John Webster

John Webster

Overview
John Webster was an English Jacobean dramatist best known for his tragedies The White Devil
The White Devil
The White Devil is a revenge tragedy from 1612 by English playwright John Webster . A notorious failure when it premiered, Webster complained the play was acted in the dead of winter before an unreceptive audience. The play's complexity, sophistication and satire made it a poor fit with the...

and The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613-14...

, which are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

.

Webster's life is obscure, and the dates of his birth and death are not known. His father, a coach maker also named John Webster, married a blacksmith's daughter named Elizabeth Coates on 4 November 1577, and it is likely that Webster was born not long after in or near London.
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Quotations

I saw him going the way of all flesh.

Westward Hoe, Act II, scene ii.

Vain the ambition of kingsWho seek by trophies and dead thingsTo leave a living name behind,And weave but nets to catch the wind.

The Devil's Law Case (1623)

'T is just like a summer bird-cage in a garden,—the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out. 2

Act I, scene ii. Compare: "To public feasts, where meet a public rout,— Where they that are without would fain go in, And they that are within would fain go out", John Davies, Contention betwixt a Wife, etc.

Condemn you me for that the duke did love me?So may you blame some fair and crystal riverFor that some melancholic, distracted manHath drown'd himself in 't.

Act III, scene ii.

Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,But look'd too near have neither heat nor light.

Act IV, scene 4. Compare DistanceDistant things appear better|Distance.

Call for the robin redbreast and the wren,Since o'er shady groves they hover,And with leaves and flowers do coverThe friendless bodies of unburied men.

Act V, scene iv.

But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,For with his nails he'll dig them up again.

Act V, scene iv.

Prosperity doth bewitch men, seeming clear;But seas do laugh, show white, when rocks are near.

Act V, scene vi.

Glories, like glowworms, afar off shine bright,But looked to near have neither heat nor light.

Act IV, scene ii.

Of what is't fools make such vain keeping?Sin their conception, their birth, weeping:Their life, a general mist of error,Their death, a hideous storm of terror.

Act IV, scene ii.
Encyclopedia
John Webster was an English Jacobean dramatist best known for his tragedies The White Devil
The White Devil
The White Devil is a revenge tragedy from 1612 by English playwright John Webster . A notorious failure when it premiered, Webster complained the play was acted in the dead of winter before an unreceptive audience. The play's complexity, sophistication and satire made it a poor fit with the...

and The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613-14...

, which are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

.

Biography


Webster's life is obscure, and the dates of his birth and death are not known. His father, a coach maker also named John Webster, married a blacksmith's daughter named Elizabeth Coates on 4 November 1577, and it is likely that Webster was born not long after in or near London. The family lived in St. Sepulchre's parish. Father John, and Uncle, Edward Webster, were Freemen of the Merchant Taylors' Company and Webster attended Merchant Taylors' School in Suffolk Lane, London. On 1 August 1598, "John Webster, lately of the New Inn" was admitted to the Middle Temple
Middle Temple
The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, commonly known as Middle Temple, is one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English Bar as barristers; the others being the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn...

, one of the Inns of Court; in view of the legal interests evident in his dramatic work; this is possibly the playwright. Webster married the 17-year-old Sara Peniall on 18 March 1606, and their first child, John, was baptised at the parish of St Dunstan-in-the-West
St Dunstan-in-the-West
The Guild Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West is in Fleet Street in London, England. An octagonal-shaped building, it is dedicated to a former bishop of London and archbishop of Canterbury.-History:...

 on 8 March 1605 or 1606. Bequests in the will of a neighbour who died in 1617 indicate that other children were born to him.

Most of what is otherwise known of him relates to his theatrical activities. Webster was still writing plays as late as the mid-1620s, but Thomas Heywood
Thomas Heywood
Thomas Heywood was a prominent English playwright, actor, and author whose peak period of activity falls between late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre.-Early years:...

's Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels (licensed 7 November 1634) speaks of him in the past tense, implying he was then dead.

Early collaborations


By 1602, Webster was working with teams of playwrights on history plays, most of which were never printed. These included a tragedy Caesar's Fall (written with Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton was an English poet who came to prominence in the Elizabethan era.-Early life:He was born at Hartshill, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England. Almost nothing is known about his early life, beyond the fact that in 1580 he was in the service of Thomas Goodere of Collingham,...

, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights who wrote their best plays during the Jacobean period. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in...

 and Anthony Munday
Anthony Munday
Anthony Munday was an English dramatist and miscellaneous writer. The chief interest in Munday for the modern reader lies in his collaboration with Shakespeare and others on the play Sir Thomas More and his writings on Robin Hood.-Biography:He was once thought to have been born in 1553, because...

