John Webster

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John Webster wrote a few short poems, including commendatory verses to accompany publications by other poets and an elegy on the death of Prince Henry, heir to the English throne, entitled “A Monumental Column.” In prose, he is believed to have written the thirty-two new character sketches that appeared in Sir Thomas Overbury’s sixth edition of New and Choice Characters of Several Authors in 1615, including the famous one entitled “Excellent Actor.” He also wrote a pageant, “Monuments of Honor,” for the procession of John Gore, the lord mayor of London, in 1624.


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John Webster is known for two powerful tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, which have sufficiently impressed readers to rank him second only to William Shakespeare as a writer of English Renaissance tragedy. Each play presents an intense penetration into a world of evil, fully displaying Webster’s genius for horror in scenes in which characters are tortured to the limits of endurance. Webster’s deep psychological studies of ambition, lust, and revenge turn the morbid and macabre into great art. Webster’s title characters, unusual for Renaissance tragedy, are women who are different in nature. In The White Devil, the murderous intent of Vittoria and her impassioned defense of herself at her trial contrast with The Duchess of Malfi with the kind, loving nature of the Duchess and the quiet nobility with which she ultimately faces death. Webster’s poetry creates passages of great beauty and power, which in the Duchess’s death scene combine to create one of the great moments in world drama.


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Aughterson, Kate. Webster: The Tragedies. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An analysis of the tragic works of Webster. Includes bibliography and index.

Cervo, Nathan A. “Webster’s The White Devil.” The Explicator 57, no. 2 (Winter, 1999): 73-75. Cervo examines Webster’s The White Devil, focusing on Brachiano’s reference to Saint Anthony’s fire.

Goldberg, Dena. Between Worlds: A Study of the Plays of John Webster. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987. Webster, born into the Elizabethan world, spoke frequently of its institutions and laws. That world was crumbling during the early years of Webster’s maturity. According to Goldberg, the second world is that of revolutionary fervor in the 1640’s; Webster, dead before 1640, is a prerevolutionary. He is an iconoclast, but he sees potential for a new order.

Oakes, Elizabeth. “The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity.” Studies in Philology 96, no. 1 (Winter, 1999): 51-67. This essay examines the Duchess of Malfi’s behavior as a widow, placing it within the context of the society in which she lived.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. John Webster. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This brief, general, and quite readable overview of Webster’s life and work contains basic information about dating, sources, and texts. Critical sections are distinguished by the absence of esoteric argument. Includes lengthy annotated bibliography.

Waage, Frederick O. “The White Devil” Discover’d: Backgrounds and Foregrounds in Webster’s Tragedy. New York: Peter Lang, 1984. Extremely close readings of the play (the foreground) follow the action carefully. Knowledge of historical events and contemporary publications (the background) contribute to interpretation.

Wymer, Rowland. Webster and Ford. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Wymer compares and contrasts the works of English dramatists John Ford and Webster. Includes bibliography and index.

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Critical Essays