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JOHN WEBSTER (c. 1580 - c. 1632)

The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.

Perhaps the most powerful and original genius among the Shakespearian dramatists of the second order is John Webster. His terrible and funereal Muse was Death; his wild imagination revelled in images and sentiments which breathe, as it were, the odor of the charnel: his plays are full of pictures recalling with fantastic variety all associations of the weakness and futility of human hopes and interests, and dark questionings of our future destinies. His literary physiognomy has something of that dark, bitter, and woeful expression which makes us thrill in the portraits of Dante.

The number of Webster's known works is very small: the most celebrated among them is the tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi (1623); but others are not inferior to that strange piece in intensity of feeling and savage grimness of plot and treatment. Besides the above we possess Guise, or the Massacre of France, in which the St. Barthelemy is, of course, the main action, The Devil's Law Case, The White Devil, founded on the crimes and sufferings of Vittoria Corombona, Appius and Virginia; and we thus see that in the majority of his subjects he worked by preference on themes which offered a congenial field for his portraiture of the darker passions and of the moral tortures of their victims. In selecting such revolting themes as abounded in the black annals of medieval Italy, Webster followed the peculiar bent of his great and morbid genius; in the treatment of these subjects we find a strange mixture of the horrible with the pathetic. In his language there is an extraordinary union of complexity and simplicity: he loves to draw his illustrations not only from "skulls, and graves, and epitaphs," but also from the most attractive and picturesque objects in nature, and his occasional intermingling of the deepest and most innocent emotion and of the most exquisite touches of natural beauty produces the effect of the daisy springing up amid the festering mould of a graveyard. Like many of his contemporaries, he knew the secret of expressing the highest passions through the most familiar images; and the dirges and funeral songs which he has frequently introduced into his pieces possess, as Charles Lamb eloquently expresses it, that intensity of feeling which seems to resolve itself into the very elements they contemplate. His dramas are generally composed in mingled prose and verse; and it is possible that he may have had a share in the production of many other pieces besides those enumerated above.

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