John Webster (1580?-1634?) A Short Biographical Profile
Like many other Jacobean playwrights, little was known of John Webster until recently. In 1985, the research efforts of Mary Edmond greatly contributed to the information available on Webster . Edmond establishes that "Webster was the son of a prosperous coachmaker, John Webster the elder, who was a member of the prestigious Company of Merchant Taylors" . The elder John Webster married in 1577 and most critics believe the playwright's son was born shortly after the marriage. Research also shows that Webster had a younger brother, Edward, but due to the Great Fire of London the "records of St. Sepulchre, Holborn were destroyed . . . It is not possible to obtain precise dates of birth, marriage, and death for Webster's family".
In 1587 at the age of nine, Webster is thought to have entered the Merchant Taylors' School and was taught by the schoolmaster Henry Wilkinson, who "believed in teaching English rather than exclusively in Latin, and he encouraged the performance of music and plays to encourage discipline and self-confidence in his students" . After the opening of the Theatre in 1576, most of the Merchant Taylors' School performances were moved from the court to the theatre . Critics agree that it is likely Webster participated in many of these performances during his more formative years.
Despite arguments over the quantity, quality, and location of Webster's formal training, critics agree that his "practical career in the theater began with collaborative work for Philip Henslowe" . Though most of Webster's collaborative plays are lost, few do remain, such as Christmas Comes But Once a Year, Westward Ho, Northward Ho, and others which present an early inkling of the genius Webster was to become. Hammond paraphrases a 1980 article by Charles R. Forker, stating that "these plays have been undervalued and stresses their self-conscious theatricality and the ambiguity of their support for middle-class morality. Despite their predictable, and rather confusing plots, they might well bear revival" . Webster "remained a life-long collaborator with Dekker, Heywood, and others, [but] he did not follow them into an entirely professional career" . His next work was an induction of Marston's revised version of his play The Malcontent for the King's Men in 1604. Webster's induction for the revised Malcontent shows his "undoubted talent for satirical comedy directed at the citizen class (a vein much exploited in the plays in which he collaborated with Dekker) and his interest in matters theatrical", a talent which later leads to his most famous works The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613/4).
Existing evidence shows that during Webster's hiatus from 1602 to 1613, the dramatist married Sara Peniall and began a family. His eldest son, also named John, was baptized in 1606. Sara, ten years younger than Webster, was seventeen when giving birth to their first son. Hammond states that "other baptismal records are lacking, but from a neighbour's will it is clear that the Websters had a large family and were citizens in good standing with the community" . During this time Webster's writing seems to have stopped. Webster apparently had "sufficient means to live an independent life. His next published work is The White Devil"
Although not initially a success in the theatre, Webster's The White Devil is praised as having "a language so full of vitality and poetic strength and energy - Webster is by far the most 'conceited' of the Jacobean dramatists - that they cannot fail to attract attention and even sympathy from the audience" . His next published work, The Duchess of Malfi, received greater acclaim from critics.
The Duchess of Malfi was initially performed "at the Blackfriars theatre, though the title page of the quarto adds that it was publicly acted at the Globe ". The play is generally considered Webster's greatest achievement. In the character of the Duchess, "we are given one of the greatest of tragic heroines, who tries to establish a good, Christian life in the context of the deranged hostility of her brother Ferdinand and the less unstable, but equally cruel, machinations of the Cardinal".
After his father's death in 1615, Webster was "admitted free of the Merchant Taylors by patrimony; his brother had been already admitted through apprenticeship in 1612, and it was Edward who carried on the family business after the elder Webster's death. The image of John Webster and his family that one arrives at is of successful and prosperous members of the urban middle class
Webster continued collaborating and publishing plays throughout the first two decades of the 17th century and the years 1623-1624 mark the high point of Webster's public celebrity. These years mark the publication of both The Duchess of Malfi and The Devil's Law-Case, as well as Webster's prefixed verses to Henry Cockeram's The English Dictionarie . Through the influence of the new mayor John Gore in 1624, Webster was more publicly active than at any other point in his career. His organization of the Lord Mayor's Pageant represents "the uniting of his poetical career with his position as a Merchant Taylor and important citizen of London" .
Throughout the remainder of his life, Webster was active publicly and continued to write and publish. The date of John Webster's death is unknown, although the date is generally agreed upon as occurring sometime in the mid 1630s.
Tourneur and Webster.
