Thomas Dekker (1572-1632) was an Elizabethan-era English poet, dramatist, and pamphleteer. He was born and mainly lived in London, which he evokes vividly in his writings. He was repeatedly imprisoned for debt, briefly in 1598-9 and from 1612 for nearly seven years; the six prison chapters added in 1616 to his prose work Lanthorn and Candle-Light (first version 1608), and Dekker his Dream (1620), evoke his experiences of imprisonment. Despite this, he is held to have been of a cheerful, good-natured temperament.
He was engaged by Philip Henslowe about 1595 to write plays (over 40 of which are now lost) in collaboration with Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Webster, William Rowley and others.
From around 1598 he worked as a playwright for The Admiral’s Men and engaged in the “War of the Theatres” or “the poet’s war” with Ben Jonson and John Marston. 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). Dekker wrote more than forty plays for The Admiral’s Men, many of which are lost.
His most important plays include The Shoemakers’ Holiday which is often credited as being one of the first city comedy plays, Old Fortunatus, The Honest Whore, of which Part I, in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, appeared in 1604 and Part II, written 1604/5, in 1630. His other plays are Patient Grissel (1603), written in collaboration with Henry Chettle and William Haughton (d. 1605): and The Witch of Edmonton, written in collaboration with John Ford and William Rowley in 1621, first published 1658. He also collaborated with Webster in Westward Ho (written 1604; pub. 1607) and Northward Ho (written 1605; pub. 1607), with Middleton in The Roaring Girl (written c.1605; pub. 1611), and with Massinger in The Virgin Martyr (written 1620; pub. 1622). His tragicomedy Match Me in London, written 1604/5, was published in 1631.
Dekker also wrote pageants, tracts, and pamphlets. His pamphlet The Wonderful Year (1603) is a poignant description of London during the plague of that year; it was used by Defoe for his Journal of the Plague Year, The Belman of London (1608), about roguery and crime. News from Hell (1606) is an imitation of Thomas Nashe; The Gull’s Horn-Book (1609) is a satirical book of manners with interesting information about theatres.
Dekker’s work is remarkable for its vivid if romantic portrayal of London life, both domestic and commercial, for its sympathy with the oppressed, including animals tortured for man’s amusement, and for its prevailing cheerfulness, though E. D. Pendry in an introduction to a selection of prose works (1967) stresses that he could be tough and bitter as well as whimsical. His dramatic works were edited by F. T. Bowers in 4 vols (1953–61).
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