Complications of a Fallen World: Comparing The White Devil and Paradise Lost

Webster’s presentation of the fallen world in Act V of The White Devil appears as a more developed and grander reflection of Milton’s fallen world in Book IX of Paradise Lost. Milton’s outstanding attributes of the fallen world are developed by Webster in his presentation of evil characters who, being part of a fallen society, display the same characteristics as the post-fall Adam and Eve at the end of Book IX – mirroring the darker emotional development of the pair, undergoing a transition from blissful innocence to uncontrollable greed, lustful desire and falsity. However, though Milton’s protagonists must undergo a fall in order to understand the knowledge of evil, those in Webster’s The White Devil are already fallen and possess this knowledge in excess, creating a farcical accentuation of the already established attributes to a fallen being – as Webster’s characters not only possess these traits but actually become representative of them thematically. Webster’s characterisation in The White Devil is based upon the sins committed by the fallen Adam and Eve, yet he accentuates them to make his fallen world seem obsessive over these sinful traits. Webster too, like Milton, uses his work in order to emphasise the corruption of the contemporary world; Milton attempting to ‘justify’ it, giving reasoning behind the fall, and Webster to later elaborate by subtly, through his use of revenge tragedy, bringing metaphorical justice to King James I who, at the time, could be representative of Satan – the most fallen being of all.

In Milton’s fallen world, women become the centre of all blame as the patriarchal hierarchy collapses. Adam’s final speech in Book IX of Paradise Lost states that destruction ‘shall befall thee who worth in women over trusting’, resonating in the mind of the reader as the book draws to a close that the fault of the ‘Fall’ lies entirely in the hands in Eve who, having asked ‘trust’ in her faith from Adam, failed to prove her ‘worth’ by undergoing temptation by Satan. Similarly, in The White Devil, Flamineo encourages men to ‘ne’er trust a woman’ and accuses them also of having the fault that would bring pain amongst ‘men’, echoing Adam’s chastising words to Eve. Vittoria and Isabella, the two most prominent female presences in the play, act as the driving force for Francisco to take revenge – allowing him to develop his fallen senses of pride and gluttony alongside a murderous obsession with death. Tynan believes that ‘scarcely an act is committed that is not motivated by greed, revenge or rapacity’; the actions listed by Tyran are committed by the men in Webster’s The White Devil under an influence of a sexual greed, sexual revenge or sexual rapacity – therefore driven by the temptation of the woman to the man, as Adam is tempted by Eve and later driven to ‘cast lascivious eyes’ in acceptance of his new found destructive sexuality. Brachiano similarly, like the fallen Adam, is driven by an undying sexual lust and following love for Vittoria which causes the failure of his patriarchy over her due to her ‘female charm’; his love for Vittoria is arguably what causes his downfall, just as Adams love and later lust for Eve leads him to supposed ‘death’ – he is ‘not deceived’ by her outward ‘female charm’ but instead ‘overcome as his patriarchy becomes outweighed. Brachiano develops into the contemporary mirror of the anti-Adam, falling from his high position in the hierarchy and faces death for his failure – just as Adam believes that ‘death’ will be the punishment for his failed patriarchal control.

Both Milton and Webster could therefore be suggesting that the fallen world must undergo a loss of the patriarch due to the temptation of the male by the female, using her sexuality as a weapon to lure him in. Milton’s use of the breakdown of the ‘Chain of Being’ in Paradise Lost by the loss of control from Adam and Eve over nature emphasises this idea of the patriarch being required in order to hold up society and the hierarchy entirely. Brachiano’s downfall not only causes the chaotic death of himself but many other characters within the play, and the cause could be narrowed down for his lust and love for Vittoria which is illuminated in the very first lines of the play: ‘lost’ suggesting that he has entirely forgotten his patriarchal cause due to his love. The fallen world appears therefore to be left in chaos, as the fallen characters descend into revenge and murder for their own person vendetta and forget the need of unity that is displayed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden at the start of Book IX. Without a hierarchy to confine characters to specific idealised roles and expectations, both Webster and Milton’s characters are left in a ‘survival of the fittest’ style battle for power over others, lusting to get back the perfection which was lost originally by Adam and Eve. This chaotic loss and simultaneous fight for fain reflects on both Milton and Webster’s own societies, where King Charles II and King James I respectively, having believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, either attempted to or managed to dissolve parliament and other influential government bodies in order to have sole tyrannical rule over the country. Perhaps Milton and Webster are attempting to suggest that the King is the most fit representative of the fallen Adam and Brachiano-figure; driven by lust for power and ridden with fallen greed.

