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Late Elizabethan/early Jacobean playwright, author of a number of collaborative works, but best known for The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, some of the best tragedies of the era. His finest works are considered second only to those of William Shakespeare.

His Life

John Webster was probably born in 1580 and died no earlier than 1625 (we know this only because if he had died sooner, it would have been a bit difficult for him to write the plays dated that year), though since the records of his parish were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, there is no way of knowing for certain. Nor can we be entirely certain of his education; it is possible that he attended the Merchant Taylors' School beginning in 1587, especially as his father, a carriage-maker also named John Webster, was a member of the Merchant Taylors' Company until 1571. A John Webster was registered in 1598 at Middle Temple of the Inns of Court (site of the first performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and a school with a long tradition of bringing in quality drama), and this is probably our playwright, considering the legal knowledge he shows in his plays and considering his connections to other Temple students such as Caroline playwright John Ford. Webster, however, was never called to the bar; instead he pursued a career as a dramatist and thereby established himself as a respectable fixture in many a college English syllabus.

In March of 1605 or 1606, Webster married Sara Peniall, and records show that their first child, John, was baptized a mere two months after their wedding. The couple had other children, including daughters Margery, Sara, and Elizabeth, but little other information survives about this period of Webster's life. One of his collaborators, Thomas Heywood, speaks of Webster in the past tense in his The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, 1634, indicating that Webster must certainly have died prior to this time.

His Plays

Webster began his career in theater under theater manager Philip Henslowe. The majority of his works were collaborations with other well-known playwrights of his day.

Webster may have written more than this, but if so, records of such writings are now lost.


T.S. Eliot opened his poem "Whispers of Immortality" with the oft-quoted lines "Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin; / And breastless creatures under ground / Leaned backward with a lipless grin." Most readers approaching Webster for the first time will indeed be struck by a certain morbid and physically grotesque quality to his imagery. The popular perception of Webster as a morbid, gore-obsessed dramatist filtered its way into the film "Shakespeare in Love", in which a young Shakespeare encounters a street urchin who intently watches a cat devour mice, admires Titus Andronicus because "I like it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives", and identifies himself as John Webster. Indeed, even Webster's humor has a satirical bent and can be quite disgusting, as in The Duchess of Malfi when the malcontent Bosola criticizes the excesses of vanity with this tale:

There was a lady in France that, having the small-pox,
Flay'd the skin off her face to make it more level;
And whereas before she looked like a nutmeg grater,
After she resembled an abortive hedgehog. (Act II, scene i)

Certainly, compared to the gentler and altogether more humane Shakespeare, Webster's drama can be quite the bucket of ice water cast upon one's sense of Early Modern English drama. Yet as amusing as it is to joke about his gory sensibility in modern Academy Award winning films, the truth is he was merely a product of his culture, no more or less dark than other playwrights of his day. Compare, for instance, the above quote to many passages from the comedies of Ben Jonson, or even to certain passages of Shakespeare (some of Hamlet's more morose rants come to mind), and it becomes clear that images of physical decay, disease, and filth were natural and commonly-used metaphors for moral decay. One might imagine that Webster's legal background made him particularly inclined to dwell on corruption, both of the state and of the individual.

I could ramble on about John Webster for far longer than I already have, but perhaps instead I should let you wander off and educate yourself: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/webster/webbib.htm

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