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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Webster (c. 1580–1634)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
LITTLE is known of the life of Shakespeare’s greatest pupil in tragedy, John Webster. He began to write for the stage about 1601: between 1601 and 1607 he made certain additions to Marston’s ‘Malcontent,’ and collaborated with Dekker in the ‘History of Sir Thomas Wyatt,’ ‘Northward Ho’ and ‘Westward Ho.’ In 1612 ‘Vittoria Corombona,’ the most famous of his tragedies, was published, and in 1623 ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ appeared. Webster’s classical tragedy, ‘Appius and Virginia,’ was not published until 1654. Besides these plays he wrote a tragi-comedy entitled ‘The Devil’s Law-Case,’ and with Rowley the curious drama of ‘A Cure for a Cuckold.’ In his introduction to the Mermaid Edition of Webster’s plays, J. A. Symonds points out that there is little internal evidence of this collaboration, for which the publisher Kirkman’s word was the authority. Mr. Edmund Gosse suggested that the little play within this play might be the work of Webster; and acting on this suggestion, the Hon. S. E. Spring-Rice detached the minor drama from ‘A Cure for a Cuckold,’ and under the name of ‘Love’s Graduate’ had it printed at the private press of Mr. Daniel. For two hundred years after Webster lived, he was almost forgotten. The keen appreciation of Charles Lamb rescued him from the strange oblivion which had rested upon his remarkable if sinister genius. In his ‘Specimens from the English Dramatic Poets,’ he accords him the highest praise. In 1830 the Rev. Alexander Dyce collected and edited the works of Webster; bringing them for the first time within the reach of the general reader, and securing the preservation of what are acknowledged masterpieces of a certain order of tragedy.  1
  The two Italian dramas, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘Vittoria Corombona; or The White Devil,’ belong to that strange genus, the “tragedy of blood,” which began with the extravagances of Kyd, a predecessor of Shakespeare, and received its highest illustration by the master himself in ‘Hamlet.’ Webster made a less plausible use of this kind of tragedy than did Shakespeare, although he sometimes approaches him in dramatic strength. His sinister imagination is like the lightning of a midnight tempest, revealing the tormented sky and the black fury of the storm. “No dramatist,” writes Mr. Symonds, “showed more consummate ability in heightening terrific effects, in laying bare the inner mysteries of crime, remorse, and pain;… he was drawn to comprehend and reproduce abnormal elements of spiritual anguish.” His men and women go out of life in a black mist, as they pass through it in a red mist of crime. Vittoria Corombona, the beautiful evil heroine of the play, cries out when she is stabbed:—
  “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven, I know not whither.”
  2
  Her brother, Flamineo, holds to the cynicism of his reckless life even amid the awful scenes of the last catastrophe.
  “We cease to grieve, cease to be fortune’s slaves,
Nay, cease to die, by dying.”
  3
  Yet the humanity of these men and women of Webster’s is not disguised by their crimes. His insight into human nature is deep and incisive, but he knew only its night side. He was in love with agony and abnormal wickedness, and with the tortures of sin-haunted souls. He found fitting material for his uses in the stories of crime furnished by the splendid, corrupt Italy of the sixteenth century. The plots of ‘Vittoria Corombona’ and of the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ are both taken from this source. Viewed in the light of Italian Renaissance history, they cannot be called extravagant; but the somber genius of Webster has made the most of their terrors.  4
  In his Roman play of ‘Appius and Virginia’ he has shown that he could write calmly and dispassionately, and without the effects of the terrible and the ghastly. It is a stately and quiet composition; but it lacks “those sudden flashes of illumination, those profound and searching glimpses into the bottomless abyss of human misery, which render the two Italian tragedies unique.”  5
  Webster’s style is singularly well adapted to the spirit in which he portrays human life. It is cutting, sententious, powerful. He has the faculty of expressing an entire gamut of human emotions in a few words, as when Ferdinand in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ sees the body of his twin-sister murdered by his orders, and exclaims—
  “Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle; she dies young.”
  6
  Webster’s portions in the collaborated plays are inconsiderable, and are not in any way characteristic of his peculiar genius.  7
 
 
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