In Henslowe’s Diary, among the curious items which Alleyn’s fellow manager in the Fortune and other theatres set down concerning his transactions in the plays of the time, the name of a certain “Mr. Dickers,” will be found under date 8th of January, 1597. In this way, the adventure of Thomas Dekker into the precarious field of dramatic authorship is first recorded for us. The entry refers to some twenty shillings “lent unto Thomas Dowton” to buy a book of Dekker’s, no doubt the MS. of some play written by him, ...
In Henslowe’s Diary, among the curious items which Alleyn’s fellow manager in the Fortune and other theatres set down concerning his transactions in the plays of the time, the name of a certain “Mr. Dickers,” will be found under date 8th of January, 1597. In this way, the adventure of Thomas Dekker into the precarious field of dramatic authorship is first recorded for us. The entry refers to some twenty shillings “lent unto Thomas Dowton” to buy a book of Dekker’s, no doubt the MS. of some play written by him, the name of which, however, is not given. A week later, a second entry notes again a disbursement, this time of four pounds, also for a book of his “called Fayeton” (Phaeton), possibly a further part of the same work. The third entry referring to him is ominous: “Lent unto the companey, the 4 of febreary 1598, to disecharge Mr. Dicker owt of the[Pg viii] cownter in the powltrey, the some of fortie shillings. I saye dd to Thomas Dowton ... xxxxs.” In the sorry indication of these three entries, showing first the promising emergence of the young playwright, and then immediately the coming of disaster upon him, and his being lodged for debt in “the Counter in the Poultry,” we have at once the key to Dekker’s career. Dekker, perhaps the most original and most striking figure among the lesser known men of that brilliant array which follows Marlowe, is at the same time one of the most unfortunate in his life and its artistic outcome, judged by the standard of his own genius. It was as if Fortune, to take a figure from his own play, having first presented him with the gift which, as a poet of the time, he most desired,—the playwright’s great opportunity, then turned upon him, and said,—
“But now go dwell with cares, and quickly die.”
If, however, he lived with cares, he laughed at them, and he was too strong to let them kill him outright. But, nevertheless, there they were; they never perhaps quite upset that undaunted good-humour of his, but they defeated him as an artist, they allied themselves insidiously with his own natural weaknesses to defeat the consummation of a really great poetic faculty.
Dekker, however, is one of those authors whose personal effect tends to outgo the purely artistic one. He has the rare gift of putting heart into[Pg ix] everything he says, and because of this abounding heartiness of his, it is hard to measure him by the absolute standards of criticism. Indeed, after the endless shortcomings and disappointments of his verse and prose have been estimated and written against him, he remains, after all has been set down, still the same lovable, elusive being, a man of genius, a child of nature. For this reason, it is disappointing that so little is to be actually known of his life. As one reads his plays, and marks the strong individuality shown in them, the desire to know how he adjusted himself to the everyday life, and took its little defeats and encouragements, springs very strongly. It is the natural interest that one takes in men of his cordial humanity, and it is disappointing to be balked of its satisfaction.
The outline of Dekker’s life is indeed singularly blank. We do not know exactly when he was born, or where; there is scarcely any clue to the important period of his youth, and his early struggles as a poet and playwright; we do not even know when he died. A few further entries in Henslowe’s Diary, whose value an uneasy sense of J. Payne Collier’s editorial methods tends to depreciate, and a few incidental references in Dekker’s own works, chiefly in the dedications and introductions to his plays, form the whole of the exact record which we have to rely upon.
In the dedication to Match Me in London, perhaps the most interesting of all the plays by him[Pg x] not included in this volume, which was published in 1631, he says, sadly enough, “I have been a Priest in Apollo’s Temple many years, my voice is decaying with my Age, yet yours being clear and above mine shall much honour me, if you but listen to my old tunes.” Again in 1637, in the dedicatory epistle of his prose tract, English Villainies Seven Several Times Pressed to Death, he refers more definitely to his “three-score years.” Sixty years back from 1637 gives us 1577, but as Collier tells us that he was married before 1594, and as we know that he had already won recognition as a young playwright in 1597, it will be well to read the term “three-score years” pretty freely, as meaning generally the term between sixty and seventy, and to put down the date of his birth at about the year 1569-70, or even a little earlier.
There is less uncertainty about his birthplace: various references in his prose tracts prove pretty certainly that he was born in London, as seems so fit in one of the most devoted of those poets who have celebrated the English capital. “O thou beautifullest daughter of two united Monarchies!” he cries, in his Seven Deadly Sins of London;