His name suggesting Dutch heritage, the English pamphleteer and playwright appears to history first in 1597. Between 1598 and 1602, Dekker authored eight plays for the London stage (Philip Henslowe's Admiral's Men) and collaborated on or produced another 17. All told, he had a hand in some 60 plays over his career, though none approaches the quality of his contemporaries Shakespeare, Marlow, or Jonson, with whom Dekker often quarreled. Cantankerousness and debt resulted in time spent in prison (seven years, 1512–1519).
When city authorities shut down London's theaters during the plague of 1603, Dekker began his second career as social critic. Like others of his generation, Dekker blamed the plague's ravages on divine retribution for human sin, especially on the part of the government. In 1603, he published anonymously The Wonderfull Yeare 1603, which set the tone for his seven plague pamphlets. His works are brutally realistic, bitingly satirical, and unstintingly critical of London society and its leaders. They echo the equally satirical and critical works of Thomas Nashe from the 1590s but outdo them in scope and construction. In Wonderfull (amazing) Yeare, Dekker traces the political shift from Tudor to Stuart and proceeds to make connections between individual and societal sin and punishment through plague. Political propaganda informs his description of new King James as Apollo, ironically both archer and healer. But it is physician James who will heal the country that has been punished for Elizabeth's sins. Dekker mixes prose and poetry, humor and cold criticism, and a range of journalistic styles, which takes him well beyond such contemporaries as John Davies and his highly descriptive “Triumph of Death” (1605) or Henry Petowe's “Londoners their Entertainment” (1604), which is far more religiously moralistic.
In 1604, Dekker published his plague pamphlets “Newes from Graves-End: Sent to Nobodie” and “A Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie.” The first, mocking the city deserted by its leaders, who left “Mr. Nobody” behind, again mixes poetry and prose. He disdains medical advice since God alone is responsible, and his moral advice consists of a singular chord: repent lest the plague return. Dekker's “Gallants” meet and turn to boasting of their successes in promulgating war, famine, and plague. From this frame tale emerge a set of short stories ala Boccaccio's Decameron, but Dekker's are set during plague time. In 1606, Dekker's satirical “Seven Deadly Sinnes” appeared. The 1603 plague provides a backdrop but is not “on stage.” A Petrarchan “trionfo” of Dekker's version of the Sins is wheeled into London, each in its chariot, each with its crowd of welcoming adherents. Fraud, Lying, Candle-Light (immoral acts hidden by night), Sloth, Apishnesse (stylish vanity), Shaving (sharp dealing), and Cruelty each appear in turn. All sins anger God, but those that harm the poor and disadvantaged, Dekker writes, unleash the plague.
London's 1625 plague inspired “Rod for Run-awaies” (1625), and a plague scare in 1630 prompted “London Looks Back” and “The Black Rod and the White Rod” (both 1630). “Run-awaies” is a reference to those who abandoned the city when plague struck, but Dekker's theme is essentially Malthusian. London was overpopulated and people lived in squalor, which led to famine, vice, sin, and the filth that spawned the plague. The epidemic itself was a “broom” that swept away “kingdoms of people, when they grow rank and too full.” When plague threatened London in 1630, Dekker penned “London” and “Black Rod” as reminders of the horrors of 1625, “that dreadful scourge.” He reiterated his warnings against reliance on physicians and medicines and his arguments against shutting the infected poor into their own houses to die (since there was no contagion): repentance was the only sure answer.
See also: abandonment; Broadsheets, Broadsides, and Pamphlets; James I and VI Stuart, King; London, England; Malthusianism; Morality Literature, Christian.
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