Often ranked second only to Shakespeare among Jacobean tragedians, Webster is the author of two major works, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), which are more frequently revived on stage than any plays of the period other than Shakespeare's. Webster's tragedies, while praised for their poetic language by some commentators, have also been attacked as being excessively grim and even horrifying: his plays present a world in chaos, ruled by passionate sensuality and seemingly devoid of morality and human feeling. In performance, however, Webster's highly charged verse often imbues his characters with a unique dignity and power. Contemporary critics have emphasized the distinctly "modern" qualities of his worldview, praising in particular the depth and complexity of his female characters.
Many scholars regard The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi as Webster's greatest dramatic accomplishments, with the dramatist's concerted effort at developing a tragic vision conceived in the former and fully realized in the latter. Both plays reflect the characteristic darkness and profound consciousness of evil that characterized the Jacobean period, an age that questioned the preceding Elizabethan era's belief that all social, political, and even spiritual relations were defined in an unchanging hierarchy. The suggestion that chaos lies beyond such order—glimpsed in Elizabethan dramas such as Shakespeare's King Lear—become increasingly explicit in Jacobean drama. In particular, English society grew steadily more concerned with Machiavellianism following the publication of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), which described politics as an amoral and ruthless striving to acquire and maintain power. The spread of such ideas contributed to the deterioration of faith in traditional values and fostered a general anxiety associated with societal disarray—the fear being that following the breakdown of order, people would drift aimlessly through a meaningless world.
Like The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi is based on Italian history. Against the wishes of her brothers, the widowed Duchess secretly marries beneath her position, to her servant Antonio. Suspicious of their sister's activities, the brothers—the fanatical Ferdinand and the scheming Cardinal—plant a spy, Bosola, in the Duchess's household. A character similar to Flamineo in The White Devil, Bosola is even more complex, vacillating between delight and a sense of degradation in his sinister role. When Bosola exposes the truth of the Duchess's marriage, her brothers ruthlessly harass her, drive her from her home, and eventually imprison and murder her. Scholars agree that the Duchess herself is one of the greatest tragic heroines of the period. Her attitude of Christian resignation in the face of her brothers' vicious cruelty and sexual obsession with her imbues her with a profound dignity, and the depiction of her murder is commonly judged as one of the most moving scenes in all Jacobean drama.
In the twentieth century, debate continues regarding Webster's moral outlook, with critics who view it as fundamentally pessimistic outnumbering those who assert that the plays reveal a profound belief that personal integrity can be maintained in a chaotic universe. Evaluations of Webster's artistry have revealed an intricate relationship between dramatic structure, characterization, and imagery in his plays.
Both lauded and maligned for centuries, the dramatic art of John Webster remains difficult to assess. While undeniably horrifying (T.S. Eliot once characterized the dramatist as a man "possessed by death"), his depictions of people struggling to make sense of their lives in an apparently meaningless world reveal a curiously modern sensibility. Margaret Loftus Ranald, for example, commented on Webster's "surprising" modernity regarding his treatment of feminine characters: "He is not afraid to portray women of power, whether evil … dignified and tragic … or manipulative," who "choose to take risks and in so doing they broaden the female horizons of the Jacobean era, while at the same time undermining norms of established behavior." The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi retain a vitality that continues to appeal to actors, audiences, and critics. That Webster's best works are still performed, read, and debated is perhaps the finest testament to his standing as a dramatist.