Dekker was a popular, prolific writer who had a hand in at least 40 plays, which he wrote for Philip Henslowe, the theatrical entrepreneur. In the plays that seem to be completely by Dekker, he shows himself as a realist of London life, but even his most realistic plays have a strong undertone of romantic themes and aspirations. The Shoemaker's Holiday (1600), for example, glorifies the gentle craft of the shoemaker, and the character Simon Eyre speaks in an extravagant, hyperbolic style that is far from realistic. Dekker also wrote such prose pamphlets as the Bellman of London (1608) and The Gull's Hornbook (1609), the latter an entertaining account of the behavior of a country yokel and dupe in London. He died in debt.
Born in 1572, Ben Jonson rejected his father's bricklaying trade and ran away from his apprenticeship to join the army. He returned to England in 1592, working as an actor and playwright. In 1598, he was tried for murder after killing another actor in a duel, and was briefly imprisoned. One of his first plays, Every Man Out of His Humor (1599) had fellow playwright William Shakespeare as a cast member. His success grew with such works as Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610) and he was popular at court, frequently writing the Christmas masque. He is considered a very fine Elizabethan poet. In some anti-Stratfordian circles he is proposed as the true author of Shakespeare's plays, though this view is not widely accepted. Jonson was appointed London historian in 1628, but that same year, his life took a downward turn. He suffered a paralyzing stroke and lost favor at court after an argument with architect Inigo Jones and the death of King James I. Ben Jonson died on August 6, 1637.
Middleton, who wrote in a wide variety of genres and styles, was a thoroughly professional dramatist. His comedies are generally based on London life but are seen through the perspective of Roman comedy, especially those of Plautus. Middleton is a masterful constructor of plots. "A Chaste Maid in Cheapside" (1630) is typical of Middleton's interests. It is biting and satirical in tone: the crassness of the willing cuckold Allwit is almost frightening. Middleton was very preoccupied with sexual themes, especially in his tragedies, "The Changeling" (1622), written with William Rowley, and "Women Beware Women" (1621). The portraits of women in these plays are remarkable. Both Beatrice-Joanna in "The Changeling" and Bianca in "Women Beware Women" move swiftly from innocence to corruption, and Livia in "Women Beware Women" is noteworthy as a feminine Machiavelli and manipulator. In his psychological realism and his powerful vision of evil, Middleton is close to Shakespeare.