BORN: c. 1580, London, England
DIED: c. 1634
GENRE: Drama, poetry
The Malcontent (1604)
The White Devil (1612)
Three Elegies on the Most Lamented Death of Prince Henrie (1613)
The Duchess of Malfi (1614)
The Devil’s Law-Case (c. 1619)
Critics often rank British author John Webster second only to William Shakespeare among Jacobean tragedians. His two major works, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), are more frequently revived on stage than any plays of the period other than Shakespeare’s. Webster is considered a somewhat difficult dramatist to appreciate, especially on the first reading of his plays.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Limited Information. Little is known about Webster’s life. He was born around 1580 in London, the eldest son of a prosperous coachmaker and member of a prestigious guild, the Merchant Taylors’ Company. Given his father’s status, Webster was probably educated at the highly respected Merchant Taylors’ School. Noting the prominence of legal concerns in Webster’s dramas, scholars speculate that he may have also had some legal training. Records indicate that, like his father, Webster was a respected member of the community, and upon the elder Webster’s death, he assumed his membership in the Merchant Taylors’ Company.
From his birth to early adulthood, Webster lived during a relatively stable time in British history. Elizabeth I had taken the throne in 1558 and ruled until her death in 1603. During her reign, England acquired its first colony (Newfoundland) in 1583 and defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, ensuring England’s freedom. Elizabeth also oversaw the beginnings of a golden age of drama, literature, and music, of which both Shakespeare and Webster played a part.
Respected in the Theater. Webster’s career in the theater began with collaborative work for Philip Henslowe, a man perhaps best known as the proprietor of London’s Rose Theatre. Henslowe’s Diary, which provides an invaluable view of English drama of the time, records in May 1602 that he paid Webster, Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Thomas Middleton, and
Thomas Dekker for the now lost Caesar’s Fall, or The Two Shapes. In October 1602, Henslowe paid Webster, Dekker, Heywood, Henry Chettle, and Wentworth Smith for a play called Lady Jane. Also in October, Webster and Heywood were advanced money for a play called Christmas Comes but Once a Year.
Although Webster appears to have had no further connection with Henslowe, he continued to collaborate on dramatic works, and towards the end of 1604, he and Dekker wrote West-ward Hoe, a scandalous comedy. This satire spurred John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson to respond with the even more scandalous Eastward Hoe. Dekker and Webster returned with Northward Hoe in 1605, which many critics consider to be the better of the two Dekker-Webster comedies.
Webster’s first independent work was The White Devil, apparently performed in 1612. This play, with Webster’s next drama, The Duchess of Malfi (1614), established a reputation for the dramatist that has sustained itself for four centuries. Most scholars note a significant decline in Webster’s dramaturgy following the composition of The Duchess of Malfi. Most also agree that his next play, the tragicomic Devil’s Law-Case (publication date is said to be between 1619 and 1622), is the most difficult of Webster’s works to assess because of its nearly incoherent plot. In fact, it has only been performed once—in 1980—since Webster’s time.
Last Known Contributions. Webster also contributed thirty-two character sketches to the sixth edition of Thomas Overbury’s New and Choice Characters, of Several Authors (1615). In addition, Webster continued to collaborate on plays, including Appius and Virginia, perhaps written with Heywood around 1634. Other plays attributed either wholly or partially to Webster include several lost works and A Cure for a Cuckold (1624 or 1625), which survives only in a carelessly printed edition.
Thus, much of Webster’s most active writing period was during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, and his son, Charles I, the first two Stuart kings who oversaw a country becoming intensely disillusioned with the national life. While both James and Charles favored the notion of absolutism—that is, that the monarch holds all the political power—the rising middle classes, especially Puritans, believed Parliament should rule over the monarch. This conflict eventually led to the English Civil War, a few years after Webster’s death. Scholars usually date Webster’s death around 1634, the year that Thomas Heywood referred to him in the past tense in his Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels (1635), but it could be as late as 1638.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Webster's famous contemporaries include:
Rene Descartes (1596-1650): A French philosopher and mathematician, he is nicknamed ''The Father of Modern Philosophy" for his profound influences on subsequent generations of thinkers. His treatises include Discourse on Method (1637).
