Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632) was an English dramatist and pamphleteer. In 1608 he published his most popular tract, The Belman of London, one of a series of ‘cony-catching’ pamphlets that Dekker wrote to expose the various scams and deceptions of contemporary criminals and confidence tricksters. Dekker describes a range of different types of ‘idle Vagabonds in England’ – including rogues, mild rogues, fraters, counterfeit cranks and Abraham-men – as well as several different tricks or ‘lawes’ used by such knaves. There is a blurring between fiction and fact, and like other writing of the time, this work sensationalises crime and poverty. However, it seems that many who read this sort of literature believed it to contain largely accurate accounts of the criminal poor. The title page shows an early modern watchman, with his bill and lantern, like the watchmen parodied in Much Ado About Nothing.
Dekker’s entry for ‘An Abraham-man’, digitised here, describes the role that Edgar takes on when he disguises himself in King Lear. An Abraham-man is a character who presents himself half-naked and out of his wits, often with pins in his arms, claiming to have been in Bedlam (i.e. the Bethlem Hospital in London, famed for its care and control of the insane) and calling himself ‘Poore Tom’. This ruse was commonly used as an aggressive begging tactic, intended to frighten people into giving the Abraham-man what he wanted.
Although later interpretations of King Lear have sentimentalised Edgar’s disguise, Dekker’s pamphlet shows the contemporary Jacobean attitude to such bedlam beggars. Audiences during Shakespeare’s time would have recognised that Edgar was putting on the guise of a charlatan and a figure of fear and revulsion, rather than one of pity.
Dekker and Shakespeare
Dekker is commonly believed to have contributed Hand E to the collaborative and revised manuscript of Sir Thomas More (British Library, MS Harley 7368), of which Hand D is believed to be that of Shakespeare.