Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dekker, Thomas
DEKKER, THOMAS (1570?–1641?), dramatist, was born about 1570. His birthplace was London, as he intimates in ‘The Seuen Deadly Sinnes,’ 1600, and in ‘A Rod for Run-awayes,’ 1625. In ‘Warres, Warres, Warres,’ a tract published in 1628, he describes himself as an old man; and in the dedication to ‘Match Mee in London,’ 1631, addressing Lodowick Carlell, he writes: ‘I haue beene a priest in Apollo's temple many yeares, my voice is decaying with my age.’ If a passage in the preface to his ‘English Villainies,’ 1637, in which he speaks of ‘my three score yeares,’ could be taken literally, the date of his birth would be 1577. A ‘Thomas Dycker, gent.,’ had a daughter Dorcas christened at St. Giles's, Cripplegate (near the Fortune Theatre), on 27 Oct. 1594; a daughter of ‘Thomas Dekker’ was buried there in 1598; and a son of ‘Thomas Dekker’ was buried in 1598 at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate; but it is not clear that these baptismal and burial entries refer to the dramatist's family. On the title-page of a copy (preserved in the British Museum) of the lord mayor's pageant for 1612, ‘Troja Nova Triumphans,’ is written near Dekker's name, in a contemporary handwriting, ‘marchan-tailor;’ but Dekker's connection with the Merchant Tailors' Company has not hitherto been traced.
The first definite notice of Dekker is in Henslowe's ‘Diary,’ under date January 1597–1598: ‘Lent unto Thomas Dowton, the 8 of Jenewary 1597, twenty shillinges, to by a booke of Mr. Dickers, xxxs.’ On 15 Jan. 1597–8 Henslowe paid four pounds ‘to bye a boocke of Mr. Dicker, called Fayeton.’ In February of the same year Dekker was lodged in the Counter, and Henslowe paid forty shillings to have him discharged (Diary, ed. Collier, p. 118). After his release from the Counter his pen was very active. The ‘Diary’ records the titles of eight plays that he wrote single-handed between 1598 and 1602: (1) ‘The Triplicity of Cuckolds,’ 1598; (2) ‘First Introduction of the Civil Wars of France,’ 1598–9; (3) ‘Orestes Furies,’ 1599; (4) ‘The Gentle Craft,’ 1599, published anonymously in 1600 under the title of ‘The Shomaker's Holiday, or the Gentle Craft;’ (5) ‘Bear a Brain,’ 1599; (6) ‘Whole History of Fortunatus,’ 1599, published anonymously in 1600 under the title of ‘The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus;’ (7) ‘Truths Supplication to Candlelight,’ 1599–1600 (8) ‘Medicine for a Curst Wife,’ 1602. In conjunction with Drayton, Wilson, and Chettle, he wrote: (1) ‘Earl Godwin and his Three Sons’ (‘Goodwine and iij Sones’), 1598; (2) a ‘Second Part of Godwin,’ 1598; (3) ‘Pierce of Exton,’ 1598; (4) ‘Black Bateman of the North,’ 1598. Drayton and Wilson were his coadjutors in (1) ‘The Mad Man's Morris’ (‘the made manes mores’), 1598; (2) ‘Hannibal and Hermes, or Worse feared than hurt,’ 1598; (3) ‘Chance Medley,’ 1598 (to which Chettle or Munday also contributed). In 1598 he also joined Drayton in the authorship of (1) ‘First Civil Wars in France;’ (2) ‘Connan Prince of Cornwall;’ (3) ‘Second Part of the Civil Wars in France;’ (4) ‘Third Part of the Civil Wars in France.’ On 30 Jan. 1598–9 Henslowe paid three pounds ten shillings ‘to descarge Thomas Dickers frome the areaste of my lord chamberlain's men.’ Three plays by Dekker and Chettle were produced in 1599: (1) ‘Troilus and Cressida;’ (2) ‘Agamemnon;’ (3) ‘The Stepmother's Tragedy.’ In the same year Dekker wrote with Ben Jonson a domestic tragedy (1) ‘Page of Plymouth;’ with Jonson, Chettle, and ‘other jentellman’ a chronicle-play (2) ‘Robert the Second, King of Scots;’ with Chettle and Haughton (3) ‘Patient Grissel’ (which was published anonymously in 1603). To 1600 belong (1) ‘The Spanish Moor's Tragedy’ (rashly identified by Collier with ‘Lust's Dominion’), by Dekker, Day, and Haughton; (2) ‘Seven Wise Masters,’ by Dekker, Chettle, Haughton, and Day; (3) ‘The Golden Ass, and Cupid and Psyche;’ (4) ‘Fair Constance of Rome,’ by Dekker, Munday, Drayton, and Hathway. In 1601 the ‘Diary’ mentions only one play in which he was concerned, ‘King Sebastian of Portingale,’ his coadjutor being Chettle. With Drayton, Middleton, Webster, and Munday, he wrote in May 1602 a play which Henslowe calls ‘too harpes’ (‘Two Harpies’?). In October of the same year he joined Heywood, Wentworth Smith, and Webster in the composition of ‘Two Parts of Lady Jane Grey’ (which are probably represented by the corrupt and mutilated play published in 1607 under the title of ‘The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat … written by Thomas Dickers and Iohn Webster’); and in November he wrote with Heywood and Webster ‘Christmas comes but once a Year.’ To 1602 also belongs a scriptural play, ‘Jeptha,’ which Dekker wrote in company with Munday. There are a few other entries relating to Dekker in the ‘Diary.’ Under date 6 Sept. 1600 Henslowe records the payment to Dekker of twenty shillings ‘for the boocke called the forteion tenes.’ Collier conjectures that the reference is to some alteration of the comedy ‘Fortunatus,’ but it is not improbable that the title was ‘Fortune's Tennis.’ In December 1600 Dekker was paid forty shillings for altering his play ‘Phaeton’ on the occasion of its representation at court. On 12 Jan. 1601–2 he received ten shillings for writing a prologue and epilogue ‘for the play of Ponesciones pillet’ (‘Pontius Pilate’); and four days afterwards he received twenty shillings for making alterations in an old play on the subject on ‘Tasso's Melancholy.’ In August and September 1602 he was employed to make some additions to the play of ‘Oldcastle;’ and in November and December of the same year he was again engaged in ‘mending of the playe of Tasso.’ The entry in the ‘Diary’ (ed. Collier, p. 71), under date 20 Dec. 1597, respecting the payment to Dekker of twenty shillings for additions to Marlowe's ‘Dr. Faustus,’ and of five shillings for a prologue to Marlowe's ‘Tamburlaine,’ has been conclusively shown to be a forgery (Warner, Catalogue of Dulwich MSS. pp. 159–60). One of the latest entries in the ‘Diary,’ dated ‘1604,’ records the payment of five pounds to Dekker and Middleton ‘in earneste of their playe called the pasyent man and the onest hore,’ which was published in the same year under the title of ‘The Honest Whore, with the Humours of the Patient Man, and the Longing Wife. Tho. Dekker.’ Of ‘The Second Part of the Honest Whore … written by Thomas Dekker,’ the earliest extant edition is dated 1630, and there is no evidence to show whether Middleton was concerned in its authorship.