Satan, however, is the ultimate driving force behind the destruction of society and descent into chaotic madness – acting both as an influence in Paradise Lost directly, and in The White Devil through specific evil characters that reflect Milton’s portrayal of the Devil; yet, following the actual Fall of Man, Satan has no further presence within the epic, having completed the job which he set out to do. Flamineo and Francisco, however, being the two most influential representative of Satan in Webster’s The White Devil, remain present until the closing of the play due to a lack of justice that allows them to remain alive for almost the entirety. Alike Satan, Francisco and Flamineo use the people around them purely for their own personal cause – having no regard for the consequences it may bring on themselves; Flamineo has no insight into his downfall until it becomes obvious: ‘my life was a black charnel’, ‘black’ connoting images of darkness and the unknown, and Francisco similarly shows a lack of concern for the later consequences his actions might have: ‘tush for justice’, having no concern for the lives of his mercenaries but yet protecting his own in the use of them. Satan too is consumed wholly by taking revenge on God, and this is later reflected on Eve who is totally controlled by her innate desire for the fruit leaving her ‘defaced’ and ‘deflowered’ – the authors seem to be suggesting that personal gain through desire is completely consuming in the fallen world. Webster’s use of obsessive personal gain in his characterisation of Flamineo, Brachiano and Francisco is reflective of the revengeful, personal desire of Satan which is later reflected on Eve – Brachiano’s desire seems to spark a chain of revenge, yet all of the characters remove themselves from blame. Satan, in his opening speech in Book IX, attempts to convince himself of his innocence, and Eve later following her fall excuses herself from blame by accusing Adam as the patriarch that he should have ‘command(ed) her absolutely not to go’. As stated earlier, this may be because those involved in the fallen world believe that they are above the justice system, like the contemporary Kings. The formation of ‘blame’ as a fallen aspect in Adam and Eve leads to the breakdown of the relationship between them, just as blame in The White Devil leads to the literal breakdown due to the committed murders which severs marital and family relationships. This breakdown of relationships allows the characters to blame each other for their fallen aspects, just as Adam and Eve argue at the closing of Book IX, and this is what leads to ‘death’ and the total fall from grace. Tillyard relates the fall to ‘the yielding of reason to passion’, where the characters are unable to interact rationally but instead, directed by the passionate desires for personal gain attributed to fallen beings, have to yield to their evil desires. Contextually, this relates to Milton’s own fallen nature – having blindly written Paradise Lost in a state of political alienation and therefore having a personal connection with his fallen nature, and Webster similarly writing about current Italian affairs which represented most accurately the fallen acts of the contemporary world. The relationship between King and people has been severed, and therefore people can attempt in their fallen desire to climb the social ladder. Innate desire is left unchecked, and is therefore wholly and personally consuming.

