1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Dekker

Thomas Dekker
English poet and dramatist

THOMAS DEKKER, dramatist. It is impossible to make out, from the scanty records of Dekker's personal life, what manner of man he was. His name occurs fre-quently in Henslowe's Diary during the last year of the 16th century; he is mentioned there as receiving loans and payments for writing plays in conjunction with Ben Jonson, Chettle, Haughton, and Day, and he would appear to have been then in the most active employment. as a playwright. The titles of the plays on which he was engaged from April 1599 to March 1599-1600 are Troilus and Gressida, Orestes Fures, Agamemnon, The Stepmother's Tragedy, Bear a Brain, Pagge of Plymouth, Robert the Second, Patient Grissel, The Shoemaker's Holiday, Truth's Supplication to Candlelight, The Spanish Moor's Tragedy, The Seven Wise Masters. At that date it is evident that Dekker's services were in great request for the stage. He is first mentioned in the Diary two years before, as having sold a book ; the payments in 1599 are generally made in advance, " in earnest " of work to be done. In the case of three of the above plays, Orestes Fures, Truth's Supplica-tion, and the Shoemaker's Holiday, Dekker is paid as the sole author. Only the Siioemaker's Holiday has been preserved; it was published in 1600. It would be unsafe to argue from the classical subjects of some of these plays that Dekker was then a young man from the university, who had come up like so many others to make a living by writing for the stage. Classical knowledge was then in the air; playwrights in want of a subject were content with translations, if they did not know the originals. However educated, Dekker was then a young man just out of his teens, if he spoke with any accuracy when he said that he was threescore in 1637; and it was not in scholarly themes that he was destined to find his true vein. The call foi the publication of the Shoemaker's Holiday, which deals with the life of the city, showed him where his strength lay. To give a general idea of the substance of Dekker's plays, there is no better way than to call him the Dickens of the Elizabethan period. The two men were as unlike as possible in their habits of work, Dekker having apparently all the thriftlessness and impecunious shameless-ness of Micawber himself. Dekker's Bohemianism appears in the slightness and hurry of his work, a strong contrast to the thoroughness and rich completeness of every labour to which Dickens applied himself; perhaps also in the exquisite freshness and sweetness of his songs, and the natural charm of stray touches of expression and description in his plays. But he was like Dickens in the bent of his genius towards the representation of the life around him in London, as well as in the humorous kindliness of his way of looking at that life, his vein of sentiment, and his eye for odd characters. There is a passage in Ben Jonson's caricature of Dekker under the name of "Crispinus,"—an allusion to his Shoemaker's Holiday,—from which it would appear that Dekker prided himself on his powers of observation. The less is included in the greater; the random pickings of Dekker, hopping here and there in search of a subject, give less complete results than the more systematic labours of Dickens. Dekker's Simon Eyre, the good-hearted, mad shoemaker, and his Orlando Frisco-baldo, are touched with a kindly humour in which Dickens would have delighted; his Infelices, Fiamettas, Tormiellas, even his Bellafronta, have a certain likeness in type to the heroines of Dickens; and his roaring blades and their gulls are prototypes of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht. Only there is this great difference in the spirit of the two writers, that Dekker wrote without odie smallest apparent wish to reform the life that he saw, desiring only to exhibit it; and that on the whole, apart from his dramatist's necessity of finding interesting matter, he cast his eye about rather with a liking for the discovery of good under unpromising appearances than with any determination to detect and expose vice. The observation must also be made that Dekker's personages have much more individual character, more of that mixture of good and evil which we find in real human beings. Hack-writer though Dekker was, and writing often under sore pressure there is no dramatist whose personages have more of the breath of life in them ; drawing with easy, unconstrained hand, he was a master of those touches by which an imaginary figure is brought home to us as a creature with human interests. A very large part of the motive power in his plays consists in the temporary yielding to an evil passion. The kindly philosophy that the best of natures may be for a time perverted by passionate desires is the chief animating principle of his comedy. He delights in showing woman listening to temptation, and apparently yielding, but still retaining sufficient control over them-selves to be capable of drawing back when on the verge of the precipice. The wives of the citizens were his heroines, pursued by the unlawful addresses of the gay young courtiers; and on the whole Dekker, from inclination apparently as well as policy, though himself, if Ben Jonson's satire had any point, a bit of a dandy in his youth, took the part of morality and the city, and either struck the rakes with remorse or made the objects of their machinations clever enough to outwit them. From Dekker's plays we get a very lively impression of all that was picturesque and theatrically interesting in the city life of the time, the interiors of the shops and the houses, the tastes of the citizens and their wives, the tavern and tobacco-shop manners of the youthful aristocracy and their satellites. The social student cannot afford to overlook Dekker; there is no other dramatist of that age from whom we can get such a vivid picture of contemporary manners in London. He drew direct from life; in so far as he idealized, he did so not in obedience to scholarly precepts or dogmatic theories, but in the immediate interests of good-natured farce and tender-hearted sentiment.

