Authors: Thomas Dekker

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works


The Whole History of Fortunatus, pr. 1599 (commonly known as Old Fortunatus, play and poetry)

The Shoemaker’s Holiday: Or, The Gentle Craft, pr., pb. 1600 (based on Thomas Deloney’s narrative The Gentle Craft, play and poetry)

Patient Grissell, pr. 1600 (with Henry Chettle and William Haughton)

Satiromastix: Or, The Untrussing of the Humourous Poet, pr. 1601

Sir Thomas Wyatt, pr. 1602 (as Lady Jane), pb. 1607

The Magnificent Entertainment Given to King James, pr. 1603 (with Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton)

The Honest Whore, Part I, pr., pb. 1604 (with Middleton, play and poetry)

Westward Ho!, pr. 1604 (with John Webster)

The Honest Whore, Part II, pr. c. 1605 (play and poetry)

Northward Ho!, pr. 1605 (with Webster)

The Whore of Babylon, pr. c. 1606-1607

The Roaring Girl: Or, Moll Cutpurse, pr. c. 1610 (with Middleton)

If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It, pr. c. 1610-1612, pb. 1612 (as If It Be Not Good, the Devil Is in It)

Match Me in London, pr. c. 1611-1612

The Virgin Martyr, pr. c. 1620 (with Philip Massinger, play and poetry)

The Witch of Edmonton, pr. 1621 (with William Rowley and John Ford, play and poetry)

The Noble Soldier: Or, A Contract Broken, Justly Revenged, pr. c. 1622-1631 (with John Day; thought to be the same as The Spanish Fig, 1602)

The Wonder of a Kingdom, pr. c. 1623

The Sun’s Darling, pr. 1624 (with Ford, play and poetry)

The Welsh Embassador: Or, A Comedy in Disguises, pr. c. 1624 (revision of The Noble Soldier)

The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, pb. 1953-1961 (4 volumes; Fredson Bowers, editor)


The Seven Deadly Sins, 1606

News from Hell, 1606

The Bellman of London, 1608

The Gull’s Hornbook, 1609

Four Birds of Noah’s Ark, 1609

A Work for Armourers, 1609

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish, 1631

The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker, 1925 (F. P. Wilson, editor)


The Wonderful Year, 1603 (prose and poetry)

The Double PP, 1606 (prose and poetry)

Lanthorn and Candlelight, 1608, 1609 (prose and poetry; revised as O per se O, 1612; Villanies Discovered, 1616, 1620; English Villanies, 1632, 1638, 1648)

Dekker, His Dream, 1620 (prose and poetry)

The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 1884-1886 (4 volumes; Alexander B. Grosart, editor)

Thomas Dekker: Selected Prose Writings, 1968 (E. D. Pendry, editor)


Thomas Dekker (DEHK-ur), more than any other playwright in Tudor or Stuart England, wrote about contemporary London life, primarily among the merchant class, and imbued most of his realistic plays with a touch of romance. Perhaps this is why his works arouse so much affection and delight, though much of his writing was hastily turned out, frequently with collaborators. Biographical facts about him are relatively sparse, even for an Elizabethan dramatist. He is chiefly remembered as the author of the lively comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday and the satirical The Gull’s Hornbook as well as Ben Jonson’s onetime literary enemy.{$I[AN]9810000587}{$I[A]Dekker, Thomas}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Dekker, Thomas}{$I[tim]1572;Dekker, Thomas}

In his English Villanies Dekker claims to be threescore years, which suggests he was born around 1572, and in The Seven Deadly Sins he speaks of London as his birthplace. On the evidence of the plays, he likely had a sound, classics-oriented grammar-school education, and some biographers have concluded on the basis of the plays that he fought in what are now the Benelux countries. Others use the same texts to speculate that he may have been of Dutch ancestry, but there is no proof of this, nor of the identification of the playwright with a Thomas Dekker who had two daughters baptized in St. Giles, Cripplegate, London, in 1594 and 1602, and of church registers that record the burial of a Dekker son and daughter in 1598. Neither Dekker’s parentage nor his marriage and family can be identified with certainty.

