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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 (Hammond 285). 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" (285). 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" (285).

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" (285-6). After the opening of the Theatre in 1576, most of the Merchant Taylors' School performances were moved from the court to the theatre (286). 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" (286). 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" (287). Webster "remained a life-long collaborator with Dekker, Heywood, and others, [but] he did not follow them into an entirely professional career" (287). 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" (289), 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 (289). 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 neighbor's will it is clear that the Websters had a large family and were citizens in good standing with the community" (289). 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" (289).

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 strenghth 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" (292). His next published work, The Duchess of Malfi, received greater acclaim from critics.

The Duchess of Malfi was initially performed "at the Blackfriars theater, though the title page of the quarto adds that it was publicly acted at the Globe " (293-4). 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" (294).

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" (295). 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" (296). 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 (296). 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" (296).

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 occuring sometime in the mid 1630s.

Webster's Works*

*Note: The plays listed below encompass all of Webster's work, including his collaborative projects, followed by their respective publishing and/or performance dates.

Play Productions

Caesar's Fall or The Two Shapes, May 1602
Sir Thomas Wyatt (considered same as Lady Jane), Oct. 1602
Christmas Comes But Once a Year, Nov. 1602
Westward Ho, late 1604
Northward Ho, 1605
The White Devil, Mar. 1612
The Duchess of Malfi, 1614
Guise, unkown
The Devil's Law-Case, circa 1619-22
Anything for a Quiet Life, 1621(?)
The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother, or Keep the Widow Waking, Sept. 1624
A Cure for a Cuckold, circa 1624-5
The Fair Maid of the Inn, licensed Jan. 22, 1626
Appius and Virginia, 1634

Books

The Famous History of Sir T. Wyat, 1607
West-ward Hoe, 1607
North-ward Hoe, 1607
The White Divel, 1612
A Monumental Columne, Erected to the Memory of Henry, Late Prince of Wales, 1613
The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy, 1623
The Devils Law-Case, 1623
Monuments of Honor, 1624
The Fair Maid of the Inn, 1647
Appius and Virginia, 1654
A Cure for the Cuckold, 1661
Anything for a Quiet Life, 1662

Other

--Prefatory verses by Webster in Anthony Munday's The Third and Last Part of Palmerin of England, 1602
--An ode in Samuel Harrison's The Arch's of Triumph Erected in Honor of James, the First at His Entrance and Passage Through London, 1604
--Induction in John Marston's The Malcontent, 1604
--Prefatory verses in Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors, 1612
--32 "New Characters" attributed to Webster in Sir Thomas Overbury's New and Choise Characters, of Seueral Authors . . . Sixt Impression, 1612
--Prefatory verses in Henry Cockeram's The English Dictionarie, 1623

Sources

Hammond, Antony. "John Webster." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Vol. 58. Detroit: Gale Researchers, 1987. 284-302.

Schuman, Samuel. John Webster: a reference guide. Boston, Mass.: G.K.Hall, 1985.

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