Webster: It’s not all bloody tragedy you know!

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve had chance to write a post, research tends to take over sometimes. But in the meantime I’ve been working my way through another Early Modern playwright’s canon: John Webster. Best known for his Duchess of Malfi and White Devil, particularly over the last year or so with the production of Malfi at the SWP (which luckily, for those unable to make it to the candle-filled playhouse like me, also got an airing on the BBC) and the RSC production of White Devil as part of the Roaring Girl season at the Swan last Autumn. And even to those unfamiliar with these two plays, thanks to Shakespeare in Love Webster has become immortalised as the troubled youth who enjoys torturing animals – a nod to the brutality his tragedies are full of.

John Webster in Shakespeare in Love

Of course his works are far more than violent bloody messes, and furthermore Webster didn’t just write two plays. As a collaborator his canon is far bigger than this, and perhaps even more surprisingly many of the other plays are funny – and I don’t just mean black comedy. Clocking in at 4 volumes, the complete works of Webster span a range of genres and it’s about time I got down to the business of discussing what is after all the thing, the plays.

I should clarify before I continue which edition I’m using – the joys of authorship debates and collaboration discussions mean that what I was reading as Webster may now have been reattributed. In all honesty what I’m concerned with more than who wrote them are the plays themselves. Whoever’s name, or not, they’ve got printed on their spines. But for clarity the editions I’ve been reading are: The Complete Works of John Webster ed. by F.L. Lucas vols. 1-4 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1927). Lucas sets the scene for us on Webster’s canon, ‘Webster’s fame rests on his two great plays; the rest of his work is seldom more than meritorious, and sometimes less. In any case it is little read’. Fighting words indeed. And so Lucas, I take your critique and raise you my reading of the whole canon (warts and all as they say). Nevertheless Lucas does note that Webster can pack a punch, arguing that ‘he can pack a sentence with suggestiveness’.

Like some great ragged thunder-cloud he piles up slowly to overshadow his world with the sinister yellow darkness that he loves; the atmosphere grows stifling; and then comes the sudden glare before which the situation is revealed in all its vivid nakedness, with an intensity of black and white that calm daylight could never have given. Brooding atmosphere and sudden flashes – he is the master of these.

There’s certainly a great deal of darkening as his tragedies progress but they don’t lead to one final reveal of judgement – rather they are punctuated by moments of horror which build upon each other making the magnitude of the final horror stricken scene, which graces the stage at the end of both tragedies, even greater. But Webster is more than the master of ‘brooding atmosphere and sudden flashes’ and I hope to show by offering thoughts on each play, not limiting it to his tragedies but instead considering his whole repertoire.

Helpfully Lucas offers a comparison of Webster’s approach with Donne (metaphysical poet, preacher, and all round Renaissance man. Also great for puns): ‘Donne alone among [Webster’s] contemporaries has the same wild-cat way of springing straight at the throat’. Webster is a powerful playwright and if we take violence as a case in point it is not simply presented to us visually on stage but even the language, rhythm, tone, and words, capture the violent power of Webster. Raw emotion is carefully crafted to explode in the rhythmic flow of his lines evoking a response visually on stage, and internally in his audience members.

I’ll start with the familiar two, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi and since they’re more familiar my summaries will be briefer.

The White Devil (1612)
The basic brutal plot sees Duke Bracciano, besotted by Vittoria (both already married) she welcomes his advances and enlisting the help of Flaminio, Vittoria’s villainous brother, to dispose of their respective other halves, but corruption ensues Vittoria is shunned for her adulterous actions and the play ends with almost all characters dead, including Bracciano and Vittoria, and the young son, symbol of the new generation, surveys the destruction.

The Duchess of Malfi (c.1613)
The Duchess is a widow and her brother is desperate for her not to marry (mainly because he wants her fortune) he sends a spy, Bosola, to ensure this doesn’t take place. Meanwhile the Duchess marries Antonio in secret (with her maid as witness), they have three kids but eventually her brother finds out. Mad with rage he threatens the Duchess and Antonio. The Duchess confines in Bosola (unaware he is a spy). She and Antonio part ways temporarily in an effort to save each other – Antonio with the eldest son and the Duchess with the other kids. The Cardinal gets involved in Ferdinand (the Duchess’s brothers revenge plot) leading to brutal destruction which eventually sees him killing his lover, Julia, with a poisoned Bible which she kisses (like the poisoned picture in White Devil Isabella kisses). The Duchess and her two younger children are taken back to Malfi and killed after they’ve been made nearly mad as the Duchess is surrounded by lunatics and offered the severed hand of her husband. But Antonio is still alive and the Duchess comes back from the dead, momentarily, and dies happy (for a second time) knowing that he still lives. Her servant is also strangled. Bosola overhears the Cardinal confess to Julia and plans to kill him but accidentally stabs Antonio. A fight ensues in which Bosola kills the Cardinal and Ferdinand and Bosola kill each other. As in White Devil, the remaining son is left on the stage at the end as the new monarch and symbol of the next generation.

