Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin (...)
T. S. Eliot
(From "Shakespeare’s contemporaries", in Legouis and Cazamian’s History of English Literature, 1926-1937):
John Webster (1575?-1624?).— Of all the Elizabethans, it is John Webster who, after long oblivion, was most belauded by the Romantics. About the man it has been possible to discover hardly anything. He was born between 1570 and 1580 and disappeared in 1624. He wrote for the stage from 1602 onwards, serving for vive years as a sort of apprenticeship as collaborator with Heywood, Middleton, Marston, and, especially, Dekker, but his part, doubtless a subordinate one, in the works to which he contributed cannot be distinguished. His two masterpieces were produced between 1611 and 1614. He relapsed after them to mediocrity, and of his later work only his Roman play, Appius and Virginia, which dates from about 1620, has some merit. His authorship of it is to-day disputed, certain critics assigning it to Heywood.
He survives as the author of The White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona, played about 1611, and The Duchess of Malfi, about 1614. These tragedies are enough to prove his talent.
The first is one of a series of studies of courtesans which appeared one after another within a few years. It seems to have been Marston who broke the ice with his Dutch Courtesan, which the feeling Dekker answered by appealing for pity for his Bellafront. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra was an entirely original variation on the same theme. But Evadne, in The Maid’s Tragedy by Beaumont and Fletcher, Bianca, in Middleton’s Women Beware Women, and Webster’s Vittoria are closely analogous and all appeared about 1611. Webster’s and Middleton’s plays are pendants to each other with their atrocities, their Italian atmosphere, and the equally brilliant and criminal careers of the historic courtesans they portray, Bianca Cappello and Vittoria Accorombona.
From the beginning, the English dramatic muse was apt to sojourn in Italy. Shakespeare early transferred himself thither in imagination in The Two Gentlement of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet. But not until the seventeenth century did Italy become the conventional site of stage representations of unbridled passion and gloomy atrocity. The novel, led by Nashe, was in this ahead of the stage. Marston with Antonio and Mellida, The Malcontent, and The Fawn, Shakespeare with Othello, Jonson with Volpone, and Tourneur with The Revenger’s Tragedy, accustomed their public to see Italy as the natural home of voluptuous pleasure, bloodshed, and death. None, however, Italianized their scenes more exclusively and intensively than Webster. He specialized in Italy at a time when Fletcher and his collaborators were beginning to turn their attention to Spanish heroism.
Webster’s genius is seen in The White Devil, especially in his portrait of Vittoria, the courtesan, whose licence scandalized Rome at the end of the sixteenth century. It is she who is the white devil. he makes her guilt clear, but at the same time conveys an impression of her fascination, which he seems himself to feel. He is all admiration for this woman’s beauty, the energy of her ambition, and the presence of mind with which she faces desperate situations. As the wife of a poor gentleman, she is courted by Brachiano, Duke of Padua, and she convinces him that he must marry her, first ridding her her of her husband and himself of his virtuous wife. The double murder is accomplished, but suspicion rests on those who profit by it. Vittoria is summoned before an imposing court, over which the Duke of Florence and his brother, Cardinal Monticelso, afterwards Sixtus V, preside. Accusations, precise and overwhelming, are heaped upon her, but she meets her judges superbly, and with head held high turns their attack against them, reducing their proofs to nothingness and causing more than one of those present to waver. This scene on a large scale is admirable. Vittoria is none the less condemned to seclusion in a house of convertites, but escapes from it with her lover’s help. They are pursued by the vengeance of the Duke of Florence and killed one after the other, Vittoria holding out until she has exhausted every resource of invention, cunning, and courage. Even in her last hour she defends herself haughtily and, counting on the effect of her beauty, bares her bosom and walks to meet her assassins. She dies at last, confronting Fate with her last words:
My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven, I know not whither.
Beside her is her brother Flamineo, her tool, who has debauched her to advance her fortunes and whom she uses in her love-affairs. It is he who causes her unwanted husband to disappear. He is vice incarnate, and his moments of real valour make him, abject as he is, not altogether mean.
