|The following article was originally published in John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama. Rupert Brooke. New York: John Lane Company, 1916. pp. 84-122.
John Webster is one of the strangest figures in our literature. He was working for quite twenty years. We have at least four plays in which he collaborated, and three by him alone; but through all the period and in all his work he is quite ordinary and undistinguished, except for two plays which come quite close together in the middle. For two or three years, about 1612, he was a great genius; for the rest he was, if not indistinguishable, entirely commonplace. Coleridge does not more extraordinarily prove Apollonian fickleness. Webster makes one believe successful art depends as much on a wild chance, a multiple coincidence, as Browning found love did. If he had not had time in that middle period; if it had come a little later, under the Fletcherian influence; if he had been born twenty years later; if-- ... He was just in time; the subject just suited him; the traditional atmosphere of the kind of play called out his greatest gifts; the right influence had preceded him; he was somehow not free to write the "true dramatic poem" or "sententious tragedy" he wanted to. And so these two great tragedies happened to exist. That easy and comfortable generalization of the Philistine "genius will out!" finds signal refutation in Webster. I shall give a short general account of his life and activities, and then examine his work more closely.
We know a great deal about Webster's life. He was born in the latter half of the sixteenth century, and died sometime before the end of the seventeenth. He was an Elizabethan dramatist, a friend of Dekker and Chapman and Heywood. He was an odd genius who created slowly and borrowed a great deal. He was not very independent....
It is, unimportantly, true that fewer "facts" than truths are known about him. We are luckily spared the exact dates of his uninteresting birth and death, and his unmeaning address and family. We have not even enough to serve as a frame-work for the elaborate structure of "doubtless" and "We may picture to ourselves young--" that stands as a biography of Shakespeare and others. It could, of course, be done by throwing our knowledge of Elizabethan conditions and our acquaintance with the character of the author of The Duchess of Malfi together. It would not be worth it. We know that Webster was a member of the Merchant Tailors' Company, and born free of it. There is a late legend that he was clerk of St. Andrew's, Holborn. At one time it seemed possible to identify him (contemporary enemies tried to) with an ex-army chaplain who wrote fanatical religious tracts and was a University reformer, in the middle of the seventeenth century. Superb thought! It is hard to degenerate nobly; and his contemporaries, after reaching their summit, went downhill (as writers) in various ways. Some became dropsical; others entered the Church; others went on writing; a few drank. But this, this would have been an end worthy of a fantastic poet! Alas! Mr. Dyce investigated too thoroughly, and pretty certainly disproved the identification. After his last play, Webster slips from us inscrutably round the corner. He may have lived on for years and years. He may have died directly. It does not matter to us.
For the life of Webster the dramatist, however, as opposed to Webster the private man, we have a few facts. He comes into our notice--fairly young, it is to be presumed--in 1602. He was then very busily one of the less important of a band of hack playwrights employed by Henslowe. He had a hand in several plays that we know of during that year: Caesar's Fall, Two Shapes, Christmas Comes But Once a Year, and at least one part of Lady Jane. His collaborators were Munday, Drayton, Middleton, Heywood, Chettle, Smith, and Dekker. It was the beginning, as far as we know, of a close connection with Dekker and a long one with Heywood. Webster was writing for both Henslowe's companies, Caesar's Fall and Two Shapes for the Admiral's men, Christmas Comes But Once a Year and Lady Jane for Worcester's men. Writing for Henslowe was not the best school for genius. No high artistic standard was exacted. It rather implies poverty, and certainly means scrappy and unserious work. It may have given Webster--it would have given some people--a sense of the theatre. But he emerged with so little facility in writing, and so little aptitude for a good plot (in the ordinary sense), that one must conclude that his genius was not best fitted for theatrical expression, into which it was driven. There are other periods and literary occupations it is harder to imagine him in. But I can figure him as a more or less realistic novelist of the present. His literary skill, his amazing genius for incorporating fragments of his experience, his "bitter flashes" and slow brooding atmosphere of gloom, would have been more tremendous untrammelled by dramatic needs. His power of imaginative visualization was often superfluous in a play. Like most of his gifts it is literary. It is just what one keenly misses in most novels. One can see, almost quote from, a rather large grey-brown novel by John Webster, a book full of darkly suffering human beings, slightly less inexplicable than Dostoyevsky's, but as thrilling, figures glimpsed by sudden flashes that tore the gloom they were part of; a book such that one would remember the taste of the whole longer than any incident or character.... But these imaginations are foolish in an Heraclitan world.