Anything for a Quiet Life (1662) which the tile page proudly declares in big letters is A COMEDY and, more novel still ‘never before printed‘. Thomas Middleton is the cited playwright, but authors aside, let’s turn to the play.

The play opens with Cressingham being mocked for marrying a younger wife worse still his previous wife has only been dead a month. Meanwhile Cressingham’s kids are being kept well out of the way of his new wife. Beaufort worries that Cressignham’s new wife has expensive taste but Cressingham is certain she’s pious and sober. Cressingham’s son contemplates ways to improve their fortunes after his father’s unexpected marriage. Knavesbee get’s possibly the best introduction of the play:

Such caterpillars may hang at their Lord’s ears,

When better men are neglected (I.i.220-1)

The much talked of wife then enters demanding new clothes and urging her husband to stop being an alchemist (he’s searching for the philosopher’s stone). She’s so persuasive (reminding me distinctly of the Vicar’s wife in Trollope’s Barchester Towers) that she convices him to sell his land and instead invest elsewhere. He bows to her every whim:

Oh you are so wise, and so good in everything,

I move by your direction (I.i.369-70)

Anything for a quiet life, eh? Meanwhile Knavesbee tells his wife he’s been sleeping around (with the laundress and a lady in Banbury). Innuendos a-plenty follow, and there’s even a ‘play the changeling’ line (I wonder if this is a nod by Middleton to that other Changeling..). Just when you think it couldn’t get more ridiculous, Knavesbee pitches sharing his wife with Beaufort. Sharing is caring, after all. His wife captures what we’re all thinking: ‘Are you stark mad?’ (II.i.82). Turns out Knavesbee’s promised his wife to Beaufort, and there follows a cringey flirting scene between Beaufort and Mrs Knavesbee – she remains non-committal. Meanwhile, in disguise Cressingham’s kids manage to aquire some expensive fabric on credit delivered by Ralph who then manages to get himself in a fix and has to run pronto from the barber (cum-physician) who’s threatening to cut off his penis. He leaves the cloths behind in his hurry.

New act and scene, and knavesbee’s wife uses all her flirting power on Beaufort’s page, she confesses she is ‘in love’ with Selenger (the page) and promises to get with Beaufort provided she get’s the page thrown in the mix. As you may have gathered this is all part of her plan to get revenge on her husband Knavesbee. Beaufort is mightily unimpressed and dispatches her, vengeance filling his heart. The second scene of this act is full of characters with some brilliant names including ‘Flesh-hook’, ‘Counter-buff’ and ‘Sweetball’. My recent watching of A Mad World My Master’s alerted to me just how good Middleton (a suspected collaborator in this play) is with puns and names. There’s a brilliant identity mix-up orchestrated by Camelot who pretends (and dupes quite successfully his arrestors) to be a Frenchman. The Barber wants to determine nationality differences in physical makeup by a bit of heart dissection, this could get messy. Franglais is also rife with poisson for poison and so on. Meanwhile Camelot’s wife wants a divorce, but he still loves her.

Sir Francis (the silly) has yielded all to his wife, though his son counsels him not to sell off the land. His wife goes nuts when he refuses to sign the paperwork. A wedding invite for Camelot’s new wedding arrives (fear not it’s a plot to get Camelot’s wife to come home). The final act is full of morals. Francis has thrown his rattle out of the pram as since selling off his land he’s now treated like a child by his wife (I didn’t see that coming..) Franklin’s son appears to have died, Knavesbee vows suicide, Francis’s son curses his step-mother. But then there’s a final reveal spoken by the page (who is Cressingham jr.’s wife in disguise). Lady Cressingham has only been testing her husband to teach him to be wise and value his resources (that’s one way to teach..) Francis is overjoyed and gets his land back, Knavesbee apologies and his wife takes him back, and Franklin jr. is still alive (as his dad knew – he feigned the death to reduce his debts). Time for dinner chez the Cressingham’s snr.

Next up, The Fair Maide of the Inne (c. 1646) a play which sees two Italian families, from Florence to be precise. Family 1: Alberto, Mariana and kids Cesario and Clarissa. Family 2: Baptista (widowed) in love with Juliana but state found out and forced separation, including exile for Baptista. But fear not, this is a tragicomedy so there is potential for a happy ending. The hypocritical Cesario warns his sister Clarissa to preserve her virginity (despite the fact he’s apparently having an affair with a 13-year-old) she mocks him and begs to know if he believes his affairs are hidden by ‘that herbe that gives invisibility’ (I.i.92); reputation is a touchy subject. Turns out he’s in love with this Biancha, but don’t worry she’s still chaste, he can control himself. Hint: this Biancha is the titular ‘fair maid’. Meanwhile there’s some action going on in Clarissa’s love-life too – Mentivole is in love with her and she in turn gives him a ring to show the feelings mutual (clearly she’d heard Beyoncé’s song way before its time).