The first of Dekker's works in order of publication was ‘Canaans Calamitie, Jerusalems Miserie, and Englands Mirror,’ 1598, 4to, a very popular poem (reprinted in 1617, 1618, 1625, and 1677) of little interest. ‘The Shomakers Holiday,’ 1600, 4to, reprinted in 1610, 1618, and 1631, is a delightful comedy, full of frolic mirth. In 1600 was also published ‘The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus,’ 4to, which displays all the riches of Dekker's luxuriant fancy, and amply justifies Lamb's assertion that ‘Dekker had poetry enough for anything.’ ‘Satiromastix, or the vntrussing of the Humorous Poet,’ 1602, 4to, is a satirical attack on Ben Jonson. It is difficult to ascertain the origin of the quarrel between Jonson and Dekker. In August 1599 they wrote together ‘Page of Plymouth,’ and in September of the same year they were engaged upon ‘Robert the Second.’ They had quarrelled before the publication (in 1600) of ‘Every Man out of his Humour’ and ‘Cynthia's Revels,’ which plays undoubtedly contain satirical reflections on Dekker. The quarrel culminated in 1601, when Dekker and Marston (under the names of Demetrius Fannius and Crispinus) were unsparingly ridiculed in ‘The Poetaster.’ Jonson declares, in the ‘Apology’ at the end of the play, that for three years past he had been provoked by his opponents, ‘with their petulant styles on every stage;’ but there are no means of testing the accuracy of this statement. ‘Satiromastix’ was Dekker's vigorous reply to ‘The Poetaster,’ all the more effective by reason of its good humour. Dekker never republished his play; but Jonson included ‘The Poetaster’ among his ‘Works’ in 1616, and told Drummond of Hawthornden in 1619 that Dekker was a knave. In 1603 was published ‘The Wonderfull Yeare 1603, wherein is shewed the picture of London lying sicke of the Plague,’ 4to, a very vivid description (doubtless well known to Defoe) of the ravages caused by the plague. Dekker's name is not on the title-page, but he acknowledged the authorship in the ‘Seven Deadly Sinnes.’ ‘The Batchelors Banquet,’ 1603, 4to, reprinted in 1604, 1630, 1660, 1661, and 1677, is founded on the fifteenth-century satire, ‘Les Quinze Joyes de Mariage;’ but the subject is treated with such whimsical ingenuity of invention that Dekker is entitled to claim for his brilliant tract the merit of originality. ‘Patient Grissil,’ 1603, 4to, was written in conjunction with Haughton and Chettle. The songs have been unanimously ascribed to Dekker, and there can be little doubt that the old play owes to him rather than to his associates its many touches of tenderness. Of the ‘Magnificent Entertainment given to King James’ three separate editions were published in 1604, two at London and one at Edinburgh. The ‘Honest Whore,’ 1604, reprinted in 1605, 1615, 1616, and 1635, and the ‘Second Part of the Honest Whore,’ 1630, contain powerful and pathetic scenes, marred by coarseness and exaggeration. ‘The Seuen Deadly Sinnes of London,’ 1606, 4to, described on the title-page as ‘Opus Septem Dierum,’ is a notable example of Dekker's literary agility. ‘Newes from Hell. Brought by the Diuells Carrier,’ 1606, 4to, reprinted with additions in 1607 under the title of ‘A Knights Coniuring, Done in Earnest, Discouered in Jest,’ 4to, is written in imitation of ‘ingenious, ingenuous, fluent, facetious T. Nash.’ An anonymous attack (in verse) on the Roman catholics, ‘The Double P.P., a Papist in Armes, Bearing Ten seuerall Sheilds, encovntered by the Protestant,’ &c., 1606, 4to, has been ascribed to Dekker. There is extant a presentation copy with his autograph (Collier, Bibl. Cat. i. 197). In 1607 appeared ‘Jests to make you Merie. … Written by T[homas?] D[ekker?] and George Wilkins,’ 4to; the ‘Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat. … Written by Thomas Dickers and John Webster,’ 4to, a corrupt abridgment of the two parts of ‘Lady Jane;’ two comedies, written in conjunction with Webster, ‘Westward Ho,’ 4to (composed in or before 1605, as there is a reference to it in the prologue to ‘Eastward Ho,’ published in that year), and ‘Northward Ho,’ 4to; and an allegorical play of little value, ‘The Whore of Babylon,’ 4to, setting forth the virtues of Queen Elizabeth and the ‘inueterate malice, Treasons, Machinations, Vnderminings, & continuall bloody stratagems of that Purple whore of Rome.’ ‘The Dead Tearme, or Westminsters Complaint for long Vacations and short Tearmes,’ 1608, 4to, dedicated to Sir John Harington, is a hasty piece of patchwork. The ‘Belman of London: Bringing to Light the Most Notorious Villanies that are now practised in the Kingdome,’ 4to, which passed through three editions in 1608, is partly taken, as Samuel Rowlands noticed in ‘Martin Markall, Beadle of Bridewell,’ from Harman's ‘Caveat or Warneing for Common Cursitors,’ 1566 and 1567. It gives a lively description of the practices of the rogues and sharpers who infested the metropolis. At the end of ‘The Belman’ Dekker promised to write a second part, which should ‘bring to light a number of more notable enormities (dayly hatched in this Realme) then euer haue yet beene published to the open eye of the world.’ The second part was published in 1608, under the title of ‘Lanthorne and Candlelight, or the Bell-mans Second Nights Walke,’ 4to. Two editions appeared in 1609, and a fourth, under the title of ‘O per se O, or a new cryer of Lanthorne and Candlelight. Being an addition or Lengthening of the Bell-mans Second Night-walke,’ 4to, in 1612. Between 1608 and 1648 there appeared eight or nine editions of the second part, all differing more or less from each other. ‘The Ravens Almanacke, Foretelling of a Plague, Famine, and Ciuill Warre,’ 1609, 4to, was intended as a parody on the prognostications of the almanac makers. There are no grounds for ascribing to Dekker the anonymous tract, ‘The Owles Almanacke,’ 1618, 4to. In 1609 appeared ‘The Guls Hornebooke,’ 4to, which gives a more graphic description than can be procured elsewhere of the manners of Jacobean gallants. The tract is to some extent modelled on Dedekind's ‘Grobianus,’ and Dekker admits that it ‘hath a relish of Grobianisme.’ It had been his intention to turn portions of ‘Grobianus’ into English verse, but on further reflection he ‘altered the shape, and of a Dutchman fashioned a mere Englishman.’ In 1609 also appeared ‘Worke for Armourers, or the Peace is Broken,’ 4to (prose), and a devotional work, of which no perfect copy is extant, ‘Fowre Birds of Noahs Arke,’ 12mo (prose). The vivacious comedy of the ‘Roaring Girl,’ 1611, 4to, was written in conjunction with Middleton, and probably Middleton had the larger share in the composition. ‘If it be not good, the Diuell is in it,’ 1612, 4to, an ill-constructed tragi-comedy, is wholly by Dekker, who in the same year wrote the lord mayor's pageant, ‘Troja Nova Triumphans,’ 4to. ‘A Strange Horse Race, at the end of which comes in the Catchpols Masque,’ 1613, 4to, exposes the rogueries of horse-dealers, and touches on other forms of swindling. From 1613 to 1616, if Oldys's assertion may be credited, Dekker was confined in the king's bench prison. On 12 Sept. 1616 he addressed to Edward Alleyn, from the king's bench, some verses (which have not come down) as ‘poore testimonies of a more rich affection;’ and there is extant an undated letter, probably written about the same time, in which he thanks Alleyn for the ‘last remembrance of your love,’ and commends to him a young man as a servant. In 1620 appeared ‘Dekker his Dreame, in which, beeing rapt with a Poeticall Enthusiasme, the great volumes of Heauen and Hell to him were opened, in which he read many Wonderfull Things,’ 4to, a very rare tract in verse (of little interest), with a woodcut portrait on the title-page of a man—presumably the author—dreaming in bed. ‘The Virgin Martyr,’ 1622, by Massinger and Dekker, is more orderly and artistic than any of the plays that Dekker wrote alone; but there can be no doubt that Lamb was right in assigning to Dekker the tender and beautiful colloquy (act. ii. scene 1) between Dorothea and Angelo. ‘A Rod for Run-Awayes,’ 1625, 4to, describes the state of terror caused by the plague in 1625. ‘Warres, Warres, Warres,’ 