Webster seems to have had the ordinary training, collaborating in classical tragedy, history, and low comedy. None of his collaborators left much mark on his style. He was more subservient than impressionable. The only play of this lot that we have is Lady Jane, printed in a cut form as Sir Thomas Wyatt. Webster probably had a good deal to do with two scenes, 2 and 16; he may be responsible for more, but, if so, it is indistinguishable. The whole play is a ramshackle, primitive (for 1602), ordinary affair. The parts we think Webster's are rather different from the rest, but no better. Metrically they are hopeless, but that may be due to the state of the play. There is a sort of sleep imagination in--
- "Lo, we ascend into our chairs of state,
- Like funeral coffins, in some funeral pomp,
- Descending to their graves!"
It gratifies one with a feeling of fitness, that Webster should have been thinking of funerals so early as this. Perhaps one is sentimentally misled, and it is really someone else's work. The whole thing is equally uncertain and unimportant.
The induction to The Malcontent (1604), our earliest example of Webster's unaided writing, is a slight piece of work, and valueless. The stiff involved sentences are characteristic. The humour is commonplace. It all shows up dully by the rest of the play, which is restive and inflamed with the vigorous, queer, vital, biting style of Marston.
Webster seems to have gone on in the profession of a hack author. He must have collaborated in dozens of plays in these years, perhaps written some of his own. He next comes to light writing two comedies of London life with Dekker, Westward Ho (1604) and Northward Ho (1605). This time it is good work he is concerned with, though out of his true line. They were written for the Children of Paul's. Webster seems to have been a freelance at this period, going from company to company. But he must somehow have got a sort of reputation by this time, to be joined with Dekker in this friendly skirmish against Chapman, Jonson, and Marston (Eastward Ho), who were all eminent. And in 1607 it seems to have been worth a publisher's while to put his and Dekker's names on the title-page of Sir Thomas Wyatt, and leave out Chettle, Smith, and Heywood. In Westward Ho and Northward Ho there are a few scenes I think we can be pretty certain are mainly Webster's; Northward Ho, II. 2 and V. 1, very probably Westward Ho, I. 1 and III. 3, and quite probably Northward Ho, I. 1 and III. 1. One seems to catch a sight of him elsewhere in the plays; but it is difficult to be certain. In the scenes we attribute to him the sound of a deeper, graver, and duller voice than Dekker's seems to be heard. It is not altogether fancy. The lightness goes. The bawdy jokes change their complexion a little; they come more from the heart and less from the pen. The people in the play do not live any the more or the less, but they become more like dead men and less like lively dolls. The whole thing grows less dramatic; the characters become self-consciously expository--Webster was always old-fashioned in this--instead of talking to each other, half-face to us, they turn towards the audience and stand side by side, addressing it. Justiniano's jealousy grows more serious and real when Webster takes charge of him, more unpleasantly real to himself and fantastically expressed. And (Northward Ho, II. 2) Mistress Mayberry's sudden disappearance to cry stirs you with an unexpected little stab of pathetic reality not unlike the emotion the later Webster can arouse when he will. But the whole outlines an atmosphere of the plays, and the characters and incidents are far nearer Dekker than Webster. It is only possibly to say either that Webster was merely assisting Dekker in these plays, or that his peculiar individuality was either ungrown or dormant. No doubt his romantic classical ideas made him feel he was writing very far down to the public. But he need not have been ashamed, and it may very well have done him good. Good farce is a worthy training for a tragic writer; and these plays are excellent comic farce. The wit is not subtle, the plots have no psychological interest, and the ragging of Chapman is primitive. But the characters have a wealth of vitality, spirits, and comic value. The jokes are often quite good, especially the bawdy ones, and the sequence of events keeps your mind lively and attentive. The general atmosphere in these two plays has a tang of delightful, coarse gaiety, like a country smell in March. They are really quite good, for the rough knock-about stuff they are; among the best in their kind, and that no bad kind. It would be amusing, if it were not so irritating, that many who are authorities in Elizabethan literature are violently and angrily shocked by these two plays, and condemn them as filth. Dr. Ward throws up hands of outraged refinement. Professor Schelling has an incredibly funny passage. "They mark the depth of gross and vicious realism to which the comedy of manners descended.... Some of the figures we would fain believe, in their pruriency and outspoken uncleanliness of speech, represent an occasional aberration, if not an outrageous exaggeration, of the manners of the time.... In our admiration of the ideal heights at times attained by the literature of the great age of Elizabeth we are apt to forget that the very amplitude of its vibrations involves an extraordinary range, and that we must expect depths and morasses as well as wholesome and bracing moral heights...." If literary criticism crosses Lethe, and we could hear the comments of the foul-mouthed ghosts of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Webster on this too common attitude, their outspoken uncleanliness would prostrate Professor Schelling and his friends. Anger at this impudent attempt to thrust the filthy and degraded standards of a modern middle-class drawing-room on the clean fineness of the Elizabethans, might be irrelavant in an Essay of this sort. What is relevant is a protest that such thin-lipped writers are not only ridiculous on this point, but also, for all their learning and patience, without sufficient authority in Elizabethan literature. It is impossible to trust them. Even in deciding a date, it may be necessary to have sympathy with the Elizabethans. The Elizabethans liked obscenity; and the primness and the wickedness that do not like it, have no business with them.
