in 1598.
For Jonson, however, Dekker was bumbling hack, a "dresser of plays about town"; Jonson lampooned Dekker as Demetrius Fannius in Poetaster and as Anaides in Cynthia's Revels. Dekker's riposte, Satiromastix, performed both by the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the child actors of Paul's, casts Jonson as an affected, hypocritical Horace.
Satiromastix marks the end of the "poetomachia"; in 1603, Jonson and Dekker collaborated again, on a pageant for coronation of James I. After this commission, however, the early Jacobean period was notably mixed for the author. In late 1602, he appears to have broken his association with Henslowe, for unknown reasons. He wrote for Worcester's Men for a time, then returned to the Admiral's Men (now patronized by Prince Henry) to produce The Honest Whore, an apparent success. But the failures of The Whore of Babylon (1607) and If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil is in It (1611) left him crestfallen; the latter play was rejected by Prince Henry's Men before failing for Queen Anne's Men at the Red Bull Theatre.
In 1612, Dekker's lifelong problem with debt (he had earlier, 1599, been imprisoned in Poultry Compter) reached a crisis when he was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on a debt of forty pounds to the father of John Webster. He remained there for seven years, and despite the support of associates such as Edward Alleyn and Endymion Porter, these years were difficult; Dekker reports that the experience turned his hair white. He continued as pamphleteer throughout his years in prison.
On release, he resumed writing plays, now with collaborators both from his generation (John Day and John Webster) and slightly younger writers (John Ford and Philip Massinger). Among these plays is one, Keep the Widow Waking (1624, with Ford, Webster, and William Rowley), dramatized two recent murders in Whitechapel. In the latter half of the decade, Dekker turned once more to pamphlet-writing, revamping old work and writing a new preface to his most popular tract, The Bellman of London.
Dekker published no more work after 1632, and he is usually associated with the "Thomas Dekker, householder" who was buried at St. James's in Clerkenwell that year.
Throughout his career, Dekker wrote quickly, carelessly, and under pressure from creditors. His work has all the marks of such conditions: it is often repetitive, derivative, and sloppy. The view held by Jonson has stood, for many critics, ever since: Dekker (alongside Heywood) is seen as the consummate Renaissance hack, whose talents were perverted or stunted by the relentless need to produce. Dekker has also been labelled as a sentimentalist. More recent critics, while recognizing the mediocrity of much of his work, see Dekker as a spirited writer whose work explored the social and political tensions of his age.
When Dekker began writing plays, Thomas Nashe and Thomas Lodge were still alive; when he died, John Dryden had already been born. Like most dramatists of the period he adapted as well as he could to changing tastes; however, even his work in the fashionable Jacobean genres of satire and tragicomedy bears the marks of his Elizabethan training: its humor is genial, its action romantic. The majority of his surviving plays are comedies or tragicomedies.
Most of Dekker's work is lost. His apparently disordered life, and his lack of a firm connection (such as Shakespeare or Fletcher had) with a single company may have militated against the preservation or publication of manuscripts. Close to twenty of his plays were published during his lifetime; of these, more than half are comedies, with three significant tragedies, Lust's Dominion (presumably identical to The Spanish Moor's Tragedy, written with Day, Marston, and William Haughton, 1600) The Witch of Edmondton (with Ford and Rowley, 1621), and The Virgin Martyr (with Massinger, 1620).
The first phase of Dekker's career is documented in Henslowe's diary. His name appears for the first time in connection with "fayeton" (presumably, Phaeton) in 1598. There follow, before 1599, payments for work on The Triplicity of Cuckolds, The Mad Man's Morris, and Hannibal and Hermes. He worked on these plays with Robert Wilson, Henry Chettle, and Michael Drayton. With Drayton, he also worked on history plays on the French civil wars, Earl Godwin, and others. In 1599, he wrote plays on Troilus and Cressida, Agamemnon (with Chettle), and The Page of Plymouth. In that year, also, he collaborated with Chettle, Jonson, and Marston on a play about Robert II. 1599 also saw the production of three plays that have survived. It was during this year that he produced his most famous work, The Shoemaker's Holiday, or the Gentle Craft, categorised by modern critics as citizen comedy. This play reflects his concerns with the daily lives of ordinary Londoners. This play exemplifies his intermingling of everyday subjects with the fantastical, embodied in this case by the rise of a craftsman to Mayor and the involvement of an unnamed but idealised king in the concluding banquet. Old Fortunatus and Patient Grissel, the latter on the folkloric theme treated by Chaucer in The Clerk's Tale. In 1600, he worked on The Seven Wise Masters, Fortune's Tennis, Cupid and Psyche, and Fair Constance of Rome. The next year, in addition to Satiromastix, he worked on a play possibly about Sebastian of Portugal and Blurt, Master Constable, on which he may have worked with Thomas Middleton. In 1602 he revised two older plays, Pontius Pilate (1597) and the second part of Sir John Oldcastle. He also collaborated on Caesar's Fall, Jephthah, A Medicine for a Curst Wife, Sir Thomas Wyatt (on Wyatt's rebellion), and Christmas Comes But Once a Year.
