The Virgin Martyr – Introduction

The earliest known version of the legend of St. Dorothea is De Laudibus Virginitatis, written by Aldhelm in the seventh century.  The Roman emperor in the story, Diocletian, is a historical person who ruled from 284 to 305 C.E., not long before Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion.   Diocletian, as noted in the play, was known as a great persecutor of the Christians, more so than most of his predicessors, so setting the tale in his time is appropriate.  The probable source for the play is John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, or the Book of Martyrs, published in 1563.  It is essentially a miracle play; some have tried to call it a tragedy due to Dorothea’s martyrdom, but she is seen at the conclusion as a “ghost” on her way to sainthood–surely not the unhappy situation that tragedy requires.

Written in 1620, this is Dekker’s first play after his six-year imprisonment in Newgate for debt.  His writing partner was the up and coming playwright Philip Massinger, who had already collaborated with John Fletcher, and would soon break out on his own with solo plays.  Dekker and Massinger were ten years apart in age, and many critics have wondered how two playwrights with such different styles came to work together.  In particular, they had opposing religious beliefs.  Massinger was a strong Roman Catholic (suggesting that the idea for a play about a saint was his own), and Dekker had shown his Protestant leanings most definately in such plays as Sir Thomas Wyatt and The Whore of Babylon.  Massinger’s nineteenth century editor, W. Gifford, was of the opinion that Massinger was merely rewriting a much earlier play of Dekker’s, but this is not the current belief.  Today, most critics are virtually all agreed that the play was a mutual collaboration, and can even break down scene by scene, which author wrote which scene.

It is quite probable that the playwrights saw the possibility that their association would be mutually beneficial.  Massinger could certainly learn a lot from an established playwright, and Dekker, probably out of touch with the theatrical world after his incarceration, was perhaps grateful to work with a younger playwright who had been heavily involved with the recent theater.

The play was first performed in 1620 at the Red Bull and published two years later.  It proved to be popular, as evidenced by its revival in 1624, and there is even a possible reference to a performance in Germany in 1626.  It was produced at least twice during the Restoration period, with Samual Pepys having seen performances in 1661 and 1668.

Dramatis Personæ

Act One, Scene One

Act Two, Scene One

Act Two, Scene Two

Act Two, Scene Three

Act Three, Scene One

Act Three, Scene Two

Act Three, Scene Three

Act Four, Scene One

Act Four, Scene Two

Act Four, Scene Three

Act Five, Scene One

Act Five, Scene Two

Return to Dekker page


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