Chaucerian Topoi and Topography in Thomas Dekker’s (and John Webster’s) Westward Ho (1605) and Northward Ho (1607)


It is widely acknowledged that Geoffrey Chaucer’s complete Workes served as a common theatrical sourcebook that offered early modern English playwrights quick access to plots and stories. While most critical discussion to date has focused on Chaucerian resonances in Shakespearean drama, this article instead centers on the Ho plays of Thomas Dekker, investigating the extent to which these Jacobean city comedies are indebted to Chaucer’s geography of London and his legacy of game and play. This article reads Dekker’s moral map of London as a workplace and playground palimpsestically covering Chaucer’s. Investigating Chaucer’s legacy of the festive and the carnivalesque in The Canterbury Tales, it argues that the Chaucerian tropes of “homo viator” and “homo ludens” underlie both Westward Ho and Northward Ho. In Westward Ho, using Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale for character citation and situation, Dekker reconfigures a number of distinctively Chaucerian topoi—“May,” “Justinus,” “adultery,” “Merchant,” male fantasy, and the “wyves cursednesse”—to develop his own merchant’s tale in a trip to Brainford. In Northward Ho, Dekker re-invents the ideas of quiting and pilgrimage—in this case, to a “sacred” destination in Ware—to unveil London’s decadence and danger through the edifying concept of jest.

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