Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 14. Secret of Webster’s genius: his profound knowledge of human character and sense of tragic issues

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VII. Tourneur and Webster

§ 14. Secret of Webster’s genius: his profound knowledge of human character and sense of tragic issues

It remains only to ask: what is the secret of Webster’s genius? What are the qualities which give the distinctive seal to his imaginative creations? For the answer to this question we need hardly go beyond the two tragedies. His later works offer reflections, more or less faint, more or less intermittent, of the qualities we associate with his genius. But the authentic image, the clear-cut features, the colour and the harmony, are here alone.

First, then, within somewhat narrow limits, Webster shows a profound knowledge of human character and a keen sense of the tragic issues of human life. Vittoria and the duchess are among the great creations of the Elizabethan drama. Setting Shakespeare aside, there is no character of that drama which surpasses them in vividness; only two or three which approach them. Nor, in the duchess, at any rate, is there any marked quality to lay hold of. It is by atmosphere and temperament, by her sweet womanliness and unstudied dignity, that she becomes known to us. And these are just the things which are most impalpable, which only the highest genius can bring home to the imagination. No less important, perhaps even more so, is the sense of tragic issues. And, here again, Webster comes nearer to Shakespeare than any other of the Elizabethans, with the possible exception of Ford. Shakespeare found the deepest tragedy in the resistance of inborn heroism to all assaults from without; in the triumph of the inner self, when all outward happiness is dashed in pieces. So it is in Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. And something of the same effect is attained in The White Divel and The Dutchesse Of Malfy. It is attained, also, in Ford’s The Broken Heart.