(c. 1580-c. 1634)
John Webster, a dramatic poet and playwright who flourished during the first twenty years of the seventeenth century, is best known for his melodramatic style emphasizing terror and pity. He was at times a collaborative writer; Web­ster's two tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, contributed to the development of Elizabethan drama as well as the revenge tradition.
Nearly nothing is known about Webster's life, and a great deal of his work has been lost. First mentioned in Philip Henslowe's* diary in 1602, Webster collaborated with many writers, most notably George Chapman* and Thomas Dekker.* During an early apprenticeship he worked with Dekker on such plays as Northward Ho! Westward Ho! and The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt. By 1604 Webster was writing for William Shakespeare's* company.
Scholars generally argue that Webster's talent as a tragic poet outweighs his merit as a playwright. This talent is clearly presented in his two great tragedies, The White Devil (1601-2) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14). Webster was a follower of the Senecan revenge tradition; his plays wax morbid and brooding, and his characters are motivated by their passions. The duchess, an intriguing heroine, is the victim of revenge. Her death consumes the entire fourth act of the play, displaying a hint of Webster's taste for the horrific. Webster uses supernatural themes, employs horror and gloom, and evokes a great pathos. In the eighteenth century Nathan Drake complimented his "demonic forcefulness of phrase," but Webster's plot construction is at times weak. However, there can be no question of Webster's greatness as a tragic poet.
His obsession with the idea of vengeance changed Elizabethan drama's con­cept of revenge. Webster's pity lay with the victim, not the avenger. The aveng­ing character is no longer the proper hero but Webster's villain. Revenge falls from a noble calling to a petty excuse. Revenge is a drive that overpowers Webster's characters, not a duty of society. Webster was apparently appreciated in his own time, since publishers often gave his name emphasis on title pages equal to that of Shakespeare. His appeal survives; both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are still produced today.
M. L. Ranald, John Webster, 1989.
Karolyn Kinane

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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  • WEBSTER, JOHN —    English dramatist of the 17th century; did a good deal as a dramatist in collaboration with others, but some four plays are exclusively his own work, the two best the White Devil and the Duchess of Malfi …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

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