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Webster in Baugh

jueves, 14 de noviembre de 2013

Webster in Baugh

On the Jacobean dramatist John WEBSTER. From A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh.
Book II (The Renaissance, 1500-1660) was written by Tucker Brooke and Matthias A. Shaaber.

John Webster (28) was no traditionalist, as Dekker and Heywood were, and cannot be grouped with them without some blurring of his uniqueness; but he cannot be classed, either, with the more typical Jacobeans. He was neither a satirist, a defeatist, nor an escapist, and the tone of his greatest works allies him more closely with Shakespeare and Marlowe than with any of his more exact contemporaries. The record of his life is almost non-existent and the bibliography of his writings exceptionally obscure and fragmentary; two strange facts, since his prefaces indicate that hardly even Jonson had a serener confidence in the merits of his work, and the emphasis the publishers gave his name on the title-pages is equal to that they gave to Shakespeare's. The complimentary verses which Middleton, Rowley, and Ford all wrote for The Duchess of Malfi are a rare tribute to great (and it would appear, broadly recognized) achivement.

Webster is first mentioned in Henslowe's Diary in 1602 as author of various plays which have now disappeared. One of them, Lady Jane (viz., Grey), can probably be traced in Sir Thomas Wyat, printed in 1607 as by Dekker and Webster. It is a loose chronicle play, in casual verse and prose, and is most akin to the first part of Heywood's If You Know Not Me, which it likewise resembles in being preserved in a very faulty text (29). In 1604 Webster wrote for Shakespeare's company the famous induction to Marston's Malcontent, which, unfortunately brief as it is, gives a priceless view of what went on during a performance at the Globe. About the same time he collaborated with Dekker again in two city comedies for the Children of Paul's, Westward Ho! and Northward Ho! The former received a notable accolade from Ben Jonson in the prologue of the oppositely-named Eastward-Ho!

For that was good, and better cannot be

They are lively and well-plotted pieces, both in prose and both dealing with the amorous amusements of London wives. It is naturally impossible to recognize in them the later Webster, but they do not appear to be overwhelmingly Dekker's work (30). They are quite devoid of the caustic satire which was the fashion of the day, and, though the language and situations are pungent enough, the moral in both plays is the unfashionable one that the citizens' wives are a good deal better than their reputations. The loss of Webster's play of Guise is much to be deplored. He evidently thought well of it, bracketing it with The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi in the dedication of his Devil's Law-Case. It was most likely founded on Marlowe's Massacre at Paris and would probably emphasize the Maralovian strain in Webster. His fame rests now almost wholly upon the two tragedies just mentioned, which are like no other plays of the period.

The White Devil

The White Devil was acted by the Queen's Company (Heywood's) and printed in 1612. It concerns the rather recent case of Vittoria Accoramboni, Duchess of Bracciano, who lived from 1557 to 1585. By following the available accounts of her brief and stormy life Webster could have produced a much more plausible tragedy than the one he wrote (31); but Webster is never plausible, and when he varies from his sources usually does so in order to emphasize the brutal irrationality of life, and thus increases his constructional difficulties. Vittoria in his play is neither white nor a devil. Her complicity in her husband's murder, though morally certain, is not avowed, and in the great scene of Act III, in which she is arraigned before Cardinal Monticelso and the embarrassed ambassadors, Webster allows her all the honors of the conflict. It is a scene that John Fletcher may be thought to have done well to copy a year or two later, when he wrote Katharine of Aragon's defense of herself before Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius (32). Vittoria has a brother, Flamineo, who is one of the most bloodcurdingly real villains in English drama, and a mother, Cornelia, who is one of its most pathetic creations, a kind of ancient Ophelia. Webster works with terror and pity, undiluted, and in copious ouptorings. He employs ghosts and horrid dumbshows after the manner of the early Senecans, and has many of the grisliest stage deaths in literature. Isabella dies by kissing a poisoned picture of her husband. Camillo's neck is broken by his companions while vaulting, Brachiano is killed by a poisoned helmet (the pain driving him mad), Marcello is without warning run through the body by his brother in their mother's presence; Vittoria, Zanche, and Flamineo are all stabbed after a scene in which Flamineo has most horribly pretended to be shot with pistols. The deaths pile up so lawlessly that one is tempted to retort upon the author the last question of the play:

By what authority have you committed
This massacre?

But between these are small and moving voices that protest and point the pity of it; for instance, the boy Giovanni's talk with his uncle (III.i) and Cornelia's mad song (V. i),

Call for the robin readbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.