In all the serious parts of Dekker's plays there is a charming delicacy of touch, and his smallest scraps of song are bewitching; but his plays, as plays, owe much more to the interest of the characters and the incidents than to any excellence of construction. We see what use could be made of his materials by a stronger intellect in Westward Ho ! which he wrote in conjunction with John Webster. The play, somehow, though the parts are more firmly knit together, and it has more unity of purpose, is not so in-teresting as Dekker's unaided work. Middleton formed a more successful combination with Dekker than Webster; the Honest Whore, or the Converted Courtesan, is generally regarded as the best that bears Dekker's name, and in it he had the assistance of Middleton, although the assistance was so immaterial as not to be worth acknowledging in the title-page. Still that Middleton, a man of little genius but of much practical talent and robust humour, was serviceable to Dekker in determining the form of the play may well be believed. The two wrote another play in concert, the Roaring Girl, for which Middleton probably contributed a good deal of the matter, as well as a more symmetrical form than Dekker seems to have been capable of devising. In the Witch of Edmonton, except in a few scenes, it is difficult to trace the hand of Dekker with any certainty ; his collaborateurs were John Ford and William Bowley ; to Ford probably belongs the intense brooding and murderous wrath of the old hag, which are too direct and hard in their energy for Dekker, while Rowley may be supposed to be responsible for the delineation of country life.

When Langbaine wrote his Account of the English Dramatic Poets in 1691, he spoke of Dekker as being " more famous for the contention he had with Ben Jonson for the bays, than for any great reputation he had gained by his own writings." This is an opinion that could not be professed now, when Dekker's work is read. In the conten-tion with Ben Jonson, one of the most celebrated quarrels of authors, the origin of which is matter of dispute, Dekker seems to have had very much the best of it. We can imagine that Jonson's attack was stinging at the time, because it seems to be full of sarcastic personalities, but it is dull enough now when nobody knows what Dekker was like, nor what was the character of his mother. There is nothing in the Poetaster that has any point as applied to Dekker's powers as a dramatist, while on the contrary the Vntrussing of the Humorous Poet is full of pungent ridicule of Jonson's style, and of retorts and insults conceived in the happiest spirit of good-natured mockery. Dekker has been accused of poverty of invention in adopting the characters of the Poetaster, but it is of the very pith of the jest that Dekker should have set on Jonson's own foul-mouthed Captain Tucca to abuse Horace himself.

Dekker's plays were published in the following order:—The Shoemaker's Holiday, 1600; The Pleasant Comedy of'old Fortunatus, 1600 ; Satiromastrix, 1602 ; Patient Crissel (in conjunction with Chettle and Haughton) 1603 ; The Honest Whore (Part i.) 1604 ; The Whore of Babylon, 1607 ; Westward Hoi Northward Hoi and Sir Thomas Wyatt (in conjunction with Webster), 1607 ; The Roaring Girl (in conjunction with Middleton), 1611 ; If it be not good, (lie Devil is in it, 1612; The Virgin Martyr (in conjunc- tion with Massinger), 1622 ; Match Me in London, 1631 ; The Wonder of a Kingdom, 1636 ; The Sun's Darling (not published till 1656) ; and The Witch of Edmonton (written in conjunc- tion with Eowley and Ford), 1658. An edition of the collected dramatic works of Dekker is published by John Pearson. Some of his prose tracts, of which he wrote many, are reprinted by the Shakespeare Society, notably The Seven Deadly Sins of London and The Gull's Hornbook, (W. M.)

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