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John Webster 1578 - 1632

English playwright and poet. He is best known for his two tragedies, The White Devil (1609-12) and The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13), and his tragicomedy The Devil's Law-Case (1617-21). He was a dramatist of great poetic power who is now considered second only to Shakespeare among the playwrights of his day. Another notable work is his poem on the death of Prince Henry, A Monumental Column (1613). He also wrote plays with other dramatists, including Dekker, Rowley, Ford, Fletcher and Marston.


Though he has since become recognised as one of the greatest writers of the Jacobean era, Webster's plays were not particularly popular in his own lifetime, and very little is known about him. His father was a successful coachmaker in Smithfield, London, and Webster may have earned a living by combining this trade with his writing.

It seems likely that the playwright was the same 'Master John Webster of London, gentleman' who is listed as a law student at the Middle Temple, London, in 1598. The next record of Webster is supplied in 1602 by the theatre owner Philip Henslowe, who describes him as writing a play with a group of others, including Thomas Middleton. He continued as a hack writer for several years, learning his trade on the production line which kept the Jacobean stage supplied with new plays.

The first of his two great tragedies, The White Devil, was poorly received when it was first performed by the Queen's men, but Webster was not discouraged; when the play was published in 1612 he included a preface attributing the failure to the weather, the shoddy condition of the theatre, and an audience he describes as 'ignorant asses'. His next play, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed by a rival company, the King's Majesty's Servants; it was much more successful, justifying Webster's estimate of his own ability.

Though he never equalled the achievement of these two tragedies, Webster continued to write drama and poetry, as well as contributing to Sir Thomas Overbury's prose collection, Characters, in 1615. The only other thing we know about him is that his wife was called Sara, and they had several children. Interest in Webster's plays was revived by Charles Lamb in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare (1808), and they are still frequently performed. As he remarked to his critics, '[thy work] shall only be read for three days, whereas mine shall continue for three ages'.

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