The career and literary output of Thomas Dekker (c.1572–1632) to a considerable extent reflects the precarious, ad hoc, sometimes even dangerous conditions under which that emerging, late Elizabethan category of author – the professional writer – worked. Much more of what Dekker wrote has been lost than survives, but his extant printed output is still considerable, and covers multiple genres: drama, royal and mayoral entertainment, commendatory verse, prologue, epilogue, jest, and satire. He was also prolific in that particularly Renaissance form – the prose pamphlet – and wrote about, among other things, dreams, fashion, hell, the night, criminality, sin, anti-Catholicism, and cold weather. But more than anything, Dekker was a London writer, in every sense; and if a great challenge to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature was to find new ways of representing London's dramatic and ongoing expansion, Dekker's abundant literary output was one important response to this task.
To construct Dekker's largely undocumented biography means relying, inevitably, on inferences drawn from his own literary works. His name perhaps suggests Dutch ancestors – in The shomakers holiday (1600), Rowland Lacy avoids being sent to war in France by disguising himself as a Dutch shoemaker – although Dekker was almost certainly born in London: in several texts, including The seven deadly sinnes (1606), Dekker figures London as his mother. Dekker's familiarity with Latin authors, and his knowledge of German, French, and classical mythology, suggests a grammar school education, but he seems not to have attended university or the Inns of Court, thereby not conforming to the traditional career arc of many Renaissance writers. There is also something of the autodidact about him: in his fitfully autobiographical Dekker his dreame (1620), Dekker recalls how much he had learnt from ‘Private Readings’, rather than tutors.
Dekker was thoroughly entangled in London literary life, and in his dramatic collaborations, he worked with, among many others, Henry Chettle, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Marston, Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare, and John Webster. His talents for theatrical writing were recognized early on: hence his involvement in 1593–94, aged about 21, in the never performed play Sir Thomas More, alongside Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare, Henry Chettle, and perhaps Thomas Heywood. Hence, too, Francis Meres's comment in his Palladis tamia (1598) that among ‘our best for Tragedy’ are Shakespeare, Drayton, George Chapman, Jonson, and Dekker: a canon that would surprise most twenty-first-century readers. Later, in his preface to The white devil (1612), Webster singled out Shakespeare, Heywood, and Dekker for particular praise.
Between 1598 and 1602, Dekker's literary energy was largely focused on producing drama for the Admiral's Men: his name frequently appears in the company's theatrical ‘diary’, or account book, kept by Philip Henslowe. Dekker wrote very quickly, usually in collaboration with other dramatists, and in this four-year period was in some way involved in more than 40 plays. The great majority of these titles are now lost – co-authored plays such as The famous wars of Henry I, and Godwin and his three sons (both written in March 1598, with Chettle, Drayton, and Robert Wilson). In this period, Dekker wrote seven plays as sole author, including The gentle craft (1599), published as The shomakers holiday (1600). Based on Thomas Deloney's prose fiction of 1598, and performed before Elizabeth I at court on 1 January 1600, this city comedy remains the work for which Dekker is best known. As a result, it has come to be seen (with some justification) as paradigmatic of Dekker's literary productions, in its interest in guilds and trades, and its busy, eager, commercial London setting; in its attention to characters whose economic plight seems precarious; in its use of apparently colloquial speech and (stage) Dutch, and its attempts to generate an impression of realism; and in its awareness of class divisions and also, through Simon Eyre's spectacular rise from shoemaker to lord mayor, the possibilities of dramatic social mobility.
Despite this prolific productivity, Dekker's relationship with Henslowe was tempestuous. Payments from Henslowe were cancelled, and Dekker wrote for other companies between 1600 and 1602, composing (probably) Blurt, master-constable (1602) for Paul's Boys, a play previously attributed to Thomas Middleton. Dekker also revised and augmented an earlier Admiral's Men's play, Sir John Oldcastle (1599), to create Sir John Oldcastle, part two (1602) for Lord Worcester's Men. This habit of reworking existing texts was a feature of Dekker's craft.