), and a collaboration with Thomas Dekker Christmas Comes but Once a Year (1602). With Dekker he also wrote Sir Thomas Wyatt, which was printed in 1607. He worked with Thomas Dekker again on two city comedies
City comedy
City comedy, also called Citizen Comedy, is a common genre of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline comedy on the London stage from the last years of the 16th century to the closing of the theaters in 1642...

, Westward Ho
Westward Ho (play)
Westward Ho is an early Jacobean era stage play, a satire and city comedy by Thomas Dekker and John Webster that was first published in 1607...

 in 1604 and Northward Ho
Northward Ho
Northward Ho is an early Jacobean era stage play, a satire and city comedy written by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, and first published in 1607. Northward Ho was a response to Eastward Ho by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, which in its turn was a response to Westward Ho Northward...

in 1605. Also in 1604, he adapted John Marston
John Marston
John Marston was an English poet, playwright and satirist during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods...

's The Malcontent
The Malcontent
The Malcontent is an early Jacobean stage play written by the dramatist and satirist John Marston ca. 1603. The play was one of Marston's most successful works....

for staging by the King's Men
King's Men (playing company)
The King's Men was the company of actors to which William Shakespeare belonged through most of his career. Formerly known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it became The King's Men in 1603 when King James ascended the throne and became the company's patron.The...

.

The major tragedies


Despite his ability to write comedy, Webster is best known for his two brooding English tragedies based on Italian sources. The White Devil
The White Devil
The White Devil is a revenge tragedy from 1612 by English playwright John Webster . A notorious failure when it premiered, Webster complained the play was acted in the dead of winter before an unreceptive audience. The play's complexity, sophistication and satire made it a poor fit with the...

, a retelling of the intrigues involving Vittoria Accoramboni
Vittoria Accoramboni
Vittoria Accoramboni was an Italian lady famous for her great beauty and accomplishments and for her death, a story that was later the basis for a play and three novels.-Biography:...

, an Italian woman assassinated at the age of 28, was a failure when staged at the Red Bull Theatre
Red Bull Theatre
The Red Bull was a playhouse in London during the 17th century. For more than four decades, it entertained audiences drawn primarily from the northern suburbs, developing a reputation for rowdy, often disruptive audiences...

 in 1612 (published the same year), being too unusual and intellectual for its audience. The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613-14...

, first performed by the King's Men
King's Men (playing company)
The King's Men was the company of actors to which William Shakespeare belonged through most of his career. Formerly known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it became The King's Men in 1603 when King James ascended the throne and became the company's patron.The...

 about 1614 and published nine years later, was more successful. He also wrote a play called Guise, based on French history, of which little else is known as no text has survived.

The White Devil was performed in the Red Bull Theatre
Red Bull Theatre
The Red Bull was a playhouse in London during the 17th century. For more than four decades, it entertained audiences drawn primarily from the northern suburbs, developing a reputation for rowdy, often disruptive audiences...

, an open-air theatre that is believed to have specialised in providing simple, escapist drama for a largely working class audience, a factor that might explain why Webster's highly intellectual and complex play was unpopular with its audience. In contrast, The Duchess of Malfi was probably performed by the King's Men in the smaller, indoor Blackfriars Theatre
Blackfriars Theatre
Blackfriars Theatre was the name of a theatre in the Blackfriars district of the City of London during the Renaissance. The theatre began as a venue for child actors associated with the Queen's chapel choirs; in this function, the theatre hosted some of the most innovative drama of Elizabeth and...

, where it would have played to a more highly educated audience that might have appreciated it better. The two plays would thus have been very different in their original performances. The White Devil would have been performed, probably in one continuous action, by adult actors, with elaborate stage effects a possibility. The Duchess of Malfi was performed in a controlled environment, with artificial lighting, and musical interludes between acts, which allowed time, perhaps, for the audience to accept the otherwise strange rapidity with which the Duchess is able to have babies.

Late plays


Webster wrote one more play on his own: The Devil's Law Case
The Devil's Law Case
The Devil's Law Case is a Jacobean era stage play, a tragicomedy written by John Webster, and first published in 1623.-Date:The play's date of authorship and early performance history is unknown. The events upon which the play is based occurred in 1610, so that the drama must post-date that year...

