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Thomas Dekker

born c. 1572, London, Eng.
died c. 1632

Photograph:Thomas Dekker, from the frontispiece of his play Dekker his dreame, woodcut, 1620
Thomas Dekker, from the frontispiece of his play Dekker his dreame, woodcut, 1620
Mary Evans Picture Library

English dramatist and writer of prose pamphlets who is particularly known for his lively depictions of London life.

Few facts of Dekker's life are certain. He may have been born into a family of Dutch immigrants living in London and is first mentioned as a playwright in 1598. He apparently wrote to support himself, and he had a hand in at least 42 plays written in the next 30 years. In the dispute known as “the poets' war” or “the war of the theatres,” he was satirized in Ben Jonson's Poetaster (produced 1601) as Demetrius Fannius, “a very simple honest fellow. . . a dresser of plays.” This precipitated Dekker's own attack on Jonson in the play Satiro-mastix (produced 1601). Thirteen more plays survive in which Dekker collaborated with such figures as Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Philip Massinger, John Ford, and William Rowley.

Of the nine surviving plays that are entirely Dekker's work, probably the best-known are The Shoemakers Holiday (1600) and The Honest Whore, Part 2 (1630). These plays are typical of his work in their use of the moralistic tone of traditional drama, in the rush of their prose, in their boisterousness, and in their mixture of realistic detail with a romanticized plot. Dekker's ear for colloquial speech served him well in his vivid portrayals of daily life in London, and his work appealed strongly to a citizen audience eager for plays on middle-class, patriotic, and Protestant themes.

He exhibited a similar vigour in such prose pamphlets as The Wonderfull Yeare (1603), about the plague; The Belman of London (1608), about roguery and crime, with much material borrowed from Robert Greene and others; and The Guls Horne-Booke (1609), a valuable account of behaviour in the London theatres.

Between 1613 and 1619 Dekker was in prison for debt. This firsthand experience may be behind his six prison scenes first included in the sixth edition (1616) of Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters. Dekker was partly responsible for devising the street entertainment to celebrate the entry of James I into London in 1603; he provided the lord mayor's pageant in 1612, 1627, 1628, and 1629. All this labour did not bring prosperity, however, for Dekker was likely in debt when he died.

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