Westward Ho!, pr. 1604 (with Thomas Dekker)
Northward Ho!, pr. 1605 (with Dekker)
The White Devil, pr. c. 1609-1612
The Duchess of Malfi, pr. 1614
The Devil’s Law-Case, pr. c. 1619-1622
Monuments of Honour, pr., pb. 1624
A Cure for a Cuckold, pr. c. 1624-1625 (with William Rowley)
Appius and Virginia, pr. 1634 (?; with Thomas Heywood)
John Webster is known for being the author of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Few other facts about his life are known with any certainty. The scant amount of biographical information about this remarkable writer is an indication of the slight esteem Renaissance England granted to its great drama. It also points out how exceptional is the relatively large amount of information surviving about William Shakespeare.
Because Webster stated in the epistle to his Monuments of Honour that he was “born free” of the Guild of Merchant Tailors (or Merchant Taylors’ Company), it is a reasonable assumption that the John Webster who appears in the guild records in 1571 and 1576 was his father. A John “Wobster” was a member of an Anglo-German acting company in 1596, and a John Webster was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1598. Possibly these references are to the dramatist. Thomas Heywood referred to the dramatist as being dead in 1635; the actual year of his death is unknown, however, and he may have died as much as ten years earlier.
The early part of Webster’s dramatic career was spent as a collaborator in Philip Henslowe’s prolific stable of playwrights; his chief collaborators were John Marston and Thomas Dekker. The first year any record of his theatrical activity exists is 1602. Webster is thought to have married a woman named Sara Peniall in March of 1605. Between 1610 and 1615 he reached his prime with the two celebrated tragedies that make his reputation. The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi have a number of similarities. Both portray a world of macabre evil in which good characters are tormented by the ambitious, lustful, and vengeful. Both are set in sixteenth century Italy and involve murderous plotters. In both, church and state are corrupt. In these dark masterpieces Webster reveals himself as a powerful poet and an excellent man of the theater. Nothing in the plays he wrote either before or after these masterpieces indicates a comparable power.