John Webster

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When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.
Lord Byron
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John Webster (c. 1580 - c. 1634) was an English Jacobean dramatist, a late contemporary of William Shakespeare. His tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage.


  • Is not old wine wholesomest, old pippins toothsomest, old wood burn brightest, old linen wash whitest? Old soldiers, sweethearts, are surest, and old lovers are soundest.
  • I saw him going the way of all flesh.
    • Westward Hoe, Act II, scene ii.
  • 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.
    • The Devil's Law Case (1623)

The White Devil (1612)

  • 'T is just like a summer bird-cage in a garden,—the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out. 2
    • Act I, scene ii. Compare: "To public feasts, where meet a public rout,— Where they that are without would fain go in, And they that are within would fain go out", John Davies, Contention betwixt a Wife, etc.
  • Condemn you me for that the duke did love me?
    So may you blame some fair and crystal river
    For that some melancholic, distracted man
    Hath drown'd himself in 't.
    • Act III, scene ii.
  • Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
    But look'd too near have neither heat nor light.
  • Call for the robin redbreast and the wren,
    Since o'er shady groves they hover,
    And with leaves and flowers do cover
    The friendless bodies of unburied men.
    • Act V, scene iv.
  • But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
    For with his nails he'll dig them up again.
    • Act V, scene iv.
  • Prosperity doth bewitch men, seeming clear;
    But seas do laugh, show white, when rocks are near.
    • Act V, scene vi.

Duchess of Malfi (1623)

  • Glories, like glowworms, afar off shine bright,
    But looked to near have neither heat nor light.
    • Act IV, scene ii.
  • Of what is't fools make such vain keeping?
    Sin their conception, their birth, weeping:
    Their life, a general mist of error,
    Their death, a hideous storm of terror.
    • Act IV, scene ii.
  • I know death hath ten thousand several doors
    For men to take their exits.
    • Act IV, scene ii. Compare: "Death hath so many doors to let out life", Beaumont and Fletcher, The Customs of the Country, act ii, scene 2.
  • Heaven-gates are not so highly arched
    As princes' palaces; they that enter there
    Must go upon their knees.
    • Act IV, scene ii.
  • Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.
    • Act IV, scene ii.
  • Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.
    • Act V, scene v.

About John Webster

  • Webster was much possessed by death
    And saw the skull beneath the skin.
    • T.S. Eliot, "Whispers of Immortality" from Poems (1920)
  • Webster is not concerned with humanity. He is the poet of bile and brainstorm, the sweet singer of apoplexy; ideally, one feels, he would have had all his characters drowned in a sea of cold sweat. His muse drew nourishment from Bedlam, and might, a few centuries later, have done the same from Belsen.
    • Kenneth Tynan, review of The Duchess of Malfi at the Aldwych Theatre (1960), from Tynan Left and Right (1967)

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:

Works by John Webster at Project Gutenberg