John Webster

From Academic Kids

John Webster (c. 1578 - 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, but he was born in 1578 or 1579 as the son of a cartmaker in Smithfield, London. His interest in theatre may have been sparked when his father was hired to make wagons for city pageants.

Early collaborations

Webster probably studied at the Merchant Taylor's School, before going on to the law schools at the Middle Temple. However, 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; this play 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 disaster 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 in 1613 and published the same year, was more successful. Webster himself referred to the poor reception and small audience which his earlier play had received. He also wrote a play called Guise, based on French history, in c.1614-1618, but it was never printed.

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.

Late plays

Webster wrote one more play on his own: The Devil's Lawcase (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 a 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 comedy, Shakespeare in Love, the young Webster is shown as a small boy who loves rats and says of Romeo and Juliet "I liked it when she stabbed herself".

While Webster's drama was generally dismissed throughout 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 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.


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)ja:ジョン・ウェブスター


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