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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

§ 4. Collaboration with Dekker and Marston

During the first period, Webster produced no independent work. He was engaged in collaboration with other dramatists, particularly Dekker; and, owing to a peculiarity of his genius, his individuality was entirely merged in that of his fellow workers. After joining with Middleton and others in two plays, Caesar’s Fall and The Two Harpies, which have perished, he is found in partnership with Dekker, Heywood and Wentworth Smith over a play entered as Lady Jane, and immediately followed by a Second Part (27 October) apparently from the hand of Dekker only. It has been universally assumed that these two plays are either wholly or in part identical with that which has come down to us under the title The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat (published 1607); and there is no reason for questioning this assumption. As to the exact relation of the two parts of Lady Jane to the existing Wyat, there is considerable doubt. The most plausible conjecture is that of Dyce, who held the published version to be rudely cobbled together, with many omissions, from the two parts as originally composed. And the shapeless build of the drama, together with the entire absence of the “coming in of King Philip” mentioned on the title-page, is in favour of this explanation. The only names occurring on the title-page are those of Dekker and Webster; and it would seem tolerably plain that the former was the predominant partner. He was already an old hand at historical subjects. French history, Scottish, Portuguese and, above all, English, had all, during the last four years, been freely dramatised by him. Moreover, the treatment of character, the peculiarities of versification, the general cast of sentiment—all these have analogies in his unaided work. And there are few things, if any, which remind us of the unaided work of Webster.

We turn, therefore, to the next recorded work—the contributions of Webster to the second edition of Marston’s The Malcontent (published 1604). It would seem probable that Webster is responsible for nothing more than the induction to that strange and “bitter” drama. Such is the natural interpretation of the words on the title-page, and in the heading to the induction itself. It is confirmed by the manifest identification of “additions”—and this is the word which has caused much misunderstanding—with “induction” in the opening dialogue (11. 87–91). And no argument, except such as rests upon a strained construction of the title-page, has hitherto been brought to the contrary. The body of the play, which the induction describes as having been “lost, found” and subsequently “played by the King’s Servants,” is of earlier date. There are strong reasons, as Stoll points out, for fixing it as early as 1600, though this view is not wholly free from difficulties. But it was not printed until 1604, and that year saw two distinct editions: the first without, the second with, the induction. The second edition also contains the “augmentations,” which, it may well be, are rather restorations of the “lost” text, as originally written by Marston. The induction—and it is that alone with which we are concerned—can hardly have been written much before the moment of publication. Its composition would naturally fall between the dates of the first and second editions. And this intrinsic probability is supported by internal evidence. The main object of the piece, seemingly, is to justify the king’s company for performing a play in which a rival company, that of the Blackfriars, had certain rights. And that company, in tis “decimo-sexto” shape—the “little eyases” of the second quarto of Hamlet—was not licensed until January, 1604. Any allusion to it in its earlier form, before it passed into the hands of the “children,” would be irrelevant. It may be added that, in the words of Sly, “No, in good faith, for mine ease,” there is a manifest quotation from the Osric of the second quarto of Hamlet (1604). Altogether, them, we can hardly be wrong in dating the composition of the induction within the year 1604. And, on the evidence of the title-page, we are justified in saying that Webster was sole author. That he had much reason to be proud of it, no one will assert. The “additions,” as Burbage modestly remarks, “are not greatly needed”; and, save in so far as they serve to introduce a hit against the children of the queen’s revels, they do little more than “entertain time and abridge the not received custom of music.” The induction was a common device of the Elizabethan stage. It had been employed, for instance, in The taming of a Shrew (printed 1594) in Every Man out of His Humour, in Cynthia’s Revels and in Antonio and Mellida. And it must be confessed that Webster’s effort is both flatter in itself and stands in a looser relation to the play which follows than any of these.