Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webster, John (1580?-1625?)

1904 Errata appended.

752732Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60 — Webster, John (1580?-1625?)1899Sidney Lee

WEBSTER, JOHN (1580?–1625?), dramatist, born about 1580, was the son of a London tailor. The father may be identical either with John Webster who was admitted to the freedom of the Merchant Taylors' Company on 10 Dec. 1571, or with John Webster who attained to the like position on 20 Jan. 1576. The dramatist seems to have been apprenticed to his father's trade, and nominally at any rate followed it. He was a freeman of the company in 1603–4, when he was assessed in the payment of ten shillings toward ‘the charges of the pageants entended against the king's coronation’ (Clode, Memorials of the Merchant Taylors' Company, 1875, p. 596). But Webster's interest lay elsewhere than in tailoring, and early in life he identified himself with the profession of letters.

Before 1602 Webster had made the acquaintance of the chief members of the band of dramatists who were in the service of the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe, and in that year he joined his literary friends in preparing at least four pieces for the stage. Four or more pens were employed on each, and Webster's share must have been small. On 22 May 1602 ‘Cæsar's Fall’ was accepted by Henslowe from the joint pens of Webster, Drayton, Middleton, Munday, and ‘the rest.’ The syndicate was possibly ambitious of measuring swords with Shakespeare, whose ‘Julius Cæsar’ had been successfully produced a year before. A week later Dekker joined the same four partners in producing a piece called by Henslowe ‘Two Harpes.’ Twice in the ensuing October (15 and 21) there was performed a play named ‘Lady Jane,’ in the composition of which Chettle, Dekker, Heywood, and Wentworth Smith were associated with Webster. ‘Lady Jane’ seems to have been revived, under the new name of ‘The Overthrow of Rebels,’ on 6 and 12 Nov. following. Thrice in the same month (on 2, 23, and 26 Nov.) there was also acted a piece called ‘Christmas comes but once a year,’ in preparing which Chettle, Dekker, and Heywood again combined with Webster. Of these four plays only parts of one—‘Lady Jane’—survive. There can be little doubt that Dekker's and Webster's contributions to ‘Lady Jane’ appeared in print in 1607 in the play assigned to them jointly under the title of ‘The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat, with the Coronation of Queen Mary and the coming in of Philip.’ ‘Lady Jane,’ when first produced in 1602, was acted at the Rose Theatre by the Earl of Worcester's company of players, who were taken into Queen Anne's service in 1603, and were known thenceforth as ‘the queen's servants.’ The title-page of ‘Sir Thomas Wyat’ declared that that piece was ‘played by the queen's servants.’ The play, which is in blank verse, lacks striking features, but the text is so corrupt that it is difficult to judge its merits fairly.

Webster maintained through life very friendly relations with those engaged, like himself, in writing for the stage, but after the first year of his dramatic career he gradually abandoned the practice of writing in co-operation with others. With ‘his kind friend’ Munday professional relations apparently ceased when he contributed commendatory verses to Munday's ‘Palmerin of England,’ a poor translation from the French (1602). In 1604 Webster was employed by the king's company to make additions to ‘The Malcontent,’ a play by John Marston, a writer of far greater power than most of those with whom he had worked before. At the same time he prefixed to ‘The Malcontent’ a prose ‘induction,’ in which the actors were introduced under their own names in debate about the merits of the piece. Webster's contributions were printed in the second edition of the play, which bore the title: ‘The Malcontent. Augmented by Marston. With the Additions played by the Kings Maiesties servants. Written by Jhon Webster’ (1604). This was the sole production in which Webster seems to have been associated with Marston, and it is probable that he undertook the additions to ‘The Malcontent’ at the request of the theatrical manager rather than of the writer of the play. With Thomas Heywood he was in closer personal intercourse, though they did not write together for the stage after 1602. In 1612 Webster joined Heywood and Cyril Tourneur in compiling the volume entitled ‘Three Elegies to the Memory of Prince Henry.’ Webster was author of the second poem which was entitled ‘A Monumental Column,’ and was dedicated to Robert Carr, viscount Rochester; there is a rare separate issue in the British Museum. It was a formal elegy, but it includes a fine compliment to the poet and dramatist George Chapman, whom Webster calls the prince's ‘sweet Homer and my friend.’ Webster also wrote prefatory verses for Heywood's ‘Apology for Actors’ (1612), and there addressed Heywood as ‘his beloved friend.’

