John Webster (c. 1580 - c. 1634) was an English Jacobean dramatist, a late contemporary of William Shakespeare. His tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage.
Life and career
Webster's life is obscure, and the dates of his birth and death are not known. His father, a coachmaker also named John Webster, married a blacksmith's daughter named Elizabeth Coates on November 4, 1577, and it is likely that Webster was born not long after in or near London. On August 1, 1598, "John Webster, lately of the New Inn" was admitted to the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court; in view of the legal interests evident in his dramatic work, this is probably him. Webster married a 17-year-old girl named Sara Peniall on March 18, 1606, and their first child, John, was baptized at the parish of St. Dunstan-in-the-West on May 8, 1606. Bequests in the will of a neighbor who died in 1617 indicate that other children were born to him.
Most else that is known of him relates to his theatrical activities. Webster was still writing plays as late as the mid-1620s, but Thomas Heywood's Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels (licensed November 7, 1634) speaks of him in the past tense, implying he was by then dead.
By 1602 he was working with teams of playwrights on history plays, most of which were never printed. These included a tragedy Caesar's Fall (written with Michael Drayton, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton and Anthony Munday), and a collaboration with Thomas Dekker entitled Christmas Comes but Once a Year (1602). With Dekker he also wrote Sir Thomas Wyatt, which was printed in 1607. He worked with Thomas Dekker again on two city comedies, Westward Ho! in 1603 and Northward Ho! in 1604. Also in 1604, he adapted John Marston's The Malcontent for staging by the King's Men.
The major tragedies
Despite his ability to write comedy, Webster is best known for his two brooding English tragedies based on Italian sources. The White Devil, a retelling of the intrigues involving Vittoria Accoramboni, an Italian woman assassinated at the age of 28, was a failure when staged at the Red Bull Theatre in 1612 (published the same year), being too unusual and intellectual for its audience. The Duchess of Malfi, first performed by the King's Men about 1614 and published nine years later, was more successful. He also wrote a play called Guise, based on French history, of which little else is known, but if printed no text has survived.
The White Devil was performed in the Red Bull Theatre, an open air theatre that is believed to have specialized in providing simple, escapist drama for a largely working class audience, a factor that might explain why Webster's highly intellectual and complex play was unpopular with its audience. In contrast, The Duchess of Malfi was probably performed by the King's Men in the smaller, indoor Blackfriars Theatre, where it would have played to a more highly educated audience that might have appreciated it better. The two plays would thus have been very different in their original performances. The White Devil would have been performed, probably in one continuous action, by adult actors, with elaborate stage effects a possibility. The Duchess of Malfi was performed in a controlled environment, with artificial lighting, and musical interludes between acts— which allowed time, perhaps, for the audience to accept the otherwise strange rapidity with which the Duchess is able to have babies.
Webster wrote one more play on his own: The Devil's Law-Case (1618-19), a tragi-comedy. His later plays were collaborative city comedies: Anything for a Quiet Life (c.1621), co-written with Thomas Middleton, and A Cure for a Cuckold (c.1624), co-written with William Rowley. In 1624, he also co-wrote a topical play about a recent scandal, The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother (with John Ford, Rowley and Dekker); the play itself is lost, although its plot is known from a court case. He is believed to have contributed to the tragicomedy The Fair Maid of the Inn with John Fletcher, Ford, and Phillip Massinger. His last known play is Appius and Virginia, probably written with Thomas Heywood in 1627.
Webster's major plays, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, are macabre, disturbing works that seem to pre-empt the Gothic literature of the eighteenth century. Intricate, complex, subtle and learned, they are difficult but rewarding, and are still frequently staged today.
Webster has received a reputation for being the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatist with the most unsparingly dark vision of human nature. Even more than John Ford, whose 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is also very bleak, Webster's tragedies present an horrific vision of mankind. In his poem 'Whispers of Immortality', T. S. Eliot memorably refers to Webster as always seeing "the skull beneath the skin". In the 1998 film romance, Shakespeare in Love, the young Webster is shown as a small boy who plays with wild mice (and feeds them to alley cats) and speaks admiringly of the macabre aspects Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus ("I like it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives").
While Webster's drama was generally dismissed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many twentieth century critics and theatregoers find The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi to be brilliant plays of great poetic quality and dark themes. One explanation for this change is that only after the horrors of war in the early twentieth century could their desperate protagonists be portrayed on stage again, and understood. W.A. Edwards wrote of Webster's plays, in Scrutiny II (1933-4): "Events are not within control, nor are our human desires; let's snatch what comes and clutch it, fight our way out of tight corners, and meet the end without squealing." Edwards makes Webster sound like a twentieth century hardboiled novelist such as Dashiell Hammett. More recently, Webster's combination of extreme violence with complex wordplay and eloquent assassins has been compared with the films of Quentin Tarantino.
Webster in other works
Dates of Webster's plays are taken from The Works of John Webster: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition, ed. Gunby, Carnegie and Hammond (Cambridge, 1995).
Biographical information is from Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster (1986), by Charles R. Forker.