Except for Blurt, which was performed by the Blackfriars Children, the earlier of these works were performed at the Admiral's Fortune Theatre. After 1602, Dekker split his attention between pamphlets and plays; thus, his dramatic output decreased considerably. He and Middleton wrote The Honest Whore for the Fortune in 1604, and Dekker wrote a sequel himself the following year. The Middleton/Dekker collaboration The Family of Love also dates from this general era. Dekker and Webster wrote Westward Ho and Northward Ho for Paul's Boys. The failures of the anti-Catholic Whore of Babylon and tragicomic If This Be Not... have already been noted. The Roaring Girl, a fanciful biography of Mary Frith, was a collaboration with Middleton in 1611.
During his imprisonment, Dekker did not write plays. After his release, he collaborated with Day on Guy of Warwick (1620), The Wonder of a Kingdom (1623), and The Bellman of Paris (1623). One other plays of this period, The Noble Spanish Soldier, may be a revision of earlier work with Day. With Ford, he wrote The Sun's Darling (1624), The Fairy Knight (1624), and The Bristow Merchant (1624). The Welsh Ambassador may be a reworking of The Noble Spanish Soldier. The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother, or Keep the Widow Waking, a dramatization of two recent murders in Whitechapel, occasioned a suit for slander heard in the Star Chamber.
Dekker's plays of the 1620s were staged at the large amphitheaters on the north side of London, most commonly at the Red Bull; only two of his later plays were seen at the more exclusive, indoor Cockpit Theatre, and these two were presumably produced by Christopher Beeston, who operated both the Red Bull and the Cockpit. By the 1620s, the Shoreditch amphitheaters had become deeply identified with the louder and less reputable categories of play-goers, such as apprentices. Dekker's type of play appears to have suited them perfectly. Full of bold action, careless about generic differences, and always (in the end) complimentary to the values and beliefs of such audiences, his drama carried some of the vigorous optimism of Elizabethan dramaturgy into the Caroline era.
He exhibited a similar vigour in his pamphlets, which span almost his whole writing career, and which treat a great variety of subjects and styles.
Dekker's first spate of pamphleteering began in 1603, perhaps during a period when plague had closed the theaters. His first was The Wonderful Year, a journalistic account of the death of Elizabeth, accession of James I, and the 1603 plague. It succeeded well enough to prompt two more plague pamphlets, News From Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary. The Double PP (1606) is an anti-Catholic tract written in response to the Gunpowder Plot. News From Hell (1606) is an homage to and continuation of Nash's Pierce Penniless. The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1607) is another plague pamphlet.
After 1608, Dekker produced his most popular pamphlets: a series of "cony-catching" pamphlets that described the various tricks and deceits of confidence-men and thieves, including thieves' cant. These pamphlets, which Dekker often updated and reissued, include The Belman of London (1608), Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies. They owe their form and many of their incidents to similar pamphlets by Robert Greene.
Other pamphlets are journalistic in form and offer vivid pictures of Jacobean London. The Dead Term (1608) describes Westminster during summer vacation. The Guls Horne-Booke (1609) describes the life of city gallants, including a valuable account of behaviour in the London theatres. Work for Armourers (1609) and The Artillery Garden (1616) (the latter in verse) describe aspects of England's military industries. London Look Back (1630) treats 1625, the year of James's death, while Wars, Wars, Wars (1628) describes European turmoil.
As might be expected, Dekker turned his experience in prison to profitable account. Dekker His Dreame (1620) is a long poem describing his despairing confinement; he contributed six prison-based sketches to the sixth edition (1616) of Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters; and he revised Lanthorne and Candlelight to reflect what he had learned in prison.
Dekker's pamphlets, even more than his plays, reveal signs of hasty and careless composition. Yet the best of them can still entertain, and almost all of them offer valuably precise depictions of everyday life in the Jacobean period.
Dekker came back into scene in the 20th century (although almost unnoticeably) when the Beatles included part of his ballad Golden Slumbers in their 1969 song of the same title.