As a writer he first appears in 1598 in Philip Henslowe’s records, but he may have written for the producer and others before then, perhaps as early as 1593. In 1598 Henslowe paid forty shillings to obtain Dekker’s release from prison, and the theater owner also engineered his release from police custody the following year. During the next few years Dekker was a prolific playwright, writing for the Admiral’s Men (Henslowe’s company), for Worcester’s company, for the Chamberlain’s Men, and for Paul’s Boys.

The first of his surviving plays from this period is The Whole History of Fortunatus, commonly known as Old Fortunatus, which concerns a beggar and is based on a German folktale. Possibly a reworking of an earlier two-part play Dekker had written for Henslowe, this romance in verse was presented at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and recalls the old morality plays; there are also echoes of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (c. 1588). While rewriting Old Fortunatus, Dekker probably was working on The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which Henslowe first mentions on July 15, 1599, and which had its debut at court on New Year’s Day of 1600. Based on three stories in Thomas Deloney’s The Gentle Craft (1598), Dekker’s song-filled masterpiece dramatizes the increasing prosperity and social progress of a fifteenth century shoemaker, Simon Eyre, who becomes Lord Mayor of London. As likable a comic figure ever to cavort on the English stage, Eyre not only exults in his successes but also invites his artisans and others to share the good fortune. Although romanticized, the progress of Eyre and his minions has its difficult, even tearful, moments, but the shoemaker’s exuberant optimism impels people onward.

In 1601 Dekker became involved in the so-called War of the Theaters on the side of John Marston and against Ben Jonson, who mocked both Dekker and Marston in Poetaster (1601). Dekker, perhaps with Marston’s assistance, retaliated with an uproarious Jonson caricature in Satiromastix: Or, The Untrussing of the Humourous Poet, which ended the war. Though the men did have personality differences, rivalry between the admiral’s and the lord chamberlain’s theater companies may have led to the war, and the playwrights may well have encouraged it to gain publicity. In fact, Dekker actually respected Jonson, the period’s most eminent man of letters, and soon after the war Dekker, Johnson, and Thomas Middleton collaborated on The Magnificent Entertainment Given to King James, which was performed for James I at the time of his coronation in 1603.

In addition to his copious dramatic output, Dekker in the first decade of the seventeenth century wrote a number of prose pamphlets on contemporary subjects, including some with a moral bent. The best known of these is The Gull’s Hornbook, in which he provides a firsthand, if biased, picture of the behavior of Jacobean gallants in such places as the theater. Between 1613 and 1619 he was in prison again for debt; upon his release he resumed his dramatic career, collaborating chiefly with John Ford (and also with Philip Massinger, William Rowley, and perhaps others) and writing pageants for the lord mayor of London in 1628 and 1629. There are no firm records of him after 1632, which has led to the supposition that he was the Thomas Dekker, householder, who was buried on August 25, 1632, at St. James’s Church, Clerkenwell, London. Because his widow, Elizabeth, renounced the administration of his estate a month later, Dekker apparently was still in debt when he died.

Including doubtful and lost works, Dekker collaborated in about fifty plays, eighteen of which survive, and perhaps a dozen prose works. Scholarly consensus is that six or seven extant plays are wholly his, and though many critics over the years have labeled him an unsophisticated hack, he was one of the more popular dramatists of the early seventeenth century. The Shoemaker’s Holiday remains an almost inevitable choice for any anthology of the period.

