John Webster (1615?)

Historical Records

Webster's The Devil's Law-Case (1623)

In the 1623 quarto of The Devil's Law-Case, John Webster writes in his dedication "To the Right Worthie, and All-accomplisht Gentleman, Sir Thomas Finch, Knight Baronet":

Some of my other Works, as The white Deuill, The Dutchesse of Malfi, Guise, and others, you haue formerly seene; I present this humbly to kisse your hands, and to find your allowance. (sig. A2r)

It is unclear from context whether Webster means that Finch read these plays on the page or saw them in performance. The White Devil had been published in 1612; The Duchess of Malfi was first published in 1623.

Book trade records

The title "Guise" appears in several of the catalogues of plays that were published by stationers in the mid seventeenth century. In one case, Webster is named as the author, although the catalogues disagree in attribution and genre classification.

Rogers and Ley's List (1656)

A relevant entry appears in "An exact and perfect Catologue of all Playes that are Printed" appended to the 1656 quarto of Thomas Goffe's play The Careles Shepherdess: "Guise, Marstone" (sig. [L4]r).

For a full transcription of the list see Rogers and Ley's List (1656).

Archer's List (1656)

In "An Exact and perfect CATALOGUE of all the PLAIES that were ever printed; together, with all the Authors names; and what are Comedies, Histories, Interludes, Masks, Pastorels, Tragedies," appended to the 1656 quarto of Middleton's The Old Law, the title "Guise" is attributed to "Iohn Webster" and designated "C" for comedy (sig. a3v).

For a full transcription of the list see Archer's List (1656).

Kirkman's Lists

Francis Kirkman's "True, perfect, and exact Catalogue" of 1661 lists "Guise" without attribution or generic distinction (Tom Tyler, 2A3v) while his revised list of 1671 adds "T" to indicate tragedy (Dancer 2A3v).

Marsh's List (1663)

A similar entry appears in Henry Marsh's "perfect and exact Catalogue of all the Comedies, Trage-Comedies, Tragedies, Pastorals, Masques, and Interludes, that were yet ever printed, or published" appended to the almanac Endymion, 1663: "Guise. c" (sig. B5v). As Greg observed, Marsh's list was apparently revised from Kirkman's of 1661. (BEPD, 4:1652–53).

Theatrical Provenance

Unknown. Webster's allusion in 1623 does not clearly explicate whether the play was performed at all.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (Archer, Marsh). Tragedy (Kirkman 1671). "Tragedy of Intrigue" (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The play may have dramatized events surrounding one of the historical Dukes of Guise. Both Francis de Lorraine II (1519–1563), 2nd Duke of Guise, and his son Henry (1550–1588), 3rd Duke of Guise, were assassinated. The latter is a major character in Marlowe's Massacre at Paris and appears in Chapman's two Bussy D'Ambois plays. If either of these two historical subjects were the basis for Webster's play, he may have drawn on Edward Grimeston's translations of A Generall Historie of France (1611) by Jean de Serres or Admirable and Memorable Histories containing the wonders of our time (1607) by Simon Goulart (Howarth 294). Alternatively, the subject may have been the contemporary Duke of Guise, Charles de Lorraine (1570–1640), who visited London in 1607 (Howarth 294-95). If the title did not refer to a proper name, the word "guise" may indicate "custom, habit, or fashion" or "disguise" (Howarth 295, Wiggins #1784).

References to the Play

None known. Bentley suggests that Samuel Sheppard's allusion (c. 1650-64) to Webster's "three noble Tragedies" (Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. poet. 28, 66v, qtd. Rollins 554) may have grouped "Guise" with The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi (JCS, 5.1253).

Critical Commentary

Questions of critical disagreement include the subject and genre of Webster's play and whether the catalogues' references to "Guise" all refer to this play or to one by a different author, such as Marlowe.

Collier (History, 3:101) speculated that Webster's "Guise" represented "a new version" of Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris that was performed by the Admiral's Men in 1601. Collier's evidence for this was the entry in Henslowe's Diary: "Lent vnto wm Jube the 3 of novmber 1601 to bye stammell cllath for a clocke for the gwisse" (fol. 94r; Greg, 1:149). The name "Webster," interlined in a different ink, is apparently Collier's forged attempt to provide the historical proof for his conjecture. In his edition of Henslowe's Diary, Collier wrote: "there is little doubt that this distinguished dramatist at this date either re-wrote, or made some extensive alterations and additions to, Marlowe's 'Massacre at Paris:' in the next entry it is called by Henslowe, not 'the Guise,' as in the memorandum before us, but 'the Massacre of France'" (Diary, 202n). However, Collier also allowed the possibility that "Guise" "might be an entirely new play upon the same historical event as that treated by Webster's great predecessor" (202n).

Hazlitt (1:ix), in his edition of Webster's plays, noted that Henslowe apparently referred to Marlowe's Massacre under a similar title in the Diary entry of 30 January 1593, and found it doubtful whether the entry of 1601 referred to a play by Marlowe or one in which Webster had a hand. Later, Hazlitt noted that a now-lost poem by Thomas Nashe apparently referred to Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris as "The Duke of Guise" (Manual, 100). The source for this information is Edmond Malone's record that Thomas Warton, author of The History of English Poetry, claimed to have seen this elegy on the death of Marlowe preserved in a copy of Dido, which "mentioned a play of Marlowe's entitled the Duke of Guise" (qtd. in McKerrow 2:335-36; cf. Tanner 512).

