John Webster: Biography & Plays

Instructor: Natarielle Powell
Not much is known about the private life of writer John Webster, but a white devil and a duchess are his claim to fame. Read on to learn more about John Webster and his plays.


When a new parent is preparing to have a baby, their friends who have been there before will usually warn them what to expect. One of these warnings is that very soon, everything will revolve around the baby. Admirers will give all of their attention and focus to the new child, and not to the parents. Authors and playwrights sometimes experience a similar phenomenon after they have created a work of art. This is certainly what happened to the sixteenth-century writer John Webster.

The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are two of John Webster's 'babies' that people give a lot of attention to, even if they are unaware of the man who wrote them. It's odd that this author has written two plays that have been picked apart for symbolism and style, giving an abundance of information about the characters and the plays themselves. And yet very little provable facts are known about John Webster.

John Webster

Early Life

We do know that John Webster was born in 1580 in London, England. His father was a carriage-maker. His mother's name was Elisabeth.

It is recorded that a John Webster entered into the Middle Temple School in 1598. Based on references to this school in three of his plays, these records likely belong to the writer John Webster.

Marriage and Family

In 1606, Webster married Sara Peniall. Two months after they were married, their son, John, was born. The total number of children the couple had remains unknown, but it is recorded that they had at least three daughters.


John started out as an actor, working with Phillip Henslowe on different plays. Before and after writing his own plays, Webster collaborated with other writers like Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. Some of his collaborations were Anything For a Quiet Life and A Cure for a Cuckold.

Webster was often criticized during his time period for writing about the gruesome events of murder instead of more flowery fantasies. Two of his most celebrated murder plays are The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.

Murder, He Wrote

Have you ever seen the television show, Murder, She Wrote? It stars Angela Lansbury as a writer and amateur detective. Murder seems to follow her everywhere she goes, and so murder is at the forefront of her novels.

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