John Webster


Although there are many (including the Norton Anthology of English Literature) who rate John Webster (circa 1580-1625) as second to Ben Jonson; after reading his 'The Duchess of Malfi', it's difficult to rate him anywhere near Jonson. There are moments, sparks, good bits of macabre intrigue, but on the whole the tragedy seems incoherent in many ways. One can't imagine his 17th century audience blissfully leaving the theatre after the performance. One imagines them picking holes in it, asking questions like- 'why did Daniel de Bosola do such dirty deeds without first securing his position, and why did he do such things in any case? Was it a satire? The mad gang were too lucid and intelligible to convince anyone they were raving mad. They, along with their silly song and tiresome repartee, did little to improve the play, etc..'

Amongst the better parts, here's an example of one of the verses supposedly cited by Bosola before he authorises the executions required by the Duchess' beastly brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal.

'Hark, now everything is still
The screech owl and the whistler° shrill    °A bird than warns of death
Call upon our dame aloud,
And bid her quickly don her shroud!
Much you had of land and rent:
Your length in clay's now competent.°         °enough
A long war disturbed your mind:
Here your perfect peace is signed.
Of what is 't fools make such vain keeping?
Sin their conception, their birth weeping,
Their life a general mist of error,
Their death a hideous storm of terror.
Strew your hair with powders sweet,
Don clean linen, bathe your feet,
And (the foul fiend more to check)
A crucifix let bless your neck:
'Tis now full tide 'tween night and day;
End your groan, and come away.'

It's interesting, also in view of whatever weaknesses it has, to use this play as a 'back-drop reference' for what was apparently considered as 'acceptable' and 'fashionable' Elizabethan and Jacobean play-writing. For example, it seems that one had to show one's knowledge of Greek mythology, by regularly making metaphorically references. One also tended to make allusions to astrology and science. Although in Webster's case it sometimes creates laboured and pedantic results, the inclination indicates what must have been a considerable social, religious, political and scientific reaction that continued in the wake of Henry VIII's divorce from Roman Catholicism. It might also remind us of the similar tendency and fashions during the French Revolution when the French, then going to extremes by virtually outlawing religion altogether, also took to nature, science, astrology, Greek mythology, and even restyled Greek fashions for women (the Empire line) which lasted well into the Napoleonic era. The retracing of cultural roots has also been termed 'the age of enlightenment' and 'intellectual revival'. But in the case of the French Revolution, Bacon's final observation (Of Superstition) might spring to mind once more-
'There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad, which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.'

An interesting point to Webster's credit is that he seems to have shunned the strict rules of Elizabethan and Jacobean social class. He more defended than condemned the freedom of the Duchess as a positive woman, bestowing her with admirable courage and dignity to be able to assume not only her own free will and choice, but also to confront her own death which was the price she ultimately had to pay. Surely Queen Elizabeth herself must also have helped in influencing a change in the English establishment's social rules, certainly regarding women.

Needless to add, Roman Catholic Italy was still then a good target and an axe to grind for English playwrights, and one could give one's imagination free rein in painting a dire picture of luxurious corruption, hypocrisy and evil, which had relatively little or nothing to do with the reality of Italy. Shakespeare was more cosmopolitan and therefore aware of how things really were. Webster, in fact, had never gone to Italy. The Duchess of Malfi was based on an early 16th century scandal of which there were various accounts (apparently in French, English and Italian).
Not a great deal is known about John Webster himself. He seems as shadowy as his hellishly lit plays.
Text and image © Mirino. Source and Webster extract, The Norton Anthology English Literature.
With thanks, May, 2011

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