It was only with Dekker that Webster formed, as a dramatist, any enduring literary alliance. With Dekker he wrote verses for the splendidly illustrated volume—Stephen Harrison's ‘Arches of Triumph’—which celebrated James I's formal entry into the city of London in 1604. But the most important fruits of Webster's alliance with Dekker are the two bustling and unrefined domestic comedies in prose, ‘Westward Hoe’ and ‘Northward Hoe.’ There seems reason for believing that the first piece was begun by Webster in the summer of 1603, and that after he had completed the first three acts, the remaining two were added at the end of the next year by Dekker, with some aid from Webster. The piece was acted by the children of St. Paul's just before Christmas 1604. Webster was also the larger contributor to ‘Northward Hoe,’ which was first produced, again by the children of St. Paul's, about February 1605. An allusion in act ii. sc. ii. to the fact that four years had passed since the Islands' Voyage of 1597 has been held to point to 1601 as the date of the first draft of the play (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xi. 318), but the dates are stated loosely. Both ‘Westward Hoe’ and ‘Northward Hoe’ were published in separate quartos in 1607.

Webster's genius did not find full expression until he wholly freed himself from the trammels of partnership with men of powers inferior to his own. At an unascertained date between 1607 and 1612 he for the first time wrote a play singlehanded, and there evinced such command of tragic art and intensity as Shakespeare alone among Englishmen has surpassed. The new piece was first published in 1612, under the title of ‘The White Divel, or the Tragedy of Paulo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano, with the Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona, the famous Venetian Curtizan. Acted by the Queene's Maiesties Servants,’ London, 1612, 4to. In an address ‘to the reader’ Webster declared that the piece ‘was acted in so dull a time of winter, presented in so open and black a theatre that it wanted a full and understanding auditory.’ It was produced by the queen's company, possibly at the Curtain, in the cold winter of 1607–8, with the great actor Burbage in the part of Brachiano. ‘The White Devil’ was subsequently (after 1625) performed by Queen Henrietta's servants at the Phœnix Theatre in Drury Lane, and the fact was noted on the title-page of a new edition in 1631. The ‘White Devil’ resembles in many points the ‘Revenger's Tragedie’ of Cyril Tourneur [q. v.], which was published in 1607, and was doubtless written first. The plot, drawn from an Italian source, is compounded of a series of revolting crimes, but the piece holds the reader spellbound by the stirring intensity with which the dramatist develops the story. Rarely in tragedy has pity been more poignantly excited than by the sorrows of the high-spirited heroine Vittoria (cf. Symonds, Renaissance, i. 381 seq.; Stendhal, Chroniques et Nouvelles, Paris, 1855). It is doubtful if the piece were justly valued in Webster's own day. Only one panegyric has been met with. In 1651 Samuel Sheppard declared in his ‘Epigrams’ that the chief characters in the ‘White Devil’ should be ‘gazed at as comets by posteritie.’ There were later editions, in 1665 and 1672 respectively. The piece was revived by Betterton at the Theatre Royal in 1682, and Nahum Tate published in 1707 an adaptation under the title of ‘Injured Love,’ but this was not acted.

Webster followed up his success in the ‘White Devil’ with ‘Appius and Virginia: a Tragedy,’ a less notable piece, although it possessed substantial merit. The story, which belongs to Roman history, was drawn by Webster from Paynter's ‘Palace of Pleasure,’ whither it found its way from Ser Giovanni's ‘Il Pecorone.’ The dramatist invested the romance with much simple pathos, and the lucidity of the plot favourably contrasts with the obscurity that characterised Webster's more ambitious work in tragedy. Mr. Fleay doubtfully detects an allusion at the end of ‘Appius’ to Heywood's play of ‘Lucreece,’ which was published in 1608. This is the only ground suggested for assigning the composition to 1609. But it seems to have been acted by Queen Anne's company of players before 1619, and to have passed with the ‘White Devil’ to Queen Henrietta's company early in Charles I's reign. William Beeston, ‘the governor of the king and queen's young company of players at the Cock-pit at Drury Lane,’ laid a claim in 1639 to exclusive ownership in the piece; Beeston's pretension was admitted by the king. The play was first published for Humphrey Moseley in 1654. ‘Appius and Virginia’ was adapted by Cartwright for representation at the Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1671, with the new name of the ‘Roman Virgin, or the Unjust Judge.’ The title-rôles were filled by Betterton and his wife. The play ran at the time for eight days successively, and was frequently revived in the following years (cf. Genest, i. 109). The adaptation was published in 1679 under the title of the ‘Unjust Judge.’ John Dennis in 1709 published a new piece with Webster's old title.

