Read and Listen: Thomas Dekker and The Shoemaker’s Holiday

A 1559 Dutch painting by Pieter Bruegel depicting Lenten Carnival festivities (sourced from wikicommons).

Dr. Emma Smith gives a podcast lecture on Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (read the play here), and the gritty reality behind the festive comedy.

First, some background on Dekker that may provide helpful context while listening to the podcast:

Very little is known of Dekker’s early life, though it is likely he was born in London around 1572. While he probably did not attend university, his capable Latin translations suggest he did attend grammar school. Dekker married a woman named Mary and had three daughters in 1594, 1598, and 1602.

From around 1598 he worked as a playwright for The Admiral’s Men, and engaged in the War of the Theatres with Ben Jonson and John Marston. Dekker wrote more than forty plays for The Admiral’s Men, many of which are lost. His works include collaborating on Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, Old Fortunatas and Satiromastix. He collaborated with Thomas Middleton on The Honest Whore and The Roaring Girl  (listen to Dr. Smith’s podcast about The Roaring Girl here), and with John Webster  wrote Westward Ho and Northward Ho.

Dekker was seriously impoverished for most of his career, in and out of debtor’s prison for much of his life (including in 1598 and 1599, the year The Shoemaker’s Holiday was performed). From 1612 to 1619 Dekker was imprisoned for seven years because of a debt to the father of fellow playwright John Webster.

Title page of Dekker his Dreame, a pamphlet Dekker wrote while in debtor's prison, complete with an engraving of Dekker (sourced from wikicommons)

In addition to plays, Dekker wrote a series of pamphlets in the early seventeenth century, including popular cony-catching pamphlets describing tricks of conmen and thieves.

Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Comedy of often credited as being one of the first city comedy plays. City comedies are identifiable by taking place in an existing city (often London) and including recognisable landmarks of that city. Dr. Smith explains that city comedies “stress the energy and drive of the merchant classes”, as opposed to the plays of say, Shakespeare, whose comedies deal primarily with aristocrats. Unlike Shakespeare’s plays, city comedies encourage audience members to laugh with rather than at the working classes.

On to The Shoemaker’s Holiday:

Shoemaker is a hilarious and festive comedy, and Dekker insists in his dedicatory epistle that in the play “nothing is proposed but mirth”. In fact, as Dr. Smith highlights, the play touches on a great number of serious contemporary issues.

Lacy uses his wealth to don a disguise and dodge the draft for the war in France, but Ralph is not so lucky, and loses his leg: certainly a problem for a shoemaker, to whose profession his lost foot is particularly relevant. In 1599 the war in Ireland also raged, a bitter battle against committed and popular guerrilla fighters.

Food shortages at home meant the price of basic commodities such as wheat soared, and many could not afford to feed themselves. The city had exploded outward, and could not sustain its new population.

Queen Elizabeth was four years away from her eventual death, and still no heir had been named and fears about succession were widespread. Londoners were paranoid about Dutch immigrants (like the one Lacy impersonates) replacing English artisans, causing unemployment for natives.

Though the play is a holiday comedy, depicting the carnival of Shrove Tuesday, Dr. Smith points out that “Carnival is powerful because it’s very limited in time, and after it’s over you go back to a pretty grim world […] without much sense of celebration.” So Dekker’s play, while funny, is much more than simple escapism. How much more? Listen to the podcast and find out.

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About Kate O'Connor

Kate O'Connor works as Publicity & Outreach Director for Post5 Theatre, Literary Assistant and Office Manager for the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and Dramaturgy Intern for the Profile Theatre. She earned her M.St. in English Literature 1550-1700 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford and a BA in English from Stanford University. As an undergraduate she worked as the research assistant to Prof. David Riggs and as Literary Intern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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2 Responses to Read and Listen: Thomas Dekker and The Shoemaker’s Holiday

  1. Pingback: John Webster: A Darker Playwright for Renaissance England | Great Writers Inspire

  2. Pingback: Ben Jonson: Renaissance Playwright, Renaissance Man | Great Writers Inspire

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