The structure of revenge tragedies

A conventional revenge drama?

The White Devil is often said to be a revenge tragedy. This form was very popular in Jacobean England (See The Theatre Context > Revenge Tragedy > Origins of revenge tragedy / Developments in revenge tragedy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). The theme of revenge is obviously there, but it is very different from earlier examples, such as Shakespeare's Hamlet.

A revenge tragedy pits justified and morally upright avengers against their enemies. But the avengers in The White Devil are themselves implicated in the corruption of society:

  • Lodovico has committed in ‘certain murders' which he disregards merely as ‘flea-bitings'
  • Francisco is a Machiavellian villain who uses cynical underhand methods against his enemies, even those who don't necessarily deserve it (as he acknowledges at Vittoria's trial).

Features of revenge tragedies

The play does, however, correspond in many ways to the established structure of the revenge tragedy and contains many of its recognisable features.

Dumb show

Murders and other horrific events are often shown through a ‘dumb show'. In Act 2 sc 2 the murders of Isabella and Camillo are enacted in dumb show through the magic of a conjuror.

Machiavellian villain

The works of the Italian writer, Machiavelli, were popular at the time. In his book The Prince, he advised kings and other rulers how to plot and use cunning in order to keep their power. Such advice was exaggerated in popular sentiment so that in The White Devil Francisco de Medici was seen to typify a Machiavellian plotter.


These are necessary, not only for advancing the plot, but also to reveal a character's state of mind. There are important soliloquies from a number of characters:

  • Francisco's soliloquy in Act 4 sc 1 reveals the extent of his deviousness to the audience
  • Lodovico's soliloquy in Act 4 sc 3 shows his resolve to pursue his vengeance
  • In Act 5 sc 5 Flamineo's soliloquy gives the audience access to the moral debate that is exercising his conscience.


Francisco disguises himself as Mulinassar, the Moor. Lodovico and his accomplices disguise themselves as Capuchin monks. These disguises are for the purpose of carrying out their plot of revenge against Brachiano and Vittoria.

These disguises are particularly effective because:

  • They symbolise deception
  • They employ irony because the characters are disguised as figures very different from themselves:
    • Francisco plays a noble fighting man very different from the Machiavellian villain that he is
    • Lodovico is in the guise of a holy man whereas he is a convicted murderer bent on committing even more murders.

Madness and feigned madness

As with Hamlet, The White Devil contains instances of madness both real and feigned:

  • Flamineo takes on the role of a madman in Act 3 scene 2 after his sister's trial and the news of Isabella's death because it will ‘keep off idle questions.' (as Hamlet does). It also enables him to get away with striking Lodovico in Act 3 scene 3
  • Cornelia's genuine madness is seen in Act 5 scene 4 (and is similar to Ophelia's). This is brought about by the death of her son, Marcello at the hands of her other son, Flamineo. It is effective in heightening the sense of tragedy and causing Flamineo to reflect on his role.

Murders and corpses

There are usually a number of murders that happen both on and off-stage in revenge tragedies. In The White Devil the majority of the main characters are dead by the end of the play, most of them as a result of violence.


Ghosts of murder victims often appear to persuade family members of friends to avenge their deaths:

  • In Act 4 sc 1 the ghost of Isabella appears to Francisco
  • In Act 5 sc 4 Brachiano's ghost appears to Flamineo.

Physical torment

There are usually a number of murders that are often both ingenious and brutal. The murders and methods of death are often sensational and sometimes presented at length so that the suffering of the victim is seen:

  • This is apparent in the dumb shows which portray the deaths of Isabella and Camillo - Isabella dies by kissing a poisoned picture and Camillo dies a violent death at the hands of Flamineo in Act 2 sc 2.
  • Brachiano dies as a result of donning a poisoned helmet during ceremonial combat for his wedding celebrations in Act 5 sc 3, and then is strangled.

Sudden reversals

Incidents such as Brachiano's revival after Lodovico and Gasparo have disclosed themselves, and Flamineo rising after acting as if he had been shot, were designed to shock the audience and maintain dramatic tension.

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