1628, 12mo, is an excessively rare tract. Extracts from it are given by Collier (in his ‘Bibliographical Catalogue’), but no copy can at present be traced. In 1628 and 1629 Dekker composed the mayoralty pageants, ‘Britannia's Honour,’ 4to, and ‘London's Tempe,’ 4to. ‘Match Mee in London,’ 4to, a tragi-comedy, was published in 1631, but was written several years earlier; for it is mentioned in Sir Henry Herbert's ‘Diary’ under date 21 Aug. 1623 as ‘an old play,’ which had been licensed by Sir George Buc. In May 1631 a play called ‘The Noble Spanish Souldier’ was entered by John Jackman in the ‘Stationers' Register’ as a work of Dekker, and was again entered as Dekker's in December 1633 by Nicholas Vavasour. It was published by Vavasour in 1634 under the title of ‘The Noble Sovldier, or a Contract Broken Justly Reveng'd. A tragedy, written by S. R.,’ 4to, and has been usually attributed to Samuel Rowley; but it is probable that the play was largely, if not entirely, written by Dekker. Some passages from ‘The Noble Sovldier’ are found in Day's ‘Parliament of Bees,’ 1641, which also contains passages from Dekker's ‘The Wonder of a Kingdom,’ a tragi-comedy published in 1636, 4to. ‘The Sun's Darling,’ by Dekker and Ford, first published in 1656, 4to, may perhaps be an alteration of Dekker's lost ‘Phaeton.’ There can be no doubt that the lyrical portions should be ascribed to Dekker. In Sir Henry Herbert's ‘Diary,’ under date 3 March 1624, is the entry ‘for the Cock-pit Company, the Sun's Darling in the nature of a masque, by Deker and Forde.’ Another play or masque by Ford and Dekker, ‘The Fairy Knight,’ is mentioned in the ‘Diary’ under date 11 June 1624, but it was not printed. ‘The Witch of Edmonton,’ by Ford, Rowley, and Dekker, was first published in 1658. The characters of Winifrede and Susan are drawn in Dekker's gentlest manner. In 1637 Dekker republished ‘Lanthorne and Candlelight,’ under the title of ‘English Villainies,’ 4to. This was his last publication, and it is supposed that he died shortly afterwards.
A poem of Dekker's, entitled ‘The Artillery Garden,’ was entered in the ‘Stationers' Register,’ 29 Nov. 1615, but no copy of it has been hitherto traced. Among the plays destroyed by Warburton's servant were two of Dekker's works: a comedy entitled ‘Jocondo and Astolfo,’ and an historical play, ‘The King of Swedland.’ They had been entered in the ‘Stationers' Register,’ 29 June 1660, but were not printed. Another unpublished play of Dekker, ‘The Jew of Venice,’ was entered in the ‘Stationers' Register,’ 9 Sept. 1653. ‘A French Tragedy of the Bellman of Paris, written by Thomas Dekkirs and John Day, for the Company of the Red Bull,’ was licensed by Sir Henry Herbert, 30 July 1623, but was not printed. Commendatory verses by Dekker are prefixed to ‘The Third and Last Part of Palmerin of England,’ 1602; ‘A True and Admirable Historie of a Mayden of Confolens,’ 1603, 8vo; the ‘Works’ of Taylor the Water-poet, 1630; and Richard Brome's ‘Northern Lass,’ 1632. A tract entitled ‘Greevous Grones for the Poore,’ 1622, has been assigned without evidence to Dekker. Collier plausibly suggests that Dekker may have been the author of the anonymous ‘Newes from Graves End,’ 1604.
Dekker's dramatic works were collected by Mr. R. H. Shepherd in 1873, 4 vols. 8vo. His miscellaneous works, 5 vols., are included in Dr. Grosart's ‘Huth Library.’ When all deductions have been made on the score of inartistic and reckless workmanship, Dekker's best plays rank with the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama; and his numerous tracts, apart from their sterling literary interest, are simply invaluable for the information that they afford concerning the social life of Elizabethan and Jacobean times.[Henslowe's Diary, passim; Langbaine's Dramatick Poets with Oldys's manuscript annotations; biographical notice prefixed to Dekker's Dramatic Works, 1874; Grosart's Memorial Introduction; Corser's Collectanea; Hazlitt's Bibl. Collections; Collier's Bibl. Cat.; Brit. Mus. Cat.; article by A. C. Swinburne in Nineteenth Century, January 1887.]