There is a silence of some six years after Northward Ho. We do not know what Webster was doing. Somehow he was gaining position, and preparing himself. In 1611 or 1612 he produced The White Devil, the first of the two plays which definitely and uniquely give the world Webster. Last heard of he was a subordinate collaborator; now he is a great, very individual dramatist. The step was enormous; but he had a long time to make it in. If Fate has spared us some of his interim works, we might not be so surprised.
The preface to The White Devil is important for the light it throws both on Webster and on the general critical ideas of the period. "Evidemment," says M. Symmes, "Webster dans ce passage est un des premiers à connaitre l'importance, le mérite, et l'individualité du théâtre anglais romantique, comme genre séparé." It is too strong. But he does seem to hover in a queer way, between intense pride in his own work and fine appreciation of the best among his contemporaries, and scorn of all these in comparison to a "true dramatic poem" in the classical style. He shows himself wholly of the Jonson-Chapman school of classicists, in agreement with the more cultivated critics. His gloom fires up at the imaginary glories of these Saturnian plays; he is superb in his scorn of his own audience. "Should a man present to such an auditory the most sententious tragedy that ever was written, observing all the critical laws, as height of style, and gravity of person, enrich it with the sententious Chorus, and, as it were, life in death in the passionate and weighty Nuntius;..." His arrogance was partly due, no doubt, to pique at the failure of the play and partly to the literary fashion. But it had something natural to him. Even in these plays he so scornfully wrote for the "uncapable multitude" of those times there is a sort of classicism. His temperament was far too romantic for it; he was not apt to it, like Chapman. Yet, especially in The White Devil, the unceasing couplets at the end of the speeches, both in their number and their nature, have a curious archaic effect. One line is connected with the situation, and expresses an aspect of it; the next, with the pat expected rhyme, goes to the general rule, and turns the moral. It belonged to Webster's ideal temperament in poetry to turn readily and continually to the greater generalizations. These last lines or couplets always lead out on to them. They went, the classicists, with a kind of glee; they liked to be in touch with permanent vaguenesses.
Webster's praise of his contemporaries is, however, very discriminating. The order he gives them is instructive: Chapman; Jonson; Beaumont and Fletcher; Shakespeare; Dekker; and Heywood. He tells us in this preface, what we could have guessed, that he wrote very slowly. It was natural, as he compiled, rather than composed, his plays; working so laboriously from his notebook. He may be imagined following doggedly behind inspiration, glooming over a situation till he saw the heart of it in a gesture or a phrase. He casts the sigh of the confirmed constipate at Heywood and Dekker and Shakespeare for their "right happy and copious industry." His agonies in composition are amusingly described in a passage in Fitzjeffry's Notes from Blackfriars (1620).
The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are often described as "revenge-plays," a recently-invented genus. Dr. Stoll deals at great length with them in this light, and Professor Vaughan devotes two or three pages of his short essay to summing up the history of the type. There is something in the idea, but not much; and it has been over-worked. To begin with, there are far fewer examples of this type than these critics believe. And it is not quite clear what is the thread of continuity they are thinking of. Is it the fact that revenge is the motive in each play? Or is it a special type of play, the criterion of which is its atmosphere, and which generally includes vengeance as a motive? If the second, they must include other plays in their list; if the first, drop some out. The truth is that there is a certain type of play, the plot of which was based on blood-for-blood vendetta, and the atmosphere of which had a peculiar tinge. Kyd started it; it dropped for a bit, and then Marston revived it, rather differently, with great foresight, at an opportune moment. It had a brief boom with Marston, Shakespeare, and Chettle. The atmosphere became indistinguishable from that of a good many plays of the period. Tourneur took the atmosphere, and discarded the revenge-plot, in The Athiest's Tragedy. So did The Second Maiden's Tragedy. Chapman happened to take the revenge-motive, and went back to Seneca on his own account. He gives a characteristic account of the metaphysics of the revenge-motive in the Revenge of Bussy. Webster used it a little in one of two plays that in other ways resemble the work of other people who used the revenge-plot. That is all. To call The Duchess of Malfi a revenge-play is simply ridiculous. If it is raked in, you must include Othello and a dozen more as well. The whole category is a false one. It would be much more sensible to invent and trace the "Trial-at-law" type, beginning with the Eumenides, going down through The Merchant of Venice, The White Devil, Volpone, The Spanish Curate, and a score more, till you ended with Justice.
The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are so similar in atmosphere that it is sometimes difficult for the moment to remember in which of them some character or speech occurs. But it is convenient to consider them separately; and to take The White Devil first.
