Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin (...)
T. S. Eliot
(From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble):
WEBSTER, John (c. 1578-c.1626), the son of a prosperous London coachmaker of Smithfield. He was himself admitted by patrimony to the Merchant Taylors' Company, and combined the careers of coachmaker and playwright. He wrote several plays in collaboration with other dramatists; these include *Westward Hoe and *Northward Hoe, with Dekker, written 1604 and 1605, both printed 1607; *A Cure for a Cuckold (printed 1661, written ?1625), probably with *Rowley (and possibly *Heywood); and a lost play with *Ford, Dekker, and Rowley, Keep the Widow Waking (1624). It has also been suggested that he had a hand in *Middleton's Anything for a Quiet Life (1661, written ?1621) and *Fletcher's The Fair Maid of the Inn (1625). He expanded Marston's *The Malcontent for the King's Men in 1604, and published elegies on Prince Henry in 1613 with Heywood and *Tourneur. In 1615 he contributed several sketches to the sixth impression of *Overbury's Characters. The Devil's Law Case, a tragi-comedy, published 1623, written 1617-21, mentions in its dedication a lost play, Guise, which would have berought Webster's total of single-handed plays up to four; as it is, his great reputation rests on his two major works, *The White Devil (which dates from between 1609 and 1612, when it was published) and *The Duchess of Malfi (pub. 1623, written 1612/13). With these two tragedies Webster has achieved a reputation second only to Shakespeare's; they have been revived in this century more frequently than those of any other of Shakespeare's contemporaries. However, critics have by no means agreed on his virtues. Attempts by N. *Tate and *Theobald to accomodate the plays to 18th-cent. taste were followed in 1808 by *Lamb's influential Specimens, which singled out the 'beauties', in terms of poetic passages, and many 19th-cent. critics continued to complain aobut Webster's poor sense of structure, his inconsistencies, his excessive use of horrors. (*Saintsbury, 1887, on The Duchess: 'the fifth act is a kind of gratuitous appendix of horrors stuck on without art or reason'). The 20th cent. saw a strong revival of interest in the plays as drama, and in Webster as satirist and moralist. The works were edited by F. L. *Lucas (4 vols., 1927).
Northward Hoe, a comedy by *Webster and *Dekker, written 1605, printed 1607.
Greenshield, having failed to seduce Mayberry's wife, but having obtained by force her ring, to avenge himself produces the ring to her husband as evidence of her infidelity. The husband, assisted by the little old poet Bellamont, a genial caricature of *Chapman, becomes convinced of her innocence, and obtains an appropriate revenge on Greensfield and his confederate Featherstone.
The play was a good-humoured retort to the *Eastward Hoe of Chapman, Jonson, and Marston. Like *Westward Hoe it presents a curious picture of the manners of the day.
A Cure for a Cuckold, a comedy by J. *Webster and W. *Rowley, possibly with T. *Heywood, written 1624/5, printed 1661.
It deals with the love affairs of two couples, Bonville and Annabel, and Lessingham and Clare; and contains a notable duel scene on Calais sands.
Appius and Virginia, (1) a tragedy traditionally attributed to *Webster, but by some authorities to *Heywood in whole or part. R. *Brooke first seriously questioned the Webster attribution in 1613, and suggested Heywood; F. L. *Lucas in his 1927 edition of Webster argues for a distribution of scenes between the two playwrights; and A. M. Clark concludes in 'The Authorship of Appius and Virginia' (MLR Jan. 1921) that Webster revised the play but 'the bulk of the play is Heywood's alone'. The date of production is uncertain (?1603-34) and it appears not to have been printed until 1654. The plot is taken from the classical legend (see VIRGINIA) which forms one of the stories in Painter's *Palace of Pleasure; (2) a tragedy by J. Dennis.
