Apr 08 2014

John Webster (c. 1580 – c. 1634)

Published by at 3:21 am under Uncategorized

John Webster, the dramatist, was born to John Webster, the London coach and wagon maker, at a time when the coach industry was rapidly expanding. The industry being too new to have its own guild, John Webster Sr. joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild and became one of its most prominent members. As a member, he could (and most likely did) send his son to the Merchant Taylor’s School, the most prestigious preparatory school of the time. Our John Webster would have thus come under the influence of Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster and a noted humanist. Mulcaster is perhaps best known as the author of the quote, “Nature makes the boy toward, nurture sees him forward,” the first known instance of the distinction between “nature” and “nurture” (though we should note that Mulcaster suggests the two are distinct but allied properties rather than opposed). Mulcaster also strongly believed in the pedagogical function of drama, and school exercises may well have served as Webster’s introduction to playwriting. At some point in his adulthood, Webster, too, joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild—as odd as it is for us to think of a dramatist as a member.

Webster moved from school to school, studying at the Inns of Court, a rough contemporary equivalent of law school. Like so many law students, he abandoned the law for greener pastures. By the time he hastily married his very pregnant bride Sara Peniall in 1606, Webster had already left the Inns for the stage. (Webster’s son was born two months after his marriage. Exercising the remarkable creativity that informs his literary endeavors, this Webster also named his son “John.”)

As was common practice, Webster’s early work for the theater was collaborative. “His” first known play (Caesar’s Fall) had a total of four writers. These dramatists would generally sketch out the general structure of a piece as a team and then apportion individual scenes amongst themselves. The prevalence of collaboration in part results from the need for speed in early modern playwriting, the need to constantly change up the repertory of the various dramatic companies. No one would have been more astonished than Shakespeare or Webster to find their plays the objects of intense literary study four centuries later; theater, unlike poetry, was merely popular entertainment. (Ben Jonson, whose arrogance was matched only by his blubber, actually would be indignant at his perceived lack of prominence in comparison to pal Shakespeare.)

As described by his contemporaries, Webster was a very slow writer, one of the reasons that we don’t have much of his work today. His modern reputation entirely rests on three plays: the tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case; the tragedy, The White Devil; and his acknowledged masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

Comments Off on John Webster (c. 1580 – c. 1634)

Comments are closed at this time.