In the romantic comedy film Shakespeare in Love (1998), John Webster makes a brief cameo as a bloodthirsty child who claims that his favourite play is Titus Andronicus because ‘I like it when they cut heads off’. Although Webster’s bleak tragedies do feature a lot of death dealt out in various and lurid ways, both the man and his writings are more complex.
Birth, family background and education
Webster was born in London between 1578 and 1580, the son of John Webster (d. 1614/15). The Websters manufactured coaches, fashionable in Jacobean London, wagons for conveying criminals, pageants in the annual Lord Mayor’s Shows and funeral processions. Webster’s involvement in the administrative side of the business might explain the relatively small number of plays he appears to have written. Webster Sr was a prominent member of the Guild of Merchant Taylors, and his son probably attended the intellectual Merchant Taylors’ School. After school he attended New Inn, and then the Middle Temple in 1598 for legal training. Several of Webster’s plays demonstrate his knowledge of, and perhaps his distaste for, the legal world. He married Sara Peniall in 1606, and they had several children.
Webster’s playwriting career
Webster’s earliest plays were co-authored with other dramatists. In 1604 the title page of John Marston’s The Malcontent claims that Webster provided the induction and additional material for the play. In 1604–05 he co-wrote the city comedies Westward Ho and Northward Ho with Thomas Dekker. Webster seems to have produced little more dramatic work until his first great tragedy, The White Devil, performed by Queen Anne’s Men at the Red Bull in about 1612.
Webster’s masterpiece, the tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, was first performed at the Blackfriars Theatre by the King’s Men before 1614, but not printed until 1623. Webster’s next surviving play was the tragicomedy The Devil’s Law-Case (written c. 1618; printed 1623).
His subsequent plays were all collaborations, including Anything for a Quiet Life with Thomas Middleton (c. 1621), and The Fair Maid of the Inn with John Ford and Philip Massinger (1625). He also contributed to the Lord Mayor’s pageant Monuments of Honour, for the Merchant Taylors’ Company in 1624.
Wider literary career
Webster also produced other literary works: an elegy on the death of Prince Henry in 1612, and several prose ‘characters’ (sketches of different types of personality and occupations) in later editions of Sir Thomas Overbury’s poem The Wife (1615 onwards). He probably died in the 1630s.
Further information about the life of John Webster can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.