Warner (162), examining the manuscript of Henslowe's Diary, found that the name "Webster" on fol. 94r was "not written by the same hand as the rest of the entry," classifying it "a spurious modern addition." In fact, in Warner's assessment, "badly executed as it is, it seems to have been the result of a second attempt, for below the line are unmistakable traces of an erasure, so carefully made and smoothed over as scarcely to be detected except from the thinness of the paper" (xlii).

Lucas (2.321) states that Webster's play "surely must have been" a tragedy and "likely enough" that it depicted the assassination of the 3rd Duke of Guise. Chronologically, Lucas speculates that Webster's listing of his three play titles may indicate their order of composition, and that "Guise" was therefore written sometime between Duchess (1613) and 1623.

Greg (BEPD, 2:994) finds it possible that Rogers and Ley's "Marstone" is "a slip, possibly for Marlowe, in which case the entry would be a duplication of The Massacre at Paris 'With the Death of the Duke of Guise'." He points out further that some early references to Marlowe's play, including Henslowe's diary, use the title "The Guise" or "The Duke of Guise."

Bentley (JCS, 5:1253) finds that the various authorial attributions made in the publisher's lists "suggest the existence of an anonymous edition of the play." He calls the scholarly hypothesis that Webster revised Marlowe's Massacre "the purest speculation." Bentley also notes that Samuel Sheppard may have included "Guise" in his reference to Webster's "three noble Tragedies" (Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. poet. 28 [c. 1650–54], fol. 66v, qtd. Rollins 554).

Howarth (294–95) argues that the evidence of the catalogues suggests that the play was a comedy and conjectures a date of "about 1615." Departing from theories that the play depicted the same historical Guise of Marlowe's Massacre, Howarth proposes that the play may had something to do with the visit of his son, Charles de Lorraine (1570–1640), 4th Duke of Guise, to London in 1607. There are already known theatrical connections with this visit: this Guise attended (and is complimented in) Jonson's Entertainment at Theobalds (22 May 1607) as well as bear-baiting arranged by Philip Henslowe, who refers to him in a June 1607 letter as "the french princ" (MSS II, Article 8, qtd. Greg, Henslowe Papers, 103). Howarth proposes that this Guise may have struck English observers as a "fantastic French gallant, like Chapman's Monsieur d'Olive" and that Webster was inspired by his visit in a similar way that he was inspired to write The White Devil by the 1600 visit of Prince Virginio Orsini. Alternatively, Howarth proposes Webster's title may not be a proper name at all, instead simply meaning "custom, habit, or fashion."

Hammond and Delvecchio (7) assume that the play was a tragedy about the Duke of Guise, although "it is conceivable that Guise may have been a 'bitter' tragi-comedy like The Devil's Law-Case."

Weis (403) states that "it is likely to have dramatized the character and death of the mercurial Duc de Guise, who was assassinated on 23 December 1588, and who is featured in plays by Marlowe, Chapman, and (almost certainly) Henry Shirley."

Jackson (xxxvii), based on the evidence of the catalogues, finds it likely that Webster's play was printed and that it was a tragedy. "It has been suggested that Guise was a comedy about 'custom, habit, fashion'. But there is no other example in the whole period 1576–1642 of a play title composed of one abstract English noun in the singular (as distinct from the occasional plural, such as Abuses or Changes). There are dozens of plays known by one-word names (Philotas, Sejanus, Cymbeline, and the like)." (xxxix)

Wiggins (#1784) adds that the title may indicate a "comedy featuring disguise."

For What It's Worth

All of the historical records listed above use the title "Guise." On September 9, 1653, Humphrey Moseley entered a play called "The Duke of Guize," which he attributed (along with three titles) to Henry Shirley (Liber E, p. 286; Greg, BEPD, 1:61, cf. 2:988–89).

Works Cited

Collier, John Payne. The History of English Dramatic Poetry to the Time of Shakespeare. 3 vols. London, 1831.
Dancer, John, trans. Nicomede. London, 1671. Wing C6315.
Endymion, 1663. Or, The Man-in-the-Moon His Northern Weather-Glass. London, 1663. Wing A2492A.
Hammond, Antony, and Doreen Delvecchio. "The Melbourne Manuscript and John Webster: A Reproduction and Transcript." Studies in Bibliography 41 (1988): 1–32.
Hazlitt, William, ed. The Dramatic Works of John Webster. 4 vols. London, 1857.
Howarth, R. G. "Webster's Guise. N&Q 13 (1966): 294–96.
Jackson, MacDonald P. "The Webster Canon: A Reassessment." In The Works of John Webster: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition. Volume III. Ed. David Gunby, David Carnegie, and MacDonald P. Jackson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. xxx–xxxix.
Lucas, F. L., ed. The Complete Works of John Webster. London: Chatto & Windus, 1927.
Rollins, Hyder E. "Samuel Sheppard and His Praise of Poets." Studies in Philology 24 (1927): 509–55.
Tanner, Thomas. Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica. London, 1748.
Tom Tyler and His Wife. London, 1661. Wing T1792A.
Warner, George F. Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Muniments of Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich. London, 1881.
Weis, René, ed. The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays by John Webster. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 8 September 2020.