Next act opens with a fight (starring Mentivole and Cesario – they’re pals really but get into a punch up, or rather sword-up, over some horse racing), Cesario is injured and while they leave on friendly terms the families are now divided (Romeo and Juliet anyone?). This escalates fast. There follows a comical scene between Host and Clown in which a Wizard of Oz Dorothy-esque moment is hinted at within a discussion of witchcraft and medicine:

I have knowne a Lady sicke of the small [Pocks], onely/to keepe her face from Pitholes, take cold, strike them in againe, kick/up the heeles and vanish. (II.ii.29-31)

Meanwhile Alberto has been called up (in the navy) and has since died. Desperate not to lose her son too Mariana spreads a rumour (with the Duke) that Cesario is not in fact Alberto’s son. Thanks to her husband often being away at sea she claims she got knocked up by a servant and provided her husband with his longed for heir therefore since he’s not connected to Alberto the grudge Baptista holds against him is no longer valid. The judge suggests that Mariana should marry Ceasario (incest!) so that he can share in her fortune – Cesario seems surprisingly ok with this plan he even pitches marrying his sister. The one consolation is that his mum refuses to consummate the marriage. Biancha is angry at Cesario’s unfaithfulness to her but suddenly Alberto shows up. That’s right – resurrected from the sea (sound familiar Twelfth Night, Pericles, or Tempest lovers?).

Bap. Risen from the dead!

Maria. Although the sea had vomited up the figure

In  which thy better part livd long imprisoned,

True love despising feare, runs thus to meete it. (V.iii.55-58)

It’s ok Alberto resolves all turns out he wasn’t dead but captured but Prospero released him (cough Tempest Prospero and Ariel cough). The tale of Juliana unravels and it turns out that Alberto is also father of Biancha. The play ends with proposed marriages Mentivole and Clarissa, and Biancha and Cesario (I know I know, step-siblings), the happily ever after ending we might expect from a tragi-comedy.

The next play’s full title is as follows: The Devil’s Law Case OR When Women goe to Law, the Devill is full of Businesse (1623)

While there’s no exact date of performances (as with many Early Modern plays) 1623 is the printing date of this copy of play as it has been acted, including an address to ‘the judicious reader’ and the collected works introduction to this play ends with the encouraging words:

‘if not a good play, at least no insipid one’ (p. 228)

But with such an introduction the play took me by surprise, I didn’t expect wonders but it was good, really good.

It also opens with lines that might give any student hope:

Vertue is ever sowing of her seedes:
[…] In the wakefull study
For the scholler (I.i.73-5)

Romelio, a merchant, is arrogant wealthy and determined to break up his sister’s (Jolenta’s) relationship with Contarino. Needless to say this doesn’t go down well with Jolenta who has many scathing lines to offer him such as these:

Jol. But doe you not thinke
I shall have a horrible strong breath now?
Rom. Why?
Jol. Oh, with keeping your counsel, tis so terrible foule

Ouch. What an insult. Contarino attempts to win over Jolenta’s mother but she’s still a fan of Ercole (the other potential suitor) for her daughter. Problem is she, the mother, then begins to fall for Contarino. Romelio wants to stop any contact between Jolenta and Contarino and so places a servant there to ensure none occurs. The servant takes pity and allows them to meet and Contarino then learns of Ercole. They confront each other and duel, they are both (almost) fatally injured before physicians intervene. Meanwhile Romelio learns he’s lost 3 ships (and quite a lot of money), already angry he and Leonora hear that Ercole and Contarino are dead. Contarino’s will states Jolenta as his heir. Eventually both learn that both men are still alive.

Thanks to the will Romelio wants Contarino dead even more, he dresses as a Jew and convinces Contarino’s surgeons to let him see him. They agree but are suspicious and watch from a concealed position. They see Romelio stab Contarino and confront him. Unbeknown to Romelio his stabbing of Contarino actually begins to heal the wounds. Romelio tells Jolenta he has murdered Contarino and urges her to pretend she is pregnant with Ercole’s child so he has to marry her and she (or rather her brother) can procure his wealth too. There’s another reason for this he’s knocked up a nun and needs a cover for his soon to be born child. She claims she’s pregnant with Contarino’s child and he says no problem: just say you’ve had twins. Fool-proof plan and reminiscent of this moment in Friends.

