Webster, John

views updated May 23 2018

John Webster

BORN: c. 1580, London, England

DIED: c. 1634


GENRE: Drama, poetry

The Malcontent (1604)
The White Devil (1612)
Three Elegies on the Most Lamented Death of Prince Henrie (1613)
The Duchess of Malfi (1614)
The Devil's Law-Case (c. 1619)


Critics often rank British author John Webster second only to William Shakespeare among Jacobean tragedians. His two major works, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), are more frequently revived on stage than any plays of the period other than Shakespeare's. Webster is considered a somewhat difficult dramatist to appreciate, especially on the first reading of his plays.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Limited Information Little is known about Webster's life. He was born around 1580 in London, the eldest son of a prosperous coachmaker and member of a prestigious guild, the Merchant Taylors' Company. Given his father's status, Webster was probably educated at the highly respected Merchant Taylors' School. Noting the prominence of legal concerns in Webster's dramas, scholars speculate that he may have also had some legal training. Records indicate that, like his father, Webster was a respected member of the community, and upon the elder Webster's death, he assumed his membership in the Merchant Taylors' Company.

From his birth to early adulthood, Webster lived during a relatively stable time in British history. Elizabeth I had taken the throne in 1558 and ruled until her death in 1603. During her reign, England acquired its first colony (Newfoundland) in 1583 and defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, ensuring England's freedom. Elizabeth also oversaw the beginnings of a golden age of drama, literature, and music, of which both Shakespeare and Webster played a part.

Respected in the Theater Webster's career in the theater began with collaborative work for Philip Henslowe, a man perhaps best known as the proprietor of London's Rose Theatre. Henslowe's Diary, which provides an invaluable view of English drama of the time, records in May 1602 that he paid Webster, Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Thomas Middleton, andThomas Dekker for the now lost Caesar's Fall, or The Two Shapes. In October 1602, Henslowe paid Webster, Dekker, Heywood, Henry Chettle, and Wentworth Smith for a play called Lady Jane. Also in October, Webster and Heywood were advanced money for a play called Christmas Comes but Once a Year.

Although Webster appears to have had no further connection with Henslowe, he continued to collaborate on dramatic works, and towards the end of 1604, he and Dekker wrote West-ward Hoe, a scandalous comedy. This satire spurred John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson to respond with the even more scandalous Eastward Hoe. Dekker and Webster returned with Northward Hoe in 1605, which many critics consider to be the better of the two Dekker-Webster comedies.

Webster's first independent work was The White Devil, apparently performed in 1612. This play, with Webster's next drama, The Duchess of Malfi (1614), established a reputation for the dramatist that has sustained itself for four centuries. Most scholars note a significant decline in Webster's dramaturgy following the composition of The Duchess of Malfi. Most also agree that his next play, the tragicomic Devil's Law-Case (publication date is said to be between 1619 and 1622), is the most difficult of Webster's works to assess because of its nearly incoherent plot. In fact, it has only been performed once—in 1980—since Webster's time.

Last Known Contributions Webster also contributed thirty-two character sketches to the sixth edition of Thomas Overbury's New and Choice Characters, of Several Authors (1615). In addition, Webster continued to collaborate on plays, including Appius and Virginia, perhaps written with Heywood around 1634. Other plays attributed either wholly or partially to Webster include several lost works and A Cure for a Cuckold (1624 or 1625), which survives only in a carelessly printed edition.

Thus, much of Webster's most active writing period was during the reign of Elizabeth's successor, James I, and his son, Charles I, the first two Stuart kings who oversaw a country becoming intensely disillusioned with the national life. While both James and Charles favored the notion of absolutism—that is, that the monarch holds all the political power—the rising middle classes, especially Puritans, believed Parliament should rule over the monarch. This conflict eventually led to the English Civil War, a few years after Webster's death. Scholars usually date Webster's death around 1634, the year that Thomas Heywood referred to him in the past tense in his Hier-archie of the Blessed Angels (1635), but it could be as late as 1638.


Webster's famous contemporaries include:

René Descartes (1596–1650): A French philosopher and mathematician, he is nicknamed “The Father of Modern Philosophy” for his profound influences on subsequent generations of thinkers. His treatises include Discourse on Method (1637).