The story is simple. Brachiano conceives a passion for Vittoria, and wins her. She suggests, and he plans, the death of Camillo and Isabella. Their love is discovered by Vittoria's mother, Cornelia. Isabella's brothers, Francisco and Monticelso, try to put an end to it, by giving it rope to hang itself. Before this plan can take effect the murders are committed. Francisco and Monticelso arraign Vittoria for complicity in the murders and for adultery. She is condemned to imprisonment; but Francisco, to bring the two nearer final ruin, plots so that she and Brachiano escape together to Padua and marry. Thither he follows them, with some friends, in disguise; and accomplishes their deaths.
Webster did not handle this tale very skilfully, from the dramaturgic point of view. The play is almost a dramatized narrative. Occasionally the clumsiness of his hand is uncomfortably manifest. Generally it does not matter, for his virtues lie in a different aspect of plays from plot-making. The motives of the various characters are more obscure than they are wont to be in Elizabethan plays. On the whole this is a virtue; or seems to be in the modern mind. Characters in a play gain in realism and a mysterious solemnity, if they act unexplainedly on instinct, like people in real life, and not on rational and publicly-stated grounds, like men in some modern plays.
The play begins with a bang. From the point of view of the plot it is an unusual and unhelpful beginning. Count Lodovico (who turns out later in the play to be an unsuccessful lover of Isabella, and who becomes the chief instrument in the downfall of Brachiano and Vittoria) has just been branded. He enters with a furious shout. "Banished!" In this scene there is an instance of a favourite dramatic trick of Webster's, to add liveliness. When some long speech has to be made, where Chapman would give it to one person, Webster divides it between two, continually alternating with a few lines each. It makes the scene "go" in a most remarkable manner. In this case Gasparo and Antonelli do it to Lodovico. In The Duchess of Malfi Ferdinand and the Cardinal treat the Duchess in this way.
The next scene introduces the chief characters and the chief emotion. This fatal love, the cause of the whole tragedy, enters most strikingly. Vittoria leaves the stage, Brachiano turns, with a flaming whisper, to Flamineo. He wastes no words. He does not foolishly tell the audience, "I am in love with that woman who has just gone off."
FLAMINEO: My lord?
BRACHIANO: Quite lost, Flamineo.
Webster thought dramatically.
Flamineo, a typical knave of Webster's, fills the next few pages with a chorus of quotations from Montaigne. Dramatic is the juxtaposition of the passionate scene between Brachiano and Vittoria, broken by the prophetic Cornelia, the baiting of Brachiano by the Duke and the Cardinal, and the pitiful interview of Brachiano and his deserted wife. In the last Webster shows that he can turn to more untroubled tragedy when he wants to:
- "I pray, sir, burst my heart; and in my depth
- Turn to your ancient pity, though not love."
Rather swiftly, Vittoria (perhaps) and Brachiano, certainly, accomplish the murders; and Vittoria is arrested and tried. The trial scene is prodigiously spirited. There is no hero to enlist our sympathy; it is merely a contest between various unquenchable wickednesses. The rattle of rapid question and answer, sharp with bitterness, is like musketry. Vittoria is wicked; but her enemies are wicked and mean. So one sides with her, and even admires. Her spirit of ceaseless resistance and fury, like the wriggling of a trapped cat, is astonishing.
- "For your names
- Of whores and murdress, they proceed from you,
- As if a man should spit against the wind;
- The filth returns in's face."
Flamineo's subsequent affectation of madness and melancholy is made too much of; for the purpose of amusing, perhaps. At this point in the play, the two "villains" part company. Francisco pursues his way alone. The scene between Brachiano, in his groundless jealousy, and Vittoria, is tremendous with every king of beauty and horror; beginning from the extraordinarily un-Websterian:
- "How long have I beheld the devil in crystal!
- Thou hast led me, like an heathen sacrifice,
- With music and with fatal yokes of flowers,
- To my eternal ruin. Woman to man
- Is either a god or a wolf."
The taming of the wild cat, Vittoria, is shown with wonderfully precise and profound psychology; and all made horrible by the ceaseless and eager prompting of Flamineo.
- "Fie, fie, my lord!
- Women are caught as you take tortoises;
- She must be turned on her back."
The scene of the election of the Pope is an irrelevant ornament. It is noteworthy that to some extent Webster improved in dramatic craft with time. The Duchess of Malfi has fewer such scenes than The White Devil.
The last part of the play, after it removes to Padua, is one long study of the horror of death. It takes it from every point of view. There is the pathetic incomprehension of Cornelia over young Marcello. "Alas! he is not dead; he is in a trance. Why, here's nobody shall get anything by his death. Let me call him again for God's sake."
There is the difficulty and struggle of the death of so intensely live a man as Brachiano:
- "Oh, thou strong heart!