In the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ Webster reached as high a level of tragic art as in the ‘White Devil.’ The ‘Duchess of Malfi’ was first played by the king's men at the Blackfriars Theatre about 1616, but it was revived at the Globe Theatre in 1622, and was first printed next year. The title ran: ‘The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy. As it was presented privately at the Black-Friers and publiquely at the Globe by the King's Majesties Servants. The perfect and exact coppy with diverse things printed that the length of the play would not beare in the presentment.’ A list of actors' names is prefixed. Burbage created the part of Duke Ferdinand, and a boy, R. Sharpe, that of the Duchess. The dedication was addressed to George, lord Berkeley, and there are prefatory verses embodying vague and unqualified eulogy by Ford, Middleton, and William Rowley. Other editions appeared in 1640 and with alterations in 1678 and 1708, but the first quarto presents the best text. The piece was revived at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in 1664 by Betterton, who played the villain Bosola, with Mrs. Betterton as the Duchess; it was acted for eight days successively, and proved one of the best stock tragedies (Genest, i. 55). The ‘Duchess of Malfi’ is the only play by Webster that has been presented on a modern stage. On 20 Nov. 1851 Phelps revived it at Sadler's Wells Theatre in a revised version by Richard Hengist Horne; Miss Glyn took the part of the Duchess, and Phelps appeared as Duke Ferdinand. The play met with great success, and had a long run. It was republished at the time as part i. of Tallis's ‘Acting Drama,’ with a portrait and memoir of Miss Glyn by J. A. Heraud. Another revised version of the tragedy by Mr. William Poel was produced at the Opera Comique by the Independent Theatre Society on 21 and 25 Oct. 1892; Miss Mary Rorke played the Duchess. The play was separately edited in ‘The Temple Dramatists’ by Professor C. E. Vaughan in 1896.

The plot is based on an incident in Neapolitan history, which is narrated in Belleforest's French translation of ‘Bandello's Novels,’ No. 19; in Painter's ‘Palace of Pleasure,’ ii. 23; in Beard's ‘Theatre of God's Judgments,’ bk. ii. chap. 24; and in Goulart's ‘Histoires Admirables de notre temps,’ p. 226. Lope de Vega constructed a play out of the same materials, and gave it the title of ‘El mayordomo de la Duquesca de Amalfi.’ The theme is the vengeance wrought by Ferdinand, duke of Calabria, and his brother, the cardinal, on their sister, the Duchess of Malfi, for her defiance of the family honour in marrying Antonio, the steward of her household. Duke Ferdinand subjects his sister to almost every fantastic torture known to the writers of Italian fiction. He pays the penalty of his cruelty by going mad, and at the end of the play hardly any leading character is left alive; five men, three women, and two children come to violent ends. Webster owed the merest suggestion of the play to his authorities. His development of the plot is wholly original. The interest centres in the characterisation of the courageous and noble-hearted heroine, who is slowly murdered by her cruel brothers. It was of her character and fortunes, which move every just critic to enthusiasm, that Charles Lamb wrote: ‘To move a horror skilfully, to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit; this only a Webster can do. Writers of an inferior genius may “upon horror's head horrors accumulate,” but they cannot do this. They mistake quantity for quality, they “terrify babes with painted devils,” but they know not how a soul is capable of being moved; their terrors want dignity, their affrightments are without decorum’ (Lamb's Specimens, ‘Duchess of Malfy,’ ii. 42).

Webster never reached the same heights again, and his remaining work, although at times touched with his old spirit, is, as a whole, tame when compared with either the ‘Duchess of Malfy’ or the ‘White Devil.’ ‘The Devil's Law Case; or, When Women go to law the Devil is full of business, a new trage-comœdy,’ has a few scenes that are quite worthy of their author, but the disagreeable plot is inadequately relieved by artistic treatment. It was acted ‘by Queen Anne's servants,’ and therefore before 1619. It was first published in 1623 with the assurance on the title-page that it was ‘The true and perfect copie from the originall. As it was approouedly well acted by her maiesties servants.’ Webster addressed the dedication to Sir Thomas Finch, bart., and a modest appeal for a fair judgment ‘to the judicious reader.’ Dyce asserts that it was written not earlier than 1622, on the strength of a very disputable allusion to the Amboyna massacre in February of that year.