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642): Though known as an Italian physicist, he was also a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who was instrumental in the scientific revolution. His treatises include Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).

Ling Mengchu (1580–1644): Chinese writer of the Ming dynasty, he is best known for his short-story collection, Astonished Slaps upon the Desktop.

Saint Vincent de Paul (1581–1660): A French patron saint, he founded several charitable organizations, including the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity and The Congregation of Priests of the Mission.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616): Primarily a playwright and poet, Shakespeare is typically referenced as the greatest writer of all time. His plays include the tragedy Hamlet (c. 1601).

Works in Literary Context

Influence or Plagiarism? To his peers, Webster was a slow, careful writer who “borrowed” lines from his fellow playwrights and used them to create powerful scenes. Scholars are certain that he lifted many sentiments, images, and even whole sentences from such authors as Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, and Scottish dramatist William Alexander. Such borrowing was not uncommon during the Jacobean era, but Webster made use of the material of others to such a degree that he was even satirized by such fellow writers as Henry Fitzjeffrey—who mocked the “Crabbed Websterio” for not writing one word of his own and not caring whether he would be misunderstood and obscure. Thus it is quite clear from Webster's writings that he was influenced by, and alert to, the work of his contemporaries. The legal training he probably received also influenced the imagery and scenarios in a number of his plays.

Varying Levels of Difficulty Some of Webster's works, such as The Devil's Law-Case (1619–1622?), are difficult to understand. This particular play, unlike the others that follow the period's model for tragicomedy, has an incoherent plot full of actions that are both absurd and shocking. Other plays, however, are highly accomplished. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, for example, are based on Italian history, have a clearly established tragic outcome, and express well-defined themes that are accessible to audiences.

Dark and Severe Themes Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, as period tragicomedies, express the influence of a pessimistic worldview. Both reflect a sense of darkness encompassing human existence and a profound consciousness of evil and suffering in the world. The White Devil relates a complex tale of love, adultery, murder, and revenge. It centers on the adulterous passion between the Duke of Brachiano and Vittoria Corombona, who together plot and direct the murders of their spouses. Some scholars and critics maintain that the absence of any positive, truly moral figure makes the world presented in the play one of unrelieved bleakness.

The Duchess of Malfi offers no more relief. The widowed duchess, against the wishes of her brothers, secretly marries her servant Antonio. The brothers—the fanatical Ferdinand and the scheming Cardinal—plant a spy, Bosola, in their sister's household. When Bosola uncovers the truth about the duchess's marriage, her brothers ruthlessly harass her, drive her from her home, and eventually imprison her. In a famous scene, she is tormented by madmen performing a stylized dance around her, and she is ultimately murdered. Scholars agree that the duchess herself is one of the greatest tragic heroines of the period. As she resigns herself to a Christian stance in the face of her brothers' vicious cruelty, she is filled with a profound dignity: the depiction of her murder is commonly judged one of the most moving scenes in all of Jacobean drama.

Works in Critical Context

The great number of printings and revivals of Webster's plays during the seventeenth century attest to their pop-ularity. In the eighteenth century, however, his reputation was eclipsed by a growing interest in Shakespeare. Increasingly, Webster was known only among bibliographers and scholars who considered his plays scarcely more than period pieces, fine examples of the drama of the past but with little to offer contemporary audiences. In fact, his tragedies were performed only five times during the eighteenth century.

From his own time to the present, some critics have praised the poetic brilliance of Webster's tragic vision, while others have scorned his plays as confusing and excessively violent. While undeniably horrifying, his depictions of people struggling to make sense of their lives in an apparently meaningless world possess a curiously modern sensibility. This is demonstrated in such plays as The Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess of Malfi The Duchess of Malfi is widely acclaimed as Webster's masterpiece. Initial response to the play was strong. For decades, the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries. Algernon Charles Swinburne maintained that it “stands out among its peers as one of the imperishable and ineradicable landmarks of literature.” Many subsequent critics have echoed his opinion, and the play retains a vitality that continues to appeal to actors, audiences, and critics.


Here are a few works by writers who also present themes of good exposed to evil.

A Clockwork Orange (1962), a novel by Anthony Burgess. In this futuristic work, the powers that be devise select ways for treating the truants and thugs in the small gang called the Droogs.

Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This novel of good and evil presented through a plot that turns on moral dilemmas was first published in serial form.

The Darkness and the Light (2001), a poetry collection by Anthony Hecht. In this work, the Nobel Prize–winning American exposes the technical, intellectual, and emotional terrors of the Holocaust and World War II.

Othello (1604), a tragedy by William Shakespeare. This play includes a character whom many scholars have named the most evil in all of literature: Iago.

For example, John Russell Brown has suggested that The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form and the themes of the play. Webster's talent as a technician has been a matter of some debate. In his study of Webster's dramatic art, Charles R. Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights to successfully create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred. Forker also notes the connection to Shakespeare, concluding that “the Duchess of Malfi not only appropriates some of Richard II's tragic self-consciousness; she also has a “mirror scene” of her own—one as fully theatrical and thematically suggestive as his.”

Responses to Literature

  1. The practice of patronage in the arts has been common for centuries. In Webster's time, his life depended upon finding patrons to finance his work. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the relationship between a famous artist or writers and his or her patron. Write an essay in which you examine the impact of patrons on the lives and artistic decisions of artists.
  2. The revenge tragedy—developed in the Elizabethan period—is often referred to as “the tragedy of blood.” This genre includes common elements: a quest for vengeance (often at the, sometimes repeated, prompting of the ghost of a loved one); scenes involving real or feigned madness; scenes in graveyards; and/or scenes of carnage or mutilation. Using either The White Devil or The Duchess of Malfi, find examples that define the play as a tragedy of blood. Then, find contemporary comparisons by identifying the same revenge elements in a movie—for example, Gladiator, Mystic River, or Payback. Write about your findings in an essay, while answering the following questions: How is the movie you chose a modern revenge tragedy? How could one explain the popularity of the Jacobean and the modern-day tragedies of blood?
  3. Consider all of the parallels between Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Malfi in an essay. Where does the duchess differ in her ruling style? Argue in agreement with or argue against Cyran's suggestion that the duchess's choosing love destroys her.



Archer, William. The Old Drama and the New. London: Heinemann, 1923.

Brown, John Russell. “Techniques of Restoration: The Case of The Duchess of Malfi.” In Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg. Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Forker, Charles R. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Schuman, Samuel. John Webster: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.

Swinburne, Algernon. The Age of Shakespeare. The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. Vol. 11 (Prose Works vol. 1). Sir Edmund Gosse, C.B., and Thomas James Wise, eds. London: Heinemann, 1926.


Bennett, Robert B. “John Webster's Strange Dedication: An Inquiry into Literary Patronage and Jacobean Court Intrigue.” English Literary Renaissance 7 (Autumn 1977): 352–67.

Chillington, Carol A. “Playwrights at Work: Henslowe's, Not Shakespeare's, Book of Sir Thomas More.” English Literary History 11 (1981): 439–79.

Web Sites

“An Analysis of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.” Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://virtual.park.uga.edu/~cdesmet/sabrin/7home.htm.

“John Webster (1580?–1685?).” Luminarium. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/webster. Last updated on July 18, 2006.

“Learn About Jacobean Style.” Vam British Galleries. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/british_galleries/bg_styles/ Style01b/index.html.

“John Webster.” The Age of Shakespeare: The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. The Swinburne Project. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.letrs.indiana.edu/cgi-bin/acs-idx.pl?type=section&rgn=level1&byte=1613585.

“Webster, John, 1580–1625.” Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/w#a857.

“What Is Tragedy?” BBC h2g2 Guide. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A873858.

Webster, John

views updated Jun 27 2018


(b Thornton, Craven, England, 3 February 1610; d. Clitheroe, England, 18 June 1682), chemistry, medicine, education.

Although Webster implied that he studied at Cambridge, there is no record that he was ever a regular student. He also referred to his study of chemistry (ca. 1632) under the Hungarian alchemist John Hunyades, who arrived in London sometime after 1623. As with other Renaissance chemists, Webster’s interest in chemistry was easily coupled with his concern for religion, and he was ordained a minister sometime after July 1632. Two years later he appears in the records as the curate of Kildwick, in Craven.

Paracelsian chemistry had a special appeal for surgeons, and there is a large iatrochemical literature specifically aimed at the military surgeon. As a Puritan, Webster served both as a surgeon and as a chaplain in the Parliamentary army during the Civil War. By 1648 his opposition to the established church had pushed him into the ranks of the nonconformists; and after the Restoration he was forced to support himself as a “practitioner in Physick and Chirurgery.”