- There's such a covenant 'tween the world and it,
- They're loath to break."
There is the grotesque parody of death, in Flamineo's
- "Oh I smell soot,
- Most stinking soot! The chimney is afire....
- There's a plumber laying pipes in my guts, it scalds."
There is the superbness of Vittoria's courage;
- "Yes I shall welcome death
- As princes do some great ambassadors;
- I'll meet thy weapon half-way."
There are the "black storm" and the "mist" which drive around vittoria and Flamineo in the last moments of all.
The Duchess of Malfi is on the whole a better play than The White Devil. It does not have more of Webster's supreme dramatic moments, but the language is more rich and variously moving--in a dramatic, not merely a literary way. It is, even more than The White Devil, in the first half a mere simple narrative of events, leading up to a long-continued and various hell in the second part. It is often discussed if the plots of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are weak. Webster's method does not really take cognisance of a plot in the ordinary sense of the word. He is too atmospheric. It is like enquiring if there is a bad drawing in a nocturne of Whistler's.
The Duchess of Malfi is a young widow, forbidden by her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, to marry again. They put a creature of theirs, Bosola, into her service as a spy. The Duchess loves and secretly marries her steward, Antonio, and has three children. Bosola ultimately discovers and reports this. Antonio and the Duchess have to fly. The Duchess is captured, imprisoned, and mentally tortured and put to death. Ferdinand goes mad. In the last Act he, the Cardinal, Antonio, and Bosola are all killed with various confusions and in various horror.
The play begins more slowly than The White Devil. Bosola appears near the beginning, and plays throughout a part like that of Flamineo. The great scene in the first Act is the scene of the Duchess's proposal to Antonio. It is full of that perfect, tender beauty which the stormy Webster could evoke when he liked; from the Duchess's preliminary farewell to her maid,
- "Good dear soul,
- Wish me good speed;
- For I am going into a wilderness
- Where I shall find nor path nor friendly clue
- To be my guide."
to the maid's concluding comment:
- "Whether the spirit of greatness or of women
- Reign most in her, I know not; but it shows
- A fearful madness: I owe her much of pity."
There is rather hideous and very typical tragedy in the scene of Bosola's device to discover the Duchess's secret. The meeting of Bosola and Antonio, at midnight, after the birth of the child, is full of dramatic power and of breathless suspense that worthily recalls Macbeth.
heard you not
A noise even now?
BOSOLA: From whence?
ANTONIO: From the Duchess's lodging.
BOSOLA: Nod I: did you?
ANTONIO: I did, or else I dreamed.
BOSOLA: Let's walk towards it.
ANTONIO: No: it may be 'twas
But the rising of the wind.
BOSOLA: Very likely....
When the news is brought to the brothers that the Duchess has had a child, their anger is hideous and, as with passionate people, too imaginative.
After this, and before the events which lead to the catastrophe, that is, between the second and third Acts, there is a long and somewhat clumsy interval. This was rather in the dramatic fashion of the time. Ferdinand's discovery of the Duchess's guilt breaks finely across a lovely scene of domestic merriment. The plot unravels swiftly. The final parting of the Duchess and Antonio is full of a remarkable quiet beauty of phrase and poetry. It is a mere accident that we have discovered that it is entirely composed of fragments of, and adaptations from, Sidney, Donne, Ben Jonson, and others. The scenes of the various tortures of the Duchess form an immense and not always successful symphony of gloom, horror, madness, and death. It is only redeemed by the fact that the Duchess can never be quite broken:
"I am Duchess of Malfi still."
Only once, just before her death, does she let an hysterical cry escape her:
- "any way, for Heaven's sake,
- So I were out of your whispering."
The superhuman death of the Duchess is finely anti-climaxed by the too human death of Cariola, who fights, kicks, prays, and lies.
After the death of the Duchess, there is a slight lull before the rest of the tragedy rises again to its climax. It contains a queer scene of macabre comedy where Ferdinand beats his fantastic doctor, and a curious, rather Gothic, extraneous scene of quietness, where Antonio talks to the echo. The end is a maze of death and madness. Webster's supreme gift is the blinding revelation of some intense state of mind at a crisis, by some God-given phrase. All the last half of The Duchess of Malfi is full of them. The mad Ferdinand, stealing across the stage in the dark, whispering to himself, with the devastating impersonality of the madman, "Strangling is a very quiet death," is a figure one may not forget. And so in the next scene, the too sane Cardinal:
- "How tedious is a guilty conscience!
- When I look into the fish-ponds in my garden
- Methinks I see a thing armed with a rake
- That seems to strike at me."
It is one of those pieces of imagination one cannot explain, only admire.
