University of Virginia Library


John Webster's reputation rests upon two fascinating Italianate tragedies which, though displaying such baroque excess of local elaboration and such straining for sensational effect as to lack clarity of outline or obvious coherence of purpose or point of view, are pervaded by a distinctive and haunting atmosphere that blends savagery, melancholy, and a nerve-tingling sense of impending doom. And the "Tussaud laureate" who created The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi set his seal no less surely on their dazzling tragi-comic counterpart, The Devil's Law Case. But Appius and Virginia, first published in 1654 with a title-page ascription to Webster, is less clearly a product of the same singular imagination; for this Roman tragedy is "striking in its almost classical simplicity of construction" (Lucas, Webster's Works, III, 146). In plot it is straightforward, direct, and unified, and in style it is restrained. Can such a work really be Webster's?

Rupert Brooke thought not, vigorously arguing in 1913 that Webster's sole contribution to Appius was the revision of I.i and IV.i, the play being Heywood's.[1] Most scholars have since apportioned Appius between Webster and Heywood, although Bentley was characteristically impatient at what he pronounced "impressionism rationalized," and saw "no grounds for any dogmatic assertions about the authorship" (Jacobean and Caroline Stage, V, 1247). F. L. Lucas could scarcely be accused of dogmatism on the subject. In his standard edition of Webster's works he hesitantly ascribed I.i, I.ii, III.ii, III.iii, IV.i, and V.i to Webster alone, considered II.ii largely his, and found traces of his work in every scene except (doubtfully) II.i, IV.ii, and V.ii. In his massive two-volume study of the playwright, Fernand Lagarde surveyed all the evidence for authorship of Appius and Virginia, and on the basis of his own intimate knowledge of the dramatist and of an analysis of orthographical and linguistic forms concluded: "Nous proposons d'attribuer sans réserve à Webster I.i., I.ii., II.ii., III.iii., III.iii., IV.i. et V.i., et de lui concéder


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un certain rôle dans la composition de I.iii., de I.iv., de II.iii. et de V.ii." Peter B. Murray, after counting some contractions, felt most confident of Webster's authorship of I.ii, II.ii, III.ii, III.iii, IV.i, and V.ii. And Sanford Sternlicht's thorough comparison of the play's imagery with that of the three undoubted Webster plays persuaded him that five scenes (I.i, I.ii, II.ii, III.iii, and IV.i) "belong fully and strongly to Webster," and that three others (IV.ii.1-44, V.i, and V.ii) show signs of his hand.

Lucas, Lagarde, Murray, and Sternlicht exhibit a fair measure of agreement. Yet none offers compelling evidence, and the problem remains intractable. Arguments from diction and imagery are, as Lucas was well aware, of dubious value, when the whole artistic impulse of Appius and Virginia is towards a far more chaste dramaturgy than that which served Webster in his Italian tragedies. Though Lagarde, unlike Murray, gives an accurate and fairly full tabulation of the linguistic forms in Appius and Virginia, Lucrece is his sole source of comparative material for Heywood. There is still much to be done along this line of enquiry. My purpose in this article is twofold: to provide, through bibliographical and, in particular, compositorial analysis of the 1654 Quarto of Appius, a sold basis for examination of those orthographical and linguistic minutiae which may aid author identification, and to undertake a more comprehensive examination of this sort of evidence than has been reported up till now.