There are two very different elements in Thomas Dekker’s work, which, by all rules of logic and aesthetics, ought to conflict, but, through his peculiar magic, do not. The first of these is a rollicking good humor and an uninhibited enjoyment of the varied pleasures life has to offer; the second is a clear-sighted understanding of the pain that human beings inevitably suffer on their journey to death. The easy way to put such disparate material together in one play is by using the light to contrast with the dark, but Dekker does more--especially in The Shoemaker’s Holiday. He bridges the joy and suffering with his own empathy just as he combined comedy with serious issues and brilliant play making with the latest court cases of his day.
His best remembered prose works give some idea of the experiences he drew on; they are Lanthorne and Candle-light and Dekker his Dreame, where he tells of his various sojourns in debtors’ prison; The Wonderfull yeare, a chronicle of the plague in London, which became Defoe’s source for his Journal of the Plague Year; and The Guls Hornebooke, a satirical assault (in the form of a book of manners) on the fops and gallants who infested London, including those who visited the playhouses.
In spite of the poverty, imprisonment, and other embittering experiences he suffered (or, who knows, perhaps because of them), Dekker’s plays are noted for a sweetness of outlook and a sympathy of understanding that is difficult to match outside of Shakespeare’s happiest work. As Parrot and Ball say of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, “It would be hard to find another Elizabethan play where the background of contemporary life gives so strong a sense of atmosphere, an atmosphere of Old and Merry England at its jolliest” (A Short View of Elizabethan Drama [New York: Scribners, 1943], 109).
Even in that later, darker work, The Witch of Edmonton, Dekker’s compassion shines. The play was based on a contemporary trial, just as The Shoemaker’s Holiday drew material from recent Protestant wars; and Mother Sawyer, its title character, like some convicted witches, emerges as a rebel. As Jeffrey Burton Russel says, “Witchcraft was . . . the strongest possible religious expression of social discontent” (Witchcraft in the Middle Ages [Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1972], 266).
Mother Sawyer rebels against the cruel stupidity of her community, and Dekker and his collaborators clearly mean to enlist the audience’s sympathy for her, an unusual tactic for many playwrights, but consistent with Dekker’s other plays. Nevertheless, the result of her rebellion is the confirmation of her neighbors’ suspicions, the intensification of their hatred, and her own physical and moral destruction. Her dog-devil promised her love, comfort, and revenge when her neighbors had cast her out, but his last words to her are: “Out witch! Thy trial is at hand. / Our prey being had, the devil does laughing stand” (5.1.73-4).
This disastrous end to her dream is at once a revelation of Mother Sawyer’s character and circumstances and a criticism of the society that is largely responsible for shaping them. For her, there was no more charity, no more love, no more humanity in the humans around her than there was in a fiend from the pit. It is Dekker who is generally given credit for The Witch of Edmonton’s uncharacteristically sympathetic (and courageous) stand, Dekker who could see through Mother Sawyer’s outer ugliness to the suffering human within. It was Dekker, who, though a partisan Protestant, sympathized with the treatment of soldiers like Ralph (in some editions Rafe) in Protestant wars, and who said in The Seven Deadly Sins that there was “cruelty in England to compare with the Spanish Inquisition” (Julia Gasper, The Dragon and the Dove [Oxford University Press, 1990], 8).
Ironically, with this all said, The Shoemaker’s Holiday is still sometimes criticized for being a happy play of London life and no more, a citizen or city comedy designed to please the masses. Such a view is hard to accept in the light of The Witch of Edmonton and Dekker’s other work, and in any event, the masses in a London theatre were better educated and more discerning than most. Thomas Deloney, whose The gentle craft served as source of Dekker’s play, was a silk weaver by trade who wrote broadside ballads and pamphlets and was well able to translate Latin.
It is easy to spot the elements that have caused some critics to devalue The Shoemaker’s Holiday as just another citizen comedy. After all, on one level it is the story of how the aristocratic Rowland Lacy, kinsman of the earl of Lincoln, disguises himself as a shoemaker in order to wed the middle class daughter of the lord mayor of London. But it would be equally easy to dismiss The Merry Wives of Windsor (a play which has a number of similarities with The Shoemaker’s Holiday, including the connection to Henry V) as no more than a gratification of middle class tastes because the merry wives humiliate Sir John Falstaff and the aristocratic Fenton comes to love Ann Page for herself and not her money.
The changes and additions that Dekker made to his borrowed plot show plainly what he had in mind. In Deloney’s The gentle craft, there is no mention of Wittenberg, but in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Lacy learns shoemaking in that birthplace of the Reformation and Protestant stronghold.
“Deloney’s hostility toward immigrants was typical of one section of the London public” (Gasper, 18). Protestant refugees flooded into London, competing for jobs, and the Dutch across the channel challenged England’s commercial interests even while they fought beside her against Spain. Deloney creates a subplot where a Frenchman and a Dutchman compete with an Englishman for the affection of an Englishwoman. The deceitful foreigners are eventually exposed, and English virtue triumphs. Dekker’s version replaces “xenophobia with Protestant fraternity”: Simon Eyre’s “foreman and journeyman take the stranger’s part and threaten to leave if he is not taken on” (Gasper, 19).
In addition to all the brilliant fun in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Dekker argues for the humane treatment of Protestant refugees in England and also for a political goal dear to the heart of the earl of Essex, an effective Protestant alliance against the massed forces of European Catholicism (see Gasper, 21-22). Even so, Dekker does not become a fanatic, believing in one group as the chosen people, entitled to do whatever they wish. In The Seven Deadly Sins, he asks: “Can the father of the world measure out his love so unequally, that one people (like to a man’s youngest child) should be more made of than all the rest?” (cited in Gasper, 8).
Though citizen comedies were sometimes thought to be all about money, Dekker finds more important values in the humanness of his characters, and in spite of giving us a realistic world where the aristocrat avoids war and the common man suffers from it, Dekker convinces us that life is worth the effort it takes to live it well and that the world is a profoundly joyous place, in part because human sympathy manifests itself in Lacy’s love and helps to soothe Ralph’s pain.