She’s not of course pregnant she was just testing her brother. Meanwhile Leonora gets increasingly mad with her son, turns out she wanted Contarino for herself and Romelio claims she planned a threesome. Leonora takes the case to court claiming that Romelio is not her legitmate son but the product of an affair (and therefore has no right to the family fortunes), problem is her story isn’t fool proof. Several people in disguise reveal themselves including Ercole and Contarino – yep, they’re both alive. Don’t worry if you think this court business seems to be going on a long time, one of the character’s has bought a picnic, yes really! Ercole and Romelio duel but then Contarino is revealed and thus there is no need for the duel. Bizarrely Jolenta is dressed as Moor and one of the surgeons sports Romelio’s Jewish disguise. But before things get even weirder the judge acts. Romelio has to marry the nun who’s carrying his child, and restore Contarino’s fortune; Leonora, Jolenta, and the nun have to build a monastery to show their remorse; and Julio heads off to fight the Turks. And on that note the play ends. A tragi-comedy without the promise of a wedding.

Next up it’s a comedy: A Cure for a Cuckold: A Pleasant Comedy, as it hath been several times acted  with great applause (1661)

The play opens with a challenge for Lessingham (who’s in love) if he wants to win Clare over he must kill the person dearest to him. He’s horrified but deeply in love so plans a duel with his best friend. Problem is duelling is illegal in England so they have to go to Calais.

His best friend is Bonvile (the bloke getting married as the play begins) but he doesn’t tell his wife, Annabel, where he’s off to. She’s suspicious so sends a servant, and then follows herself. A very bad thief attempts to rob her, wholly unsuccessfully but she takes pity and promises him money if he returns to her home with her. He invests this money in a Spanish venture and while the Captain dies our thief Rochfield takes command and even seizes a Spanish ship in the process. Now a legitimate thief, Rochfield’s fortunes have turned.

Meanwhile Lessingham reveals to Bonvile who’s to be the victim of his duel, Bonvile misunderstands and thinks Lessingham wants his wife. Their friendship dies without need of a duel and they return to England as enemies. Lessingham returns and turns out he’s misunderstood Clare’s note too. She loves Bonvile and since she ought to have been his dearest friend it was she he was meant to kill. Chaos ensues with all kinds of jealous and bitter arguments when Lessingham, Bonvile, Annabel, Clare and Rochhfield but then Justice Woodruff appears and settles all matters. He’s just been settling another matter for a sailor, his wife, her lover and their child with an equally resolved ending i.e. the baby born by the wife and her lover but accepted as his own by her  husband the sailor belongs to the mother and no-one else.

And the final play, Appius and Virginia. A Tragedy (1654)

This play contains possibly one of my favourite lines in Webster’s canon, ‘I am not a twig’ (I.iii.25), the fact that that needs clarifying is surely comical. I also like the way that time and food are dictated, not when it hits midday on a conventional clock for instance but when one character announces ‘My stomack has struck twelve’ (IV.ii.12). Nevertheless, we are firmly in the realm of tragedy in this play. Appius, a man in a highly ranked office, is in love with Virginia (but she’s already betrothed to another man) his friend, Marcus Claudius, eggs him on, arguing that he can use his position to get whatever he wants (because that approach always bodes well, cough Measure for Measure cough). Virginus, Virginia’s father, is away at battle but returns briefly to beg for food from the Senate. Appius refuses.

Appius attempts to woo Virginia with music, notes, and gifts. She rejects his advances and eventually confesses what’s been going on to Icilius (the man to whom she is betrothed). Icilius meets Appius and threatens to kill him if this continues. Plotting Marcus Claudius, Appius’s friend comes up with another plan. He plans to claim that Virginia is not the daughter of Virginius but rather a ‘bond woman’ (III.iv.27)..

No, not that kind of Bond woman, but a slave belonging to him. What could possible go wrong?!

The case is taken to court and Appius tries to push it through before Virginius’s return but he comes back to fast, and in time for his daughter to say she’d prefer death to marriage with the lusty Appius. He attends the court disguised as a slave. Honour bound, and after the sentence is pronounced, Virginius stabs his daughter to death he escapes and all are horrified (except his troops). Appius and Marcus are thrown into jail and Icilius is released also horrified at Virginia’s death. Appius and Marcus must be punished and after a horrific display of Virginia’s body Virginius and Icilius are of one mind. Appius kills himself but Marcus is too scared so instead is hung.

There you have it, Webster’s complete canon – or at least the plays collected in his complete works. Next up I’ll be reading Marlowe’s canon, but first I think a cup of tea is in order.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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One Response to Webster: It’s not all bloody tragedy you know!

  1. Pingback: Webster: It’s not all bloody tragedy you know! | The Shakespeare Standard

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