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  • “When sorrows come”:John Webster v. Thomas Dekker in the Court of King’s Bench
  • David Mateer and Alan H. Nelson (bio)

Although modern biographers of thomas dekker agree that the playwright spent 1613 to 1619 in King’s Bench prison,1 we concur with Gerald Eades Bentley:

It would be comfortable to have more explicit evidence for this long imprisonment than the vague statement in the epistle to Dekker His Dream (S.R., 11 October 1619), “Out of a long sleep, which for almost seven years together, seized all my senses,” … a letter to Edward Alleyn dated 12 September 1616 from the King’s Bench, and the years of limited output, plus an odd reference or so to a period of seven years.2

Bentley’s wish was partly fulfilled by Mary Edmond’s report of a suit in King’s Bench from 1613: this was “John Webster v. Thomas Decker [alias] Dekker of [End Page 199] London, gent, relating to a debt of £40.”3 Edmond identifies the complainant as John Webster senior, a London coachmaker or wagonmaker, and father of the playwright. Both Dekker’s and Webster’s biographers have embraced the identification as a simple fact.4

We have discovered a total of nine King’s Bench entries naming Thomas Dekker as a defendant in pleas of debt and trespass on the case; one is the entry reported by Edmond. The nine entries fall under five lawsuits outlined in the Appendix: Cator v. Dekker, Browne and Smithwick v. Dekker, Webster v. Dekker, Keysar v. Dekker (1), and Keysar v. Dekker (2). While Dekker incurred his five debts over some seven years (between 1606 and 1612), the resulting lawsuits all occurred in or about 1613. Four of the suits involved cash loans, while the fifth (Cator v. Dekker) concerned “a dublet and a payre of hose.” Claiming that Dekker ordered and received these garments, which were valued at £4 6s, but did not pay for them, Cator sued for damages of £20.

The one lawsuit by John Webster and the two by Robert Keysar are so similar that they may be thought of as one suit. They are entered in the King’s Bench rolls consecutively in the sequence Webster v. Dekker, Keysar v. Dekker (1), and Keysar v. Dekker (2). The language of all three suits is virtually identical except for monetary amounts. Webster and Keysar used the same attorney, John King. A degree of similarity extends also to Browne and Smithwick v. Dekker, as all four suits name Nicholas Okes and Ralph Savage as joint pledges (or sureties) for Dekker.

In addition to Dekker and Webster, five of the names mentioned in the various suits will be familiar to theater historians and bibliographers. Robert Keysar was a “playhouse speculator,” and Ralph Savage was a later proprietor of the Red Bull playhouse.5 John Browne, John Smithwick (also known to bibliographers as John Smethwick), and Nicholas Okes were all stationers, publishers of miscellaneous literature, including plays and masques.6 All three, moreover, were involved in the publication of works by Dekker. [End Page 200]

John Smithwick (d. 1641) was a stationer of St. Dunstan in the West. A giant in the London printing trade, he would become involved in the publication of the Shakespeare First and Second Folios. John Browne (d. 1622) was a bookseller and bookbinder whose shop stood in St. Dunstan’s churchyard. In 1603, Smithwick and Browne published Dekker’s Wonderfull Yeare. The book carries the imprint “Printed for Thomas Creede, and are to be solde in Saint Donstones Church-yarde in Fleete-streete.” Various circumstances point beyond Creede to Smithwick and Browne, including the place of sale in St. Dunstan’s. Most notably, Smithwick and Browne were fined for publishing the volume without license.7 Nicholas Okes (d. 1636 or later) was printer or publisher of some dozen Dekker imprints, including one of his plays and two of his Lord Mayor’s shows.8

Unfortunately, the exact identity of the plaintiff is not specified in either Webster v. Dekker entry: he is not called a wagonmaker, coachmaker, coachman, or carrier. Nor is he identified as John Webster senior, or as the...


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