Biography of Thomas Dekker

Like many playwrights of the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, little is known of Thomas Dekker’s life.  What little we have is derived from various sources.

Dekker is assumed to have been born in 1572.  This is based on one of his tracts, written in 1632, in which he refers to his “threescore years.”  His surname would indicate that his family was of Dutch origin, though he cannot be traced with any certainty to any of the known Dekker families of his time.  He is also assumed to have been born in London, though this is mostly based upon his writings which show an intimate association with the city.

He wrote principally for the Admiral’s Man, though he is known to have also penned plays for Worcestor’s Men, and for Queen Anne’s Men.  The earliest known reference to his writing is in Henslowe’s Diary, really more of an account book than an actual diary.  It was kept by Philip Henslowe, the leader of the Admiral’s Men.  Its first mention of Dekker is in 1597, but he may have been writing for Henslowe as early as 1594 since Henslowe only began including the names of the playwrights in his Diary in the later date.

The Diary indicates that Dekker was well paid as a writer during this time; on some occasions he seems to have been paid more by Henslowe than most other playwrights, perhaps indicating that he was highly regarded.  However, Dekker was constantly having financial problems during his lifetime.  During the period from 1597-1603 he was in debtor’s prison on at least two occasions, with Henslowe paying his debt at least once.  Either Dekker was continually suffering from ill fortune, or he was just a poor manager of his money.

A change in Dekker’s career came about in 1603 due largely to the closing of the theatres during an outbreak of the plague.  He began writing tracts (or pamphlets) during this period, which dealt mostly with life in London.  The first of these, The Wonderful Year deals with the year 1603 itself, a turbulent time in England, both with the aforementioned plague, the end of the Tudor dynasty, and the beginning of that of the Staurts.  The tracts are valuable today as a source of information about everyday life of the period.  Throughout the rest of his life he would write both plays and tracts.

In 1613, his financial problems caught up with him.  He went into the Newgate prison and was not to come out until 1620.  After his release, he returned to writing, and seems to have done so for the rest of his life.  As with his birth, there is no definite record of his death.  However his name does not appear on anything dated after 1632, which is assumed to be his final year.

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