JOHN WEBSTER was a Londoner born in 1578 or 1579, which made him about fifteen years younger than Shakespeare, and he lived until the early 1630s. He was the son of a successful coachmaker, John Webster senior, whose business supplying coaches and wagons brought him into contact with London theater companies needing carts to transport their properties and costumes. He was also brought into contact with those who built the yearly pageants for the Lord Mayor’s celebrations. Tradition has it that the young John Webster was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School and the Middle Temple (London’s training ground for lawyers), but the evidence for these claims is sparse. We know for certain that he married Sara Penial in March of 1606 when she was seven months pregnant, and that he began to write plays shortly after 1600. Like many dramatists of the period, much of Webster’s career was spent in collaborative writing. In 1602 the theater manager Richard Henslowe lent money to Webster, Munday, Middleton, Drayton, and Webster to complete a play on the life of Julius Caesar for the Admiral’s Men. That play is not extant, nor are many others upon which Webster worked; but we do have the two lively city comedies, Westward Ho and Northward Ho, that he wrote with Thomas Dekker in 1604 and 1605 for the Children of St. Paul’s, and the history play, Sir Thomas Wyatt, printed in 1607, also a collaboration with Dekker. On his own, Webster wrote two of the greatest tragedies of the Jacobean period—The White Devil in 1612 and The Duchess of Malfi in 1614—and a tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case, in 1617 or 1618. In the later years of his career he wrote city comedies and tragicomedies in collaboration with Middleton, Rowley, Fletcher, and others.
Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University