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About this book

Webster's theatre was also Shakespeare's theatre: but their tragedies are very different. Webster has a reputation for angst-ridden, obsessive and debased characters and the creation of a sick and decaying world. Yet his heroines are the amongst the strongest characters, male or female, in Jacobean drama.

This book shows how Webster's plays portray a world in which patriarchal, aristocratic politics are dissected as diseased. Through close analysis of key moments, scenic and dramatic structure, characterisation, theatricality and imagery, this book enables students to appreciate Webster's individual contribution to our dramatic heritage. Through such textual reading, we learn how he uses drama to debate contemporary political and social issues, most explicitly those of gender. The book provides students with effective reading, critical and analytical tools with which to approach Webster's plays as dramatic scripts for our time, as well as their own, and thus as rivals to Shakespeare's major tragedies.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
This book aims to enable students to approach and understand Webster’s plays without being hindered by a surplus of technical and theoretical terminology. Nevertheless, when we read a four-hundredyears-old play, the verbal, literary and social conventions to which it adheres are necessarily alien to us. So, before we plunge into the play, it is useful to outline some of the analytical terms which we shall be using in our analyses in this book. These may be divided into three areas: the linguistic form; imagery; and dramatic form and performance.
Kate Aughterson

Analysing Webster’s Tragedies

Frontmatter

1. Openings

Abstract
Renaissance public performances of plays usually began with music, which like overtures for concerts, or modern theatres’ dimming of the lights, gave forewarning that the important part was about to start. The dramatist and performers want us to pay attention from the very first words, to be plunged into their fictional world and space with all our senses alert. The openings can tell us more about Webster’s intentions than any other single part of the play. They focus our attention on a new world and its concerns, and demand our attention.
Kate Aughterson

2. Endings

Abstract
The endings of plays, particularly when we have seen them on stage, remain in our memories and imaginations for many years. They coalesce and distil all the emotions, plot-lines, conflicts and themes in a final show-down. The nature of the show-down (who dies, who is married, who feasts and who does not) tells us much about the play’s dramatic intent. Does the ending resolve conflict or perpetuate it? Is the ending idealistic, if so why is this? Is the ending darkly pragmatic? Does it answer all our questions, or not? The answers to these broader questions can be found through close analysis of the closing moments of any play. Let us turn, then, to the ending of The White Devil.
Kate Aughterson

3. Turning Points

Abstract
Plays often feature a central dramatic turning point: prior to this we remain unsure of how the story will unfold; afterwards, inevitable conclusions hurtle towards their finale. Webster’s tragedies are no exception, and a good understanding of his pivotal scenes helps us see, feel and understand the crises which lead to the final tragic moments we discussed in Chapter 2.
Kate Aughterson

4. Tragic Heroines

Abstract
Webster’s central characters are women. What makes his tragic heroines distinctive? How does he generate a sense of tragedy around them? How central are women to his idea of dramatic tragedy? We shall examine in detail two speeches, or participation in key dialogue, by Vittoria and the Duchess of Malfi. This chapter does not intend to summarise the central characters’ place within the play, but uses a couple of speeches as starting points from which you can build a broader analysis. We have already noticed how the play establishes a sense of gender conflict through structural, character and linguistic contrasts. To what extent does this conflict inform the female heroines? We have also noted the conflict between corrupt political institutions and behaviour, and the needs, or rights, of the individual. What place does a tragic heroine have within that conflict? In addition, we have commented on the moral ambiguity of the central characters: to what extent is their downfall created by their own folly, and to what extent is it caused by the circumstances into which they are forced by others? These are the kinds of questions we should keep in mind over the next few chapters.
Kate Aughterson

5. Heroes and Villains

Abstract
The male protagonists in Webster’s tragedies are nearly all villains or malcontents. Antonio is one exception, but he never dominates the action nor the imagination of an audience as do Bosola or Ferdinand, and he lacks a hero’s independence. No single male character has the central dramatic status of his heroines, nor the interior monologues of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. What is the function of Webster’s male heroes? Are they flawed tragic individuals or participants in a world that is more flawed than they? Why is his focus on tragic heroines rather than heroes? You need to keep in mind what we have decided in Chapter 4, and place any conclusions you make here in that context.
Kate Aughterson

