« PreviousContinue »
these stars in the dramatic galaxy, differ from each other in mag. nitude, we cannot repress a feeling of dissatisfaction at our ignorance of their personal history, the want of which deprives them of half their individuality. Their lives seem to have been forgotten, “ 'ere the worm pierced their winding sheets,”-their names have become little more than an abstract idea, and their identity has for the most part merged in two or three syllables. We have wished, over and over, to know the history of their mental discipline—the process by which they became authors, nay, we have been almost as anxious to be acquainted with the lines of their face, as of their compositions. Of John Webster, we only know that he lived in the reign of James the First, was clerk of the parish of St. Andrew's, Holborn; and that after writing several plays, and one or two other compositions, he died, but when or where cannot now be discovered. If the emoluments of the office which he filled, bore any proportion to those which are said to be received from it at the present day, they were by no means inconsiderable. He is described in the “Notes from Blackfriars, 1620,” as being ill-natured in criticism, and slow in composition. Whether the first charge be just or not, it is impossible to say, as none of his writings of that kind are now remaining; there is, however, strong evidence against its verity in the preface to The White Devil, in which he speaks in handsome terms of several of hiscontemporaries, and ill-naturedly of none. As to the last charge, he confesses in the same place “that he writes not with a goose-quill winged with two feathers.”
There are four plays written by Webster, now extant, besides two which he is said to have written in conjunction with Rowley, called The Thracian Wonder, and a Cure for a Cuckold; and three which he wrote in conjunction with Dekker, viz. Northward-Hoe, Westward-Hoe, and Wyat's History. It appears from the dedication to The Devil's Law Case, that he had written more than the plays mentioned at the head of this article.“ Some of my other works,” he says, “ as the White Devil, the Dutchess of Malfy, Guise, and others, you have formerly seen.” Webster, however, has left behind a sufficient number of plays to entitle him to the gratitude of every lover of the histrionic art; we say of the histrionic art, because they are much better calculated for representation than most of our early dramas. Indeed, nothing can be more distinct than the excellence which most peculiarly characterizes Webster, and that which distinguishes his predecessors and the generality of his contemporaries. They are, in truth, very opposite branches of the dramatic art. An author may unite just conception and skilful portraiture of character, with an ardent imagination and poetical enthusiasm, and yet fail in the production of an effective play. He may scatter about his pages the blossoms of poetry with the prodigality of a genius, whose affluence is inexhaustible,-he may dazzle us with new images or new combinations of old ones, he may sooth the ear with the delicious harmony of his versification, or charm us with characters of unfading beauty ; and the drama, notwithstanding all these high qualities, be unfit for public representation. But, if he be not impressive as a spectacle, he delights as a companion, he has his reward in the study,-he is taken into our bosoms, and tires not with repetition. There is, on the other hand, a class of dramatists with perlaps less genius but more judgement, whose excellence is purely scenic, and upon whom, if the original intention of dramatic composition, effect in representation, mere acting, were the test of superiority, the palm would be bestowed; —their success is more striking but less permanent than that of the former. Repetition weakens their effect; the action of such pieces fades from the memory when the poetry and characters of the other class is engraven on it in characters, which grey hairs may modify but not destroy. All things are not given to all writers; and there are but very few who conjoin both these qualifications. The present object of our consideration, is not to be ranked amongst these rare geniuses ; but he is an admirable dramatist, a learned artist in his own department. In reading our early dramatic poets, we cannot help being forcibly struck with the boldness with which they adventure on strange and eccentric characters, and the eagerness with which they seize on extraordinary incidents, that make the nerves tingle and the blood run cold. Webster was not behind the rest in these singular predilections, and if he had less imagination in the conception of them, he had more skill in working them up. Theobald, in the preface to his tragedy of The fatal Secret, altered from the Dutchess of Malfy, describes him as an impetuous genius, who travels so fast, that the imagination of his spectators cannot keep pace with him. To this opinion, however, we cannot assent; he appears to us to have possessed a strong mind, which kept its object steadily in view, and to the accomplishment of which he proceeded at as sober a pace as he probably did in the performance of his functions of a parish clerk, never allowing his enthusiasm to run away with his judgement. Indeed, of enthusiasm he had but little, at least he always kept it in perfect subserviency to his grand object to produce effect. But, although his judgement is conspicuous in the management of his incidents, he never thought of restraining himself within the canons of dramatic criticism. “If it be objected,” says he in his preface to The White Devil, " this is no true dramatic poem, I shall easily confess it, Non potes in nugas dicere plura meas, ipse ego quam dixi ; willingly and not ignorantly have I faulted. For should a man present
siasm to Thad but to his gent is conseht of rest if it
and non nugatua dramatica his prdramatichought of
borantiere plura moem, I share to Theicism. Testy
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 enliven death, in the passionate and weighty Nuntius; yet, after all this divine rapture, 0 dura messoruin ilia, the breath that comes from the uncapable multitude is able to poison it.” In the integrity and consistency of character, he generally fails, and in poetical imagery he seldom indulges : his excellence is in the poetry of scenic action, in which he manifests the most exquisite art. The White Devil, which was probably the first play he wrote alone, for he had before the date of the earliest edition assisted Dekker in the plays beforementioned, does not indeed seem to have received its just measure of applause, although there are scenes in it well calculated to engage the attention of an “understanding auditory,” to borrow Webster's phrase, when speaking of its failure. It is, however, more rambling, and lest compact and entire in its plot, than The Dutchess of Malfy, and Appius and Virginia ; its characters are more coarse, and its incidents less strange; the author rather winds round the main action than proceeds to it in a strait forward course. But, in the plays just mentioned, he marches right on to the catastrophe; he has no time, if he had inclination, to search for flowers by the way to deck the consummation of the solemn event; he is full of important business, deep and tragical-he looks neither to the right nor to the left-he needs no subsidiary plots to swell his drama to the proper dimensions; the weight of his matter carries him straight to the pith of the action, and there he dwells enamoured of horror.