But it is, of course, in or near the moment of death that Webster is most triumphant. He adopts the romantic convention, that men are, in the second of death, most essentially and significantly themselves. In the earlier play the whole angry, sickening fear of death that a man feels who has feared nothing else, lies in those terrific words of Brachiano's when it comes home to him that he is fatally poisoned:
- "On pain of death, let no man name death to me:
- It is a word infinitely terrible."
Webster knows all the ways of approaching death. Flamineo, with the strange carelessness of the dying man, grows suddenly noble. "What dost think on?" his murderer asks him.
- FLAMINEO: Nothing; of nothing; leave thy idle questions.
- I am i' the way to study a long silence:
- To prate were idle. I remember nothing.
- There's nothing of so infinite vexation
- As man's own thoughts.
And Webster, more than any man in the world, has caught the soul just in the second of its decomposition in death, when knowledge seems transcended, and the darkness closes in, and boundaries fall away.
- "My soul," cries Vittoria, "like to a ship in a black storm,
- Is driven, I know not whither."
- "While we look up to Heaven we confound
- Knowledge with knowledge, O, I am in a mist."
So in this play Ferdinand "seems to come to himself," as Bosola says, "now he's so near the bottom." He is still half-mad; but something of the old overweening claim on the universe fires up in the demented brain:
- "Give me some wet hay: I am broken-minded.
- I do account this world but a dog-kennel:
- I will vault credit and affect high pleasures
- Beyond death."
For some six years again, after The Duchess of Malfi, we know nothing of Webster's activities. When he comes once more into sight in The Devil's Law Case (1620) he has shared the fate of the whole drama. It is an attempt to write in the Massinger-Fletcher genus of tragi-comedy. The plot is of so complicated a nature that it would take almost the space of the whole play to set it out fully. Indeed there is scarcely a plot at all, but a succession of plots, interwoven, and each used, in the debased way of that period, almost only to produce some ingeniously startling scene, some theatrical paradox. It was, probably, Fletcher who was responsible for this love of a succession of dramatic shocks. It suited a part of Webster's taste only too well.
The main incident of the play is a malicious suit brought by a mother, Leonora, against her son, Romelio, trying to dispossess him on the (false) ground of bastardy. Tacked on to that are various minor affairs, a duel between friends in which both are supposed to have been killed and both marvellously survive, a virgin pretending to be with child, a sick man miraculously cured by an assassin's unintentionally medicinal knife, and so on. The most central incident may have been suggested to Webster by an old play, Lust's Dominion; the cure he got from a translation of some French yarns. But the question of his originality is unimportant. All his incidents aim at that cheap fantasticality which marked this Jacobean drama. And his topics are its well-rubbed coins, romantic friendship, sudden "passion," virginity, duelling, seduction. A most dully debonair world. However, he could not handle them with the same touch. Webster stepped the same measures as his contemporaries, willingly enough--conceitedly even, as his dedication and preface show; but with earlier legs. His characters alternate between being the sometimes charming lay-figures of the time, and wakening to the boisterous liveliness of fifteen years before. Several scenes are very noticeably Jonsonian interludes of farce, sandwiched between comedy. The vigorous flow of Act II, Scene I is wholly reminiscent of the comedy of humours. This is partly due to the purely satiric character of some of the passages. The dramatists of the beginning of the century loved to play Juvenal. They would still be railing. Webster was especially prone to it. Repeatedly in The Devil's Law Case, this habit of abuse, directed against one person or the world, recalls Webster's two great plays. There are a score of passages where you immediately cry "Webster!" the note is so individual. And they are mostly of this satiric kind. Who else could have written (I. 1):
- "With what a compell'd face a woman sits
- While she is drawing! I have noted divers,
- Either to feign smiles, or suck in the lips,
- To have a little mouth; ruffle the cheeks
- To have the dimple seen; and so disorder
- The face with affectation, at next sitting
- It has not been the same:..."
But, indeed, the essence of Webster pervades this "tragi-comedy." And the result is that it is as far different from other tragi-comedies in its spirit, as Measure for Measure is from the comedies among which it is numbered. His vocabulary and peculiar use of words peep out on every page; "passionately," "infinitely," "screech-owl," "a lordship," "caroche," "mathematical," "dung-hill," "foul" a hundred times; and all in sentences that have the very run of his accents. There are scores of short passages. Webster's characters have the trick of commenting on themselves when they are jesting. "You see, my lord, we are merry," cries Romelio, and so Sanitonella, "I am merry." The Duchess inevitably comes to one's mind, in that happy moment before her world crumbled about her, "I prithee, when were we so merry?" It is a trick that makes the transience or the unreality of their merriment stand out against the normal and real gloom. Continually in this play, as in the others, Webster is referring to women painting their faces. The subject had a queer fascination for him. Those other, more obvious, thoughts of his reappear, too; his broodings on death and graves. There is the same savagery in his mirth:
"But do you not think"
says Jolenta, suddenly, when she has acceded to Romelio's horrible plannings,
"I shall have a horrible strong breath now?"