6. Society and Politics

Abstract
Webster repeatedly draws attention to political situations and to the way in which all individuals are embedded in their social and political milieu. We have also seen that he dramatises political and legal conflict and corruption, often focusing on debates about, and struggles for, female sexuality. In the first two chapters we discussed how he created a corrupt and divided society through staging and content, raising questions about the correct ethical path within a political world and about the relationship between individualism and the state. We saw in Chapter 2 how the plays’ closing moments both resolve some of these issues and posit open-ended questions about the endemic nature of self-interest and political corruption. In this chapter we shall look explicitly at the society and politics of his dramatic worlds within two extracts, analysing how social structure and political conduct are intimately connected; how characterisation is a key way in which Webster engages our own political views; and the function of gender within the political crises.
Kate Aughterson

7. Webster’s Theatricality

Abstract
In the preceding chapters we have noted at least three main areas of Webster’s theatricality. First, there are the moments at which characters draw attention to their own fictional and dramatic status: for example, Flamineo at his death; Vittoria’s self-conscious rhetorical stances; Bosola’s continued references to himself as a devil or villain; and the existence of commentator characters (including Bosola at times). Secondly, Webster marshals visual and physical arrangements of characters in patterns, creating a visible and self-consciously choreographed formality, spectacle and dramatic meaning. And thirdly, we have noted the way he uses large ‘set-piece’ scenes, which coalesce visual and narrative motifs through self-conscious use of specific visual settings. Self-conscious theatricality is often called ‘meta-theatricality’: look at the Introduction for a definition of this term.
Kate Aughterson

8. Iconography and Imagery

Abstract
The same, or similar, images, symbols and visual icons appear repeatedly in both plays. Furthermore, Webster integrates visual images of action on stage (including pageantry, masques, and the blocking of actors) with setting, costume and props and the more extensive themes of the play, coalescing and concentrating dramatic meaning and conflict through imagery and iconography as well as verbal conflict. For example, visual setting and blocking in the trial scene of The White Devil are used to signify a confusion and abuse of roles.
Kate Aughterson

Backmatter

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

9. Webster’s Plays

Abstract
John Webster was born in about 1578 and died in 1634, his life spanning the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. The first records of his working life as a playwright begin in 1602, at the very end of Elizabeth’s reign. His plays continued to be performed in repertory until and beyond his death, although the last play he wrote was in 1627 (Appius and Virginia). The range and nature of the plays he wrote across his career can illuminate his two tragedies. He only wrote one other play as a sole author: his others were all collaborative, written jointly with other playwrights. His other sole-authored play, The Devil’s Law Case, is a tragicomedy, setting up potentially tragic situations and conflict, which are magically resolved and transformed by a surprise ending. He wrote this play after his two tragedies, in 1617 or 1618, and its combination of tragic intensity, with comic closure and a burlesque, often macabre, jokiness has similarities with both the structure and content of the two tragedies. We shall return to these similarities in a moment, when we come to discuss the relationship of the two tragedies to his whole career’s work. However, let us first have a look at a probable chronology of his work, and comment on both his working methods and the range and types of writing in which he was engaged over twenty-five years of writing.
Kate Aughterson

10. Contexts

Abstract
In the previous chapter we discussed the performing contexts for Webster’s plays, including their original place and time of performance, and touched on the possible influences of other writers on his work. In this chapter, we shall broaden that approach by considering what other writers, both theorists and dramatic practitioners, thought about ‘tragedy’ as a genre. The purpose of talking about tragedy in this more theoretical way is to enable us to consider how general and historical ideas about the form of tragedy, and its expressed purposes, help us to understand what Webster was doing. We shall also discuss some tragic generic conventions, and the broader political and philosophical contexts to which we have referred elsewhere in the book.
Kate Aughterson

11. Sample Critical Views

Abstract
Your own analyses, built up gradually throughout this book, will have provided you with a strong and individual interpretation of the plays. So long as these are based upon the plays and justified by close readings, they are as valid as those of any academic critic. Nevertheless, your own ideas and interpretation will be stimulated by engaging with other readers and critics of Webster’s plays, just as they are by discussing them with fellow students and teachers. You should always look on the writings and arguments of critics as part of a process of developmental discussion, rather than a visit to an all-knowing oracle. If you approach critical argument in this fashion you will be much better equipped to be sceptical and thoughtful about critics’ arguments, and come to your own decisions about the validity and importance of their approach.
Kate Aughterson
Additional information