Virginia, a daughter of the centurion Lucius Virginius. Appis Claudius, the decemvir, became enamoured of her and sought to get possession of her. For this purpose she was claimed by one of his favourites as daughter of a slave, and Appius in the capacity of judge gave sentence in his favour and delivered her into the hands of his friend. Virginius, informed of these proceedings, arrived from the camp, and plunged a dagger into his daughter's breast to save her from the tyrant. He then rushed to the camp with the bloody knife in his hands. The soldiers incensed against Appius Claudius, marched to Rome and seized him. But he destroyed himself in prison and averted the execution of the layw. This story (which is in *Livy 3.44 et seq.) is the basis of two plays called *Appius and Virginia, one by *Webster and/or *Heywood, one by *Dennis; of *Knowles's tragedy Virginius; and one of Macaulay's *Lays of Ancient Rome.The White Devil (The White Divel; or, The Tragedy of . . . Brachiano, with the Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona), a tragedy by *Webster, written between 1609 and 1612, when it was published.
The duke of Brachiano, husband of Isabella, the sister of Francisco, the duke of Florence, is wary of her and in love with Vittoria, wife of Camillo. The *Machiavellian Flamineo, Vittoria's brother, helps Brachiano to seduce her, and contrives (at her suggestion, delivered indirectly in a dream) the death of Camillo: Brachiano causes Isabella to be poisoned. Vittoria is tried for adultery and murder in the celebrated central arraignment scene (III. ii), and defends herself with great spirit; *Lamb's phrase for her manner was 'innocence-resembling boldness', and *Hazlitt found in her 'that forced and practised presence of mind' of the hardened offender, pointing out that she arouses sympathy partly through the hypocrisy of her accusers. She is sentenced to confinement in 'a house of penitent whores', whence she is carried off by Brachiano, who marries her. Flamineo quarrels with his younger brother, the virtuous Marcello, and kills him; he dies in the arms of their mother Cornelia, who later, driven out of her wits by grief, sings the dirge 'Call for the robin redbreast, and the wren' a scene which elicits from Flamineo a speech of remorse. ('I have a strange thing in me to the which / I cannot give a name, without it be / Compassion.') Meanwhile Francisco, at the prompting of Isabella's ghost (see REVENGE TRAGEDY), avenges her death by poisoning Brachiano, and Vittoria and Flamineo, both of whom die Stoic deaths, are murdered by his dependants.
The Duchess of Malfi (The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy), by *Webster, written 1612/13, printed 1623. The story is taken from one of *Bandello's novelle, through Painter's *Palace of Pleasure, and also shows the influence of Sidney's *Arcadia.
The duchess, a high-spirited and high-minded widow, reveals her love for the honest Antonio, steward at her court, and secretly marries him, despite the warnings of her brothers, Ferdinand, duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, and immediately after informing them that she has no intention of remarrying. Their resistance appears to be induced by consideration of their high blood, and by, as Ferdinand later asserts, a desire to inherit her property; there is also a strong suggestion of Ferdinand's repressed incestuous desire for her. The brothers place in her employment as a spy the cynical ex-galley slave Bosola, who betrays her to them; she and Antonio fly and separate. She is captured and is subjected by Ferdinand and Bosola to fearful mental tortures, including the sight of the feigned corpse of her hsuband and the attendance of a group of madmen; finally, she is strangled with two of her children and Cariola, her waiting woman. Retribution overtakes the murderers: Ferdinand goes mad, imagining himself a wolf ('A very pestilent disease . . . they call licanthropia'); the Cardinal is killed by the now remorseful Bosola, and Bosola by Ferdinand. Bosola has already killed Antonio, mistaking him for the Cardinal. The humanity and tenderness of the scenes between the Duchess, Antonio, and their children, the pride and dignity of the Duchess in her suffering ('I am Duchesse of Malfy still') ; and individual lines such as the celebrated 'Cover her face: Mine eyes dazell: she di'd young' have long been admired, but until recently critics have been less happy about the overall structure, the abrupt changes in tone and the blood bath of the last act. There have been many revivals, emphasizing T. S. *Eliot's point that Webster's 'verse is essentially dramatic verse, written by a man with a very acute sense of the theatre' (1941).
