Thomas Dekker's beginnings can only be unshrouded this much: It is estimated his birthplace was London, as he called that town, "the mother of his life and the nurse of his being." The birthdate of 1570 is from a consensus of guesses handed down, and one can assume that the young Thomas had a basically middle-class background that gave him access to a better education.
Written records of this mysterious playwright of probable Dutch descent start with a mention in theater manager Philip Henslowe's diary in 1598. It noted the price paid Dekker for plays, and, maybe more significantly, the forty shilling debt he repaid for the youthful, but talented writer languishing in prison. The diary records the dramatists' compensation -- for a dozen original works and for his collaboration with twenty other artists.
His first published work in 1600, The Shoemaker's Holiday
performed a year ealier by Lord Admiral's Players, neglected to put Thomas Dekker's name on the title page. The plot of this tale of cobblers was based on Gentle Craft
by Thomas Deloney, this title being a term to refer to these manufacturers of footware. Dekker embellished on the traditional stories out of London by involving detail taken from Simon Eyre, a 15th century merchant. Dekker made the most of the "keeping up with the Joneses
" mentality of Eyre's wife and the playfulness of the other figures in his version. Although critics may be disturbed with the disjointedness and shallowness of plot and characters, the recreation of a certain time and personna --they thought made it worthy of literary value. Note the introduction to his The Shoemakers Holiday
, subtitled, or a Pleasant Comedy of the Gentle Craft
To all good Fellows, Professors of the Gentle Craft, of what degree soever.
KIND gentlemen and honest boon companions, I present you here with a merry conceited comedy called The Shoemakers' Holiday, acted by my Lord Admiral's Players this present Christmas before the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, for the mirth and pleasant matter by her Highness graciously accepted, being indeed no way offensive,. The argument of the play I will set down in this epistle: Sir Hugh Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, had a young gentleman of his own name, his near kinsmen, that loved the lord mayor's daughter of London, to prevent and cross which love the earl caused his kinsman to be sent colonel of a company into France,
who resigned his place to another gentleman his friend, and came diguised like a Dutch shoemaker to the house of Simon Eyre in Tower Street, who served the mayor and his household with shoes. The merriments that passed on Eyre's house, his coming to be mayor of London, Lacy's getting his love, and other accidents, with two merry threemen's songs--take all in good worth that is well intended, for nothing is purposed but mirth; mirth lengtheneth long life, which, with all other blessings, I heartily wish you.
That same year he published another romantic comedy, Old Fortunatus, followed in 1602 by his bizarre mixture of tragedy and satire about Ben Jonson titled: Satiromastix. But his strongest work came in another two years with another co-mingling of the comic and the lamentable, The Honest Whore.
Dekker then turned his talents towards non-dramatic endeavors, writing prose pamphlets like this satirical recording of the behavior regarding some of London play attending audience entited, The Gull's Hornbook -- published in 1609. This same year he had printed a group of prayers, Four Birds of Noah's Ark, that surpassed even his time's devotionals with concise and elegant language.
The factual, humorous and religious elements were always a part of his work and were shaped by his adventures (and misadventures) -- he was jailed again in 1613 and repeated this misfortune threes later. After this last epsiode, not much is known about the man or anymore of his artistic contributions; and his death is another conjecture --theorizing that it was after 1632, perhaps 1641.
In ending, his last stanza of "The Second Three-man's Song" from The Shoemakers' Holiday is fitting:
(At last when all have drunk, this verse:)
Cold's the wind, and wet's the rain,
St. Hugh be our good speed;
Ill is the weather that bringeth no gain,
Nor helps good hearts in need.
Note: St. Hugh is the patron saint of shoemakers.
Source: From Beowulf to Thomas Hardy; Robert Shafer, Odessey Press: NY (1939)