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Dekker, Thomas (c. 1572–1632) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

dekker’s plays wrote writer

Thomas Dekker was, by his own account, born in London, probably in 1572, probably of Dutch descent. Nothing is known of his early life, but he may have   seen military service in Holland. He first appears in the public record in Hens-lowe’s* Diary in 1598, but his name is also mentioned in Frances Meres’ Palladis Tamia as among “our best for Tragedy” in 1598, so he was probably a known writer before that. Between 1598 and his death in 1632, he wrote seven original plays and collaborated on fifty-one others. His collaborators were Chettle, Drayton, Wilson, Shakespeare,* Webster, Jonson,* Marston, Haughton, Day, Munday, Hathaway, Middleton, Smith, Massinger, Ford, and Rowley. In addition to the plays, he wrote pageants for public events like King James’ coronation and Lord Mayors’ Feasts and published nondramatic pamphlets on a variety of subjects and in a variety of media: prose, poetry, and prose fiction. He made a living entirely by his writing—when he could, that is. He was imprisoned for debt three times, once for seven years from 1612 to 1619. Late in life, he was twice arrested for recusancy for not attending church. I suspect this reversal may come less from religious conviction than fear of arrest for debt if he left his home, but we can hardly say for sure. His first wife died in 1616 while he was in prison, and he left a widow at his death in 1632. There are baptismal records for three children.


Aphra Behn wrote an adaptation of the 1600 Dekker collaboration, Lust’s Dominion as Abdelezar in 1676, but there was little interest in Dekker until Charles Lamb’s 1808 evaluation that Dekker had “poetry enough for anything.” The Dekker revival in the nineteenth century coincided with the awakening of interest in anything remotely Shakespearean, as typified by Collier’s forgeries added to Henslowe’s* Diary , some of which pertain to Dekker.

Because so much of Dekker’s dramatic work was collaborative, establishing the canon remains a major problem. This has been partially resolved in the twentieth century with a number of scholarly editions and book-length critical studies. Also making assessment of his early work difficult is lost plays. That so many different playwrights were willing to work with him both early and late in his career suggests the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries. Jonson accused Dekker of being a hack writer, but given the circumstances of composition, it is remarkable that some of the collaborations are as seamless as they are. Dekker never repeated the critical success of The Shoemaker’s Holiday , but it is agreed that the much later Witch of Edmunton , a 1621 collaboration with Ford and Rowley, shows that he was, even after several breaks from playwriting, capable of greatness.

In the latter nineteenth-century, Swinburne admired Dekker’s humor and pathos but criticized his supposed carelessness. The books listed in the bibliography have echoed Swinburne in finding a combination of comic absurdity and compassionate sympathy in Dekker’s works and have largely absolved him of lack of form. All agree on Dekker’s moral seriousness, and most recently, Julia Gasper has made a case for taking Dekker seriously as a polemical writer by examining the political, topical, and religious themes in his work.

Dekker is of special appeal to modern readers and audiences for his sympathy for marginalized groups like the poor and women, for his interest in the urban milieu, and for his contempt for class snobbery.

Shoemaker’s Holiday has received the most critical attention and praise and is the play most likely to receive a modern production. A vibrant one was mounted by the Stratford (Ontario) Festival in 1990.

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