John Webster 1580(?)–1634(?)
Often ranked second only to Shakespeare among Jacobean tragedians, Webster is the author of two major works, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), which are more frequently revived on stage than any plays of the period other than Shakespeare's. Webster's tragedies, while praised for their poetic language by some commentators, have also been attacked as being excessively grim and even horrifying: his plays present a world in chaos, ruled by passionate sensuality and seemingly devoid of morality and human feeling. In performance, however, Webster's highly charged verse often imbues his characters with a unique dignity and power. Contemporary critics have emphasized the distinctly "modern" qualities of his worldview, praising in particular the depth and complexity of his female characters.
No portraits of Webster are known to exist, and for over three hundred years little was known about his life. He was born in London around 1580, the eldest son of a prosperous coachmaker and member of the prestigious guild, the Merchant Taylors' Company. Given his father's status, Webster was probably educated at the highly respected Merchant Taylors' School around 1587. Noting the prominence of legal concerns in Webster's dramas, scholars speculate that he may have also had some legal training. A "John Webster" was enrolled at the Middle Temple—the equivalent of a law school—in 1598, but it is not certain that this was the playwright. Records indicate that, like his father, Webster was a respected member of the community. It is also known that he married Sara Peniall around 1605 and that they raised a large family. Upon his father's death Webster assumed the elder Webster's membership in the Merchant Taylors' Company. Scholars usually date Webster's own death around 1634, the year that Thomas Heywood referred to him in the past tense in his Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels.
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. This work no longer survives and is considered by scholars to be an early version of Sir Thomas Wyat (1602), a history play by various hands. Also in October, Webster and Heywood were advanced money for a play called Christmas Comes But Once a Year. Although he appears to have had no further connections with Henslowe, Webster continued to collaborate on dramatic works, and towards the end of 1604 he and Dekker wrote Westward Ho, a scandalous city comedy of middle-class London life. This satire spurred John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson to respond with the even more scandalous Eastward Ho (1605). Dekker and Webster returned with Northward Ho in 1605, which many critics consider to be the better of the two Dekker-Webster comedies. Though there are there are no works attributed to Webster between 1605 and 1612, his prefatory remarks to The White Devil suggest that this was not an inactive period for him, and that he was engaged in a painstaking effort to create a dramatic masterpiece: "To those who report I was a long time in finishing this tragedy, I confess I do not write with a goose-quill, winged with two feathers."
Many scholars regard The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi as Webster's greatest dramatic accomplishments, with the dramatist's concerted effort at developing a tragic vision conceived in the former and fully realized in the latter. Both plays reflect the characteristic darkness and profound consciousness of evil that characterized the Jacobean period, an age that questioned the preceding Elizabethan era's belief that all social, political, and even spiritual relations were defined in an unchanging hierarchy. The suggestion that chaos lies beyond such order—glimpsed in Elizabethan dramas such as Shakespeare's King Lear—become increasingly explicit in Jacobean drama. In particular, English society grew steadily more concerned with Machiavellianism following the publication of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), which described politics as an amoral and ruthless striving to acquire and maintain power. The spread of such ideas contributed to the deterioration of faith in traditional values and fostered a general anxiety associated with societal disarray—the fear being that following the breakdown of order, people would drift aimlessly through a meaningless world.
The influence of this pessimistic worldview is evident in Webster's first independent work, The White Devil. Based on Italian historical events, the tragedy relates a complex tale of love, murder, and revenge, centering on the adulterous passion between the Duke of Brachiano and Vittoria Corombona, who plot the murders of their spouses. To avenge their sister's death, Brachiano's brothers-in-law subsequently assassinate the Duke and his mistress. At the center of this corrupt world is Flamineo, Vittoria's brother and secretary to Brachiano. Completely amoral and unscrupulous, he willingly performs any service necessary to satisfy his employer's passions, including murder and procuring his sister for Brachiano, while also functioning as a chorus figure in the play, cynically commenting on the action. Vittoria is a unique Jacobean heroine: although thoroughly corrupt, she is nonetheless sympathetic. Strong-willed and independent, she chooses to live in accordance with her own desires and eloquently acquits herself during the course of the play. As D.C. Gunby has observed, "Vittoria is a white devil, but she is also a brilliant and resourceful woman, beautiful, courageous and highly intelligent, and we cannot help responding to her with some sympathy and warmth." While acknowledging the poignancy of Webster's presentation of Vittoria, who struggles—albeit unsuccessfully—to control her own life, some critics maintain that the absence of any positive, truly moral figure makes the world presented in the play of one unrelieved bleakness. Like The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi is based on Italian history. Against the wishes of her brothers, the widowed Duchess secretly marries beneath her position, to her servant Antonio. Suspicious of their sister's activities, the brothers—the fanatical Ferdinand and the scheming Cardinal—plant a spy, Bosola, in the Duchess's household. A character similar to Flamineo in The White Devil, Bosola is even more complex, vacillating between delight and a sense of degradation in his sinister role. When Bosola exposes the truth of the Duchess's marriage, her brothers ruthlessly harass her, drive her from her home, and eventually imprison and murder her. Scholars agree that the Duchess herself is one of the greatest tragic heroines of the period. Her attitude of Christian resignation in the face of her brothers' vicious cruelty and sexual obsession with her imbues her with a profound dignity, and the depiction of her murder is commonly judged as one of the most moving scenes in all Jacobean drama.
