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Biography of John Webster (c. 1578-1630s?)

Though John Webster is considered one of the major figures of Jacobean drama, relatively little is known about his life. He is best known for writing the tragedies The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, the two most frequently staged Jacobean plays not written by Shakespeare.

Webster was probably born close to 1578 in London, the son of a prominent coach-maker and member of the prestigious Company of Merchant Taylors. Webster most likely went to the Merchant Taylors’ School. He would have presumably begun his study at this well-regarded institution in 1587. He served as the official poet of the Merchant Taylors Company and designed a lavish pageant for the investiture of Sir John Gore, a Merchant Taylor, as the Lord Mayor of London.

His work in the theater began with the writing of collaborative plays in the early 1600s, an activity that he continued throughout his career, though he remains best known for the works he wrote individually. Between 1602 and 1605, he is believed to have collaborated on five plays, including Caesar's Fall, Lady Jane, Westward Ho!, and Northward Ho!.

Around 1604 or 1605, Webster married Sara Peniall, who was about ten years his junior. Within about a year, their first son was born, also named John. It is not known how many children they had, but it is clear they had a large family and were of good standing in their community. They presumably had enough money to live comfortably, as Webster did not publish anything more until The White Devil in 1612.

The Duchess of Malfi, generally considered Webster’s best play, was first staged by the prestigious King’s Men, probably in 1614, and seems to have been well-received even then. His father probably died sometime before 1615, but not much else is known about this period of Webster’s life.

Webster probably wrote Guise, a lost play, around that time, presumably followed by the tragicomedy The Devil’s Law-Case, which was written sometime before 1622 and was the last of his non-collaborative plays. This is generally agreed to be the most difficult of Webster’s plays to assess, in part because it is almost never staged. The rest of the collaborative plays associated with Webster are almost impossible to date, and in some cases the extent of his association with them is uncertain.

Webster died sometime before November 1634; no more specific information is available. As is the case with many of his contemporaries, Webster's reception since his death has been inconsistent, even though his work has never entirely dropped off the radar. Since the 1920s, a great deal of critical work has been published on his plays, focusing primarily on The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. His most popular plays, these plays are dark and disturbing works that set the stage for the Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Study Guides on Works by John Webster