Of all the times to be a playwright, Thomas Dekker picked the worst. If you can’t be the greatest--Shakespeare, for example--or even second best--Jonson?--better to find some other generation in some other place than Elizabethan/Jacobean England. Charles Lamb claimed Dekker “had poetry enough for anything” (Hardin Craig, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare [Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1961], 801); but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of debt or to provide a clear picture of who he was.
“So obscure, so disorganized, so wretched was his life,” proclaimed Hardin Craig, “that we know neither the date of his birth nor of his death. We know only that his life was largely wasted” (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 801). Elsewhere, Craig wrote: “Almost no records of his life—parentage, birth, marriage, education, or death—have been found” (The Literature of the English Renaissance, vol. 2 of A History of English Literature, 5 vols. [New York: Collier, 1962], 170).
Such obscurity spawns the temptation to manufacture biographies. Writers, especially, leave rich resources for the speculator, given that literary creations are often interpreted as autobiography. Dekker’s family tree is completely unknown, but the name is Dutch. Perhaps Thomas was born to Dutch immigrants, speculates R. C. Bald, editor of the 1963 Riverside anthology, Six Elizabethan Plays; and perhaps that is why he used a Dutch disguise for Lacy in The Shoemaker’s Holiday (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 69). Then again, perhaps not.
Scholars agree, though, that Dekker was born about 1572, probably in London, and died about 1632, also in London. Slightly younger than Shakespeare, he is known only through theatrical works and debtors’ prison. Philip Henslowe, who built the Rose (1587), the Swan (1596), the Fortune (1600), and the Hope (1613), maintained a famous Diary, the most important source of theatrical history of the time, with accounts, receipts, payments to playwrights, and other expenditures. In 1598, Henslowe recorded a loan to Dekker, then hired him to write plays for the Admiral’s Men (Hardin Craig calls Dekker “Henslowe’s hack” [The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 801]). Henslowe’s Admiral’s Men were the chief competition for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Thus, Dekker, through his association with Henslowe, competed directly with Shakespeare in the early years of his career.
Also in 1598, Frances Meres lists Dekker as a tragedian in his Palladis Tamia. Though Meres gives no hint that order indicates rank, he lists Dekker twelfth behind Shakespeare’s ninth position: “. . . Shakespeare, Drayton, Chapman, Decker, and Benjamin Johnson.”
A July 1599 Diary entry reveals that Henslowe gave three pounds to the Admiral’s Men “to bye a boocke called the gentle Craft of Thomas Dickers,” referring to The Shoemaker’s Holiday, based on a prose work by Thomas Deloney, the title of which, The Gentle Craft, Dekker uses throughout the play as an epithet for shoemaking. Deloney, as obscure as Dekker, though of lesser reputation, is thought to have written “Crabbed age and youth cannot live together,” Number XII in The Passionate Pilgrim, a poem which, when ascribed to Shakespeare is considered youthful and immature, but when ascribed to Deloney is considered one of his finest.
In 1612, fellow playwright and collaborator John Webster, in a preface to The White Devil, relegates Dekker, along with Shakespeare, to the second tier of those with whom he would wish his works to be judged: first choices are Chapman, Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher; “and lastly (without wrong last to be named) the right happy and copious industry of Master Shakespeare, Master Dekker, and Master Heywood” (quoted in Craig, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, 1149). Dekker’s romantic style of drama, like Shakespeare’s was apparently out of fashion by 1612.
Dekker is associated with a prolific twenty-eight (or more) plays between 1598 and 1600, as sole or conjoint author, but only fourteen more by 1628. He left Henslowe by 1604, which may have been to his disadvantage, given that his productivity waned and his insolvency waxed. He was imprisoned for debt from 1613 to 1619, and probably other times as well.
Plague swept London in 1603. Whereas “the mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare” wrote narrative poetry and “sugar’d sonnets” during the plague of 1592-93, Dekker turned to prose pamphlets. London and the plague inspired The Wonderfull yeare, and Robert Greene (of “upstart crowe” fame) posthumously furnished crime and low-life material for The Belman of London. The Guls Horne-booke remains an important account of behaviour in London theatres. Dekker also performed such prestigious assignments as providing street entertainment for King James’s entry into London and a pageant for the lord mayor of London in 1612, the year before his six-year imprisonment.
Dekker usually appears as a collaborator, and most of his plays are lost. About a dozen plays bear his name yoked with Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Philip Massinger, John Ford, or William Rowley. He participated in the Poetomachia, his own coinage for “the combat of the poets,” or “the war of the theatres,” which involved seven plays and three acting companies over a period of five years. Johnson and Marston were the primary combatants; Dekker appeared late. Marston, writing for the Children of St. Pauls, satirized Jonson, writing for the Children of Blackfriars, in Histriomastix (1599), provoking Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), wherein Jonson ridiculed Marston’s style as “fustian.” Marston retaliated by presenting Jonson as “puffed up with arrogant conceit” in Jack Drum’s Entertainment (1599). Jonson’s counter-attack in Cynthia’s Revels (1600), not only slandered Marston, but also included Dekker. Marston re-counter-attacked in What You Will (1601); and Jonson composed Poetaster (1601), casting Marston as Crispinus, a poetaster and plagiarist, and Dekker as Demetrius Fannius, “a very simple fellow . . . a dresser of plays . . . a plagiary.”
Dekker then caricatured Jonson as the laborious poet crowned with nettles in Satiromastix, or the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). The character Tucca, borrowed from Jonson’s Poetaster, says of Jonson: “His wits are somewhat hard bound; the punk his Muse has sore labor ere the whore be delivered.” Jonson, notoriously slow, had publicly criticized Shakespeare’s speed, and Dekker probably wrote faster. Jonson withdrew from writing drama for a period. In 1604 Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson, and the “war” was over.
Dekker enjoyed Andy Warhol’s proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, but his legacy has proved fragile. Of his solo efforts, only five or six plays survive, depending on who’s counting. The Shoemaker’s Holiday continues as the most popular and the only one produced with any frequency. The Honest Whore, Part I is usually partially attributed to Middleton, but Hardin Craig thinks that “the idea that a fallen woman might ever again be honest was so rare in those times that almost nobody but Dekker could have entertained it” (The Literature of the English Renaissance, 171). The Honest Whore, Part II, continuing the story by tempting the heroine back to a life of shame, is entirely Dekker’s.
Dekker created good-natured, middle-class guildsmen and apprentices triumphing over injustice, misfortune, and the malice of the upper classes. He celebrates the worth of the poor and working classes who struggle with the social and economic mobility that raises their expectations. The decent working people in The Shoemaker’s Holiday have no wish to climb to Lacy’s social level; instead, ironically, the aristocratic Lacy must pose as a working class craftsman to win the favor of his lady love.
Would that Dekker’s life had paralleled one of his plots.