BibliographyAdler, Doris Ray. Thomas Dekker: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. An annotated bibliography of works on Dekker. Index.Berlin, Normand. “Thomas Dekker: A Partial Reappraisal.” Studies in English Literature 6 (1966): 263-267. Although brief, this analysis of Dekker is important because it demonstrates that the playwright is a more complex person and writer than suggested by his most popular work, the cheerfully optimistic The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Berlin sees Dekker as “essentially a stern moralist” who sometimes, when theatrical conditions demand, compromises his morality.Brown, Arthur. “Citizen Comedy and Domestic Drama.” Jacobean Theatre 1 (1960): 66-83. Brown compares Dekker with Thomas Heywood and Ben Jonson, two fellow dramatists, and concludes that Dekker’s work is “the least complicated by adherence to literary, or even moral, theory.” Brown also shows how Dekker’s understanding of his craft and audience is apparent in the plays.Champion, Larry S. Thomas Dekker and the Tradition of English Drama. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. This straightforward commentary deals primarily with the dramatic structure and tone of the plays, but also shows how Dekker often experiments with new approaches. Also discusses Dekker’s links with his contemporaries.Conover, James H. Thomas Dekker: An Analysis of Dramatic Structure. The Hague the Netherlands: Mouton, 1966. Traces the development of the plots of Dekker’s major plays (including The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Honest Whore, Old Fortunatus, and Satiromastix) and concludes with a chapter on the structural traits he believes are peculiar to Dekker’s works.Correll, Barbara. The End of Conduct: Grobianus and the Renaissance Text of the Subject. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. In her scholarly study of Renaissance literature, Correll examines Dekker’s The Gull’s Hornbook. Bibliography and index.Dekker, Thomas. The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Edited by Stanley Wells and Robert Smallwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. More than a reprint of the play, this edition provides a study of the text and the editors’ historical introduction, including an examination of the play’s relationship with contemporary life and drama and its place in Dekker’s work, a stage history, analysis, and a reprint of source materials.Gasper, Julia. The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A critical analysis of Dekker’s plays that focuses on his treatment of kings and rulers as well as of Protestantism. Bibliography and index.Hunt, Mary Leland. Thomas Dekker: A Study. 1911. Reprint. Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. The first book-length study of Dekker’s life and work–prose as well as plays. It remains useful not only for the critical summaries of the works but also for its chronological treatment of the poet’s life. Of special interest are the comments about Dekker’s friendships in the theater and his collaborators. Since M. T. Jones-Davis’s two-volume, 1958 study, Un Peintre de la vue londonienne, Thomas Dekker, circa 1572-1632, is not in English, Hunt’s book is a worthwhile substitute.Krantz, Susan E. “Thomas Dekker’s Political Commentary in The Whore of Babylon.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 35, no. 2 (Spring, 1995): 271. Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon is one of the first texts to recast Elizabethan England nostalgically as a form of covert criticism of the Jacobean court. An examination of the Gunpowder Plot and its effect on the pro-Henrician and anti-Spanish themes of the play is offered.McLuskie, Kathleen. Dekker and Heywood: Professional Dramatists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A comparison of Dekker and Thomas Heywood, as well as a description of the theater of England during their lives. Bibliography and index.Price, George R. Thomas Dekker. New York: Twayne, 1969. Price provides all the standard virtues of the Twayne volumes: a succinct chronology, a chapter on the life, and three chapters of analysis followed by a summarizing conclusion. The detailed notes and annotated bibliography make this study an excellent starting place for students of Dekker.Twyning, John. London Dispossessed: Literature and Social Space in the Early Modern City. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. This study focuses on Dekker’s descriptions of London and of city and town life in England during his lifetime, including how they were portrayed in his literary works. Bibliography and index.Waage, Frederick O. Thomas Dekker’s Pamphlets, 1603-1609, and Jacobean Popular Literature. 2 vols. Salzburg: Universität für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977. Although these two scholarly volumes do not deal directly with Dekker’s plays, they are full of commentary on Dekker’s ideas and his life. The first chapter on Dekker’s career, 1603-1609, is informative, and the seventeen-page bibliography offers researchers a good beginning point.
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