Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part Two > Chapman, Marston, Dekker > Dekker’s early activities; Value of his work; His Comedies: The Shomakers Holiday; Old Fortunatus; The Honest Whore
  His other Plays; Withdrawal from theatrical life His Collaborators  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker.

§ 16. Dekker’s early activities; Value of his work; His Comedies: The Shomakers Holiday; Old Fortunatus; The Honest Whore.

Thomas Dekker, in whose case, as in that of many of his contemporaries, we possess no certain record of the facts of his life, was born and bred in London—“thou beautifullest daughter of the two united Monarchies! from thy womb received I my being; from thy breasts my nourishment.” He spoke of himself as “old” in 1628, of his “three score years,” a vague phrase, in 1637; and we may take it he was born, or not long in the world, in the year 1570. The first mention of Dekker, as author of a book called Phaeton, appears in Henslowe’s diary in 1597, and his name appears again in 1599, when he is associated with Chettle, an experienced playwright, in the production of a play entitled Troilus and Cressida In the same year, he received various payments for other pieces of work. And, though the popular narrative poem Canaan’s Calamitie (1598), signed T. D., is, probably, Deloney’s and not Dekker’s, it is evident that he was early involved in the multifarious literary activities to which his life appears to have been devoted without cessation. Of his parentage and education, we know nothing, but it is improbable that he was ever a student at either of the universities. Since the theatre of the time offered the only remunerative career to poetical talents, to the theatre Dekker betook himself; but his energies, stimulated by necessity, overflowed into other channels. Plays, pageants, pamphlets followed each other with amazing rapidity. Yet, despite all his labours, early in life he made acquaintance with the misfortunes which dog the steps of poverty. In 1598, Henslowe provided forty shillings to secure his release from the “Counter in the Poultrey,” and we are told by Oldys that he was in prison from 1613 to 1616, and “how much longer he could not tell.” It has been conjectured, not without probablity, that his phrase “the Bed in which seven years I lay Dreaming” (Dekker his Dreame, 1620) has reference to this unhappy period. Some letters to Alleyn which have been preserved prove that he was several times befriended by that open-handed actor. For the rest, we know that Dekker was married before 1594, and that his last book was printed in 1637. Here the story ends; but, if the details of his private life, like those of Shakespeare, are hidden in the cloud, his work, like Shakespeare’s, offers an ample field for the study of the author’s personality. Many of his writings of which the titles survive have been lost, and others, doubtless, have perished with them; yet so much remains that, even in the absence of personal knowledge of the man, it is possible to estimate his genius and character with unusual precision. To the mental energy and literary facility of Defoe, he added the unpractical temperament, the genial kindliness, the happy heart of Goldsmith. Of the Elizabethan playwrights, excluding Shakespeare, he is not the greatest, but he is the most lovable, not the most learned but the most sympathetic; he was not the most skilful craftsman among them, but he possessed the most natural vein of inspiration. Dekker “was a rogue,” said Jonson; but we are not prepared to believe it of so sweet and so goodhumoured a disposition as his. There is no such mirror of contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean life and ways as is offered us in the works of Dekker. 7  In his natural sympathies and in his choice of subjects, he clings more closely to his own country than any dramatist of his age. No writer since Chaucer, with whom Dekker may fruitfully be compared, has painted so many essentially English pictures of men and manners in so natural and realistic a style. In his first extant play, the comedy entitled The Shomakers Holiday (printed 1600), his admirable talent and characteristic interests are displayed. The rise in fortune of the jovial and honest shoemaker, Simon Eyre, gives the poet opportunity to depict the life of the London he knew—rich in shifting scenes of love, intrigue, commerce and domestic doings. The canvas is crowded with portraits of tradesmen, apprentices, aldermen, courtiers, their wives, daughters and sweethearts, a motley procession surging through the streets, each elbowing the other in shop and tavern. No dramatist of the day supplies so vivid and humorous a spectacle of the city world which lay around him—the world for which his plays were written—as Dekker. In the same year was printed The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus, a drama in which the poet in Dekker emerges rather than the observing humorist. As in the well known fifteenth century romance, Fortunatus meets lady Fortune, and, of her gifts—“wisdom, strength, health, beauty, long life and riches”—a choice among which is offered him, he selects riches, and receives a purse which is never empty however much may be withdrawn from it. His travels after his unwise choice, and his unhappy fate, with that of his sons, make up the story of the play. The theme is simple, the construction somewhat rambling; but much of the poetry is exquisite. It was, perhaps, revised for a performance at court. Dekker never surpassed these early dramas. His rapid, careless methods betrayed him, and, though he preserved to the last something of the sweetness of fancy, the quickness of invention and the lightness of touch for which he is justly famed, he constantly offends against the stricter canons of art which require unity of design, coherence and precision in construction and character. In these and other plays, Dekker followed Shakespeare in the mingling of prose and verse. Where prose serves his purpose, as in the humorous scenes of ordinary life, he employs it freely, exchanging it for verse where a deeper key of feeling, a higher pitch of passion or sentiment is reached, passing into rimed verse in tender or pathetic passages. The singing note is heard throughout his best work, and to the charming lyrical vein in his genius we owe such perfect songs as the familiar
Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers,
where the melody breaks into a child-like overflow of almost inarticulate joyful emotion. After Satiro-mastix, already referred to, in which he took up arms against Jonson, Dekker reverted to a more congenial sphere in The Honest Whore. Although he had been one of the “screaming grasshoppers held by the wings” of Jonson’s Poetaster, Dekker, in his reply, had exhibited no malevolence, nor did he return to the attack. In the first part of The Honest Whore (printed 1604), Middleton, as proved by an entry in Henslowe, had a share; the second and superior part is wholly Dekker’s (printed 1630), and indisputably a masterpiece as well in execution as invention. The father of Bellafront (whose return to virtue makes the point of the action) is one of the most interesting characters in Elizabethan fiction, and the conception would have done honour to any dramatist. Orlando Friscobaldo, as Hazlitt wrote in his admirable appreciation, is one of the characters who “raise, revive and give a new zest to our being.” Bellafront’s husband Matheo, is an equally life-like portrait of the unprincipled libertine whose vices are due as much to lack of brain as lack of heart. No single play by Dekker more worthily represents him, or better reflects the blend of humour, pathos and poetry which made the man. But he was never a sure artist. In The Whore of Babylon (printed 1607), we have a play without merit, whose only interest lies in some few passages descriptive of London manners and fashions, and in its exhibition of protestant and patriotic sentiment, displayed in references to queen Elizabeth, under the name of Titania, to the Armada and to the Drake,
Who from their rivers beat their water fowl,
Tore silver feathers from their fairest swans,
And plucked the Halcyon’s wings that rove at sea.
If It Be Not Good, the Divel is in it (printed 1612) is a sufficiently extraordinary title for a worthless dramatic fantasy, based upon The Pleasant History of Friar Rush (1567), which presents a bewildering group of human and superhuman beings, from Ravaillac and Guy. Faux to Pluto and Charon. If, to these last named works, we add Match mee in London (printed 1631) and The Wonder of A Kingdome (printed 1636), neither of which add much to Dekker’s laurels, we exhaust the list of plays which can with any confidence be assigned to his unassisted pen. But there remain a number of dramas to which he was a contributor and of some of which, perhaps, he was the chief architect.

Note 7. See Vol. IV, Chap. XVI, pp. 401–407, where his contributions to pamphlet literature are discussed at length. See also Vol. IV., bibl. pp. 596–598. [ back ]

  His other Plays; Withdrawal from theatrical life His Collaborators  

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