It was his concern for house who were preparing for the ministry that led Webster to write the Academiarum examen, in which he attacked the English universities. The traditional emphasis on books and disputations, as well as on the “healthen” authors Aristotle and Galen, seemed to him improper for Christians, who should study the glories of the universe (and thus, the Creator) through observation and personal experience. Webster argued against the use of mathematical abstraction in the study of nature, because for him this seemed to emphasize deductive logic. In contrast, the laboratory observations of the chemists offered the proper inductive approach exemplified in the writings of Helmont and Francis Bacon. The Academiarum examen is deeply indebted to Robert Fludd’ Rosicrucian apology, Tractatus apologeticus (1617); and Webster points to Fludd and Bacon as the two authors most to be relied upon in formulating a new philosophy of nature. The most notable reply to Webster’s call for educational reform was Vindiciae academiarum (1654) of Seth Ward and John Wilkins, in which Webster was taken to task for not having kept abreast of recent changes at the universities that did reflect the new science. He was accused of not having properly understood Bacon and Descartes and also was criticized for his reliance on the chemists. His espousal of Fludd’s texts was especially condemned. The conflict between Webster, Ward, and Wilkins clearly points to the sharp division then existing between the chemical philosophers and the early mechanists.

Webter’s belief that the aim of true natural magic was to uncover the “secret effects” of nature led him to extend warm support to the foundation of the Royal Society of London; and there is no indication that he was ever disappointed with the course taken by its members. He referred with approval to the society’s work in his Metallographia(1671), an interesting compendium of current views on the growth and properties of metals. Here again he indicated his debt to Paracelsus, who made chemistry available to all, and to Helmont, whose work seemed to excel that of all his predecessors. The Metallographia was reviewed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and Daniel George Morhof later praised it as one of the major published works on minerals.

Webster was no less laudatory to the Royal Society in The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, completed in 1673 but not published until 1677, in which he attacked the views of Meric Casaubon and Joseph Glanvill. The latter, a member of the Royal Society, had written at length on wichcraft especially in Philosophical Considerations Touching Witches and Witchcraft (1666). In his reply Webster countered that “supernatural” effects supposedly caused by witchcraft would eventually be found to have natural causes.

Although not a scientist of major stature, Webster is significant, for his work reflects important themes germane to the period of the scientific revolution. His conflict with Ward and Wilkins underscored the dispute between the chemical philosophers and the mechanists, his treatise on witchcraft did much to shed light on the meaning of magic and the supernatural in this period, and his work on metals and minerals clearly was considered important by his contemporaries on the Continent as well as in England.


I. Original Works. There is a bibliography of Webster’s works, including his many sermons, in Bertha Porter’s article in the Dictionary of National Biography. The most important for the historian of science are Academiarum examen, or the Examination of Academies (London, 1654); Metallographia: or An History of Metals (London, 1671); and The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (London, 1677).

Academiarum examen has been reprinted, along with the replies of Ward and Wilkins (Vindiciae academiarum [Oxford, 1654]) and Thomas Hall (Histrio-Mastix. A Whip for Webster [London, 1654]), by Allen G. Debus, in Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century (London–New York, 1970).

Metallographia is reviewed in Philosophical Trancsactions of the Royal Society, 5. no. 66 (12 Dec. 1670), 2034-2036. Daniel George Morhof, Polyhistor, literarius, philosophicus et practicus, 4th ed., II, pt. 2 (Lübeck, 1747), sec. 4. ch. 29, is devoted mainly to Metallographia.

II. Secondary Literature. There is a discussion of Webster’s work, with special reference to the educational problems raised in Academiarum examen, in the introductory essay in Allen G. Debus, Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century, 1–65. See also Debus’ “The Webster-Ward Debate of 1654; The New Philosophy and the problem of Educational Reform,” in L’univers á la Renaissance: Microcosme et macrocosme, Travaux de l’Institut pour l’étude de la renaissance et de l’humanisme, IV (Brussels, 1970), 33–51; and “John Webster and the Educational Deilemma of the Seventeenth Century,” in Actes du XIIeCongrès international d’historie des sciences, IIIB (Paris, 1970), 15–23. An early, but still useful, discussion of the debate is in Richard F. Jones, Ancients and Moderns. A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (St. Louis, 1936. 2nd ed., 1961), 101–114.

