Of Dekker's life, nothing is known for certain before 1598 when his name appears in entries in Philip Henslowe's Diary. Even though Dekker had a steady stream of work with Henslowe, he was frequently in debt.
He was imprisoned for debt briefly in the Poultry Counter in 1599, and by the King's Bench, 1613-1619.
Dekker was a prolific writer, having part in some 50 plays over his career—only twenty of these, as well as some masques, have survived. The earliest of these is Old Fortunatus (1598?), a tale of the misfortunes of a beggar and his sons after they choose riches from among Fortune's offers. The second play, his most well-known, and his masterpiece, is The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599). It takes place in London and provides a variety of vivid, ebullient portraits of Londoners and their daily life. The Shoemaker's Holiday had the honor of being performed for Queen Elizabeth on New Year, 1600. The play enjoyed such popularity in its own time that six editions of the play had been printed by 1657. It is still the most often produced of Dekker's plays. The other sole-authorship plays of Dekker are, in contrast, dissatisfying. The Whore of Babylon (c.1606), If It be Not Good the Devil is in It (c.1610) and The Wonder of a Kingdom (pub. 1636) all suffer from structural weaknesses.
Dekker's inadequacy in constructing dramatic action was satirized by Ben Jonson in his Every Man out of His Humour and The Poetaster (prod. 1601). In The Poetaster, Dekker is presented as Demetrius Fannius, "a very simple fellow. . . a dresser of plays."1 Dekker, incensed, wrote Satiromastix (1601) as a rejoinder, probably in collaboration with Marston, but the play was not nearly as witty as its counterpart. The writers finally patched their feuding, known as the "War of the Theatres"—in 1604 Dekker collaborated with Jonson on The King's Entertainment.
Of Dekker's numerous collaborations, the most notable include Westward Ho (1604), The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c.1604), and Northward Ho (c. 1605) with John Webster; The Honest Whore, Part I (1604) and The Roaring Girl (1610) with Thomas Middleton; The Virgin Martyr (1620) with Philip Massinger; The Witch of Edmonton (c.1621) with John Ford and William Rowley; and Patient Grissel (1600) with Henry Chettle and William Haughton.
Dekker was also accomplished as a prose
writer. The moralizing tone occasionally apparent in his dramatic works
is obvious in his many pamphlets. The Wonderful Year (1603) relates the effects of the plague on London. The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606) offers a lively description of daily life in London, and the temporary victory of the seven deadly sins. The Bellman of London (1608) is an exposé on the criminal underbelly of the city. Lantern and Candlelight (1608), a description of low life, was Dekker's biggest publishing success. The Gull's Horn-Book (1609), a parody of courtesy books, gives satiric instructions on how to conduct oneself in playhouses and taverns. The Four Birds of Noah's Ark (1609) is a collection of prayers.
Dekker was buried on August 25, 1632 at St. James's parish, Clerkenwell.
Books for further study:
Bose, Tirthankar. The gentle craft of revision in Thomas Dekker's last plays (1979)
Bowers, Fredson, ed. The dramatic works of Thomas Dekker (4 vol., 1953–61)
Champion, Larry S. Thomas Dekker and the traditions of English drama (1985)
Price, George R. Thomas Dekker (1969)
Dekker | Life | Works | Links | Essays | Books | Renaissance Drama | 17th C. Eng. Lit.
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