Conflict and instability were often the conditions of Dekker's writing, as well as the subjects of his plays: Satiro-mastix (1602), produced in both private theatre (by Paul's Boys) and in public (by the Globe's Chamberlain's Men), was one strike in the supposed War of the Theatres – a conflict between Jonson, on one side, and Dekker and Marston, on the other, based around competing ideas of the function of drama in society, and tensions between public and private theatres as well as between theatrical companies. Satiro-mastix responded, in particular, to Jonson's mockery of Marston and Dekker's literary merits in Every man out of his humour (1599), Cynthias revels (1600), and Poetaster (1601).
Dekker possessed a capacity to switch genres quickly as the occasion demanded: on the accession of James I in 1603, he collaborated with his former adversary Ben Jonson to produce the official welcome to the new monarch, The magnificent entertainment given to King James, and commendatory verses for Stephen Harrison's The arch's of triumph erected in honor of James the first (both 1604). Dekker responded to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with The double PP (1606), a virulently anti-Catholic text in which the papist is described as, among other things, a shape-shifting beast. The pamphlet vividly conveys a sense of religious conflict as alive and ongoing, even to readers today. But Dekker's greatest catalyst for creativity was the plague. When the outbreak of 1603 led to the closure of the theatres, Dekker's literary energies migrated to other forms. The wonderfull yeare (1603), his pamphlet reaction to both the death of Elizabeth I and the arrival of the plague, is among the strangest and – in its flinging together of diverse registers and genres, including the skeletons of dramas which could not at that moment find a stage – aesthetically compelling instances of Dekker's work. Here, and elsewhere, he demonstrated the ability to convert adversity into literary product by, in part, making adversity and struggle his aesthetic. Other plague pamphlets followed, including Newes from Graves-end (1604) and, after the 1625 outbreak, A rod for run-awayes (1625).
When the plague passed, and the theatres reopened, Dekker switched back to drama, working for different companies at the same time. He produced The honest whore, part one (1604), with Thomas Middleton, and, as single author, The honest whore, part two (1605), both for Prince Henry's Men: the new title of Dekker's old company, the Admiral's Men. For Paul's Boys, Dekker wrote The roaring girle (?1605), also with Middleton. This fictional and in some ways spectacular dramatization of the life of cross-dressing thief Mary Frith (‘Moll Cutpurse’) has proven popular with recent readers, due in part to its apparently transgressive themes of transvestism and female criminality. Dekker's subsequent dramatic career was only occasionally successful: The whore of Babylon (1607) failed to please audiences, and Dekker struggled to place If this be not good the divel is in it (1611) with a theatrical company. It was turned down by Prince Henry's Men and, when performed by Queen Anne's Men at the Red Bull Theatre, was not a success. In the wake of these failures, Dekker turned increasingly to pamphlet writing.
In his pamphlets, Dekker was consistently interested in the improvisations and novelties of London life, particularly under moments of strain. The great frost: cold doings in London (1608) describes, through a dialogue between a young city man and an older country man, the river Thames's freezing, and the ensuing follies as people walk out on the ice to sell beer and wine. This prose account of the frozen Thames might be read as an answer to the minor Renaissance genre of river poetry, represented in poems by John Leland, Edmund Spenser, and Michael Drayton: a genre that, among other things, celebrated circulation and, according to some critics, a sense of a devolved, anti-centralizing politics and national identity. Dekker's Thames, while frozen, is still dynamic: the river, and London, are the site of an always emerging capitalistic creativity, whether through the selling of fruit by costermongers-on-ice, or, more generally, through the outlandish and often troubling stories cast out by London. This profligacy of narrative creates ethical problems: the pamphlet's speakers worry about how, amid these endless London stories, to discern truth from falsity. But it also represents a commercial potential: Dekker is particularly interested – in The great frost, and more generally – in the relationship between the telling of such tales (or rumours, or anecdotes) and the creation of obligations of credit and debt. London emerges as the necessary, if challenging, locus for the professional writer.
Dekker's London is vividly alive in the present, but it also has a historical genealogy that keeps breaking through. Thus, in The great frost, amid descriptions of the current freezing, Dekker includes records of frozen rivers from England's past, from the reigns of King William II (1087–1100) and King John (1199–1216), to ‘the seventh yeere of Queene Elizabeth, which began upon 21 of December, and held on so extremely’. And in The dead tearme (1607), a dialogue between personifications of Westminster and the City in which the sins of London are lamented, Dekker includes discussion of the ‘what Names London from time to time hath bin called’.