JOLENTA: O, with keeping your counsel, 'tis so terrible foul.
"Bitter flashes" Romelio rightly calls such outbursts. But he himself achieves wit most successfully in the same mood and manner. When the Capuchin worries him, before his duel, about religion, he, "very melancholy," retorts with a question about swords--
"These things, you know," the Capuchin replies, "are out of my practice."
- "But these are things, you know,
- I must practise with tomorrow."
Romelio sardonically returns. It is very clear throughout that the bitterer Webster's flashes are, the brighter. And in a similar way he livens up when he approaches any emotion such as Jolenta describes, in herself, as "fantastical sorrow." It is the fantastical in emotion or character that inspires him, while the fantastical in situation leaves him comparatively cold. He essays the latter, dutifully--the usual intellectual paradoxes and morbid conventions of impossible psychology which this kind of drama demanded. In that typically-set Websterian scene (Act III. Scene 3--A table set forth with two tapers, a death's-head, a book.) between Romelio and Jolenta, love, hate, passion, anger, and grief play General Post with all the unnatural speed the Jacobeans loved. He has even invested the starts and turns of the trial scene with a good deal of interest and much dramatic power. But the anguish that apes mirth and the mirth that toys with pain wake his genius. He even laughs at himself. You feel an almost personal resentment at being sold, towards the end of the play. Romelio's sullen but impressive stoicism is broken by Leonora's entrance with coffins and winding-sheets and that incomparable dirge.
- "...Courts adieu, and all delights,
- All bewitching appetites!
- Sweetest breath and clearest eye,
- Like perfumes, go out and die;
- And consequently this is done
- As shadows wait upon the sun.
- Vain the ambition of kings,
- Who seek by trophies and dead things
- To leave a living name behind,
- And weave but nets to catch the wind."
Romelio, like any reader, is caught by the utter beauty of this. He melts in repentance, persuades his mother, and then the priest, to enter the closet, and then--locks them in with entire callousness and a dirty jest, and goes off to his duel. It is, literally, shocking. But Romelio is one of the two or three characters into whom Webster has breathed a spasmodic life and force. The ordinary dolls of the drama, like Contarino and Ercole, remain dolls in his hands. But the lust and grief of Leonora have some semblance of motion, the suffering of Jolenta has an hysterical truth, and the figure of Romelio lives sometimes with the vitality of an intruder from another world. He comes out of the earlier drama. He is largely the sort of monster Ben Jonson or Marlowe, or Kyd or Tourneur, or the earlier Webster likes to picture, malign, immoral, grotesque, and hideously alive. Winifred also is older than 1620. She has an unpleasant vivacity, a rank itch of vulgarity, as well as the office of commentator, which reminds one of characters in Webster's two great plays. She is a Bosola in skirts. A sure sign, she grows more excited when love-making is to hand. It is typical of Webster that he should smirch with his especial rankness, not only the baser characters of this play, but the love-making between his hero and heroine, as he does through Winifred's mouth in the second scene of the play. Like any Flamineo, the interprets between us and the puppets' dallying, a little disgustingly:
"O sweet-breath'd monkeys, how they grow together!"...
A few incidents stand out, marked by the darker range of colours of the earlier drama. Contarino's groan that announces that he is not dead (III. 2):
FIRST SURGEON: Did he not groan?
SECOND SURGEON: Is the wind in that door still?
has something of the terror and abrupt ghostliness of the midnight scene in The Duchess of Malfi (II. 3), or Macbeth, or Jonson's additions to The Spanish Tragedy. And Leonora's mad flinging herself on the ground in III. 3, and lying there, is an old trick that the early Elizabethan audiences almost demanded as an essential of Tragedy. It goes back through Ferdinand, Bussy, and Marston's heroes, to old Hieronimo herself.
Webster's notebook is perhaps a little less apparent in this play than in the two previous. But there are a good many passages we can identify, and a lot more we can suspect. He had fewer "meditations" of the old railing order to compile from his pages of aphorisms and modern instances. But we find repetitions from A Monumental Column, The White Devil, and especially The Duchess of Malfi; and Ben Jonson and Sidney have found their way through the notebook into these pages. He still employs soliloquy and the concluding couplet to an extent and in a way that seem queer in a play of this period. But he seems to have become a little more sensible to violent incongruity. He never offends so harshly as he had used. Occasionally still, the stage-machinery creaks loudly enough to disturb the theatrical illusion rather unpleasantly. Sanitonella is a little abrupt and blunt in exacting information from Crispiano for our benefit: "But, pray, sir, resolve me, what should be the reason that you..." etc. (II. 1). And Romelio's asides are occasionally rather too obvious. In III. 3, when his various proposals to Jolenta have been ineffectual, he is non-plussed; but only for a second:
- ROMELIO: (aside) This will not do.