The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi, which was acted by Shakespeare's company about 1613 and revised a little later, is a better play because, along with as much terror, it has more pity, and so gives Webster's view of life in better balance. The plot, derived from Bandello through Painter and based on very early sixteenth-century history, has been made as absurd as possible. The duchess, contracting a marriage of love with her honest and knightly master of the household, must keep it secret from her two domineering brothers, who have planted a super-spy, Bosola, in her palace to inform them of just such matters. An average detective would do Bosola's business in a day, but in this play the obvious is never discernible. Years pass, while Bosola pries and plots. Children are born and almost grow to maturity in the way Sidney deplored, before the wicked brothers find a motive for their cruelty. The fourth act is wholly devoted to the duchess's death, and may well be the greatest death scene in Elizabethan literature. The fifth act, which presents six deaths more, should be anticlimax, but is kept aloft by Webster's mastery of the macabre.

The business of Webster's plays almost carries one back to the work of Kyd, but his strange art is far more intelligent. His style is curiously unrhythmic, except in the songs which crash in, like the trumpets of doom, upon the cacopohonies of mundane speech. His dialogue is often patched with sayings from Sidney, Montaigne, or Donne, which he had stored in his notebooks (33), and he sometimes introduces formal "characters" such as he was writing for the Overbury collection (34). His view of life is Elizabethan rather than Jacobean in the sharp distinction he maintains between good and bad and the straightforwardness with which he faces death and horror. He is one of the most romantic of dramatists. Life, he teaches, is a labyrinth. "Wish me good speed," says the Duchess near the beginning of her play,

For I am going into a wilderness,
Where I shall find no path nor friendly clue
To be my guide.

The only constant is death, up to which he leads his characters relentlessly, and dismisses them under tha glare of death's great illumination. He makes no theological assertions, but the reading of him is a kind of religious experience, and if any affinity for him must be sought among the Stuart writers, it will be found in such mystic poets as Herbert or Vaughan. Webster, too, seems constantly to be whispering,

Dear, beauteous death, the jewel of the just,
    Shining nowhere but in the dark,
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust,
    Could man outlook that mark! (35)

No one, however, is more like him than Shakespeare's in the latter's darkest moods, and the play that most resembles Webster's two tragedies is King Lear. Lear says something very like "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (36), and Gloster parallels Bosola's cosmic despair,

We are merely the star's tennis-balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them. (37)

Webster's most famous line,

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young,

may have had its cue in King Lear, v. iii. 242; and perhaps only Shakespeare can bedew his horror with such appeals to simple pity as the Duchess's

I pray thee, look thou giv'st my little boy
Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl
Say her prayers ere she sleep.

Webster's two later plays, The Devil's Law-Case (1623) and A Cure for a Cuckold (printed 1661)—the latter in unfortunate collaboration with Rowley—must be briefly dismissed; not because they are altogether inferior, but because Webster is here attempting tragicomedy and finds that medium too light for his hand. The chief figure of the Law-Case, Romelio, the wealthy merchant of Naples, who in one scene disguised as a Jew, is a not unworthy imitation of Marlowe's Barabas, and his mother and sister belong with Webster's greatest women. The long court scene (IV. ii), which occupies a fifth of the play, is comparable with the one in The White Devil, and some of Webster's most characteristic lines are in this play, as well as one of his greatest songs,

Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest breath and clearest eye,
Like perfumes, go out and die.


(28) See F. L. Lucas, Complete Works of John Webster (4v., 1927); E. E. Stoll, John Webster (Cambridge, Mass., 1905): Rupert Brooke, John Webster and the Elizaethan Drama (1916).

(29). See M. F. Martin, "If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody and The History of Sir Thomas Wyat," Library, XIII (1932). 272-281; W. L. Halstead, "Note on the Text of  . . . Sir Thomas Wyatt," MLN XIV (1939). 585-589.

(30). See F. E. Pierce, The Collaboration of Webster and Dekker (1909).

(31). See B. Colonna, La nipote di Sisto V: il dramma di Vittoria Accoramboni (Milan, 1936), and Lucas's historical introduction, Works of Webster, I. 70-90.

(32). Henry VIII, III. i. Fletcher's additions to Holinshed's account may be presumed to come from Webster.

(33). See C. Crawford, Collectanea, I. 20-46, II. 1-63 (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1906, 1907).

(34). E.g. White Devil, III. ii 82-85) (ed. Lucas); Duchess of Malfi I. i. 157-166.

(35). Henry Vaughan, "They are all gone into the world of light."

(36). King Lear, IV. vi. 110, "Ay, every inch a king!"

(37). See King Lear, IV. i. 36 f.

John Webster (The Oxford Companion to Eng. Lit.)

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