If Dekker's London is thus both a synchronic and a diachronic construction, Dekker is nonetheless fascinated by the sins of the present, particularly those that flourished at night. The belman of London (1608) captures London with Dekker's characteristic immediacy, as the figure of the belman walks the dark streets, discovering and anatomizing the various kinds of London rogue: the ruffler; the angler; the prigger of prances; the palliard or clapperdugeon. As was his tendency, Dekker here returns to, and revises, his own earlier writing to produce a new text – in this case, reworking ‘The discoveries of Cock Wat, the Walking Spirit of Newgate’, in Jests to make you merie (1607). The text is also indebted to Robert Greene's cony-catching pamphlets, and, as in Greene's crime writing, the detailed knowledge Dekker conveys means that the satirical impulse of the text is complicated: an account that is notionally censorious becomes, through its intimacy with its subject, something close to an encomium. Dekker also places great stress on what he called ‘drawing to the life’: a kind of realism that prioritizes, among other things, lower-class figures, particularly those associated with crime, and that creates – through different registers and half-understood discourses – seemingly authentic patterns of speech: hence the inclusion, at the end of The belman of London, of a ‘short Discourse of canting’. In his dramatic writing, this interest in the effect of authenticity led Dekker often to rework the facts of actual crimes into plays (as in, for example, The late murder in Whitechapel, or keep the widow waking, 1624). The belman of London was sufficiently successful to prompt a sequel, Lanthorn and candle-light, or the bell-mans second nights-walke (1608), which enjoyed considerable success, and was issued in at least nine editions.
Many of these interests return in Dekker's The guls horne-book (1609), his most famous non-dramatic work, and his version of Fredriech Dedekind's Latin poem Grobianus (1558). Once more an apparently satirical portrait of London behaviour – in this case, the fashionable, ridiculous modes of the town gallant – is complicated by the detail, intimacy, and sheer verve of the writing, as Dekker records how a gallant ought to behave as he walks up and down the aisle of St Paul's, or drinks in a tavern, or displays himself in a theatre (where the key, as Dekker puts it, is to master the art of ‘spreading your body on the stage’, to become conspicuous). The guls horne-book combines two important strands in English Renaissance literary culture – the (mock) conduct book, and the portrait of London life in which the narrator is not detached but implicated – and, partly as a result, remained popular for much of the century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this focus on sin, and the precariousness of authorship, Dekker was himself no stranger to charges of criminality. In 1598, he was imprisoned in Poultry Compter for debt: Henslowe paid for his release, along with that of Dekker's dramatic collaborator Henry Chettle, at a cost of about 40 shillings. Other imprisonments for debt followed, including, in 1612, a seven-year incarceration in the King's Bench prison for an unpaid £40 debt to the coach-maker John Webster, father of the playwright. The recusancy charges Dekker faced in 1626 and 1628 reflect almost certainly not religious heterodoxy but that he was staying away from church to elude his debtors. Dekker experienced other encounters with the law, too: in 1608 he was charged with breaching the peace against an Agnes Preston, and in 1625 he faced conspiracy and libel charges in the Star Chamber for his role in the co-authored, and now lost, The late murder in Whitechapel, or keep the widow waking, written with Ford, Rowley, and Webster. While publishers, booksellers, and printers might make considerable money through the book trade, the position of authors was weak. With no patron, and – unlike Shakespeare – no share in a theatrical company, and no income from acting, Dekker was solely reliant on his pen. Even the most successful work yielded scant rewards, and debt and professional writing were constant companions: as can be seen in the careers of Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene, the latter of whom died deep in debt, abandoned by friends, and living with a prostitute called Nell Ball. During his 1612–19 period of imprisonment, Dekker's first wife, Mary, died (1616). Thomas and Mary Dekker had three daughters: Dorcas (b.1594); Elizabeth (b.1598); and Anne (b.1602). Upon his death in 1632, Dekker's second wife, Elizabeth, renounced the administration of his estate, presumably in an attempt to avoid inheriting Dekker's unravelled finances.