- The devil has on the sudden furnished me
- With a rare charm, yet a most unnatural
- Falsehood: no matter, so 'twill take.
But at the end, when everybody reveals who he is, and begins explaining everything that has happened, the tedium of these disentanglings is cut, and the apparently inevitable boredom dodged, by a device that is so audacious in its simplicity as to demand admiration. Leonora, who has apparently made good use of her imprisonment in the closet to jot down a précis of all the plots in the play, interrupts the growing flood of explanations with
- "Cease here all further scrutiny. This paper
- Shall give unto the court each circumstance
- Of all these passages!"
One is too relieved to object.
Metrically this play is very similar to its two forerunners; though here, as in the handling, Webster seems a little quieter. He is unaffected by the Fletcher influence in metre. The run of his lines is still elusive and without any marked melody, except in one or two passages. The beginning lines with the continual shifting and sliding of accent, and the jerky effect of conversation, continue. It was always a blank verse for talking rather than reading. One trick Webster seems to have developed further, the filling out of feet with almost inadequate syllables. Twice in the first five pages "marriage" is a trisyllable. "Emotion" fills two feet; and so on. This habit, common between 1580 and 1595, was revived by some writers after 1615. It fits in very queerly with that opposite tendency to the use of trisyllabic feet that Webster greatly indulged in. Sometimes the combination is rather piquant. But "marriage" is, perhaps, a symptom of an increased steadiness and mastery of rhythm. There are two or three passages where his blank verse is abler and better, in considerable periods, not in short fragments and exlamations, than it had been before. And this is accompanied by a greater evenness. Leonora's great speech (III. 3) begins with something of the old ripple: but it dies away:
- "...Is he gone then?
- There is no plague i' the world can be compared
- To impossible desire; for they are plagu'd
- In the desire itself....
- O, I shall run mad!
- For as we love our youngest children best,
- So the last fruit of our affection,
- Where-ever we bestow it, is most strong,
- Most violent, most unresistable,
- Since 'tis indeed our latest harvest-home,
- Last merriment 'fore winter...."
The beauty and pathos of these lines, the complete and masterful welding of music and meaning, show what fineness is in The Devil's Law Case. One could quote many other things as noble, or as admirable, form Romelio's glorious
- "I cannot set myself so many fathom
- Beneath the height of my true heart, as fear,"
or the sagacious and horrid rightness of his
- "doves never couple without
- A kind of murmur,"
to Jolenta's cry,
- "O, if there be another world i' the moon
- As some fantastics dream...."
Yet the play is not a good play. These good bits illuminate, for the most part, nothing but themselves, and have only a literary value. A good play must leave an increasing impression of beauty or terror or mirth upon the mind, heaping its effect continually with a thousand trifles. This does not so. It is a play without wholeness. Its merits are occasional and accidental. If you read closely, there is the extraordinary personality of Webster plain enough over and in it all. But he was working in an uncongenial medium. It is a supreme instance of the importance of the right form to the artist. The Fletcher-Massinger "tragi-comedy" was the product of an age and temper as unsuitable to Webster as the tragedy of blood and dirt had been suitable. The Devil's Law Case is not even a fine failure, as, for instance, Timon of Athens is. In the first place a tragi-comedy is not a thing to make a fine failure of. And in the second place Webster's nature and methods demanded success in a right form, or nothing. He had to suffuse the play with himself. He was not great enough and romantic enough to confer immortality upon fragments. His bitter flashes required the background of thunderous darkness to show them up; against this grey daylight they are ineffectual.
Beyond the uninteresting and unimportant A Monumental Column (1613), which only shows how naturally Webster turned to the imitation of Donne when he turned to poetry, the uncertain and featureless Monuments of Honour, and a few rather perfunctory verses of commendation, we have nothing more of Webster's except A Cure for a Cuckold. This must have been written shortly after The Devil's Law Case. It is almost entirely unimportant for throwing light on the real Webster. All we know is that he had something to do with the play; how much or little is impossible to tell from reading it. He may be responsible for the whole of the main plot. It is not so obscure and unmotivated as has sometimes been supposed, but it is not good. Parts have a slight, unreal, charm for those who are interested in antiquities. The way in which in IV. 3 Lessingham suddenly sulks, and goes off to make mischief, in order to spin the play out for another act and a bit, is childish.
It is a pity we cannot barter with oblivion and give A Cure for a Cuckold for Ford and Webster's lost murder play. This was one of the last, and it must have been one of the best, of the Elizabethan domestic tragedies. What a superb combination, Ford and Webster! And on such a subject! It may have been again, after all those years, the last cry of the true voice of Elizabethan drama. Once, in 1624, there was, perhaps, a tragedy of blood, not of sawdust. It is beyond our reach.