Born sometime around 1580, John Webster was to be the last of the great Elizabethan playwrights. Much like many of his contemporaries, little is known of the poet himself. There was a John Webster admitted to the Middle Temple on August 1, 1598. If this Webster and the dramatist were one and the same, it would explain the many legal allusions in his plays and the inclusion of trial scenes in The White Devil, The Devil's Law Case, and Appius and Virginia.
The earliest known records of Webster's employment as a playwright are found in the diary of theatre manager Phillip Henslowe at the beginning of the new century. Among the payments which Henslowe noted in his diary in 1602 were those made to Webster, Anthony Munday, Thomas Middleton, Michael Drayton "and the rest" for a play entitled Caesar's Fall. Over the next decade or so, Henslowe's records show Webster collaborating with Dekker and Heywood, writing a prologue to Marston's Malcontent, and composing his two masterpieces The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.
Webster has sometimes been criticized for the limited scope of his plays. He knows nothing, for instance, of the tenderness and pleasant fantasy of Shakespeare. It was mankind's anguish and evil alone which captured his imagination. But his verse is poetry of the highest order and holds its own with the best of Marlowe and Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot described Webster as the poet who was "much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin."
In The White Devil, the beautiful and spirited Vittoria falls under the spell of the dashing Duke Brachiano. At first, they are able to conceal their love affair, but when they feel their affair threatened, overcome by the fear of losing one another, they murder the suspicious husband Camillo. Even so, Vittoria is no cheap murderess. Webster creates a complex and compelling character who is simply not willing to abide those who stand in the way of her passion, and in the process, he creates one of the most exciting lovers' quarrels in all of dramatic literature.
In his other masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi, Webster deals with a more innocent pair of lovers. The widowed Duchess of Malfi is forbidden to marry again by her brothers--Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal--because they covet her estate. Unbeknownst to her brothers, however, the Duchess falls in love with her steward Antonio, and they marry secretly. The two lovers live happily for a time and the Duchess gives birth to three children, but when their marriage is discovered, the evil of the world stages a macabre dance around the little family from which there is no escape. A splendid nightmare, The Duchess of Malfi bears witness to a sensitive spirit, overwhelmed by the horror and despair of the world.
After The Duchess of Malfi, Webster lapsed into mostly second-rate work. Around 1620, he wrote The Devil's Law Case and collaborated a year later with Middleton on Anything For a Quiet Life. About 1625 he collaborated on The Fair Maid of the Inn with Massinger and Ford and on A Cure for a Cuckold with Heywood. And sometime before his death (probably in the 1630s), he composed the Roman tragedy Appius and Virginia.
After Webster's death, the Elizabethan theatre began to decline. The stage was filled with mediocre writers such as Glapthorne, Brome, Markham, Suckling and D'Avenant, reputed to be Shakespeare's illegitimate son. Then in 1642, the Puritans closed the public theatres, and there was darkness.
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