(c. 1617–1619), a tragicomedy
Tragicomedy
Tragicomedy is fictional work that blends aspects of the genres of tragedy and comedy. In English literature, from Shakespeare's time to the nineteenth century, tragicomedy referred to a serious play with either a happy ending or enough jokes throughout the play to lighten the mood.-Classical...

. His later plays were collaborative city comedies
City comedy
City comedy, also called Citizen Comedy, is a common genre of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline comedy on the London stage from the last years of the 16th century to the closing of the theaters in 1642...

: Anything for a Quiet Life
Anything for a Quiet Life
Anything for a Quiet Life is a Jacobean stage play, a city comedy written by Thomas Middleton and John Webster. Topical allusions suggest the play was written most likely in 1621.-Authorship:...

(c. 1621), co-written with Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights who wrote their best plays during the Jacobean period. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in...

, and A Cure for a Cuckold
A Cure for a Cuckold
A Cure for a Cuckold is a late Jacobean era stage play, a comedy written by John Webster and William Rowley. The play was first published in 1661, though composed some four decades earlier.-Date and performance:...

(c. 1624), co-written with William Rowley
William Rowley
William Rowley was an English Jacobean dramatist, best known for works written in collaboration with more successful writers. His date of birth is estimated to have been c. 1585; he was buried on 11 February 1626...

. In 1624, he also co-wrote a topical play about a recent scandal, Keep the Widow Waking
Keep the Widow Waking
Keep the Widow Waking is a lost Jacobean play, significant chiefly for the light it throws on the complexities of collaborative authorship in English Renaissance drama....

(with John Ford
John Ford (dramatist)
John Ford was an English Jacobean and Caroline playwright and poet born in Ilsington in Devon in 1586.-Life and work:...

, Rowley and Dekker). The play itself is lost, although its plot is known from a court case. He is believed to have contributed to the tragicomedy The Fair Maid of the Inn
The Fair Maid of the Inn
The Fair Maid of the Inn is an early 17th-century stage play, a comedy in the canon of John Fletcher and his collaborators. It was originally published in the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647...

with John Fletcher
John Fletcher (playwright)
John Fletcher was a Jacobean playwright. Following William Shakespeare as house playwright for the King's Men, he was among the most prolific and influential dramatists of his day; both during his lifetime and in the early Restoration, his fame rivalled Shakespeare's...

, Ford, and Phillip Massinger. His Appius and Virginia
Appius and Virginia
Appius and Virginia is an early 17th-century stage play, a tragedy by John Webster . It is the third and least famous of his tragedies, after The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.-Heywood:...

, probably written with Thomas Heywood
Thomas Heywood
Thomas Heywood was a prominent English playwright, actor, and author whose peak period of activity falls between late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre.-Early years:...

, is of uncertain date.

Reputation


Webster's major plays, The White Devil
The White Devil
The White Devil is a revenge tragedy from 1612 by English playwright John Webster . A notorious failure when it premiered, Webster complained the play was acted in the dead of winter before an unreceptive audience. The play's complexity, sophistication and satire made it a poor fit with the...

and The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613-14...

, are macabre, disturbing works that seem to prefigure the Gothic literature of the seventeenth century. Intricate, complex, subtle and learned, they are difficult but rewarding, and are still frequently staged today.

Webster has received a reputation for being the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatist with the most unsparingly dark vision of human nature. Even more than John Ford
John Ford (dramatist)
John Ford was an English Jacobean and Caroline playwright and poet born in Ilsington in Devon in 1586.-Life and work:...

, whose 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
'Tis Pity She's a Whore
'Tis Pity She's a Whore is a tragedy written by John Ford. It was likely first performed between 1629 and 1633, by Queen Henrietta's Men at the Cockpit Theatre. The play was first published in 1633, in a quarto printed by Nicholas Okes for the bookseller Richard Collins...

is also very bleak, Webster's tragedies present a horrific vision of mankind. In his poem "Whispers of Immortality," T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

 memorably says that Webster always saw "the skull beneath the skin".

On the other hand, Webster's title character in The Duchess of Malfi is presented as a figure of virtue by comparison to her malevolent brothers, and in facing death she exemplifies classical Stoic
STOIC
STOIC was a variant of Forth.It started out at the MIT and Harvard Biomedical Engineering Centre in Boston, and was written in the mid 1970s by Jonathan Sachs...

 courage. Her martyr-like death scene has been compared to that of the titular king in Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II. Webster's use of a strong, virtuous woman as his central character was rare for his time and represents a deliberate reworking of some of the original historical event on which his play was based. The character of the duchess recalls the Victorian poet and essayist Algernon Charles Swinburne
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Algernon Charles Swinburne was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He invented the roundel form, wrote several novels, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica...

