Playwright John Webster was born sometime in about 1580. Little is known of his early years but it is thought that he was a practising lawyer. His father, also John Webster, a coach maker, married a blacksmith’s daughter named Elizabeth Coates. They lived in St. Sepulchre’s parish. Father John, and Uncle, Edward Webster, were Freemen of the Merchant Taylors’ Company and Webster attended Merchant Taylors’ School in Suffolk Lane, London.

At the beginning of the 17th century Webster collaborated with Thomas Dekker on Westward Ho. He produced nothing between 1605 and 1611, then he wrote The Duchess of Malfi , which was performed both at the Globe public theatre and Blackfriars playhouse. The play is considered to be among the finest of all Jacobean tragedies.

Webster probably died sometime in the 1630’s, but that is no more than an educated guess as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed all of the parish records.

Webster’s two most famous plays are The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. In The White Devil the Duke of Brachiano and Vittoria Corombona (both married to other people), indulge in a love affair. The Duke has his wife and her husband murdered, which results in a whole series of revenge murders. In The Duchess of Malfi, the widowed duchess marries Antonio, against the wishes of her two brothers who regard him as socially inferior. The result is unbelievable violence and a blood-drenched stage.

These two plays are often quoted as the prime examples of the fashion for extreme violence in Jacobean theatre. Webster was not afraid of tackling the darker side of human nature and the extremes to which human beings are prepared to go in pursuit of their ends. However, although Webster’s plays include adultery, murder, treachery, and Machiavellian plots, he doesn’t write that way to shock: his plays show the real, unpleasant, truths about life. They are about class, justice, love and lust, religion, politics, sibling relations, and immorality in the courts. His plays are shocking, gripping and enthralling.

Like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Webster was a giant of the theatre.

Read more about Shakespeare’s other contemporaries >>

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