These two dramatists have certain points in common. Both, at their best, display a peculiarly sombre genius. The tragedies of both belong to the same school; and both are utterly unknown to us, except by their writings. In point of date, Tourneur would seem slightly to precede Webster. Of Cyril Tourneur's life, we know nothing beyond the dates at which his various plays and poems were published. They are as follows: The Transformed Metamorphosis, 1600; A Funeral Poem on Sir Francis Vere, 1609; A Griefe on the Death of Prince Henry, 1613; and his two dramas, The Revengers Tragoedie, 1607 and The Atheist's Tragedie, 1611.
It should be noted that two of these, the poem on Vere and The Revengers Tragoedie, have no name on the title-page, and that nothing more than tradition connects them with the name of Tourneur. There is a tepid reference to the author, "as not to be despised nor too much praised," by an anonymous contemporary; and that is all.
On his poems, it is not necessary to dwell. None of them has any merit; and the most elaborate of them, The Metamorphosis, is written in that uncouth jargon which had been brought into fashion by Marston in his satires (1598), and which is assailed by Jonson in Poetaster. It is, moreover, an involved allegory, the key to which is lost, but which Churton Collins ingeniously interpreted as a cryptic reference to the fortunes of Essex.
John Webster: periods of his literary activity.
The outward life of John Webster is as much a blank to us as that of Tourneur. The years of his birth and death are, alike, unknown to us. It may be conjectured, from the known dates, that he was born in the decade 1570-80; and he must have survived at least until 1624, the year of the production of the Monuments of Honour. Further than that we cannot go. It would be unsafe to accept the statement-not made until 1698, and not confirmed by the parish registers-that he was clerk of St Andrew's, Holborn. And the one outward fact with which we are left-a fact recorded on the title-page of the Monuments of Honor-is that he was a member of the Merchant Taylors' company. With this, we must rest content.
His literary activity falls, naturally, into three periods: the first, that of collaboration and apprenticeship (1602-7); the second, that of the two great tragedies (1610 to 1614); the third, that of the tragicomedies and, probably, of Appius and Virginia, beginning about 1620, the probable date of The Devils Law-case, and ending at a time unknown.
The White Divel: question of its sources; possibility of originality in the plot.
The White Divel was printed in 1612; and the repeated borrowings from Rich's New Description of Ireland, published in 1610, forbid us to place its composition earlier than that year; it may well have been written in 1611. The exact source of this great tragedy is a problem which still remains unsolved. That it is based on events connected with the life of Paolo Giordano duke of Bracciano, and that these events took place in 1581-5, that is, within the lifetime of Webster himself, is certain. Beyond that, all is obscure. The case, so far as our present knowledge goes, is as follows. Many versions of the story, contemporary or nearly so, exist in Italian; one, by François de Rosset, is known if French. All these are in substantial agreement with each other; and all differ, in many crucial points, from Webster's. The question at once arises: how are Webster's variations to be accounted for? Had he before him a written account differing from all those which have come down to us? Or had he heard an oral statement substantially agreeing with that given in his play and traceable in the last resort to one who had either travelled in Italy, or come, as visitor, from Italy to the north? Or had he read a version corresponding more or less closely with those accessible to us, and retained nothing more than a confused and indistinct memory of it? Or, finally, having, from written or oral sources, a tolerably accurate knowledge of the true facts, did he deliberately alter them for purposes of dramatic effect?
This is not the place to discuss the question in detail. So much, however, may be said. The first supposition, so far as it relates to any record professing to be historical, may be dismissed as highly improbable. The story, as we have seen, was well known and accurately recorded. The actors in it were among the most marked figures of their times: Francesco, grand duke of Florence, the typical Italian "despot" of his day; Sixtus V, the soul of the League and the Armada, the last of the popes who can fairly be described as great. The heroine of the story was niece by marriage of the latter. The circumstances of her second marriage and her murder had formed the subject of trials-one at Rome, the other at Padua and Venice-familiar to all Italy. It is hardly to be conceived that any chronicler should have departed widely from facts thus generally known. Novels and dramas remain. And it is not impossible that, some day, either a novel or, less probably, a drama may be discovered which criticism will recognise as the source from which Webster drew. None such, however, has hitherto been found; though Tempesti, writing a century and a half later (1754), says that the "story was known all over Europe" and had been told by "hundreds of authors." The only novel at present known is the "tragic history" of de Rosset; and that, with the exception of the assumed names and minute additions of obviously romantic embroidery, is in complete accordance with the chronicles; so that, even if it can be proved to have appeared before The White Divel was written, it will in no way account for Webster's departure from the historical facts.
