Enters the devil, murder.

These fragments form an overview of the life of one of Jacobean England’s most intriguing playwrights, John Webster. Famously depicted as the bloodthirsty young actor in the film Shakespeare In Love, Webster was the author of two of  the most successful Jacobean tragedies of all time, The White Devil, and The Duchess of Malfi.

John Webster was born c.1578 in London, son of John and Elizabeth. The family lived in the parish of St Sepulchre, Newgate, in a home which John would have shared with his parents and five siblings. John’s father ran a successful business in Cow Lane, Smithfield, loaning carriages and wagons, and became a well-respected member of the Guild of Merchant Taylors.

No complete school records for the period survive but as a result of his father’s membership of the guild, John may have attended Merchant Taylors’ School. Like most boys of the period, he would have received a classical education, and a record from the Middle Temple, dated 1st August 1598, refers to the admission of ‘Master John Webster, formerly of the New Inn, gentleman, son and heir apparent of John Webster of London, gentleman’. The Inns of Court, often referred to as the Third University, attracted many young men who lived and studed at the Inns as an addendum to their education. There is no evidence Webster studied the law, although it is possible, and legal references are scattered through his plays, but given his father’s business background it seems likely Webster trained at the Inns of Court in order to join the family business. Whether he worked alongside his father and brother in the coaching concern is impossible to determine, but a famous reference to Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ suggests he spent some time at least toiling away on Cow Lane.

Middle Temple today

An entry in Henslowe’s diary, dated 22nd May 1602, marks what was perhaps Webster’s first foray into theatrical composition: £5 ‘unto antoney monday & mihell drayton webester & the Rest mydelton in earneste of A Boocke called sesers ffalle’. The following week, £3 was paid to‘Thomas dickers drayton myddellton & Webester & mondaye in fulle paymente for ther playe called too shapes’. The entries refer to the same play, which is now lost, but is thought to have been based on the fall of Julius Caesar. In October of the same year, Henslowe paid Chettle, Dekker, Webster, Heywood and a ‘mr smythe’ £5.16s for two parts of a play entitled ‘A playe called Ladey Jane’, and a month later, another £7 for ‘a playe called cryssmas comes but once A yeare’. Collaboration was a common element of playwriting, and Webster is clearly serving an apprenticeship in the theatre, perhaps with one of the more experienced playwrights acting as his tutor.

In 1604, Webster was involved in two city comedies with Thomas Dekker, Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, plays which were performed frequently and proved very popular with audiences. However it is not until 1612 we have evidence of Webster’s first solo effort, The White Devil. A gap of seven years does not indicate Webster turned his attention away from the theatre after 1605, indeed it is possible he continued to write but those those plays have simply not survived. He may have chosen to return to work for his father in order to support a growing family. We know from existing records Webster married in March 1606 in Islington, to a woman named Sara. A marriage outside the family parish may have been the result of a rushed celebration, for only two months later Sara gave birth to their son, John, baptised on Fleet Street in May. John and Sarah went on to have at least three more children.

Title Page: The White Devil (1613)

Webster returned to the theatre (if indeed he ever left) in 1612 with The White Devil. It was first performed by Queen Anne’s Men at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. It was not a success, as evinced by Webster’s rather bitter address to the reader in the printed edition of the play, ‘most of the people that come to that Play-house, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting Stationers shoppes their use is not to inquire for good bookes, but new bookes)’. The Red Bull was known for its low-brow, rather bawdy entertainment, and Webster’s complex and lyrical play was clearly not to the audience’s taste. In the same year Webster also wrote A Monumental Column in response to the death of Henry, Prince of Wales.

Webster’s second great tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed in 1614 at the Blackfriars by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. Its reception was far more positive, perhaps because audiences at the Blackfriars, and the Globe, where it was subsequently performed, were more sophisticated. The death scene in The Duchess of Malfi has been heralded as the climax of Webster’s writing career, and one of the most powerful moments in Jacobean tragedy.

Title Page: Duchess of Malfi (1623)

In the same year audiences were enjoying The Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Overbury’s satirical The Wife appeared in print, becoming a runaway hit. Overbury, who had died in the tower a few months before, was later suspected of having been poisoned by Francis Howard (for further reading, my post on the Overbury Affair is here). The Wife went through eleven editions by 1622, and Webster made significant contributions to the text in 1615. Some scholars have suggested Webster may even have been Overbury’s literary executor, since they both attended Middle Temple at the same time and probably knew each other well.

Webster continued to write for the theatre. His last solo play was The Devil’s Law-Case, after which he returned to collaboration with other London playwrights. The rather vicious caricature painted of Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ describes him as a man who:

‘drawes his mouth awry of late,
How he scrubs: wrings his wrests: scratches his Pate
and as a critic:
Heer’s not a word cursively I have Writ,
But hee’l Industriously examine it.
And in some 12. monthes hence (or there about)
Set in a shamefull sheete’

Countering this, his biographer insists Webster worked successfully and harmoniously with his fellow playwrights. He had a good relationship with the companies which performed his plays, particularly the actor Richard Perkins, and he praises his fellow authors in his introduction to The White Devil

‘I have ever truly cherished my good opinion of other men’s worthy labours, especially of that full and heightened style of Mr. Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr. Johnson, the no less worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Mr. Beaumont and Mr. Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong last to be named), the right happy and copious industry of Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Dekker, and Mr. Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light: protesting that, in the strength of mine own judgment, I know them so worthy, that though I rest silent in my own work, yet to most of theirs I dare (without flattery) fix that of Martial’

The date of Webster’s death is uncertain, as is his place of burial. An entry in the parish register of St James, Clerkenwell, states ‘John Webster was buried’ on 3 March 1638 which may plausibly refer to the dramatist. As his biographer states, the ‘parish of St James adjoined that of St Sepulchre, and it was there that both Dekker and Rowley were buried. There would be nothing surprising in Webster, in his last years, living close to old friends and colleagues.’

St James, Clerkenwell

Webster’s literary output was modest in comparison with playwrights like Shakespeare, Fletcher and Middleton, but his lyricism remains second only to Shakespeare.

‘O that this fair garden
Had with all poisoned herbs of Thessaly
At first been planted, made a nursery
For witchcraft; rather than a burial plot
For both your honours.’

The White Devil (1.2.263-269)

Source: Multiple, especially David Gunby, DNB.
For further reading see John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist by M C Bradbrook – an excellent book on his life and works.

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