Thomas Dekker

The English playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker (ca. 1572-ca. 1632) is noted for his vivid portrayals of London life and his genial sympathy for the lower classes.

Nothing is known of Thomas Dekker's parentage or education. Throughout his life he remained closely identified with London, where he was probably born about 1572. He acquired some knowledge of Latin, French, and Dutch, and he may have seen military service in his early years.

The first evidence of Dekker's association with the stage appears in the records of Philip Henslowe, the theatrical manager whose diary provides much valuable information about the more practical side of Elizabethan drama. Henslowe also reveals that Dekker was imprisoned for debt—a not uncommon fate for dramatists of the period.

Early in his career Dekker produced his most popular play, The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599). This engaging mixture of sentimental romance and homely urban realism shows Dekker's modest talents to best advantage. The principal focus of interest is the honest, convivial shoemaker Simon Eyre, who by virtue of industry and good luck rises to become lord mayor of London. Always mindful of his humble origins, the madcap lord mayor holds a grand feast for the apprentices of London and decrees that Shrove Tuesday be set aside as a holiday for shoemakers. Simon also plays a part in bringing together the wellborn lovers Rowland Lacy and Rose Otely and in restoring Rafe Damport to his wife, Joan. The play is seasoned with the diverting good humor of Dame Margery, Simon's talkative, down-to-earth wife, and the shoemakers Hodge and Firk.

About 1603 Dekker turned his hand to the writing of popular prose pamphlets. By 1610 he had produced at least 13 of these, The Gull's Hornbook (1609) being the best-known. While these works have little merit as literature, they do provide a fascinating picture of the seamier side of London life in the early 17th century.

During this period Dekker continued his dramatic work, usually as a collaborator. The Honest Whore (Part 1, 1604; Part 2, ca. 1605) and The Roaring Girl (ca. 1610, written with Thomas Middleton) are among the six or seven plays from this period of Dekker's career. From 1613 to 1619 he evidently wrote nothing; these years may have been spent in prison, but the evidence on this point is not conclusive. In 1620 he reappears as a pamphleteer and playwright. His later dramatic works (done in collaboration with such playwrights as Philip Massinger, William Rowley, and John Ford) reveal his abiding interest in London life, with his earlier sunny realism occasionally qualified by a note of bitterness.

Dekker composed the annual lord mayor's pageant in 1628 and 1629. He died shortly afterward, probably in 1632, heavily in debt.

Further Reading on Thomas Dekker

The basic biography is M. L. Hunt, Thomas Dekker (1911; repr. 1964). Critical studies include K. L. Gregg, Thomas Dekker: A Study in Economic and Social Backgrounds (1924); J. H. Conover, Thomas Dekker: An Analysis of Dramatic Structure (1969); and G. R. Price, Thomas Dekker (1969).

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