Saturday, April 9, 2011

Webster and Shakespeare

My colleague Cecilia Rubino and a group of Lang and New School for Drama students put on a production of Webster’s White Devil on Wednesday.. I really enjoyed it--the shortened length made it stripped-down and intensified, and even though the plot was compressed it is the emotions and attitudes that make the play, not the plot, which the more one gets into this kind of theatre the less necessary it seems. 

I am going to talk to my students at some point some point, maybe during our discussion of Macbeth, of changes in the London theatre system attendant on the accession of King James, but Webster's theater was part of these changes, and Webster represented one, Gothic,  'extreme' of a younger generation than Shakespeare while John Fletcher, who collaborated with Shakespeare, represented the 'other', more light-hearted one. But it is interesting to think of similarities and differences. Like Shakespeare, Webster was (most likely) not formally educated, but unlike Shakespeare he remained a genuinely colloquial, popular playwright, while the creator of Hamlet has an undeniably intellectual side to him and uses much fancier language. Moreover, Shakespeare’s sources were more literary, while Webster took his plots from, most often, versions of 'current events' or scandals n the air, ableit often luridly distorted.

Nonetheless how power was regarded in the play seemed to me similar to Shakespeare. The idea of the white devil,; the would-be virtuous person, being worse than the black one speaks powerfully to Angelo in Measure for Measure. Where Webster is different is he is much more sexually frank, and the sexual motives in his plays are rather obvious, I have to say this is far less the case in Shakespeare. Even Gertrude and Claudius's relationship cannot be explained by mere Shakespeare sex always has something to do with cognition, with knowledge, in Webster it is more 'straightforward.’ Webster of course is also much darker in Shakespeare there is always redemption even at the end of tragedy (as we saw today with Fortinbras); with Webster darkness most often overrules all. When T. S. Eliot said that Webster saw "the skull beneath the skin" (used as his book title by my cheirshed colleague Charles R. Forker) he was in a sense suggesting Shakespeare did not.....

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