Bloodthirsty child, collaborative dramatist and last of the great Elizabethan playwrights.

John Webster (c.1580 – c.1634)

Webster was born in London sometime around 1580 (16 years after Shakespeare), the son of a carriage maker and a blacksmith's daughter. Brought up in the parish of St. Sepulchre, Newgate, his father was a prominent member of the Guild of Merchant Taylors, with Webster probably attending the Merchant Taylors' School.

Bloodthirsty child and early years

In the film Shakespeare in Love (1998), John Webster makes a cameo as a young street urchin who enjoys feeding live mice to cats. When asked by Shakespeare what he thought of Titus Andronicus, Webster replies: 'I like it when they cut their heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives...Plenty of blood. That is the only writing.' Later in the film, when asked what he thinks of Romeo and Juliet, Webster says: 'I liked it when she stabbed herself.' All this, of course, is fictional, but the characters in Webster's tragedies tend to meet rather gruesome ends...

We know little about Webster's early years, except that he may have been a member of the Middle Temple; an entry to the admissions register 'Magister Johannes Webster' in 1598 and his knowledge of Law in later plays makes this likely. The White Devilfor example, is especially concerned with the dark depths of politics. 

In 1606, Webster married Sara Peniall by special license in Islington, as at the time, she was seven months pregnant with their first child. 

A man dressed in black angrily clutches a Cardinal dressed in red
The Duchess of Malfi (2000) directed by Gale Edwards.
Photo by J. Dockar-Drysdale © RSC Browse and license our images

Collaborative work and rivalry

In 1604, Webster collaborated with fellow playwright Thomas Dekker on Westward Ho! Rivals Ben Jonson and company answered this with Eastward Ho! with Webster and Dekker then retaliating with Northwood Ho! (1605). This kind of rivalry was common in the London theatre and the audience would have enjoyed seeing the playwrights 'battle it out' for public favour.

Some of Webster's other collaborations include the tragedy Caesar's Fall, the history play Sir Thomas Wyatt and Christmas Comes but Once a Year. 

The last of the great Elizabethan Playwrights

Webster is best known for his two macabre tragedies based on real-life events in Italy. The White Devil, based on the assassination of the Italian noblewoman Vittoria Accoramboni, follows the illicit affair between Vittoria and the Duke Bracciano, with their actions resulting in an epic and bloody end. Webster, in his preface to the 1612 Quarto edition, tells the reader it was a failure when first performed by the Queen Anne's Men at the Red Bull Theatre.

Webster's most famous piece The Duchess of Malfi (c.1614), however, enjoyed success at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre and later, at the outdoor Globe Theatre. Loosely based on the life of the Duchess of Almafi, Giovanna d'Aragona, Webster's account follows two corrupt brothers as they take revenge on their sister for marrying below her class. The play is considered to be among the finest of all Jacobean tragedies.

In the words of Echo & The Bunnymen, 'John Webster was, One of the best there was...'