John Webster, Renaissance Dramatist

By David Coleman | Go to book overview

Prologue: Webster’s Aesthetic
Relativism

John Webster was born into a world of rapid change. Old structures of society, of religion, and of trade were breaking down, to be replaced by a world which we would recognise as ‘modern’. The centuries-long political and theological dominance of the Catholic church was being challenged across Europe by a number of new understandings of Christianity, grouped together under the term ‘Protestantism’; cities were becoming larger, drawing in more people from the countryside and changing the nature of local communities; and in those cities, the beginnings of a world-wide trade economy were making themselves felt. In such an atmosphere of change, different people reacted in different ways. Some adopted a fixed religious position, going to their death for their beliefs: this occurred among both Catholics and Protestants. Some probably doubted the validity of religion entirely, but the power of the church was not yet weakened enough that such an opinion could be publicly uttered without fear of reprimand. Some embraced the new economy as a means of getting rich quick, trampling over whomever and whatever stood in their way; others complained of the unfairness and immorality of the economic system. Some strove to maintain what they saw as the ancient dignity of the English social system, with its concentration of power in the figure of the monarch; others mounted a radical challenge to that system, at one point in the seventeenth century eradicating monarchy from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland completely.

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