(From "Shakespeare's contemporaries", in Legouis and Cazamian's History of English Literature, 1926-1937):
John Webster (1575?-1624?).— Of all the Elizabethans, it is John Webster who, after long oblivion, was most belauded by the Romantics. About the man it has been possible to discover hardly anything. He was born between 1570 and 1580 and disappeared in 1624. He wrote for the stage from 1602 onwards, serving for five years as a sort of apprenticeship as collaborator with Heywood, Middleton, Marston, and, especially, Dekker, but his part, doubtless a subordinate one, in the works to which he contributed cannot be distinguished. His two masterpieces were produced between 1611 and 1614. He relapsed after them to mediocrity, and of his later work only his Roman play, Appius and Virginia, which dates from about 1620, has some merit. His authorship of it is to-day disputed, certain critics assigning it to Heywood.
He survives as the author of The White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona, played about 1611, and The Duchess of Malfi, about 1614. These tragedies are enough to prove his talent.
The first is one of a series of studies of courtesans which appeared one after another within a few years. It seems to have been Marston who broke the ice with his Dutch Courtesan, which the feeling Dekker answered by appealing for pity for his Bellafront. Shakespeare's Cleopatra was an entirely original variation on the same theme. But Evadne, in The Maid's Tragedy by Beaumont and Fletcher, Bianca, in Middleton's Women Beware Women, and Webster's Vittoria are closely analogous and all appeared about 1611. Webster's and Middleton's plays are pendants to each other with their atrocities, their Italian atmosphere, and the equally brilliant and criminal careers of the historic courtesans they portray, Bianca Cappello and Vittoria Accorombona.
From the beginning, the English dramatic muse was apt to sojourn in Italy. Shakespeare early transferred himself thither in imagination in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet. But not until the seventeenth century did Italy become the conventional site of stage representations of unbridled passion and gloomy atrocity. The novel, led by Nashe, was in this ahead of the stage. Marston with Antonio and Mellida, The Malcontent, and The Fawn, Shakespeare with Othello, Jonson with Volpone, and Tourneur with The Revenger's Tragedy, accustomed their public to see Italy as the natural home of voluptuous pleasure, bloodshed, and death. None, however, Italianized their scenes more exclusively and intensively than Webster. He specialized in Italy at a time when Fletcher and his collaborators were beginning to turn their attention to Spanish heroism.
Webster's genius is seen in The White Devil, especially in his portrait of Vittoria, the courtesan, whose licence scandalized Rome at the end of the sixteenth century. It is she who is the white devil. He makes her guilt clear, but at the same time conveys an impression of her fascination, which he seems himself to feel. He is all admiration for this woman's beauty, the energy of her ambition, and the presence of mind with which she faces desperate situations. As the wife of a poor gentleman, she is courted by Brachiano, Duke of Padua, and she convinces him that he must marry her, first ridding her of her husband and himself of his virtuous wife. The double murder is accomplished, but suspicion rests on those who profit by it. Vittoria is summoned before an imposing court, over which the Duke of Florence and his brother, Cardinal Monticelso, afterwards Sixtus V, preside. Accusations, precise and overwhelming, are heaped upon her, but she meets her judges superbly, and with head held high turns their attack against them, reducing their proofs to nothingness and causing more than one of those present to waver. This scene on a large scale is admirable. Vittoria is none the less condemned to seclusion in a house of convertites, but escapes from it with her lover's help. They are pursued by the vengeance of the Duke of Florence and killed one after the other, Vittoria holding out until she has exhausted every resource of invention, cunning, and courage. Even in her last hour she defends herself haughtily and, counting on the effect of her beauty, bares her bosom and walks to meet her assassins. She dies at last, confronting Fate with her last words:
My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven, I know not whither.
Is driven, I know not whither.
Beside her is her brother Flamineo, her tool, who has debauched her to advance her fortunes and whom she uses in her love-affairs. It is he who causes her unwanted husband to disappear. He is vice incarnate, and his moments of real valour make him, abject as he is, not altogether mean.
