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.
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