In the late 1970’s, new information was learned about a family named Webster that lived in London in the parish of St. Sepulcher-Without-Newgate and is believed to have been the family of John Webster, the tragic dramatist. The head of this family, also named John, was a member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company; this information accords with a statement written by the playwright, which mentions that he had been “born free” of the Merchant Taylors’, meaning that at the time of his birth his father was an actual member of that guild. The senior Webster became free in 1577 and, most likely with the expectation of a sufficient income to allow him to have a family, married Elizabeth Coates that same year. The future playwright, believed to be the eldest son because he bears his father’s name, was most likely born within the years 1577-1580. The father later became a prosperous coach maker, whose coaches frequently carried the dead to burial. This may explain the playwright’s preoccupation with death, which began at an early age.
No records prove that the young Webster went to the famous Merchant Taylors’ School, but such an assumption is reasonable. Since his plays show knowledge of the law, it has always been thought that he attended law schools. Records do show, however, that on August 1, 1589, a John Webster was admitted to the Middle Temple from the New Inn.
The earliest record about the playwright’s theatrical career comes from 1602, when he, along with four other writers including Thomas Dekker , received commission from the Lord Admiral’s Company to write a play to be known as Two Shapes, probably the same play as Caesar’s Fall, now lost, for which the company paid the playwrights five pounds on May 22. Later that year Webster collaborated on two other plays, being paid in October for Lady Jane, which may have been published under a different title, and in November for Christmas Comes but Once a Year, now lost. In 1602 and 1604, he wrote minor poems,...
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John Webster is known for being the author of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Few other facts about his life are known with any certainty. The scant amount of biographical information about this remarkable writer is an indication of the slight esteem Renaissance England granted to its great drama. It also points out how exceptional is the relatively large amount of information surviving about William Shakespeare.
Because Webster stated in the epistle to his Monuments of Honour that he was “born free” of the Guild of Merchant Tailors (or Merchant Taylors’ Company), it is a reasonable assumption that the John Webster who appears in the guild records in 1571 and 1576 was his father. A John “Wobster” was a member of an Anglo-German acting company in 1596, and a John Webster was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1598. Possibly these references are to the dramatist. Thomas Heywood referred to the dramatist as being dead in 1635; the actual year of his death is unknown, however, and he may have died as much as ten years earlier.
The early part of Webster’s dramatic career was spent as a collaborator in Philip Henslowe’s prolific stable of playwrights; his chief collaborators were John Marston and Thomas Dekker. The first year any record of his theatrical activity exists is 1602. Webster is thought to have married a woman named Sara Peniall in March of 1605. Between 1610 and 1615 he reached his prime with the two celebrated tragedies that make his reputation. The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi have a number of similarities. Both portray a world of macabre evil in which good characters are tormented by the ambitious, lustful, and vengeful. Both are set in sixteenth century Italy and involve murderous plotters. In both, church and state are corrupt. In these dark masterpieces Webster reveals himself as a powerful poet and an excellent man of the theater. Nothing in the plays he wrote either before or after these masterpieces indicates a comparable power.