The relationship with the self is also severed as disguise and false premise becomes more important that being one true and holy self in the eyes of God. In The White Devil the revengers take on disguises as a feign for innocence which will allow the trust of others so that they can then manipulate their targets – this reflects Satan’s character in Paradise Lost when he takes on the body of a ‘snake’, reducing himself to ‘bestial slime’ in order to best tempt Eve into falling. Once Adam and Eve have fallen, they themselves take on a disguise as they attempt to hide their fallen nature and the attributes associated with it, most specifically ‘shame’, by undergoing disguise and covering with ‘fig leaves’ to hide their fallen nature. A false presentation of innocent characteristics is what allows the fallen characters to trap and, in the case of Webster, kill innocent characters such as Isabella and Camillo by presenting a Satan-like false premise of security. Ludovico’s disguise is most prominent of feigned innocence in Webster’s narrative, having taken the ‘vow’ to become a monk in order to present himself as wholly virtuous and therefore trustworthy, despite underneath planning the murder of the Duke Brachiano with his fellow mercenaries. The lack of true selfhood again connotes a chaos which is typical to the fallen world, everything that may seem innocent is corrupted, and innocence is just an act that can be put on, as Eve does ‘with sweet accent renewed’ in her temptation of Adam. This further develops the already established theme of the breakdown of relationships as trust in each other is further removed, since the self that Adam believes Eve is, describing her after the fall as ‘holy, divine, good, amiable or sweet – how art thou lost’, recognising that all of the qualities of goodness she once possessed have been ridden of due to her fallen nature, perhaps also suggesting that these qualities were just weak falsity that can be easily broken.

Webster uses the earlier dialogue between Marcello and Flamineo, where Marcello recognises the innate evil of his brother despite his often innocent exterior when protecting his sister. Flamineo most prominently uses disguise, a feigned madness, in order to present himself as innocent following the murder of Isabella – unable to cry at the news of her death. The removal of his disguise later causes the realisation of his true self: ‘I am falling to pieces’, as well as revealing many details about the true and corrupt nature of the society surrounding him. Similarly, Brachiano realises his weakness in the breakdown of his pompous ‘disguise’ of the virtuous Adam figure as he too descends into true madness: ‘have I not the power to lengthen mine own a twelvemonth?’ as suddenly his sense of reason disappears and is replaced by raving passion which can be seen in Adam and Eve following the fall – their madness is in their loss of reason and their loss of reason is their true moral understanding. The relationship therefore with the true ‘self’, full of goodness, is suggested to only appear at the moment of the character’s downfall – such as Flamineo and Brachiano’s oncoming deaths. Like Adam and Eve, who realise their loss of goodness and prepare to face judgement for their actions, Brachiano and Flamineo face a twisted justice in their deaths as punishment for the murders of Isabella, Camillo and Marcello. However, the justice that is given to the men is not served by God, as is expected in Paradise Lost, having the ‘resolution to die’ at his hand, but at the hands of other men in The White Devil, since now in their fallen state they believe that they have the power to give out justice. The false disguise could be interpreted therefore as becoming god-like, endowing the self with ultimate power (as Satan does earlier in Book IX) and the appearance of innocence like that of God. Both Webster and Milton may have used this image in order to comment on the behaviour of Charles II and James I; Charles’ reign ended the Republic, and his tyrannical behaviour may have been thought to be like that of God, as Charles believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ which gave him ultimate rule. James too believed in the doctrines and both installed and pardoned his close friends in the court, acting as if he was above the reaches of human justice, but giving it out as he willed. As Ribner states, ‘the only moral law appears to be a nemesis punishing sin with new sin in a never ending cycle’.

