John Webster Biography

John Webster, famed Jacobean playwright, was a late bloomer. Although he did well enough in his own time, his stature in theater history was fairly low in the years after his death. For nearly two centuries, his plays were largely ignored and unfairly compared to the stylistically different works of Shakespeare. It was only in the late twentieth century, when Jacobean tragedy was rediscovered by scholars and theater artists, that Webster began to be fully appreciated for his powerful writing. His dark, intense tragedies foreshadowed the angry and violent plays of the early German Romantic period nearly two decades later. His most famous work, The Duchess of Malfi, is a full-bodied, tragic tale full of larger-than-life characters.

Facts and Trivia

  • Little is known about John Webster’s early years, or his later ones for that matter. What precious little documentation of his life there is centers mostly on his playwriting career, making the man himself something of a mystery.
  • Like Francis Beaumont and Thomas Fletcher, Webster collaborated on a number of plays, including Caesar’s Fall and Christmas Comes but Once a Year.
  • Early in his career, Webster wrote several comedies, yet these works have been overshadowed by his reputation as the master of Jacobean tragedy.
  • Late in life, Webster turned to writing tragicomedies, a mixed-genre form popular in the mid-seventeenth century.
  • Webster’s plays The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil are prime examples of Jacobean tragedy, whose dark worldview and violent nature set them apart from other tragic works.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831

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.

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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, prefatory verses for works by other poets, among whom was Thomas Heywood. Webster also worked with John Marston, penning the induction to his The Malcontent (pr., pb. 1604). He collaborated with Dekker on several plays over the next few years, the most notable being Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, both performed by the boy actors at St. Paul’s, probably in 1604 and 1605, respectively, and both published in 1607 along with The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which may be, at least in part, the same play as Lady Jane.

Webster married Sara Peniall, probably on March 18, 1605, and their first child, John, was baptized on May 8, 1606. Shortly thereafter, Webster decided to write without collaborators. His first independent play was The White Devil, written in 1609 and performed that winter by the Queen’s Company at the Red Bull theater. According to Webster, this play was not well received. In 1613, Webster published his elegy on the death of Henry, prince of Wales. Webster’s other major play, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed before the end of 1614 by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, at both the Blackfriars and the Globe theaters. Around this time, Webster staged a tragedy entitled The Guise, now lost.

Webster’s father died in 1614 or 1615. By this time, the playwright had at least four other children. Definite biographical information comes from 1615: On June 19, Webster paid a fee to gain membership in the Merchant Taylors’ Company, perhaps so that he could become the official poet of the guild. Also in 1615, the sixth edition of New and Choice Characters of Several Authors appeared, containing thirty-two new character sketches believed, on stylistic evidence, to have been written by Webster. In 1617, Webster was attacked in print by a figure of no literary importance, the satiric portrait describing Webster unfavorably and calling his work “obscure.”

His last independent play, The Devil’s Law-Case, was probably performed by the Queen’s Men around 1620. He may have collaborated on a few other plays in the next few years, with an old acquaintance, Thomas Middleton, on Anything for a Quiet Life (pr. c. 1621, pb. 1662), and with William Rowley on A Cure for a Cuckold around 1624-1625. He assuredly collaborated with Dekker, Rowley, and John Ford on The Late Murder in Whitechapel: Or, Keep the Widow Waking in 1624. Later that year, Webster wrote a show for the lord mayor, a member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company; it was in his dedication to this work that Webster stated he was “born free” of that company. Webster’s name appears frequently in the records of the organization around 1623-1625. One other extant play is attributed to Webster, Appius and Virginia, of uncertain date and not published until 1654.

Webster probably died before 1634, because Heywood spoke of him in the past tense in The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels (1635). The dramatist, however, may have been the John Webster whose burial was recorded on March 3, 1638, at St. James, Clerkenwell, where Dekker and Rowley were also buried.

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