The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
Act 1 scene 2
Vittoria briefly appears with her husband, Camillo, and greets Brachiano before leaving again with Camillo. Her brother Flamineo, who is Brachiano's secretary, is now able to talk intimately with his master.
Flamineo says he will help set up an assignment between his sister and Brachiano, who desires her. Flamineo has already sounded out Zanche, Vittoria's maid, who has promised to assist them. He assures Brachiano that Vittoria's sexual desires are strong and that Camillo's lack of virility will make it easy for Brachiano to seduce her.
As Brachiano leaves, Camillo enters. He trusts Flamineo and confesses that he has not shared a bed with his wife for some time and is suspicious of Brachiano's intentions towards his wife. To hinder the chance of unfaithfulness, Camillo wonders about limiting his wife's freedom but Flamineo argues that this is more likely to make her unfaithful. He appears to be trying to help Camillo but insults him in his asides.
When Vittoria re-enters, Camillo stands at a distance believing that Flamineo is persuading her to be reconciled with Camillo. However, Flamineo is actually pleading Brachiano's case and they quietly discuss how to get rid of her husband.
Flamineo persuades Camillo to leave, saying it will make Vittoria desire him more, so that Brachiano can return to seduce Vittoria. She recounts a dream which results in Brachiano declaring he will sort out the issue of their current spouses and marry her. The lovers are unaware that Cornelia (Vittoria and Flamineo's mother) has entered and is listening to their sexually explicit conversation. Cornelia now approaches and informs Brachiano that his wife, Isabella, has arrived in Rome. She rebukes the lovers and they leave, Brachiano angrily blaming Cornelia for what is to come.
Flamineo is angry with his mother for jeopardising his plans to gain from Vittoria's seduction. Flamineo challenges Cornelia's view that poverty should not lead to immorality. He feels it would have been better to be the son of a prostitute.
In this scene we are introduced to many of the main characters and the alleged affair between Brachiano and Vittoria is highlighted:
- The use of prose and verse is significant, with characters changing between the two according to the type of interaction that is taking place
- Similarly, lighting levels create contrast. The scene opens in a spectacular way with Vittoria, Camillo and attendants in a blaze of lights. There is a dramatic contrast between this and the intimate conversation between Brachiano and Flamineo that follows.
Buttery hatch at court: A contemporary reference to the court. Renaissance palaces provided food and lodging for crowds of courtiers, servants and hangers-on hoping for favour. See also
- Great barriers: a reference to the palace fighting arena
- Dutch doublet: A joke about the extremes of fashion worn at court
- Sonnets … feather: Webster is satirising the extremes of poetic expression which had arisen as aspiring courtiers sought to heap adulation on the previous Queen, ‘Gloriana'.
Cold in the liver / Phlegmatic: Contemporary medical understanding considered that the organs of the body were the cause of emotions. Phlegmatic meant cold; so, Vittoria's husband and Brachiano's wife are accused of being cold.
Shed hairs / Irish gamester … hazard: Contemporary London references about sexual health and gambling.
Under-age protestation … enjoyed … rid of: A reference to a common theme indicating that women hide their true lustful natures behind an appearance of modesty. References to women are generally derogatory, e.g.:
- Hound in leon / Women are like curs'd dogs: Treating a woman like a dog kept on the leash
- Paltry mutton: Inferior meat / promiscuous women
Politician / politic / Ass in's foot-cloth: These are all references to deceptive appearance. Camillo's clothes give him a status he does not deserve. See also:
- Superficies of lust a reference to the way in which women cover their lust with a superficial covering of coyness. The idea of people hiding their true natures is a common theme in the play.
Cuckold: Camillo fears being made a cuckold i.e. a man whose wife has been unfaithful to him. Such men were supposed to grow horns.
Horn-shavings: Detritus from the cuckold's horns
A Jacob's staff: An instrument for measuring height or distance, based on the staff typically carried by a pilgrim
Provocative electuaries: A reference to aphrodisiacs. There are many references to sexual practices. See also:
- Carved … capon: a reference to castration
- Pox … scurvily: A reference to sexually transmitted disease
- Also Blood which represented sexual passion.
Philosopher's stone … alchemy / Adamant shall draw her: References to alchemy. The philosopher's stone was meant to turn base metals to gold. Adamant was a very hard stone associated with magnetic properties (a lodestone).
How shall's rid him hence?: Vittoria wants to get her husband out of the way so she can begin her affair with Brachiano. This is ambiguous. Does she merely want him out of the room to facilitate the affair or does she mean a more permanent removal i.e. his death? Thus Vittoria's complicity in her husband's death is never certain.
A dream I had … was their due: (l.230–256). Vittoria dreams that she is in a churchyard under a yew tree. Brachiano's wife and her husband, Camillo appear and threaten to bury her but she is rescued when a branch falls and kills them both. The message of this dream is far from clear, but Flamineo immediately interprets it as being an encouragement for Brachiano to have his wife killed. This probably indicates more about Flamineo than the dream.
Sacred yew: Yew trees were grown in churchyards and traditionally associated with death.
What fury rais'd thee: The Furies were avenging classical deities with snakes for hair. They are associated with the theme of vengeance.
Mass of wealth … my lord's stirrup: Flamineo's discontent at being in the inferior position of a servant.
Because we are poor / Shall we be vicious?: Cornelia states the orthodox Christian view that poverty and vice should not go together. Flamineo's attitude is that poverty leads to crime, either galleys (ships where convicts were sent as oarsmen), or gallows (where criminals were hanged).
My father … shame and blushing: (l.315–330) Flamineo's speech is typical of a malcontent (see Theatre context >The malcontent). He feels that he has been prevented from making his way in the world by the lack of provision made for him by his father and now his mother is interfering in his plans to gain reward from Brachiano.
Investigating Act 1 scene 2.
- Vittoria's first entrance is accompanied by a blaze of light.
- What is the likely effect of this on the audience?
- Why is the lack of light for line 9 onwards significant?
- How does the structure of Flamineo's speech change at line 17?
- What is the effect?
- What is the effect of bringing on a rug and cushions (immediately before Cornelia's entrance)?
- What might it highlight about the relationship of Vittoria and Brachiano?
- Look at Vittoria's explanation of her dream (line 230) where she tells Brachiano a fable.
- Who do you think she is referring to when she says ‘that well-grown yew' and ‘a withered blackthorn'?
- What imagery does Cornelia use when she confronts the lovers (l.269-99)?
- How does it indicate her disapproval?
- What does Cornelia have to say about the moral responsibilities of men in positions of power?
- What attitude to women is expressed by Flamineo in this scene?
- Find three quotations which you think best illustrate his view.
- What have we seen Flamineo do in this scene?
- What does his speech at the end (in response to Cornelia's question ‘What? Because we are poor…') tell us about his motivation and morality?
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