But, to return to The White Devil, which we shall first notice-it may be as well, for the more perfect understanding of the extracts which will be made, to give a brief narrative of the plot. Brachiano, Duke of Brachiano, while in Rome, is bewitched by the charms of Vittoria, (the white devil,) the wife of Camillo, a lady of no great character, though of good family. Flamineo, the brother of Vittoria, is the honest promoter of the Duke's suit, which meets with very hopeful success. Vittoria ingeniously invents a dreain for disposing of the Dutchess, which is aptly interpreted by the Duke, and he, in consequence, resolves to poison Isabella his wife, who, with her brother Francisco de Medicis, Duke of Florence, soon after arrives in Rome. An interview takes place between Brachiano and his wife, with whom he vows never to live again; a vow which, for the sake of preserving peace between her husband and her kinsmen, she generously pretends that she herself has made. By an exquisite refinement of barbarity, she is poisoned by means of Brachiano's picture, which she was in the habit of kissing nightly, before she retired to rest, and the divorce which had been commenced
and indered to be with Brachhi
nich she esto be confi the latt.
by her husband was completed by the poisoned lips of his picture. Camillo is next disposed of by Flamineo, under pretence of an accident, but in so improbable a manner, that Vittoria is brought to trial, for the double crime of murder and incontinence. Of the latter charge she is convicted, and ordered to be confined in a house of penitents; from which she escapes with Brachiano, and they fly to his dukedom, where he marries her. Hither they are followed by the Duke of Florence, and some companions, in disguise ; who ultimately revenge the death of the Dutchess and Camillo, by the destruction of Brachiano, Vittoria, and Flamineo.
Isabella meets Brachiano, immediately after the Cardinal Monticelso, the cousin of Camillo, and Francisco de Medicis, have been remonstrating with him in irritating terms, against his attachment to Vittoria. The interview above alluded to, then takes place, which exhibits the tenderness and delicacy of Isabella in a most attractive light.
“ Bra. You are in health, we see.
Isa. And above health,
Bra. So, I wonder much
Isa. Devotion, my lord.
Bra. Devotion !
Isa. "Tis burthen'd with too many; and I think
Bra. Take your chamber.
Isa. Nay, my dear lord, I will not have you angry;
Bra. I do not use to kiss :
Isa. O my lov'd lord,
Bra. O your breath !
Isa. You have oft, for these two lips,
Of the spring-violet : they are not yet much wither'd.
Bra. O dissemblance!
Isa. Never, my dear lord.
Bra. Must I be hụnted out? or was't your trick To meet some amorous gallant here in Rome, That must supply our discontinuance ?
Isa. I pray, sir, burst my heart, and in my death Turn to your antient pity, tho' not love.
Bra. Because your brother is the corpulent duke, That is, the great duke : 'sdeath, I shall not shortly Racket away five hundred crowns at tennis, But it shall rest upon record! I scorn him Like a shay’d.pollack; all his reverend wit Lies in his wardrobe: he's a discreet fellow, When he's made up in his robes of state. Your brother, the great duke, because h'as gallies, And now and then ransacks a Turkish fly-boat, (Now all the hellish furies rack his soul) First made this match; accursed be the priest That sang the wedding-mass, and even my issue !
Isa. O, too too far you have curst.
Bra. Your hand I'll kiss ;
Isa. Forbid it, the sweet union
Bra. Let not thy love
Isa. O my winding-sheet!