The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
Morality - good and evil
The intertwining of virtue and vice
The title of the play The White Devil is important in signifying the presence of both good and evil in the play. White devil is an oxymoron which implies that good and evil are paradoxically joined together.
Who is the ‘white devil' of the title? Convention says that it is Vittoria, who is undoubtedly a complex character with both good and bad elements in her makeup.
The Christian world
The White Devil is set in a Christian universe, which affects the ideas which permeate it. Christianity is strongly represented by certain characters who give voice to specifically Christian views. The most obvious of these is Cornelia who says in Act 1 scene 2:
Shall we be vicious?
This fits in with the Christian teaching on the virtues of poverty. See More on the Christian perspective on poverty.
Isabella also shows Christian virtues in sacrificing her own good name. She does this in order to preserve her husband's reputation when she claims responsibility for the dissolution of their marriage in Act 2 scene 1.
Other Renaissance ideas
As well as Christianity, other philosophical ideas are important in The White Devil. The Renaissance had introduced new ideas such as those of Machiavelli (see Religious / philosophical context > The Renaissance > Advice on how to govern). This influence is seen in the portrayal of Court politics in the play. Particular characters like Flamineo, Brachiano and Francisco embody his attitudes, which are very different from Christian values and, according to the prejudices of a Jacobean audience, could be regarded as introducing evil into the drama.
Early in the play (Act 1 sc 2), Cornelia sums up the influence for good or evil of the great men at Court:
Whose regular example is so strong,
They make the times by them go right or wrong.
In contrast, Flamineo shows his definite preference for Machiavellian spying and corruption when he says:
cardinal to lug me by th'ears as his endeared minion.
(Act 5 scene 1)
Good and evil characters
At a simplistic level, most of the characters in The White Devil can be divided into good and evil ‘camps':
- Cornelia, Isabella, Marcello and young Giovanni could be said to be ‘good' character
- The ‘bad' characters include Flamineo, Vittoria, Brachiano, Francisco, Monticelso and Lodovico.
- Brachiano is a ‘bad' character, showing cruelty and heartlessness towards his wife. He shows a lack of moral values in his pursuit of Vittoria, another man's wife and is careless of the distress he causes his son, Giovanni
- Isabella is clearly a ‘good' character and stands out as a representative of Christian values
But is it as simple as this? Regarding the other ‘moral' roles for example:
- The position of Cornelia and Marcello is more ambiguous to modern audiences because of their treatment of Zanche (their racism would not have been such an issue for playgoers in Webster's era)
- However virtuous, Webster also depicts the ‘good' characters as ineffectual. They have little power and influence and do not sustain their resistance to the ‘bad' characters.
Are the ‘bad' characters clearly evil?
Similarly, Webster gives positive aspects to his morally dubious protagonists, making them more psychologically believable.
Vittoria, the ‘white devil' of the title, exhibits varied characteristics:
- She is to be seen as immoral because she conducts a liaison with Brachiano whilst married and is castigated as a prostitute during her trial. She is implicated in the death of her husband through her association with Brachiano and Flamineo
- However, she shows intelligence and bravery and demonstrates a conscience when confronted by Cornelia.
Flamineo is probably the most complex character in the play:
- He is deceitful and aggressive, a would-be extortionist and a murderer
- However, he shows courage at the time of his death and he displays a sense of humour and self awareness. His evil nature can be understood as a product of the circumstances he experiences.
Francisco is the most powerful character in the play:
- He uses this power to exact revenge on his enemies and is obsessed with his sense of family honour
- Yet in his favour it could be said that his vengeful actions are inspired by his love for his sister, Isabella.
Lodovico is presented from the outset as an angry murderer:
- He displays a casual attitude towards his own death and that of others, failing to express repentance for his involvement in murder. Although he is momentarily swayed from his revenge by Monticelso's threat of damnation, the ‘reward' of one thousand ducats quickly outweighs his moral pangs
- He does seem to be strongly motivated by his love for Isabella. His service toward her, seen in the dumb show, has echoes of the Medieval chivalric love code. However, in confession (Act 4 sc 3) he describes it as ‘lust' rather than love.
Cardinal Monticelso is a key player in the conspiracy against Vittoria and Brachiano:
- He corrupts the rule of justice at Vittoria's trial, acting as both her prosecutor and judge. His Machiavellian use of people to achieve his own ends is indicated by his ‘black book' of villains, revealed to Francisco in Act 4 scene 1
- Once he is appointed Pope Monticelso withdraws from the conspiracy, apparently on the grounds of conscience. Certainly his plea that Lodovico turn from revenge is impassioned. Yet we feel that his accusation:
And not be tainted with a shameful fall? (Act 4 sc 3)
should be directed as much to himself as to Lodovico. His duplicity throughout the play means that it is hard to regard Monticelso as a force for good.
Minor characters add to the atmosphere of evil:
- Doctor Julio supplies poison for the murder of Isabella
- The Conjuror produces the grisly Dumb Shows for Brachiano's ‘entertainment'
- Monticelso has a ‘black book' with a list of villains. He describes them and their misdemeanours to Francisco representing it as a ‘general catalogue of knaves', a comment on the state of contemporary society.
All this adds to the general feeling of corruption.
Although there are many characters who have more evil than good in them, there are few who are unambiguously ‘bad'. Webster presents us with a corrupt world where there is much immorality and little goodness. But the motivation of many of the characters is mixed. It is said that Webster presents us with a morally ambiguous world where the audience has to make up its own mind about moral judgements. There is very little that can be said to be simply ‘good' or ‘evil'.
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