The other alternatives are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible that an oral statement, for which either an English traveller or an Italian visitor was ultimately responsible, may have reached Webster and that some, at least, of his inaccuracies may be due to the natural negligence of his informant. Intercourse with Italy had never been broken off. France was a common meeting ground of English and Italian. We know, for instance, that Vittoria's own stepson, Virginio Orsini, the Giovanni of the play, had been sent as envoy to England by his uncle Ferdinand, successor to Francesco, at the close of Elizabeth's reign. We know that the same Virginio was reputed lover to Marie de Medici, and that the attention of English dramatists was at this time keenly directed to the doings of the French court, and not least to the love affairs of the royal house. All this would make it natural enough that rumours, more or less accurate, relating to the Orsini and Medici, should reach the ears of Webster. But, once again, there is no evidence. Some, indeed, of Webster's inaccuracies are almost certainly du to lapse of memory. For instance, he has given the official name of Sixtus V wrongly, and has inverted the parts of Flamineo and Marcello. Neither of these changes can plausibly be set down to deliberate intention.
There remains the final possibility that Webster had read an account not substantially different from that given by the chronicles, and that most of his variations are made of set purpose; that is, with a view either to suit his own conception of what the leading characters in such a tragedy should be, or to secure a more impressive effect. Among the changes made with the former object would be reckoned the transformation of the characters of Vittoria's husband and mother, the one for ill, the other for good; the strain of hypocrisy, not, however, very consistenly worked out, in the character of Vittoria; the obvious adaptation of her circumstances to those of her kins-woman, Bianca Capello (the heroine of Middleton's undated drama, Women beware Women; above all, the change in the character of Lodovico who, in the play, is moved neither by avarice, nor by the desire to assert the honour of his family, but by the fixed resolve to exact vengeance for the murder of an adored mistress, Isabella. Among the alterations made for the sake of effect might be counted the appearance of the "lieger ambassadors" at Vittoria's trial and the election of Sixtus (the presence of the English envoy is historically impossible), the murders of Marcello and Brachiano, the appearance of Francesco as a direct agent in the latter crime, the ghastly scene at Brachiano's deathbed and, very possibly, the transference of the riddling Manet alta mente repostum from Lodovico to Isabella. It would clearly have weakened the dramatic force of the tragedy to reserve the final act, or even a closing scene, for the nemesis of Lodovico. And it may well be for this reason that, in defiance of historical facts, Webster placed his death within a few moments of his victim's. That would at once bar out the situation in which the memorable phrase was actually uttered-the formal questioning of Lodovico by the magistrates of Pauda. And Webster, impressed (as he well might be) by the phrase, was, on this assumption, at the pains to introduce it under circumstances entirely different, but hardly less dramatic.
If this be the true explanation-and many things point that way-it would follow that Webster's treatment of his subject is far more original than has sometimes been supposed. If we may believe him to have worked on a chronicle such as those embodied in Tempesti's Vita di Sisto V, or on a novel resembling that of de Rosset, he has, manifestly, made far more sweeping changes in his "source" than seems to be implied by those who speak of his play as drawn from "an Italian novel." He would, in fact, have breathed a new spirit into the whole train of incidents. The figure of Vittoria, indeed, remains much as we might divine it to have been from the historical records; though the lines are deepened, the colours heightened and harmonised, by the hand of genius. The same applies, though in a less degree, to the defiant figure of Brachiano and the deep dissimulation of Francesco and Monticelso. The last, indeed, is the one case in which the dramatist has fallen short of the model supplied by history. In a drama where he could not be the central figure there was no room for the grand, yet sinister, figure of Sixtus. All else, however, would be the creation of Webster: the tragic resignation of Isabella, the fatuity of Camillo, the pathos of Cornelia, the profoundly interesting and subtle portrait of Lodovico. The crucial change, alike for its own sake and for its bearing on the whole structure of the tragedy, is that in the character and motives of Lodovico. The attribution of his long cherished schemes to outraged love and the thirst for vengeance alters the whole nature of the action. It provides the atmosphere of doom which hangs over the drama from beginning to end, and which is deepened by the scenic effects, the sombre episodes, of which Webster was master without rival.
