Early approaches

Contemporary reception

Along with Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil ensures Webster's fame as a Jacobean dramatist. However, The White Devil was not well received on its first performance. Webster refers to this in his prologue to the printed edition of The White Devil:


‘it was acted in so dull a time of winter, presented in so open and black a theatre, that it wanted …  a full and understanding auditory;  … most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble … ignorant asses'

He blamed the theatre and the audience for its poor reception and it is true that the Red Bull Theatre was not the most suitable place for a performance of the play.

Regardless of the factors affecting its original reception, the play has not always been popular with critics since.

Acclaimed, then ignored

Despite its poor initial reception, The White Devil was successfully performed throughout the seventeenth century, indicated by the numerous re-prints and revivals recorded.

The fashion for Webster died in the eighteenth century, in the face of increasing interest in the works of Shakespeare. Webster was considered to be of no more than historical interest, irrelevant for the audiences of the day.

Nineteenth-century revival

In 1808, however, Charles Lamb revived interest in Webster's plays, commenting positively on them in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare. According to the critic William Hazlitt, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi:


come the nearest to Shakespeare of anything we have upon record.

In 1830, the first collected edition of Webster's works appeared, whilst the first nineteenth-century production of The Duchess of Malfi took place in 1850.

Nineteenth-century critics disagreed over the value of Webster's works. William Archer argued that:


Webster was not, in the special sense of the word, a great dramatist, but was really a great poet who wrote haphazard dramatic or melodramatic romances for an eagerly receptive but semi-barbarous public.


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