The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
Flamineo's place in society
Flamineo is one of the most important characters in the play and plays a central role. He is the brother of Vittoria Corombona and Marcello. They are described by Cardinal Monticelso in Act 3 scene 2 as being descended from the honourable Venetian family of the Vitelli. The family is no longer rich. Vittoria has maintained her status through marriage, but Flamineo is forced to work for a living as secretary to Brachiano, whilst Marcello is a mercenary.
Flamineo is resentful of his social position, as he tells his mother, Cornelia, in Act 1
Which you have hoarded for my maintenance,
That I may bear my beard out of the level
Of my lord's stirrup.'
Such words immediately identify him as a malcontent (see Religious/philosophical context > The Renaissance in England > Jacobean melancholy), echoing contemporary disquiet with the condition of English society and its economy (see Social/political context > Reign of James I > The problems of James I's reign: Dashed social and economic expectations).
A complex character
Flamineo is a character who cannot be simply classified as the play's hero, although he is the main protagonist and plays a major part in facilitating the action of the play. There is significant evidence that points to his villainy and yet Webster also engages the audience's fascination with him, just as Shakespeare does for his duplicitous King in Richard III. In many respects, Flamineo serves as the choric reaction, voicing opinions no doubt shared by many in the audience, towards the manipulative deeds of great men.
Flamineo is undoubtedly the author of many of the play's immoral plot twists:
- He supports his master, Brachiano, in order to further his own interests. He arranges a meeting between Brachiano and his sister and ensures that her husband, Camillo will not interfere:
‘I am promptHe does this despite the fact that he obviously has no respect for Brachiano. This becomes clear in Act 4 scene 2 when he supports his sister in the quarrel between them and refuses to be intimidated by his superior
As lightning to your service, O my lord!
The fair Vittoria, my happy sister
Shall give you present audience. (Act 1 scene 2)
- He is directly responsible for the murder of Camillo and he introduces to Brachiano the Doctor, who supplies the poison to kill Isabella
- Despite his own culpability for these murders, he sees his sister arraigned for them and does not intervene, instead expressing relief when she is punished rather than him: ‘O I am a sound man again.' (Act 3 sc 2)
- He kills his own brother Marcello dishonourably in Act 5 sc 2. They had quarrelled and were intending to fight, but Flamineo takes Marcello by surprise so he has no chance to defend himself
- When it suits his purpose he is prepared to deceive his sister and encourages her to commit suicide so that he can gain financially from Brachiano's death:
‘I made a vow to my deceased lord
Neither yourself nor I should outlive him
The numb'ring of four hours.' (Act 5 scene 6)
- The fact that we doubt whether this ‘vow' is actually true demonstrates Flamineo's untrustworthiness: he is prepared to play games with others regardless of their mental distress
- Flamineo is presented as having no religious allegiance. When confronted by Brachiano's ghost in Act 5 scene 5 he asks him:
‘what religion's bestThis curiosity seems idle rather than profound, indicating that his attitude to religion is purely practical. It has already been revealed in Act 5 sc 2 that Flamineo broke his mother's crucifix as a child, symbolising his lack of Christian morals.
For a man to die in?'
- Flamineo represents the popular view of a typical courtier, as someone who is prepared to use any underhand method necessary for his own advancement. As he says in Act 5 scene 1:
‘Give me a fair room yet hung with arras, and some great cardinal to lug me by th'ears as his minion.'He sees his future as one of Machiavellian subterfuge, represented by the ‘arras' (wall hung tapestry) behind which he would eavesdrop for reward.
Flamineo's moral position
In many respects Flamineo is shown as a cynical pragmatist, lacking in morals. He seems to be prepared to exploit everyone around him and use them for his own purposes. At the same time, he is rarely convinced by what he does and retains his own moral clear-sightedness. Inevitably an audience warms to a character who is honest about his own motivation when surrounded by so much pretence and pomposity.
Could Flamineo be considered the hero of The White Devil? Clearly he lacks many traditional virtues yet he does have some good or sympathetic qualities. The audience is in the privileged position of being granted the most insight into his character, through not only Flamineo's dialogue with others but also his asides and soliloquies voiced directly to them.
Flamineo reveals much of his motivation in his dialogue:
- With his mother, Cornelia (Act 1 sc 2) he is resentful of the fact that he has been introduced to society, but not given the financial means to maintain that position:
‘I visited the court whence I returned –He has also been introduced to the vices of the court, which he now uses for his own ends.
More courteous, more lecherous, by far,
But not a suit the richer'
- He has an awareness of society and how to survive in it. This is particularly displayed through his discussion with ‘Mulinassar'. As Flamineo thinks that Mulinassar is a brave soldier rather than the corrupt noble that he is, Flamineo's advice to him about court practices is doubly ironic:
‘Wilt hear some of my court wisdom?