But, whether the postitive changes made by Webster in his unknown authority be large or small, the advance of The White Divel on any or all of his previous work is incalculable. To the 'prentice, seeing through the eyes and speaking with the voice of his master, has succeeded the skilled craftsman, with an almost perfect command of his material and instruments, with the keenest eye for the hidden possibilities of his task and the utmost originality in handling it. During the half dozen years or so which followed, Webster was by far the most striking figure, Shakespeare excepted, in the long roll of contemporary dramatists. With the men of his own day, he had not the vogue of Beaumont and Fletcher or the personal authority of Jonson. But modern criticism, with one voice, has pronounced his genius to be of a higher and rarer kind. And, though we can still trace a certain awkwardness in his management of the plot-a defect from which he never shook himself entirely free-his work, in other respects, is singularly self-contained, as well as absolutely original. There is, perhaps, no poet on record who leaped so suddenly into the full possession of his powers. It is, of course, true that the influence of other writers can be traced very plainly in this, as in his other, tragedy. His debt to Shakespeare, has often been pointed out. It appears in many turns of thought and phrase; in the portrait of the boy, Giovanni; in the haunting beauty of Cornelia's dirge; in the consummate art, bold yet unostentatious, with which the figure of the heroine is painted: above all, in that union of imaginative reflection, pure poetry and dramatic genius which brings him nearer than any of his fellow dramatists to the author of Hamlet. In his fusion of the two former of these qualities, again, we cannot fail to recognise his relationship, perhaps his indebtedness, to the greatest lyric poet of the period, Donne.
These, however, are matters which concern the individual genius of the dramatist. Still more significant is his place in the general development of the Elizabethan drama; and, in particular, his debt to the dramatists of revenge. Here, he falls into line with that long succession of writers, beginning with Kyd, who took up the tale of Seneca's Thyestes and Agamemnon and, during more than twenty years, rang the changes upon and theme of vengeance through every key and with every variety of accompaniment. To explain his position, a slight sketch of the history of this theme, as handled by Elizabethan dramatists, may be attempted.
In the older versions of the theme there are three essential features, all of which, in the last resort, are inherited from Seneca. These are, that a murder has been committed; that revenge is a duty from which the next of kin cannot escape; and that this duty is enforced by the ghost of the murdered man, which appears at intervals to drive home the demand for blood. So it is with The Spanish Tragedie; so with Antonios Revenge; so, allowing for certain modifications, with The Revenge of Bussy d' Ambois (published 1613) and The Second Maiden's Tragedy (licensed 1611); 16 so, unless all indications are misleading, with the lost Hamlet (in or before 1596), which has been attributed, on probable, but not conclusive, grounds, to Kyd; so, finally, with the Hamlet of Shakespeare. The first change in the outward framework of the story-in spirit, it need hardly be said that Shakespeare's masterpiece stands poles asunder from the crudities of Kyd, Martson and the rest-seems to have been made by Chettle, whose Tragedy of Hoffman belongs to the same year as Antonios Revenge.
The change is twofold. The ghost disappears; and, what is far more significant, the avenger of blood is no longer the hero, but the villain, of the piece. Both innovations are repeated, with important modifications, in the next play of Marston, The Malcontent (1604, or earlier), to which, indeed, it is quite possible that the credit of them may belong rather than to Hoffman. The modifications are as follows. The murderer of the original version is replaced by a usurper who drives the rightful prince into exile. This, necessarily, involves the disappearance of the ghost. And revenge, though retained, is retained in a form so softened that the avenger contents himself with melting one of his enemies to repentance and dismissing the other with magnanimous contempt.
It was at this point that Tourneur took up the tale. Reverting to murder as the starting-point of his action, he entirely dispenses with the ghost and, in the very moment of victory, the cup of triumph is dashed from the lips of his "revenger". It is clear that he felt the theme of vengeance to be an outworn convention. It is equally clear that he surrendered it with extreme reluctance. The whole fabric of the piece is based on the assumption that revenge is a binding duty. And, when the tables are turned, when the performance of the duty is visited at the last moment with condign punishment, it is inevitable that the reader should feel himself defrauded. Never had a play so lame and impotent a conclusion as this. And, for that reason, if for no other, it is a relief to turn from The Revengers Tragoedie to The Atheist's Tragedie. Here, at any rate, the central thought is consistently maintained from beginning to end. Here, at any rate, the dramatist flies without faltering to his mark. The innovation, which he had been blindly feeling after in The Revengers Tragoedie, is here boldly carried out. Vengeance is thrust down from the rank of duties; forgiveness is exalted in its stead. If the ghost of the murdered man is restored to something of his former rights, it is to cry not for revenge, but for mercy; to reiterate, with a fervour more moral than dramatic, that "vengeance is the Lord's." The dramatic weakness of the change is obvious enough. But it is significant as marking the final stage of the tragedies of revenge.