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Though known as an Italian physicist, he was also a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who was instrumental in the scientific revolution. His treatises include Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).
Ling Mengchu (1580-1644): Chinese writer of the Ming dynasty, he is best known for his short-story collection, Astonished Slaps upon the Desktop.
Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660): A French patron saint, he founded several charitable organizations, including the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity and The Congregation of Priests of the Mission.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616): Primarily a playwright and poet, Shakespeare is typically referenced as the greatest writer of all time. His plays include the tragedy Hamlet (c. 1601).
Works in Literary Context
Influence or Plagiarism? To his peers, Webster was a slow, careful writer who ‘‘borrowed’’ lines from his fellow playwrights and used them to create powerful scenes. Scholars are certain that he lifted many sentiments, images, and even whole sentences from such authors as Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, and Scottish dramatist William Alexander. Such borrowing was not uncommon during the Jacobean era, but Webster made use of the material of others to such a degree that he was even satirized by such fellow writers as Henry Fitzjeffrey—who mocked the ‘‘Crabbed Web-sterio’’ for not writing one word of his own and not caring whether he would be misunderstood and obscure. Thus it is quite clear from Webster’s writings that he was influenced by, and alert to, the work of his contemporaries. The legal training he probably received also influenced the imagery and scenarios in a number of his plays.
Varying Levels of Difficulty. Some of Webster’s works, such as The Devil’s Law-Case (1619-1622?), are difficult to understand. This particular play, unlike the others that follow the period’s model for tragicomedy, has an incoherent plot full of actions that are both absurd and shocking. Other plays, however, are highly accomplished. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, for example, are based on Italian history, have a clearly established tragic outcome, and express well-defined themes that are accessible to audiences.
Dark and Severe Themes. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, as period tragicomedies, express the influence of a pessimistic worldview. Both reflect a sense of darkness encompassing human existence and a profound consciousness of evil and suffering in the world. The White Devil relates a complex tale of love, adultery, murder, and revenge. It centers on the adulterous passion between the Duke of Brachiano and Vittoria Corombona, who together plot and direct the murders of their spouses. Some scholars and critics maintain that the absence of any positive, truly moral figure makes the world presented in the play one of unrelieved bleakness.
The Duchess of Malfi offers no more relief. The widowed duchess, against the wishes of her brothers, secretly marries her servant Antonio. The brothers—the fanatical Ferdinand and the scheming Cardinal—plant a spy, Bosola, in their sister’s household. When Bosola uncovers the truth about the duchess’s marriage, her brothers ruthlessly harass her, drive her from her home, and eventually imprison her. In a famous scene, she is tormented by madmen performing a stylized dance around her, and she is ultimately murdered. Scholars agree that the duchess herself is one of the greatest tragic heroines of the period. As she resigns herself to a Christian stance in the face of her brothers’ vicious cruelty, she is filled with a profound dignity: the depiction of her murder is commonly judged one of the most moving scenes in all of Jacobean drama.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who also present themes of good exposed to evil.
A Clockwork Orange (1962), a novel by Anthony Burgess. In this futuristic work, the powers that be devise select ways for treating the truants and thugs in the small gang called the Droogs.
Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This novel of good and evil presented through a plot that turns on moral dilemmas was first published in serial form.
The Darkness and the Light (2001), a poetry collection by Anthony Hecht. In this work, the Nobel Prize-winning American exposes the technical, intellectual, and emotional terrors of the Holocaust and World War II.
Othello (1604), a tragedy by William Shakespeare. This play includes a character whom many scholars have named the most evil in all of literature: Iago.
Works in Critical Context
The great number of printings and revivals of Webster’s plays during the seventeenth century attest to their popularity. In the eighteenth century, however, his reputation was eclipsed by a growing interest in Shakespeare. Increasingly, Webster was known only among bibliographers and scholars who considered his plays scarcely more than period pieces, fine examples of the drama of the past but with little to offer contemporary audiences. In fact, his tragedies were performed only five times during the eighteenth century.