Scholars note a significant decline in Webster's dramaturgy following the composition of The Duchess of Malfi. Most agree that his next play, the tragicomic Devil's Law-Case (published in 1623) is the most difficult of Webster's works to assess, as its nearly incoherent plot involves a large number of shocking and absurd schemes, which preclude dramatic unity. Webster also contributed thirty-two character sketches to the sixth edition of Thomas Overbury's New and Choice Characters, of Several Authors (1615), and continued to collaborate on plays. Appius and Virginia, perhaps written with Heywood around 1634, is a Roman tragedy about the corrupt judge Appius who seeks to possess Virginia, the daughter of a famous general. Although admired by nineteenth-century critics for its classical simplicity of construction, this drama is not highly regarded by contemporary scholars. Other plays attributed either wholly or partially to Webster include the lost works The Guise and The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother. He is also believed to have collaborated with Middleton on Anything for a Quiet Life (c. 1621) and with Rowley on A Cure for a Cuckhold (c. 1624-25).
Over the centuries Webster's critical reputation has fluctuated. From his own time to the present, some critics have praised the poetic brilliance of his tragic vision, while others have scorned his plays as confused and excessively violent. Webster's creative focus and self-confidence, however, did not allow his detractors' comments to dissuade him from his work. In his prefatory comments in The White Devil, for example, Webster expresses his dismay at the play's poor reception after its first performance, and attributes this to a failure not on his part, but on the part of the audience. To his peers, Webster was a slow, careful writer who "borrowed" lines from his fellow playwrights (not uncommon during the Jacobean era) and used them to create powerful scenes. While the great number of printings and revivals of Webster's plays during the seventeenth century attests to their continued popularity, in the eighteenth century his reputation was eclipsed by a growing interest in Shakespeare. Webster was known mainly to bibliographers and scholars who considered his plays scarcely more than period pieces, fine examples of the drama of the past with little to offer contemporary audiences. In 1808, however, Charles Lamb renewed interest in Webster's plays with an enthusiastic appreciation of them in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare. The noted critic William Hazlitt subsequently commented that The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi "come the nearest to Shakespeare of any thing we have upon record." The first collected edition of Webster's works appeared in 1830, and the first nineteenth-century production of The Duchess of Malfi took place twenty years later. With this staging began a new phase of criticism: response to the play as acted. Critics of this period were sharply divided on the merit of Webster's works, with one group celebrating the poetic power of Webster's tragic vision, while the other attacked what they saw as absurd improbabilities, gross excesses, and episodic structures in the tragedies. William Archer, a member of the second group, argued that "Webster was not, in the special sense of the word, a great dramatist, but was a real great poet who wrote haphazard dramatic or melodramatic romances for an eagerly receptive but semi-barbarous public." In the twentieth century, debate continues regarding Webster's moral outlook, with critics who view it as fundamentally pessimistic outnumbering those who assert that the plays reveal a profound belief that personal integrity can be maintained in a chaotic universe. Evaluations of Webster's artistry have revealed an intricate relationship between dramatic structure, characterization, and imagery in his plays. Examining Webster's use of language, Clifford Leech observed that "Webster excels in the sudden flash, in the intuitive but often unsustained perception. At times he startles us by what may be called the 'Shakespearian' use of the common word."
Both lauded and maligned for centuries, the dramatic art of John Webster remains difficult to assess. While undeniably horrifying (T.S. Eliot once characterized the dramatist as a man "possessed by death"), his depictions of people struggling to make sense of their lives in an apparently meaningless world reveal a curiously modern sensibility. Margaret Loftus Ranald, for example, commented on Webster's "surprising" modernity regarding his treatment of feminine characters: "He is not afraid to portray women of power, whether evil … dignified and tragic … or manipulative," who "choose to take risks and in so doing they broaden the female horizons of the Jacobean era, while at the same time undermining norms of established behavior." The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi retain a vitality that continues to appeal to actors, audiences, and critics. That Webster's best works are still performed, read, and debated is perhaps the finest testament to his standing as a dramatist.