The fallen world in Paradise Lost is completely consumed by its own evil – there is no hope left at the end of Book IX as the couple begin to breakdown into helpless blame and argument. However, in The White Devil, Act V closes with Giovanni, the innocent son of Brachiano and Isabella, having taken on his father title as Duke, punishing the conspirators and taking control over the murderous situation; this gives us hope at the end of the play that the fallen world is not totally consuming over the characters and that the fallen cycle can in fact be broken. Act V of The White Devil could therefore be described as a development on the fallen world of Milton, who had attempted to justify the ways of God and explain the Fall of Man as a contemporary fallen being, but Webster perhaps may, building on this original belief of damnation, be suggesting an end point of hope where humanity and the goodness of the Garden of Eden is restored once evil has been punished. Webster, writing later than Milton, may have more hope under the reign of James I that a better society may evolve following his reign, which contrasts Milton who wrote Paradise Lost following the restoration of the monarchy and Charles II’s regain of the throne ending the Republic. Webster perhaps is hoping that justice, as given to the fallen characters in The White Devil will soon come to his society even if it means innocent death and destruction along the way – as often James I would execute the innocent and pardon the wicked. Giovanni’s break of this fallen cycle at the end of the play could be representative of the restoration of the Garden of Eden and personal relationship with God that the Protestants would have craved in both Milton and Webster’s time by the ridding of evil influences such as James I – Simkin argues that ‘Webster’s targets here is specifically the Catholic Church’. Webster’s The White Devil could be argued to be a revenge tragedy of the people against the fallen oppressor – both Church and King, contrasting Milton’s heroic success of Satan’s corruption of the world and promoting evil. Webster’s presentation of the fallen world is then, in conclusion, not a presentation of a final state of evil and a total loss of innocence, but a momentary fall that hopefully will be addressed and removed by the remaining moral humanity.

Webster’s Tragic Vision in “The White Devil”

John Webster’s The White Devil portrays an inherent brutality within the human condition, which, while humanity may strive to do good, ensures its ultimate destruction. He draws on genuine fears of the Jacobean era to attribute immorality to every aspect of human life, hinting at the inexorable nature of evil. The elusive king, James I, did not prevent the burgeoning power of superstition and deception within society, in some ways encouraging it, such as through his studies into witchcraft. This approach allowed for the acceleration of equivocation, as well as for a vulnerable society, verging into meritocratic tendencies. Webster uses these societal fears to question the political and religious systems of the early seventeenth century, considering the challenges to Catholicism and the burgeoning power of the office of papacy. He also questions the influence of disease, suggesting that all of his characters are infected with a moral illness that only their deaths can cure them of.

The White Devil depicts evil as an accepted part of aristocratic society. It is a putative part of “court life; Brachiano’s ‘close pandarisme’ is actually known, and Lodovico’s past murders are common knowledge” (May, 1963). Webster suggests that these crimes are disguised by those who commit them, Lodovico reducing his murders, which are “bloody and full of horror”, to “flea-bitings”. Equally, the existence of the dumb shows demonstrates Webster’s attempts to highlight the evil of humanity, as theatre was pivotal for both news and entertainment purposes in the Jacobean era. Both the depicted audience and real audience are made complicit in the voyeurism, demonstrated to critics by Brachiano’s chiefly monosyllabic responses. Through the deception within the crime, the playwright perhaps wishes to alert his audience to the corruption within their own societal leaders, for, to him, “politics have no relation to power” (Machiavelli, 2003). Webster further illustrates the immorality of the upper classes with a consistent use of bestial imagery. He presents them as the “wolves” of society, governed by their primal instincts of power. This idea is introduced with the first scene of the play, indicating its importance; Webster states that a “wolf no longer seems to be a wolf/Than when she’s hungry”; presenting hunger as a motif for female sexuality, emphasised by the pronoun “she”. This sexuality, however, is presented as a vehicle to climb the social class system, which implies that the characters are “hungry” for power, and must satiate this need in order to reassert their humanity, preventing themselves from becoming “wolves”. The need to gain power is then an integral part of humanity, suggesting that this instinctual brutality is inherent, within both the play’s characters, and its audience.