From his own time to the present, some critics have praised the poetic brilliance of Webster’s tragic vision, while others have scorned his plays as confusing and excessively violent. While undeniably horrifying, his depictions of people struggling to make sense of their lives in an apparently meaningless world possess a curiously modern sensibility. This is demonstrated in such plays as The Duchess of Malfi.
The Duchess of Malfi. The Duchess of Malfi is widely acclaimed as Webster’s masterpiece. Initial response to the play was strong. For decades, the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries. Algernon Charles Swinburne maintained that it ‘‘stands out among its peers as one of the imperishable and ineradicable landmarks of literature.’’ Many subsequent critics have echoed his opinion, and the play retains a vitality that continues to appeal to actors, audiences, and critics.
For example, John Russell Brown has suggested that The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form and the themes of the play. Webster’s talent as a technician has been a matter of some debate. In his study of Webster’s dramatic art, Charles R. Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights to successfully create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred. Forker also notes the connection to Shakespeare, concluding that ‘‘the Duchess of Malfi not only appropriates some of Richard II’s tragic selfconsciousness; she also has a ‘‘mirror scene’’ of her own—one as fully theatrical and thematically suggestive as his.’’
Responses to Literature
1. The practice of patronage in the arts has been common for centuries. In Webster’s time, his life depended upon finding patrons to finance his work. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the relationship between a famous artist or writers and his or her patron. Write an essay in which you examine the impact of patrons on the lives and artistic decisions of artists.
2. The revenge tragedy—developed in the Elizabethan period—is often referred to as ‘‘the tragedy of blood.’’ This genre includes common elements: a quest for vengeance (often at the, sometimes repeated, prompting of the ghost of a loved one); scenes involving real or feigned madness; scenes in graveyards; and/or scenes of carnage or mutilation. Using either The White Devil or The Duchess of Malfi, find examples that define the play as a tragedy of blood. Then, find contemporary comparisons by identifying the same revenge elements in a movie— for example, Gladiator, Mystic River, or Payback. Write about your findings in an essay, while answering the following questions: How is the movie you chose a modern revenge tragedy? How could one explain the popularity of the Jacobean and the modern-day tragedies of blood?
3. Consider all of the parallels between Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Malfi in an essay. Where does the duchess differ in her ruling style? Argue in agreement with or argue against Cyran’s suggestion that the duchess’s choosing love destroys her.
Archer, William. The Old Drama and the New. London: Heinemann, 1923.
Brown, John Russell. ‘‘Techniques of Restoration: The Case of The Duchess of Malfi’ In Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg. Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
Forker, Charles R. ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi.” In Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.
Schuman, Samuel. John Webster: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
Swinburne, Algernon. The Age of Shakespeare. The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. Vol. 11 (Prose Works vol. 1). Sir Edmund Gosse, C. B., and Thomas James Wise, eds. London: Heinemann, 1926.
Bennett, Robert B. ‘‘John Webster’s Strange Dedication: An Inquiry into Literary Patronage and Jacobean Court Intrigue.’’ English Literary Renaissance 7 (Autumn 1977): 352-67.
Chillington, Carol A. ‘‘Playwrights at Work: Henslowe's, Not Shakespeare’s, Book of Sir Thomas More.’’ English Literary History 11 (1981): 439-79.
‘‘An Analysis of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://virtual.park.ga.edu/~-cdesmet/sabrin/7home.htm.
‘‘John Webster (1580?-1685?).’’ Luminarium. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/webster. Last updated on July 18, 2006.
‘‘Learn About Jacobean Style.’’ Vam British Galleries. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/british_galleries/bg_styles/Style01b/index.html.
‘‘John Webster.’’ The Age of Shakespeare: The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. The Swinburne Project. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.letrs.indiana.edu/cgi-bin/acs-idx.pl?type=section&rgn=level1&byte=1613585.
‘‘Webster, John, 1580-1625.’’ Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/w#a857.
‘‘What Is Tragedy?’’ BBC h2g2 Guide. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A873858.