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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Dekker (c. 1570–1632)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THOMAS DEKKER, the genial realist, the Dickens of Jacobean London, has left in his works the impress of a most lovable personality, but the facts with which to surround that personality are of the scantiest. He was born about 1570 in London; at least in 1637 he speaks of himself as over threescore years of age. This is the only clue we have to the date of his birth. He came probably of a tradesman’s family, for he describes better than any of his fellows in art the life of the lower middle class, and enters into the thoughts and feelings of that class with a heartiness which is possible only after long and familiar association. He was not a university man, but absorbed his classical knowledge as Shakespeare did, through association with the wits of his time.  1
  He is first mentioned in Henslowe’s diary in 1597, and after that his name appears frequently. He was evidently a dramatic hack, working for that manager, adapting and making over old plays and writing new ones. He must have been popular too, for his name appears oftener than that of any of his associates. Yet his industry and popularity could not always keep him above water. Henslowe was not a generous paymaster, and the unlucky dramatist knew the inside of the debtor’s prison cell; more than once the manager advanced sums to bail him out. Oldys says he was in prison from 1613 to 1616. After 1637 we find his name no more.  2
  As a dramatist, Dekker was most active between the years 1598 and 1602. In one of those years alone he was engaged on twelve plays. Many of these have been lost; of the few that remain, two of the most characteristic belong to this period. ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday,’ published in 1599, shows Dekker on his genial, realistic side, with his sense of fun and his hearty sympathy with the life of the people. It bubbles over with the delight in mere living, and is full of kindly feeling toward all the world. It was sure to appeal to its audience, especially to the pit, where the tradesmen and artisans with their wives applauded, and noisiest of all, the ’prentices shouted their satisfaction: here they saw themselves and their masters brought on the stage, somewhat idealized, but still full of frolic and good-nature. It is one of the brightest and pleasantest of Elizabethan comedies. Close on its heels followed ‘The Pleasant Comedy of Old Fortunatus.’ Here Dekker the idealist, the poet of luxurious fancy and rich yet delicate imagination, is seen at his best. Fortunatus with his wishing-hat and wonderful purse appealed to the romantic spirit of the time, when men still sailed in search of the Hesperides, compounded the elixir of youth, and sought for the philosopher’s stone. Dekker worked over an old play of the same name; the subject of both was taken from the old German volksbuch ‘Fortunatus’ of 1519. Among the collaborators of Dekker at this time was Ben Jonson. Both these men were realists, but Jonson slashed into life with bitter satire, whereas Dekker cloaked over its frailties with a tender humor. Again, Jonson was a conscientious artist, aiming at perfection; Dekker, while capable of much higher poetry, was often careless and slipshod. No wonder that the dictator scorned his somewhat irresponsible co-worker. The precise nature of their quarrel, one of the most famous among authors, is not known; it culminated in 1601, when Jonson produced ‘The Poetaster,’ a play in which Dekker and Marston were mercilessly ridiculed. Dekker replied shortly in ‘Satiromastix, or the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet,’ a burlesque full of good-natured mockery of his antagonist.  3
  Dekker wrote, in conjunction with Webster, ‘Westward Ho,’ Northward Ho,’ and ‘Sir Thomas Wyatt’; with Middleton, ‘The Roaring Girl’; with Massinger, ‘The Virgin Martyr’; and with Ford, ‘The Sun’s Darling’ and ‘The Witch of Edmonton.’ Among the products of Dekker’s old age, ‘Match Me in London’ is ranked among his half-dozen best plays, and ‘The Wonder of a Kingdom’ is fair journeyman’s work.  4
  One of the most versatile of the later Elizabethans,—prolonging their style and ideas into the new world of the Stuarts,—Dekker was also prominent as pamphleteer. He first appeared as such in 1603, with ‘The Wonderfull Yeare 1603, wherein is showed the picture of London lying sicke of the Plague,’ a vivid description of the pest, which undoubtedly served Defoe as model in his famous book on the same subject. The best known of his many pamphlets, however, is ‘The Gul’s Horne Booke,’ a graphic description of the ways and manners of the gallants of the time. These various tracts are invaluable for the light they throw on the social life of Jacobean London.  5
  Lastly, Dekker as song-writer must not be forgotten. He had the genuine lyric gift, and poured forth his bird-notes, sweet, fresh, and spontaneous, full of the singer’s joy in his song. He also wrote some very beautiful prayers.  6
  Varied and unequal as Dekker’s work is, he is one of the hardest among the Elizabethans to classify. He at times rises to the very heights of poetic inspiration, soaring above most of his contemporaries, to drop all of a sudden down to a dead level of prose. But he makes up for his shortcomings by his whole-hearted, manly view of life, his compassion for the weak, his sympathy with the lowly, his determination to make the best of everything, and to show the good hidden away under the evil.
  “Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail,”—
these he knew from bitter experience, yet never allowed them to overcloud his buoyant spirits, but made them serve his artistic purposes. Joyousness is the prevailing note of his work, mingled with a pathetic undertone of patience.
  7
 
 
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