's comment in A Study of Shakespeare that in tragedies such as King Lear
King Lear
King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The title character descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological...

Shakespeare had shown such a bleak world as a foil or backdrop for virtuous heroines such as Ophelia and Imogen, so that their characterisation would not seem too incredible. Swinburne describes such heroines as shining in the darkness.

While Webster's drama was generally dismissed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many twentieth century critics and theatregoers find The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi to be brilliant plays of great poetic quality and dark themes. One explanation for this change is that only after the horrors of war in the early twentieth century could their desperate protagonists be portrayed on stage again, and understood. W. A. Edwards wrote of Webster's plays in Scrutiny II (1933–4): "Events are not within control, nor are our human desires; let's snatch what comes and clutch it, fight our way out of tight corners, and meet the end without squealing." The violence and pessimism of Webster's tragedies have seemed to some analysts close to modern sensibilities.

Webster in other works

  • The eighteenth-century play The Fatal Secret by Lewis Theobald
    Lewis Theobald
    Lewis Theobald , British textual editor and author, was a landmark figure both in the history of Shakespearean editing and in literary satire...

     is a reworking of The Duchess of Malfi, imposing Aristotle
    Aristotle
    Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

    's "unities" and a happy ending on the plot
  • The short story "A Christmas in Padua" in F. L. Lucas
    F. L. Lucas
    Frank Laurence Lucas was an English classical scholar, literary critic, poet, novelist, playwright, political polemicist, and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge....

    's The Woman Clothed with the Sun (1937) retells the final hours of Vittoria Accoramboni (the original of Webster's White Devil) in December 1585, slanting the narrative from her perspective.
  • The 1982 detective novel The Skull Beneath the Skin
    The Skull Beneath the Skin
    The Skull Beneath The Skin is a 1982 detective novel by P. D. James, featuring her female private detective Cordelia Gray. The novel is set in a reconstructed Victorian castle on the fictional Courcy Island on the Dorset coast and centers around actress Clarissa Lisle who is to play John Webster's...

    by P. D. James
    P. D. James
    Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL , commonly known as P. D. James, is an English crime writer and Conservative life peer in the House of Lords, most famous for a series of detective novels starring policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh.-Life and career:James...

     centres around an ageing actress who plans to play Webster's drama The Duchess of Malfi
    The Duchess of Malfi
    The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613-14...

    in a Victorian
    Victorian era
    The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

     castle theatre. The novel takes its title from T.S. Eliot's famous characterisation of Webster's work in his poem "Whispers of Immortality".
  • The song "My White Devil" from Echo & the Bunnymen
    Echo & the Bunnymen
    Echo & the Bunnymen are an English post-punk band, formed in Liverpool in 1978. The original line-up consisted of vocalist Ian McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant and bass player Les Pattinson, supplemented by a drum machine. By 1980, Pete de Freitas had joined as the band's drummer, and their debut...

    's 1983 album Porcupine
    Porcupine (album)
    Porcupine is the third studio album by the British post-punk band Echo & the Bunnymen. First released on 4 February 1983, it became the band's highest charting release when it reached number two on the UK Albums Chart despite initially receiving poor reviews...

    refers to Webster as "one of the best there was" and mentions his two tragic plays by name.
  • Webster a play by Robert David McDonald. Written for and premiered at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre 1984
  • A young John Webster, played by Joe Roberts, appears in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love
    Shakespeare in Love
    Shakespeare in Love is a 1998 British-American comedy film directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard....

    .
  • A fragment of Scene Two, Act Four of The Duchess of Malfi is shown in the 1987 BBC
    BBC
    The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters is at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster, London. It is the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff...

     TV film version of Agatha Christie
    Agatha Christie
    Dame Agatha Christie DBE was a British crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays. She also wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections , and her successful West End plays.According to...

    's detective novel Sleeping Murder
    Sleeping Murder
    Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple's Last Case is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in October 1976 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed for £3.50 and the US edition for $7.95...

  • Webster's quote, "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young", is used in the novel Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice
    Anne Rice
    Anne Rice is a best-selling Southern American author of metaphysical gothic fiction, Christian literature and erotica from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her books have sold nearly 100 million copies, making her one of the most widely read authors in modern history...

    , as well as in Sleeping Murder.
  • Mike Figgis's 2001 film Hotel involves scenes from The Duchess of Malfi
  • The antagonist in Paul Johnston's "The Death List" and "The Soul Collector" mimics The White Devil in character names and actions.

External links