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Webster, John

As with most playwrights of the early modern period, little is categorically known about John Webster’s life. However, the following biography is constructed from the written sources which give clues about his life, and follows what is generally agreed by critics and historians.

John Webster’s exact date of birth is unknown, although it is thought he was born in either 1578 or 1579, which places him as approximately 15 years younger than his contemporary, . Despite the vagueness surrounding his birthdate, it is commonly known that he was born the son of a successful coach-maker in Smithfield, London, and he is later thought to have entered into the Merchant Taylor’s Company of which his father was already a member. Little else is known about his personal life other than his marriage in 1606 and the arrival of his first child, who is thought to have been born within just a few months of the wedding. Most other details, including his death, are uncertain.

This is not the case, however, for his work as a playwright. Indeed, there is a much clearer record of his work life than there is of his life at home. In the early 1600s, Webster produced a number of plays in collaboration with other writers of the time, and it is these which make up the majority of his work overall. In fact, it is thought that Webster produced only four plays of his own, one of which (if it ever actually existed) has been lost. Writers that Webster is known to have worked with include prominent playwrights of the period, such as Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, John Ford, and Thomas Middleton, with Thomas Heywood and John Fletcher also being suggested as producing works to which Webster contributed. There then appears to be a break in his work around the time of his marriage, before he reappears a few years later, but this time with a play of his own.

The White Devil, first performed in 1612 and thought to have been written around three years earlier, is one of Webster’s most successful plays, second only to The Duchess of Malfi. Webster began his work on The Duchess of Malfi in the same year as The White Devil made its first performance, although it was not published until 1623. Alongside it, Webster’s final single-authored play, The Devil’s Law Case (written in 1616), was published.

John Webster’s dramatic, and other written, output was relatively small, especially when compared with other writers in the same period. For instance Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets and five long narrative poems. The limited output of Webster might suggest that he had other, independent means of income. Webster was not formally attached to a company as was Shakespeare, nor was he a freelance writer regularly offering his plays to all companies, like . This perhaps means he was unaccustomed to writing for particular audiences and was not in the same ‘professional writer’ category as most dramatists of the time.
In 1638, a John Webster is recorded as having been buried in St James’s, Clerkenwell, but Thomas Heywood’s The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels seems to suggest that John Webster the playwright may already have been dead by 1634.
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Around 1580

John Webster, playwright, born

He was the eldest son of John Webster, a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company.
Around 1597

Seems to have been a Law student at Middle Temple

It is generally accepted, especially because of the detailed legal knowledge apparent in his plays, that John Webster was a Law student at Middle Temple. However, it appears that he did not complete his studies as no record of an award of qualification exists.

The first definite written reference to John Webster

The first definite written reference to John Webster appears in Philip Henslowe’s papers. An entry shows payments made to John Webster for his part in writing three plays, all now lost.

Death of Elizabeth I

She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.

Webster contributed to John Marston’s tragicomedy The Malcontent

He also collaborated with Thomas Dekker on the satire of city life Westward Ho! and contributed to Arches of Triumph, verses celebrating the coronation of King James I.

Collaborated again with Thomas Dekker

The work was a second satire of city life, Northward Ho!

Webster and his wife, Sara, started a family

By 1606 John Webster was married to Sara, who bore him several children from 1606 onwards.

Publication of The White Devil

The play was performed prior to publication at the Red Bull Theatre, Clerkenwell. The performance was poorly received, as is evident in the prefatory Note to the Reader. Webster also contributed to Heywood’s An Apology for Actors.

The first performance of The Duchess of Malfi probably occurred

The Duchess of Malfi is, today, Webster’s most well-known and celebrated play. In 1613 Webster also wrote an elegy for the eldest son of James I.

Webster’s father died

John Webster became a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company following his father’s death. This right would have been inherited from his father.

Collaborated with others towards the Lord Mayor’s Pageant and a popular, topical tragedy

Webster collaborated with others towards the Lord Mayor’s Pageant and a popular, topical tragedy called The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother or Keep the Widow Waking.

John Webster may already have been dead

Heywood’s The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels seems to suggest that John Webster was already dead by this time.

A John Webster was buried in St James’s, Clerkenwell

A John Webster, but not necessarily the playwright John Webster, was recorded as being buried in St James’s, Clerkenwell, in 1638.