The theme of Revenge as handled by Elizabethan Dramatists.
The White Divel, in all probability, was produced during the very year in which The Atheist's Tragedie was published. At first sight it might be taken for a reversion to the earlier type of this class of drama. Revenge for innocent blood is once more the main theme of the dramatist. It is presented, however, no longer as a duty, but as a passion; and with the cry of "wild justice" is mingled the baser note of wounded pride. Our sympathies, again, so far from being with the avengers, are cast, rather, on the side of their victim. The result of such changes is to reduce the motive of vengeance to a secondary place. It supplies not the core of the building, but its scaffolding, or little more. The vital interest belongs not to the story-this, in truth, might have been told more clearly-but to the characters who sustain it, and the passions which are let loose in its course. One more proof is thus furnished, if proof were needed, that the theme of revenge was now losing its fascination; that the dramatist, even when he professed to work on it, was now driven by an overmastering instinct to degrade it from its original supremacy.
Secret of Webster's genius: his profound knowledge of human character and sense of tragic issues.
It remains only to ask: what is the secret of Webster's genius? What are the qualities which give the distinctive seal to his imaginative creations? For the answer to this question we need hardly go beyond the two tragedies. His later works offer reflections, more or less faint, more or less intermittent, of the qualities we associate with his genius. But the authentic image, the clear-cut features, the colour and the harmony, are here alone.
First, then, within somewhat narrow limits, Webster shows a profound knowledge of human character and a keen sense of the tragic issues of human life. Vittoria and the duchess are among the great creations of the Elizabethan drama. Setting Shakespeare aside, there is no character of that drama which surpasses them in vividness; only two or three which approach them. Nor, in the duchess, at any rate, is there any marked quality to lay hold of. It is by atmosphere and temperament, by her sweet womanliness and unstudied dignity, that she becomes known to us. And these are just the things which are most impalpable, which only the highest genius can bring home to the imagination. No less important, perhaps even more so, is the sense of tragic issues. And, here again, Webster comes nearer to Shakespeare than any other of the Elizabethans, with the possible exception of Ford. Shakespeare found the deepest tragedy in the resistance of inborn heroism to all assaults from without; in the triumph of the inner self, when all outward happiness is dashed in pieces. So it is in Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. And something of the same effect is attained in The White Divel and The Dutchesse Of Malfy. It is attained, also, in Ford's The Broken Heart.
His imagination and poetic power.
Webster, however, is not only a great tragic dramatist. He is also a great poet. And the same sombre cast of thought which made him the one appears also in the other. His imagination loves to linger round thoughts and symbols, of mortality, to take shape in "strange images of death." The grim horrors of The Dutchesse Of Malfy will at once recur to the memory; the yew tree of Vittoria spreads its gloom over the whole drama. Yet nothing is more remarkable than the thrift with which Webster uses this perilous material. His reserve presents the strongest contrast with the wild waste of the other dramatists of blood. Everything in the two tragedies is subordinated to imaginative ends; everything is presented with the self-restraint of the artist. Nowhere is the essentially poetic genius of the dramatist more manifest than here; nowhere does his kinship with all that is best in the other arts, particulary that of the painter, appear more plainly. The latter point has hardly received due attention. Yet no reader can fail to notice the eagerness with which this poet provides a pictorial setting for the action of his drama; the pains he takes to imprint upon the eye the countenance, gestures and bearing of the characters in his most significant scenes. The opening scene of The Dutchesse Of Malfy is devoted largely to this purpose. The same appears in the trial scene of The White Divel. And other instances, mainly from The Dutchesse Of Malfy, will readily suggest themselves. It is doubtful whether this quality is so persistently marked in any other dramatist, with the single exception of Marston. And no one will claim that the pictures of Marston approach those of Webster in imaginative genius. Allied with this, perhaps, is his love of connecting a whole train of thought with a tangible image, of embodying his reflections on life in symbols which, at the first moment, may seem insignificant or repulsive, but which acquire a curious fascination from the surroundings in which he places them. It was this that made him, like Donne or Sir Thomas Browne, a lover of strange learning or forgotten fragments of erudition, and led him, like Burton, to ransack the dust heaps of antiquarian research. The instinct is typical of his age; but no man put it uses more imaginative. With this peculiar cast of imagination, the style of Webster is in marvellous accord: compressed and pregnant; full, at once, both of grace and of severity; capable of sudden flashes-"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young"-capable, also, of a sustained musical cadence, as in Cornelia's dirge, or the wonderful lyric of Leonora.