To reprehend princes is dangerous: and to over-commend
some of them is palpable lying.' (Act 5 scene 3)
- Flamineo reveals a self-deprecating sense of humour in a play containing few laughs. In Act 5 sc 4 when he is told he is about to witness something pitiful, he makes a joke at his own expense:
‘Thou met'st another here, a pitiful
Soliloquies tend to be employed by dramatists to reveal a character's deeper motivation:
- In Act 5 sc 4, Flamineo's rebellious attitude is shown when he is left alone after Giovanni has told him to think about his wrongdoings:
‘Study my prayers? He threatens me divinely. I am falling to pieces already – I care not, though, like Anacharsis, I were pounded to death in a mortar.'Given the duplicity of churchmen like Monticelso (and the innate suspicion of Webster's Protestant audience about the Catholic church) the audience could well applaud Flamineo's desire for self-determination and refusal to conform to religious propriety.
- Similarly, he refuses to be intimidated by the appearance of Brachiano's ghost at the end of Act 5 sc 4:
I do dare my fate
To do its worst.
- However, the preceding phrase, ‘This is beyond melancholy', reveals the deeper despair to which Flamineo's cynicism is driving him. Flamineo's problem is that he does not have any way of freeing himself from the morass in which he finds himself. Discounting the path of virtue, he can only hope that his disappointment with the world will be alleviated either by Vittoria's money or by the further exercice of vengeance against her.
- He is honest about himself and his own duplicity:
‘I have lived
Riotously ill, like some that live in court;
And sometimes, when my face was full of smiles
Have felt the maze of conscience in my breast.'
(Act 5 sc 4)
An aside, where the character speaks so that the audience can hear, but other characters on the stage cannot, is a device frequently used by Flamineo. It fits his scheming character perfectly:
- In Act 1 scene 2, when trying to facilitate the affair between Brachiano and Vittoria, there are frequent humorous asides in order for him to express his true feelings about Camillo, Vittoria's husband, such as calling him ‘a lousy slave'
- As the court convenes for Vittoria's trial, Flamineo's sotto voce comments (actually to the lawyer, though they function as asides) puncture the elaborate ceremony
- At the news of Isabella's death, Flamineo takes the audience into his confidence, explaining how he will feign behaviour that convinces others on stage. He does so again in his edgy conversation with Lodovico in Act 3 sc 3 and reflects to the audience how he has to flatter Brachiano in order to thrive (Act 4 sc 2).
By such means, the audience are made complicit with Flamineo's mode of conduct and therefore find it harder to establish a moral distance from him.
Flamineo often demonstrates flashes of virtue which he later subverts. For example:
- He shows loyalty to his sister, Vittoria when she is called a whore both by Brachiano and Lodovico. However he also plots to cheat and kill her
- He quarrels with - and eventually kills - his brother Marcello, as a result of Marcello's insults towards Zanche. Flamineo has also pledged marriage to Vittoria's servant and has talked of his admiration for her. Despite this, he goes back on his word when challenged and is frequently dismissive in his attitude towards women generally:
‘There's nothing sooner dry than women's tears.' (Act 5 sc 3)
- Conversely, having behaved in a cowardly manner at Vittoria's trial, Flamineo actually faces death bravely. In his dying speech he says:
‘Let no harsh flattering bells resound my knell,
Strike thunder and strike loud to my farewell.' (Act 5 sc 6)
The different sides to Flamineo make him a psychologically realistic character. This, and the mode of his presentation, enables the audience to have some sympathy with him despite his villainous aspects.
Can Flamineo be considered a tragic hero?
During the first four acts of the play Flamineo's role is defined by his inferior position as Brachiano's secretary and his single-minded desire for advancement. Yet as the play progresses, Flamineo becomes a character at war with himself. In the face of his mother's distress over the death of Marcello, Flamineo seems almost surprised to recognise within himself the sensation of compassion (Act 5 sc 5). Having been motivated solely by self aggrandisement, for the first time he exposes the ‘maze of conscience' that has been suppressed.
In Act 5, Flamineo starts to emerge as a tragic figure in the face of death:
Who went before, nor who shall follow me;
No, at myself I will begin and end:'
(Act 5 sc 6)
Here he demonstrates the self-awareness required of a tragic hero. He starts to accept that his actions have consequences which must be faced. His hasty murder of his brother, Marcello, leads to his mother's madness and Flamineo realises that he cannot make light of:
Of my dead brother; and my mother's dotage;
And last this terrible vision. (Act 5 sc 4)
As he finally confronts death, Flamineo does not quail but sees it as an appropriate ending:
Nay cease to die by dying. (Act 5 sc 6)
This reflects a stoical, pagan attitude to death, as do the references to ‘mist' and ‘cold'. It displays courage, but at the same time Webster's Christian audience would condemn Flamineo's dismissal of faith:
Knowledge with knowledge. (Act 5 sc 6)
However, Flamineo's appreciation of his sister's bravery is commendable, as is his realisation that his death may be better than his life:
My life was a black charnel.' (Act 5 sc 6)
Ultimately it could be said that rather than being a conventional tragic hero facing divine judgement, Flamineo's stature depends on his role as an agent confronting a corrupt society. His tragedy is the result of the particular social and economic conditions presented in The White Devil, as much as any psychological flaw.
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