For references pertinent to education in England and on the Continent, see, Debus, Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century; but for a further understanding of Webster, see also P. M. Rattansi, “Paracelsus and the Puritan Revolution,” in Ambix, 11 (1963), 23–32; C. Webster, ed., Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, 1970), 1–72; and C. Webster, “Science and the Challenge to the Scholastic Curriculum 1640-1660,” in The Changing Curriculum (London, 1971), 21–35.

Allen G. Debus

John Webster

views updated May 23 2018

John Webster

The reputation of the English dramatist John Webster (ca. 1580-ca. 1634) rests on two blank-verse tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. He was a painstaking literary craftsman, much concerned with the philosophy and the psychology of evil.

Nothing definite is known of John Webster's birth or parentage. He has been tentatively identified as the son of a merchant-tailor of London, and it is thought he was born about 1580; but no solid evidence on either of these points exists. From his plays it is clear that Webster was a learned man, but nothing is known of his education.

The earliest definite reference to Webster occurs in the diary of the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe. Henslowe's records reveal that in 1602 Webster collaborated with Anthony Munday, Thomas Middleton, Michael Drayton, and others on a play called Caesar's Fall, which has not survived. Two years later John Marston's play The Malcontent was performed by the King's Men with an Induction written by Webster. The Induction provides a revealing picture of an early Jacobean audience. In 1605 and 1606 Webster worked on two plays with Thomas Dekker. These were Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, both realistic comedies performed by the Children of Pauls.

None of this early work gives more than the vaguest hint of the dramatic genius that is displayed in Webster's twin tragic masterpieces, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. The first was probably written in 1611 or 1612, the second in 1613 or 1614. Both are powerful tragedies dominated by strong-willed female protagonists, each of whom suffers a violent death for defying the conventions of a corrupt society. The strain of morbidity evident in each play is frequently considered the most distinctive feature of Webster's work.

Webster's later dramatic work was sporadic and undistinguished. The most interesting of his nondramatic writings are found in the second edition of Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters (1615). Although Webster's name does not appear in this collection of Theophrastian sketches, it is generally agreed that he was responsible for a number of those sketches added to the original edition of 1614.

The circumstances of Webster's death are as obscure and uncertain as those of his birth. There is some reason to believe that he was dead before the end of 1634, but no more precise information has been uncovered.

Further Reading

Frank L. Lucas, The Complete Works of John Webster, vol. 1 (1927), contains the fullest treatment of Webster's life. Critical analyses of his two major works are Clifford Leech, John Webster: A Critical Study (1951), and Travis Bogard, The Tragic Satire of John Webster (1955). The introductions to John Russell Brown's editions of The White Devil (1960) and The Duchess of Malfi (1964) also contain valuable critical commentary.

Additional Sources

Bradbrook, M. C. (Muriel Clara), John Webster, citizen and dramatist, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. □

Webster, John

views updated May 11 2018


WEBSTER, John. British, b. 1925. Genres: Botany. Career: University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England, researcher in mycology, 1945-46; University of Hull, Hull, England, assistant lecturer, 1946-48, lecturer in botany, 1948-50; University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England, lecturer, 1950- 59, senior lecturer, 1959-65, reader in botany, 1965-69; University of Exeter, Exeter, England, professor of biological sciences, 1969-90, department head, 1969-86, professor emeritus, 1990-. Publications: Introduction to Fungi, 1970, 2nd ed., 1980; (trans. with M.J. Hackston) K. Esser, Cryptogams, 1983; (with N.J. Dix) Fungal Ecology, 1994; (ed.) G.C. Ainsworth, Brief Biographies of British Mycologists, 1996. Contributor to books and scientific journals. Address: 12 Countess Wear Rd., Exeter, Devon EX2 6LG, England. Online address: [email protected]

Webster, John

views updated Jun 11 2018

Webster, John (1580–1634) English dramatist whose reputation rests upon his two great tragedies: The White Devil (c.1612), and The Duchess of Malfi (1614). Both plays explore the theme of revenge using macabre language.

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