Webster suggests that immorality is spread down the class system, the rich influencing the less powerful. He considers the “princes…whose regular example is so strong”, having already illustrated the moral ambiguity of the powerful. He makes a similar claim in The Duchess of Malfi, exploring how “a prince’s court/Is like a common fountain, whence should flow/Pure silver drops in general”. His point is emphasised by its links to the working class vernacular, “common”, “in general” and “regular” demonstrating the magnitude of repercussions to be had from a corrupt higher power, their influence even reaching the lowest of society. Flamineo’s Machiavellian attributes are then somewhat justified, for although he acts as “pander” between Brachiano and Vittoria, essentially prostituting his sister in order to better his own situation, he is innocent in that he was lead into sin by societal leaders, not by his own doing. In Jacobean England, “many subjects from the lower ranks of the gentry and even the mercantile classes strove to better their own situations” (Barker, 2005), indicating the emerging meritocratic society. Shakespeare also considered these societal changes in King Lear, through Edmund’s reluctance to accept his lack of power: “why “bastard”? Wherefore “base”?” By attempting to rape Cordelia, Edmund demonstrates his need to gain power, similar to how Flamineo does by using his sister as a “strumpet”. Arguably, however, Flamineo and characters like him only wish to gain power in order to access the freedom of the upper classes, who are not constrained by moral, societal or religious laws. He, along with his social-climbing counterpart in The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola, threatens to destroy the entire structure of society through his actions, yet only focusses on his own desires. In this respect, “all activities are tainted with sin”; every inclination of Webster’s characters is linked to a distorted sense of morality that originates from, and is exhibited by, their unlawful leaders.

The women in The White Devil are victimised by the men, demonstrating the inherent evil of masculinity. Their sexuality is often presented as something to be consumed, compared to “the buttery-hatch” and “the taste of new wine”, which demonstrates that the evil within Flamineo, who often orchestrates this misogyny, even corrupts the idealised purity of love and sexual relationships. For Flamineo, “’tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: the birds that are without, despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption of fear for they shall never get out”. He bestialises women, believing them to belong in a “cage”, and, as “birds”, their voices are not heard by society. This could also suggest that Flamineo realises that women are trapped in a patriarchal society, but exploits the fact that they are available to abuse, which again emphasises his need to gain power in order to abuse his position. The fragility of the “cage in a garden” relates to the sublime, overbearing humanity, which, along with the delicate balance between the interior and exterior, again hints at the vulnerable position of society as Flamineo threatens to destroy traditional values. Women are significant, however, as they are used by men in their attempts to “achieve and maintain their positions” (May, 1963); considering this, their abuse by masculine hands is even more barbaric. However, “to Webster and his audience, the catalogue of Vittoria’s misfortunes [in particular] is considered less than tragic due to cultural and dramatic conventions relating to class and gender” (Waudby, 2010); because she is not a man or of a high class, she may not have been seen as victimised at all, particularly through the understanding that the women view masculinity in a symbiotic way, hoping to use it in order to improve their own situations.

Webster arguably presents the women in his play as sinful. All of the characters are influenced by the corrupt figures of nobility, and are therefore part of an immoral society. Considering this, “the adults in the play are all corrupt, acting only from self-interest, and effectively destroying our faith in justice and truth” (Aughterson, 2001). This suggests that women desire power just as much as men, and is proved through Vittoria; “her husband is lord of a poor fortune/Yet she wears a cloth of tissue”, dressing above her station, which indicates that she seeks Brachiano’s power to the same extent as her brother. In fact, the women lack the innocence that an audience may attribute to femininity, Isabella excusing Brachiano’s crimes, and becoming the idealised passive woman only by deceiving herself and her society, and Cornelia, although presented as innocent through her religious condemnations of the others, considers “the curse of children”, disowning her descendants, instead of correcting their crimes. This may suggest that the entire generation is a “curse”, rejected by Cornelia due to their own “wilful shipwreck” into immorality. Cornelia may then be innocent, yet surrounded by sin; “vice and virtue share a common location since evil is everywhere. The characters cannot avoid living in this situation because it is the world to which they belong” (Fernández, 1996).

