Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part Two > Tourneur and Webster > The Devils Law-case: influence of Fletcher
  Appius and Virginia Secret of Webster’s genius: his profound knowledge of human character and sense of tragic issues  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VII. Tourneur and Webster.

§ 13. The Devils Law-case: influence of Fletcher.


The two remaining plays have proved strangely baffling to the critics; and that, no less in regard to source and date than to intrinsic value. The Devils Law-case, as it stands, cannot have been written before the latter part of 1620; or there is a clear allusion  20  to an unhappy affray, in August, 1619, with the Dutch in the East Indies (not Amboina), news of which can hardly have reached England till the autumn of the following year. There is a suspicious resemblance in the central incident, the lying self-slander of Leonora, to incidents in Fletcher’s Spanish Curate and The Faire Maide of the Inne. The latter, however, was not licensed for acting until January, 1626; and it contains an explicit reference to the massacre of Amboina, which did not become known in England till May, 1624. It can hardly, therefore, have served as material for Webster in or before 1623. The Spanish Curate, licensed October, 1622, is a more likely source, or Gerardo, itself the source of Fletcher’s play, which was translated into English in that year.  21  It has been urged, though this seems less probable, that Webster may have taken the hint from a like incident in Lust’s Dominion, which, probably, dates back to 1600. Other sources of Webster’s incidents are Goulart’s Histoires Admirables (2nd ed. 1606), which had already been used by him in The Dutchesse Of Malfy, and which suggested the cure by stabbing in this play; perhaps, also, the trials for sorcery conducted in France 1610–11. An account of these, by Michaelis, had been translated into English in 1613—the highly protestant introduction may well have appealed to Webster—and they seem to be alluded to more than once in this play (especially at the end of act IV, where the reference to France is quite irrelevant) and may even have suggested its title. It is not impossible that the very name of Romelio may be an adaptation of Romillon, who took a leading part in these grim investigations. But, whatever the exact sources of this puzzling drama, its whole spirit betrays the influence of Fletcher. This appears in the romantic cast of the incidents, in the irresponsibility of the characters, and in the nonchalant charity of the author towards the insufferable baseness of Romelio. Fletcher’s influence, however, is conspicuously absent from the rhythm, unless the marked increase of fluency, as compared with the two tragedies, may be attributed to this source. On the whole, however, there is more substance, and more elevation of spirit, in Webster’s tragicomedy than in most of Fletcher’s. As a drama, in spite of obvious blemishes, the former deserves more praise than it has commonly received. And there are touches of poetry, as well as of metrical effect, which worthily recall The Dutchesse Of Malfy.   28
  A Cure for a Cuckold is assigned by its original editor to the joint workmanship of Webster and William Rowley. Webster’s authorship, though it has sometimes been questioned, is attested by the style, as well as by not a few echoes of phrasing. If the underplot, which gives title to the play, is from his hand, we might be tempted to see in it a return to the inspiration of Dekker. Yet if any share belongs to Rowley, it can hardly be other than these scenes. And the question is too speculative to be profitably discussed. As to the influence of Fletcher on the main theme, there can be no manner of doubt; and it is yet more marked than in The Devils Law-case. The action is yet more full of startling and romantic incident; the shiftings of mood and purpose are still more sudden; the stress thrown on scenic effect, at the expense of character, is still stronger. That the plot is modelled on anything to be found in Fletcher, cannot be asserted. The Little French Lawyer 22  is the only play which, in this respect, offers any analogy; and the analogy is not very close. On the other hand there is the strongest resemblance between the plot of Webster’s play and that of Massinger’s The Parliament of Love (licensed November, 1624). The central incident of both is a duel imposed on a man, without reason, by his mistress—an incident, the germ of which is to be found in The Dutch Courtezan of Webster’s early partner, Marston.  23  And, considering Webster’s docility, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the debt, probably, was on his side. Nor is there anything against this supposition save the opinion, which, after all, has no evidence to support it, that Webster died in 1625 (August-September) and that he worked too slowly to have produced a play in the interval. The point, however, is not of first importance. For the influence of Massinger, at any rate in his earlier work, bore entirely in the same direction as that of Fletcher; and the younger poet may fairly be called the disciple of the elder. Thus, the last play of Webster carries on the tradition of that which had gone before it. Alike in plot and in general spirit, it belongs, directly or indirectly, to the school of Fletcher, and reflects his influence. The seriousness of the two tragedies has completely vanished; and it is ill replaced by the honest highwayman, the seafight, the groundless jealousies and the no less groundless returns to reason, which form the staple of A Cure for a Cuckold. In the graver part of the play, there is only one scene, that on the sands of Calais, where the genius of Webster can be said worthily to assert itself. And the comic scenes, which are more likely to be the work of Rowley, are far better sustained than the main plot with which they are interwoven. Fletcher, with all his brightness and poetic feeling has much to answer for; and nowhere was his influence less happily put forth than upon the essentially serious genius of Webster.   29
  Of The Thracian Wonder, published in 1661 by the same editor (Kirkman) as A Cure for a Cuckold, there is no need to speak. No one, except that editor, has ever supposed that Webster can have had a hand in it. A word will suffice as to Monuments of Honor, a city pageant, or A Monumental Column, an elegy on the death of prince Henry (1613), the only poem of length by Webster which has come down to us. It contains a few fine lines, more than one of which were subsequently transferred to his dramas—an apologue conceived in the same vein as that of The Dutchesse Of Malfy, and a few turns of thought and phrase which recall the author’s spiritual affinity with Donne.   30

Note 20. Act IV, sc. 2. [ back ]
Note 21. Cf. ante, Appendix to Chap. V. [ back ]
Note 22. Cf. ante, Chap. V. [ back ]
Note 23. Cf. ante, Chap. II. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Appius and Virginia Secret of Webster’s genius: his profound knowledge of human character and sense of tragic issues  
 
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