While in prison, Dekker was able to continue his literary output, albeit in an attenuated form: the capacity of writers to work, and publish, while in prison is a striking and, to modern readers, surprising feature of Renaissance literary culture. Among other productions, Dekker revised The great frost (1608) into The cold yeare (1614); produced commendatory verses for John Taylors Taylors Urania, or his heavenly muse (1615); and drew inspiration from his bleak circumstances by writing vignettes of six prison characters (including ‘A prisoner’, ‘A creditor’, and ‘A common cruel jailor’) for the collection of short sketches of biographical ‘types’, or characters, included in Sir Thomas Overburie his wife (1616).
After his release from prison, Dekker published Dekker his dreame, written in verse and careering prose, and in part a reflection of his experiences in prison, where, he says, in this enforced sleep, his hair turned white due to the ‘ghastly objects’ he saw. The pamphlet recounts Dekker's experiences upon dreaming of an encounter with Satan and an exploration of the afterlife. The text is also a good example of Dekker's persistent interest in writing about sound: Dekker's hell is full of ‘bawling reprobate [s]’, and (his neologism) ‘plangiferous paines’. But Dekker's real subject, here, seems to be writing itself: his repeated stress on the difficulty of his subject (conveyed in sometimes comical marginal notes), and his sustained meta-literary unpacking of his own intentions and methods, creates a powerful sense of the arduous labour of authorship. This difficulty and struggle is also conveyed in the preface to Jests to make you merie, co-written with George Wilkins, in which Dekker laments ‘what a miserable and endless labour does he undertake that in a few scribled sheetes hopes to wrap up the loves of all men’. The jests in this text often concern the precariousness of the worlds of writing, publishing, and bookselling. Newes from hell (1606), expanded into A knights conjuring (1607), explores similar concerns.
In this period after prison, Dekker also returned to writing drama, producing, among other plays, The virgin martir (1620) with Philip Massinger, and The noble Spanish souldier (1622) and The wonder of a kingdome (1623), both with John Day. As had been the case with his earlier theatrical work, Dekker's creativity relied on both collaboration and the revising of existing texts. Both mechanisms underpin his still popular play, The witch of Edmonton (1621; printed 1658), written with William Rowley and John Ford, and drawing heavily on a pamphlet by Henry Goodcole, The wonderfull discouerie of Elizabeth Sawyer, a witch, late of Edmonton, her conviction and condemnation and death (1621). Many of the plays from this late period are now lost, including The bellman of Paris, written with John Day (1623). The loss of so much work is certainly related to Dekker's lack of a sustained connection with a single theatrical company, and the scattered, disordered nature of his writing life; but it usefully reminds modern readers, more broadly, of the partial and fragmentary corpus of Renaissance writing that has descended to the twenty-first century. Dekker's writing serves another important reminder, too: that modern, post-Romantic assumptions about authorship (the solitary, dematerialized genius) simply do not work for most forms of Renaissance literature. The version of authorship that Dekker lived was largely collaborative; newly professionalized, and acutely self-conscious, and shifting away from an aristocratic culture based around patronage (Dekker's pamphlets mock the flattery demanded by patrons); precarious, and frequently unmoored, and never far from the possibility of imprisonment; prolific, quickly responsive to events in the world, and adept at sudden shifts between genres; and, most of all, fascinated and challenged by an expanding, dynamic London that was Dekker's most powerful context and source.
SEE ALSO: Day, John; Drayton, Michael; Ford, John; Greene, Robert; Jonson, Ben; Marston, John; Nashe, Thomas; Rowley, William; Taylor, John; Wilson, Robert
- The dragon and the dove: the plays of Thomas Dekker. Clarendon Press, Oxford. (1990)
- Literature and culture in early modern London. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (2005)
- Dekker and Heywood: professional dramatists. St Martin's, New York. (1993)
- Pamphlets and pamphleteering in early modern Britain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (2006)
- Smith, David L. et al. (eds) (2003) The theatrical city: culture, theatre and politics in London, 1576–1649. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- London dispossessed: literature and social space in the early modern city. St Martin's Press, New York. (1998)
- Dekker, Thomas. In: Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (2004)
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