John Webster, c.1580-c.1634

Title page of The Duchess of Malfi

Biographical note

Dramatist. Though in some respects he came nearest to Shakespeare of any of his contemporaries, almost nothing has come down to us of the life of Webster. Even the dates of his birth and death are uncertain. He appears to have been the son of a London tailor, to have been a freeman of the Merchant Taylor’s Company, and clerk of the parish of St. Andrews, Holborn.

Four plays are known to be his, The White Devil, or the Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona [1612], Appius and Virginia [1654], The Devil’s Law Case [1623], and The Duchess of Malfi [1623], and he collaborated with Drayton, Middleton, Heywood, Dekker, etc., in the production of others. He does not appear to have been much regarded in his own day, and it was only in the 19th century that his great powers began to be appreciated and expounded by such critics as Lamb and Hazlitt, and in later days Swinburne. The first says, “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.” Webster revels in the horrible, but the touch of genius saves his work from mere brutality, and evokes pity and sorrow where, without it, there would be only horror and disgust. His work is extremely unequal, and he had no power of construction, but his extraordinary insight into motives and feelings redeem all his failings and give him a place second only to Marlowe and Ben Jonson among the contemporaries of Shakespeare.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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