In 1624 Webster turned from play-writing to perform a piece of work for old friends. In that year Middleton, the city poet, was unable to prepare the words for the lord mayor's pageant. John Gore, the new lord mayor, was a member of the Merchant Taylors' Company, to which Webster belonged, and he appropriately undertook to fill Middleton's place. The result was a conventional ‘pageant’ entitled ‘Monuments of Honor, Derived from remarkable antiquity, and celebrated in the Honorable City of London, at the sole munificent charge and expences of the Right Worthy and Worshipfull Fraternity of the Eminent Merchant Taylors. … Invented and written by John Webster, Merchant Taylor,’ printed at London by Nicholas Okes, 1624, 4to. The work is excessively rare. A copy which formerly belonged to Heber is now the property of the Duke of Devonshire.

A year earlier Webster wrote slight commendatory verses for the ‘English Dictionarie’ of ‘his industrious friend Master Henry Cockeram’ (1623), and a year after the production of his mayoral pageant he seems to have died. It is possible, although it is by no means certain, that he was the John Webster, ‘cloth-worker,’ who made his will on 5 Aug. 1625; it was proved on 7 Oct.

Gildon in his ‘Lives of the Poets’ (1698) states that Webster was clerk of the parish of St. Andrew's, Holborn. The many references that appear in Webster's plays to tombstones and dirges have been held by Lamb and others to corroborate this theory of the dramatist's occupation. No confirmation has been found in the parochial records, and it is unlikely to be true. Webster has also been wrongly identified with John Webster, author of the ‘Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft,’ who is noticed separately.

Collier stated without authority that Webster resided among the actors in Holywell Street. Collier likewise identified him with one John Webster who married Isabell Sutton at St. Leonard's parish church, Shoreditch, on 25 July 1590, and was father of a daughter Alice (baptised at the same church on 9 May 1606).

Three extant plays were assigned to Webster after his death, but doubts as to his responsibility are justifiable. Kirkman, an enthusiastic reader and collector of plays, published in 1661 two plays—‘The Thracian Wonder’ and ‘A Cure for a Cuckold’—each of which he asserted to be from the joint pens of Webster and William Rowley. ‘The Thracian Wonder’—a very dull piece of work—was based on William Warner's pastoral story of ‘Argentile and Curan,’ and shows few traces of the known style of either of the alleged authors. The fact that one William Webster published in 1617 a new poetic version of Warner's story may account for the association of John Webster's name with ‘The Thracian Wonder.’

The authorship of ‘A Cure for a Cuckold’ seems rightly described by Kirkman. The piece naturally divides itself into two parts. One treats with some extravagance (but with a good deal of poetic feeling and dramatic power) a story in Webster's vein. The central character of this section, the perverse-tempered Clare, who is affianced to Lessingham, dares her lover to murder his best friend, Bonvile, and the ensuing complications give the dramatist an opportunity for character-studies, of which he takes for the most part good advantage. Genest first pointed out that the incident of Lessingham's threat to kill his friend Bonvile had a close parallel in Massinger's ‘Parliament of Love.’ The second part of the play treats with much ribaldry, but with comic effect, the discovery by a rough sea captain that his wife has become a mother during his four years' absence. There is no connection in style between the two parts. The coarse scenes are in prose, and may well be by William Rowley. The love story of Clare is in blank verse, which closely resembles that of Webster's acknowledged work. Mr. Edmund Gosse ingeniously suggested that Webster's alleged contribution to the piece was a self-contained and independent whole. The fantastic tale of Clare and Lessingham was privately printed with the title of ‘Love's Graduate’ under the direction of Mr. Stephen E. Spring-Rice, C.B., at Mr. Daniel's Oxford press in 1885. Mr. Edmund Gosse contributed a prefatory essay.

The third piece posthumously assigned to Webster was a comedy called ‘The Weakest goes to the Wall,’ which was first printed anonymously in 1600, and again in 1618. It was first claimed for Webster (with Dekker) in 1675 by Edward Phillips in his ‘Theatrum Poetarum,’ but Phillips was certainly in error. The plot appears to be drawn from Barnabe Riche's ‘Farewell to Militarie Profession’ (1581). The younger Hazlitt included it in his edition of Webster's works.

Two other plays in which Webster had a hand are lost. On 13 Sept. 1624 there was licensed for publication ‘a new tragedy’ called ‘A late Murder of the Son upon the Mother’ by Ford and Webster. Webster was also the author of a play called ‘Guise,’ which was doubtless a tragedy founded, like Marlowe's ‘Massacre of Paris,’ on contemporary French history. Webster refers to the work when dedicating his ‘Devil's Law Case’ to Sir Thomas Finch. Mention of a play of the name is made by Henslowe in his ‘Diary’ in 1601, and Collier unwarrantably inserted the word ‘Webster’ after this entry. Webster's play has not survived, and nothing is positively known of its date of composition.

