A Study of the Plays of John Webster
“Webster’s iconoclasm was not the lonely experience of an alienated intellectual, but part of his generation’s struggle to create the future. As such, the critical energy we find in the plays was sustained, not by ideological certainty, but rather by interaction with the great complexity of thought and action—much of it negative—that constitutes a pre-revolutionary movement. If Webster was part of a dying culture, he was also—and it is this that Webster criticism has almost consistently ignored—a member of the generation that prepared the way for the revolution of 1640” (Introduction).
Through detailed analysis of four plays, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, The Devil’s Law Case, and Appius and Virginia, Goldberg explores the relations between Webster and aspects of Jacobean social and intellectual history. Webster’s satire of princes and prelates, his iconoclastic view of traditional philosophy, his trenchant analysis of institutions are seen as part of an intellectual movement that was undermining faith in the old order. Special attention is given to Webster’s theatrical representations of legal practice and legal philosophy as key manifestations of the realities of political power. Webster’s dramatizations of the judgment situation are shown to embody specific commentary on the legal system of his time, commentary that ranges in orientation from anarchist to reformist to revolutionary. Webster’s irreverence for traditional ideals and institutions combines with a humanist sense of man’s—and woman’s—potential to make an important contribution to the pre–revolutionary movement.