These characters are placed among many others and meet with singularly atrocious adventures. The melodramatic expedients, increasingly employed in every succeeding scene, are endless: Brachiano's wife dies because her husband's portrait, which she has the habit of kissing every evening, is poisoned: a magician causes Brachiano to witness the execution of the double crime he has ordered; the sister who has been slain appears unmistakably to the brother who mourns her and will avenge her; Brachiano's murder is accomplished by pouring poison into a helmet afterwards riveted on to his head by an armourer, and he dies in atrocious pain while his enemies, disguised as Capuchins, reveal themselves to him in his last moments, telling the tale of his crimes and promising him damnation. The play is, moreover, spectacularly gorgeous: while the conclave is in session, servants are shown passing backwards and forwards, carrying dishes for the imprisoned cardinals; afterwards the election takes place, and the new pope appears in great ceremony, uttering a Latin formula. Never has there been a more perfect fusion of pure drama, which is an effect of representing character and passions, and melodrama, which is based on the horror of physical impressions and on spectacular strangeness.
The Duchess of Malfi, a more closely knit play, makes the same appeal. The theme is persecuted virtue, a variant on the so popular one of revenge. There is again a question of vengeance, accomplished, as in The Spanish Tragedie, by strange means. The avengers are, however, moved by blind, unreasoning considerations, as, for instance, fury at misalliance, or they have low motives, like the desire to get possession of their victim's fortune. The victim, the Duchess of Malfi (or Amalfi), is all goodness and innocence, and is driven to madness and death by her brothers because she has secretly married her steward, the virtuous Antonio.
The tragedy is full of Shakespearean reminiscences: the duchess recalls Desdemona, and Cariola, her woman, Emilia in Othello. Bosola, the monster, the tool of the two brothers, is modelled on Iago. The anger of Ferdinand, the criminal brother, against Bosola, after the murder he himself has ordered, is like that of King John against Hubert when he believes him to have put Arthur to death. The remorse of the other brother, the cardinal who can no longer pray, is a parallel to that of Claudius in Hamlet. Every such comparison would merely show up Webster's extreme inferiority, were it not that the substitutes for the psychology, at which Shakespeare principally aims, a search for the pathos inherent in situations and even in material effects. It is this search which is proper to melodrama. Webster has a strange power of evoking shudders. His means are sometimes the more effective for their simplicity. The duchess, compelled by fear of her brothers to keep her marriage secret, is discovered in her chamber conversing with her husband, Antonio, her heart filled with joy and love. Antonio leaves her without her knowledge; she continues to speak, thinking he hears her, but her listener is now one of the brothers she fears, to whom she thus betrays herself. Whoever watches the play feels a catch at his heart, as he perceives her error while she is still unaware of it. The impulse is to cry out to her to beware. Some of Webster's devices are, however, much less innocent than this one. The avenging brothers revel in macabre inventions to torture their poor victim: one of them, feigning to give her his hand, leaves a severed hand in her grasp; she is shown wax figures which represent the murder of her husband and children; the inmates of a madhouse are let loose in her palace.
These inferior artistic expedients are, however, relieved by the poetry of melancholy and death which dominates the whole tragedy. Webster is a true poet, the author of some of the most beautiful songs of the Renascence, and throughout, in the very web of his style, are images, funereal in mood, which have the breath of graveyards upon them, yet strike and stir the heart. More than this, the play contains the character of the duchess. At first, although her love endears her, she is not original, but she is transfigured by persecution and becomes in her despair a lofty and solemn figure. Throughout her cruel trials she never fails to ennoble the tragedy by the somber poetry of her speech. Her reason is proof against all the assaults upon her. Cariola, her woman, struggles and cries out when she is faced with death, but death cannot make the duchess tremble. So beautiful and so noble does she remain in death that her brother, who has ordered her murder, cannot bear to see her face:
Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.
Not until Edgar Poe was there another genius as completely morbid as Webster. His highly special and restricted talent was active only in one genre and accomplished only two memorable plays. He was an artist, but an a painful and laborious one. The effort to which productions compelled him recalls Ben Jonson. His preface to The White Devil shows that, like Jonson, he knew the limae labor et mora, that, like him, he despised popular improvisations and the judgments of the public. A contemporary satirist made fun of the trouble writing was to him:
How he scrubs: wrings his wrists: scratches his pate!
But Webster gloried in his own painstaking. He would have attempted the most difficult form of art, for it was his desire to compose in despite of the prevailing taste, a regular sententious tragedy, respectful of the unities, lofty in style, having its chorus and messenger. The aspiration was curious in one who stands for the triumph of melodrama raised to the level of true poetry.