The best collection of original editions of Webster's plays belongs to the Duke of Devonshire. In 1830 Webster's works were collected in four volumes by Alexander Dyce. A new issue of Dyce's edition, revised and corrected, appeared in 1857, and in one volume in 1866. William Hazlitt, the critic's son, edited an edition in four volumes in 1856.

Although Nathan Drake and some other eighteenth-century critics had detected in Webster ‘a more than earthly wildness,’ it was Charles Lamb who first recognised his surpassing genius as a writer of tragedy. Subsequently Hazlitt, and at a later period Mr. Swinburne, bore powerful testimony to Lamb's justness of view. Webster is obviously a disciple of Shakespeare, and of all his contemporaries Webster approaches Shakespeare nearest in tragic power. But his power is infinitely circumscribed when it is compared with Shakespeare's. His knowledge of his master's work, too, is sometimes visible in a form suggestive of plagiarism. His masterpieces are liable to the charge that they present the story indecisively and at times fail in dramatic point and perspicuity. Many scenes too strongly resemble dialogues from romances to render them effective on the stage. Webster lacked Shakespeare's sureness of touch in developing character, and his studies of human nature often suffer from over-elaboration. With a persistence that seems unjustifiable in a great artist, Webster, moreover, concentrated his chief energies on repulsive themes and characters; he trafficked with an obstinate monotony in fantastic crimes. Nevertheless he had a true artistic sense. He worked slowly, and viewed with abhorrence careless or undigested work. ‘No action,’ he wrote in the preface to ‘The Devil's Law Case,’ ‘can ever be gracious where the decency of the language and ingenious structure of the scene arrive not to make up a perfect harmony.’ It is proof of his high poetic spirit that he was capable of illuminating scenes of the most repellent wrongdoing with miraculous touches of poetic beauty such as only Shakespeare could rival. Furthermore, Webster, despite all the vice round which his plots revolve, is rarely coarse. In depicting the perversities of passion he never deviated into pruriency, and handled situations of conventional delicacy with dignified reticence. Webster's dialogue (he seldom essayed soliloquy) abounds in rapid imagery. His blank verse is vigorous and musical. In its general movement it resembles that of Shakespeare's later plays. It is far less regular than Marlowe's, but somewhat more regular than Fletcher's. At its best his language has something of the ‘happy valiancy’ which Coleridge detected in Shakespeare's ‘Antony and Cleopatra;’ it has consequently no small share of the obscurity which characterises Shakespeare's later work. This feature in Webster impressed his contemporaries, one of whom, Henry FitzGeoffrey, applied to him the epithet ‘crabbed,’ and declared that he wrote ‘with his mouth awry.’ But, as another contemporary, Middleton, suggested with surer insight, the force of Webster's tragic genius, despite the occasional indistinctness of his utterance and other defects of execution, allows no doubt of the essential greatness of his dramatic conceptions.

The fame of Webster has spread to France and Germany. The ‘Duchess of Malfy’ and ‘The White Devil’ were published with an appreciative preface in French translations by Ernest Lafond at Paris in 1865, and Frederick Bodenstedt devoted the first volume of his ‘William Shakespeares Zeitgenossen und ihre Werke’ (Berlin, 1858) to a German rendering of extracts from all Webster's plays.

[Dyce's Introduction to his edition of Webster's Works, 1866; Genest's Account of the Stage, x. 16–17; Ward's History of English Dramatic Literature, new edit. 1899, iii. 51 seq.; Fleay's Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama; Lamb's Selections; Hazlitt's Elizabethan Dramatic Literature; William Hazlitt's (the younger) introduction to his edition of Webster's Works, 1857; Mr. J. A. Symonds's preface to the ‘Mermaid’ edition of Selections from Webster; Mr. Gosse's Seventeenth-Century Studies containing an admirable essay on Webster; Mr. Swinburne's extravagantly eulogistic essay in the Nineteenth Century, June 1886; Mr. William William Archer's more sober estimate in his article ‘Webster, Lamb, and Mr. Swinburne’ in New Review, 1893, viii. 96 seq.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.277
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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122 ii 12 Webster, John (1580?-1625): after No. 19; insert Painter's 'Palace of Pleasure,' ii. 23.