Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century

THOMAS DEKKER (c. 1570-1632)

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 240-1.

AS in the reign of Elizabeth, so in the time of James the stage continued to draw the most brilliant men of letters. Thomas Dekker did not belong to the "gentle" class, and he appears not to have been a university man. Versatile and talented but often careless, he lived the life of the real bohemian. Once he was for nearly three years in prison for debt; and he had a thorough knowledge of the hardships of life. Yet in spite of all, his temper was sweet and to him life was good. His name is frequently mentioned in Henslowe's Diary, which means that as a hack writer he made himself useful; and he is known as the author of various pamphlets. He left a vivid account of the plague in 1603; also, in The Gull's Horn Book, a lively record of the loose manners and morals of the fashionable London gallants. He wrote charming songs, and a series of fine prayers. All in all, Dekker must be counted as one of the most manly and attractive of this group of playwrights.

Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday is one of the most delightful of comedies, full of fun and hearty enjoyment of life. Another Dekker comedy, Old Fortunatus, was based on a well known story which had appeared in Italian, German, and French versions. Hans Sachs and others had already used it before Dekker, who wrote his play probably in 1600. Dekker collaborated with nearly all of the Henslowe group of playwrights, and was one of the principal contestants in the famous War of the Theaters, which occurred towards the end of the sixteenth century. The causes of this trouble are somewhat obscure, but it is generally thought that Marston, Dekker, and others, on the public stage and under the slightest of disguises, had made sport of Jonson as being conceited and arrogant. In an attempt at punishment, Jonson claimed that he had given Marston a beating and taken his pistol from him. Evidently the sport continued, however; and in 1601 Jonson retaliated in another way. He produced a play called The Poetaster, in which he ridiculed both Marston and Dekker. The next move was the production by Dekker of a burlesque tragedy called Satiromastix, which was full of good-humored mockery of Jonson. The quarrel was patched up and apparently forgotten, for, in the same year, Marston and Jonson collaborated in Love's Martir; and shortly afterward the three writers, Marston, Dekker and Jonson together produced Eastward Hoe, a lively play with the plot taken from the Decameron but the characters from contemporaneous London life. Some critics believe the War of the Theaters was partly caused not so much by personal animosity as by rivalry between different theatrical companies. Jonson's plays were given by the Children of the Royal Chapel, while Dekker and Marston could be seen at the Globe and the Fortune.