Webster depicts immorality in characters who are often associated with justice and honesty, by critiquing two countries simultaneously, suggesting that everyone is capable of evil. He “establishes the atmosphere of distrust that pervades the Italian Court” (May, 1963), setting the tragedy in Italy, as with Othello and Romeo and Juliet. This enables the playwright to critique British culture whilst ensuring his personal safety, but it also links Francisco, who becomes the Pope, to the office of papacy in the Vatican City. This was often seen as corrupt, causing significant challenges to Catholicism in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The White Devil demonstrates this through Monticelso, who exerts his political power through Francisco’s use of the “black book” to enable his revenge against Brachiano. Webster also criticises British society by setting his tragedy “in Rome”. The “princes…whose regular example is so strong”, if taken to be royalty, superior to the nobility of Lodovico, Brachiano, Monticelso and Francisco, are absent from the text, unable to defend their honour or remove the criminality from the play. This is comparable to the absence of King James I from society during Webster’s lifetime; although he would make appearances at executions, his reputation was mainly that of an elusive King.

The White Devil depicts sin as a disease, infecting the mind of everyone who encounters it. This would explain why the influence of the aristocracy corrupts the rest of society, but also suggest that the society that Webster depicts is incurable. In many ways, “the illness of [this] world arises from [the characters’] inability to distinguish between appearance and reality” (May, 1963), this applying to women as much as it does to the façade of the religious and political systems in England. The characters all hold a moral sickness that ensures their brutality, causing the enticing beauty of femininity to disguise their barbarity, and the authority of those in power to go unquestioned. Webster makes constant references to “poison”, indicating this moral sickness. “There’s hemlock in [Francisco’s] breath” and Brachiano “spit…poison”, associating their verbal insults with an inherent sense of mental corruption. They are arguably not to blame for their own faults if they are infected, and yet can never be virtuous whilst living in this society.

The society presented in The White Devil offers only suffering for its characters, a trait exhibited by the glorification of death. The characters endure condemnation from the very fact that they exist in a place governed by moral inadequacies; “death seems to be the best and only possible escape from…such a world” (Fernández, 1996). Marcello “would [his] dagger’s point had cleft [Vittoria’s] heart/When she first saw Brachiano”, wishing for his sister’s death over her indiscretion with the Duke. This mirrors Francisco when he would have “given/Both [Isabella’s] white hands to death, bound and locked fast/In her last winding-sheet”, suggesting that death holds the power of salvation. Flamineo marks his death by considering the futility in seeking satisfaction from life, as “this busy trade of life appears most vain”, whereas “there’s some good in [his] death”. For many, “it is…Death alone that can suddenly make man to know himself” (Raleigh, 1965), as revealed in Flamineo. In life, he constantly conceals his identity in order to manipulate those around him, until death prevents this, enabling him to speak of “glorious women”, and providing him with a sense of morality. In fact, many of the characters in The White Devil hide their true natures, just as the actors playing their parts do, suggesting that the world of stage is the barbaric world that Webster creates. This may then explain “culture’s attraction to performance as an aid to social advancement and its mistrust of performance as dangerous” (Barker 2005). Theatre was the only source of news for many, and yet even then it was biased and deceptive, suggesting that the real world is “tainted with sin” to just the same extent as Webster’s is.

Webster’s The White Devil contextualises societal fears and uncertainties regarding the power of the church and the political system in Jacobean England, the playwright indicating that the state of society is one that must change, for it cannot sustain itself as it is, poisoned by its own corrupt, self-serving nature. Webster shows his characters to be influenced and manipulated by each other, controlled by their own attributes as much as they are by their rulers’, and, although they are presented as the victims of a society where there is no room for morality, they are unable to escape the playwright’s apocalyptic vision of human brutality.


Aughterson, Kate, Webster: The Tragedies, 2001, Hampshire: Palgrave.

Barker, Roberta, “Another Voyage”: Death as a Social Performance in John Webster’s Major Tragedies’, 2005, in Early Theatre.

Fernández, José González, Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, 1996, Universidad de Alicante.

Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, 2003, England: Penguin Classics.

May, James Tate, Imagery as a key meaning to John Webster’s “The White Devil”, 1963, University of Montana.

Raleigh, Sir Walter; Latham, Angus M.C (ed.), Selected Prose and Poetry, 1965.

Waudby, June, Contexualising Vittoria: Subjectivity and Censure in The White Devil, 2010, University of Hull.