1902 Encyclopedia > John Webster

John Webster
English dramatist
(c. 1580 - c. 1625)

JOHN WEBSTER, the greatest of Shakespeare's contemporaries or successors, was a writer for the stage in the year 1601, and published in 1624 the city pageant for that year, "invented and written by John Webster, merchant-tailor." In the same year a tragedy by Ford and Webster was licensed for the stage; it is one of the numberless treasures now lost to us through the carelessness of genius or the malignity of chance. Beyond the period included between these two dates there are no traces to be found of his existence ; nor is anything known of it with any certainty during that period, except that seven plays appeared with his name on the title page, three of them only the work of his unassisted hand. His first noteworthy appearance in print, as far as we know, was as the author of certain additions to Marston's tragi-comedy of The Malcontent; these probably do not extend beyond the induction, a curious and vivacious prelude to a powerful and irregular work of somewhat morbid and sardonic genius. Three years later, in 1607, two comedies and a tragedy, " written by Thomas Dekker and John Webster," were given to the press. The comedies are lively and humorous, full of movement and incident; but the beautiful interlude of poetry which distinguishes the second scene of the fourth act of Westward Ho! is unmistakably and unquestionably the work of Dekker; while the companion comedy of Northward Ho! is composed throughout of homespun and coarse-grained prose. The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt is apparently a most awkward and injurious abridgment of a historical play in two parts on a pathetic but undramatic subject, the fate of Lady Jane Grey. In this lost play of Lady Jane Heywood, Chettle, and Smith had also taken part; so that even in its original form it can hardly have been other than a rough piece of patchwork. There are some touches of simple eloquence and rude dramatic ability in the mangled and corrupt residue which is all that survives of it; but on the whole this " history " is crude, meagre, and unimpressive. In 1612 John Webster stood revealed to the then somewhat narrow world of readers as a tragic poet and dramatist of the very foremost rank in the very highest class. The White Devil, also known as Vittoria Corombona, is a tragedy based on events then comparatively recent—on a chronicle of crime and retribution in which the leading circumstances were altered and adapted with the most delicate art and the most consummate judgment from the incompleteness of incomposite reality to the requisites of the stage of Shakespeare. By him alone among English poets have the finest scenes and passages of this tragedy been ever surpassed or equalled in the crowning qualities of tragic or dramatic poetry,—in pathos and passion, in subtlety and strength, in harmonious variety of art and infallible fidelity to nature. Eleven years had elapsed when the twin masterpiece of its author —if not indeed a still greater or more absolute masterpiece —was published by the poet who had given it to the stage seven years before. The Duchess of Malfy (an Anglicized version of Amalfi, corresponding to such designations as Florence, Venice, and Naples) was probably brought on the stage about the time of the death of Shakespeare ; it was first printed in the memorable year which witnessed the first publication of his collected plays. This tragedy stands out among its compeers as one of the imperishable and ineradicable landmarks of literature. All the great qualities apparent in The White Devil reappear in The Duchess of Malfy, combined with a yet more perfect execution, and utilized with a yet more consummate skill. No poet has ever so long and so successfully sustained at their utmost height and intensity the expressed emotions and the united effects of terror and pity. The transcendent imagination and the impassioned sympathy which inspire this most tragic of all tragedies save King Lear are fused together in the fourth act into a creation which has hardly been excelled for unflagging energy of impression and of pathos in all the dramatic or poetic literature of the world. Its wild and fearful sublimity of invention is not more exceptional than the exquisite justice and tenderness and subtlety of its expression. Some of these executive merits may be found in an ill-constructed and ill-conditioned tragi-comedy which was printed in the same year; but few readers will care to remember much more of The Devil's Law-Case than the admirable scenes and passages which found favour in the unerring and untiring sight of Webster's first and final interpreter or commentator, Charles Lamb. Thirty-one years later the noble tragedy of Appius and Virginia was given to the world,—a work which would alone have sufficed to perpetuate the memory of its author among all competent lovers of English poetry at its best. Seven years afterwards an unprincipled and ignorant bookseller published, under the title of A Cure for a Cuckold, a play of which he assigned the authorship to John Webster and William Rowley. This attribution may or may not be accurate; the play is a mixture of coarsely realistic farce and gracefully romantic comedy. An elegy on Henry, prince of Wales, and a few slight occasional verses, compose the rest of Webster's remaining works.

Webster's claims to a place among the chief writers of his country were ignored for upwards of two centuries. In 1830 the Rev. Alexander Dyce first collected and edited the works of a poet who had found his first adequate recognition twenty-two years earlier at the pious and fortunate hands of Lamb. But we cannot imagine that a presentiment or even a foreknowledge of this long delay in the payment of a debt so long due from his countrymen to the memory of so great a poet would seriously have disturbed or distressed the mind of the man who has given us the clue to his nature in a single and an imperishable sentence—" I rest silent in my own work." (A. C. S.)

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