These characters are placed among many others and meet with singularly atrocious adventures. The melodramatic expedients, increasingly employed in every succeeding scene, are endless: Brachiano’s wife dies because her husband’s portrait, which she has the habit of kissing every evening, is poisoned: a magician causes Brachiano to witness the execution of the double crime he has ordered; the sister who has been slain appears unmistakably to the brother who mourns her and will avenge her; Brachiano’s murder is accomplished by pouring poison into a helmet afterwards riveted on to his head by an armourer, and he dies in atrocious pain while his enemies, disguised as Capuchins, reveal themselves to him in his last moments, telling the tale of his crimes and promising him damnation. The play is, moreover, spectacularly gorgeous: while the conclave is in session, servants are shown passing backwards and forwards, carrying dishes for the imprisoned cardinals; afterwards the election takes place, and the new pope appears in great ceremony, uttering a Latin formula. never has there been a more perfect fusion of pure drama, which is an effect of representing character and passions, and melodrama, which is based on the horror of physical impressions and on spectacular strangeness.
The Duchess of Malfi, a more closely knit play, makes the same appeal. The theme is persecuted virtue, a variant on the so popular one of revenge. There is again a question of vengeance, accomplished, as in The Spanish Tragedie, by strange means. The avengers are, however, moved by blind, unreasoning considerations, as, for instance, fury at misalliance, or they have low motives, like the desire to get possession of their victim’s fortune. The victim, the Duchess of Malfi (or Amalfi), is all goodness and innocence, and is driven to madness and death by her brothers because she has secretly married her steward, the virtuous Antonio.
The tragedy is full of Shakespearean reminiscences: the duchess recalls Desdemona, and Cariola, her woman, Emilia in Othello. Bosola, the monster, the tool of the two brothers, is modelled on Iago. The anger of Ferdinand, the criminal brother, against Bosola, after the murder he himself has ordered, is like that of King John against Hubert when he believes him to have put Arthur do death. The remorse of the other brother, the cardinal who can no longer pray, is a parallel to that of Claudius in Hamlet. Every such comparison would merely show up Webster’s extreme inferiority, were it not that the substitutes for the psychology, at which Shakespeare principally aims, a search for the pathos inherent in situations and even in material effects. It is this search which is proper to melodrama. Webster has a strange power of evoking shudders. His means are sometimes the more effective for their simplicity. The duchess, compelled by fear of her brothers to keep her marriage secret, is iscovered in her chamber conversing with her husband, Antonio, her heart filled with joy and love. Antonio leaves her without her knowledge; she continues to speak, thinking he hears her, but her listener is now one of the brothers she fears, to whom she thus betrays herself. Whoever watches the play feels a catch at his heart, as he perceives her error while she is still unaware of it. The impulse is to cry out to her to beware. Some of Webster’s devices are, howver, much less innocent than this one. The avenging brothers revel in macabre inventions to torture their poor victim: one of them, feigning to give her his hand, leaves a severed hand in her grasp; she is shown wax figures which represent the murder of her husband and children; the inmates of a madhouse are let loose in her palace.
These inferior artistic expedients are, however, relieved by the poetry of melancholy and death which dominates the whole tragedy. Webster is a true poet, the author of some of the most beautiful songs of the Renascence, and throughout, in the very web of his style, are images, funereal in mood, which have the breath of graveyards upon them, yet strike and stir the heart. More than this, the play contains the character of the duchess. At first, although her love endears her, she is not original, but she is transfigured by persecution and becomes in her despair a lofty and solemn figure. Throughout her cruel trials she never fails to ennoble the tragedy by the somber poetry of her speech. Her reason is proof against all the assaults upon her. Cariola, her woman, struggles and cries out when she is faced with death, but death cannot make the duchess tremble. So beautiful and so noble does she remain in death that her brother, who has ordered her murder, cannot bear to see her face:
Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.
Not until Edgar Poe was there another genius as completely morbid as Webster. His highly special and restricted talent was active only in one genre and accomplished only two memorable plays. He was an artist, but an a painful and laborious one. The effort to which productions compelled him recalls Ben Jonson. His preface to The White Devil shows that, like Jonson, he knew the limae labor et mora, that, like him, he despised popular improvisations and the judgments of the public. A contemporary satirist made fun of the trouble writing was to him:
How he scrubs: wrings his wrists: scratches his pate!
But Webster gloried in his own painstaking. He would have attempted the most difficult form of art, for it was his desire to compose in despite of the prevailing taste, a regular sententious tragedy, respectful of the unities, lofty in style, having its chorus and messenger. The aspiration was curious in one who stands for the triumph of melodrama raised to the level of true poetry.