Vittoria's social status

Like her brother Flamineo, Vittoria Corombona is descended from the honourable Venetian family of the Vitelli. We know from what Flamineo says in Act 1 sc 2 that the family had become poor. Given a society in which respectable ladies did not work, the only way for Vittoria to gain any social status is through marriage:

  • Her first husband is Camillo, the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso, who, according to his uncle, married her without receiving a dowry:
‘and to my acquaintance
Received in dowry with you not one julio:'
(Act 3 sc 2)
  • Her second marriage is to Duke Brachiano, who murders both Camillo and his own wife, Isabella, in order to be able to marry her.
  • Given that it is not in the interest of each man, either financially or dynastically, to marry her, Vittoria clearly owes her elevated social position to her beauty and sexual attractiveness. However, such attributes also lay her open to the charge of being an evil temptress, according to contemporary attitudes.
More on misogyny: Misogyny means hatred of women. At the time of the Renaissance there was increased debate about the nature of women following on from the medieval debates about Eve as the cause of evil in the world. Like his contemporary dramatists, Webster engages with this debate through his plays, showing its social and economic causes. See Big ideas from the Bible > Women in the Bible.

The views of other characters

Since Vittoria is allowed no soliloquies by which we can interpret her directly, much of an audience's assessment of her is shaped by the perceptions of the other characters in The White Devil. Vittoria is constantly being judged and variously labelled as:

  • A whore or courtesan (high class prostitute)
  • An evil temptress
  • A brave and independent woman.


In a society that set huge store by a woman's virtue and chastity, the accusation of being sexually promiscuous was extremely serious:

  • From the earliest scenes the mention of Vittoria is associated with terms like ‘prostitute' and ‘strumpet'
  • Whilst the ‘men of the world' discuss her social position, it is Cornelia's horrified reaction in Act 1 sc 2 that indicates her moral blackness - even though at this stage she has not actually committed adultery
  • The fact that it is Vittoria who is put on trial and not Brachiano demonstrates her dubious moral standing (and the court's misogyny). All the men implicated in Camillo's murder are exonerated, while Vittoria is the only one who is punished. Yet even Monticelso admits that:
We have nought but circumstances
To charge her with, about her husband's death;
Their approbation therefore to the proofs
Of her black lust, shall make her infamous
(Act 3 sc 1)

Vittoria is seen to be on trial for her sexuality rather than for her uncertain role in the murder of her husband. If she can be shown to be a whore (prostitute), that is considered to be sufficient to implicate her in Camillo's murder. As a result she is sent to the house of penitent whores as punishment.

Evil temptress

  • During the trial, Monticelso accuses Vittoria of seducing Brachiano:
… ‘twas plotted he and you should meet …
Where after wanton bathing and the heat
Of a lascivious banquet - …
I shame to speak the rest. (Act 3 sc 2)
  • Brachiano himself mistrusts Vittoria and blames her for their situation after he has been misled by Francisco's letter in Act 4 sc 2. He briefly repents of the harm that he did to Isabella, his first wife, and blames Vittoria for tempting him:
‘Your beauty! O, ten thousand curses on't.
How long have I beheld the devil in crystal?
Thou hast led me, like an heathen sacrifice,
With music and with fatal yokes of flowers
To my eternal ruin. Woman to man
Is either god or a wolf.' (Act 4 sc 2)

However, we see a different view of Vittoria from her brother, Flamineo. Although he exploits her attractiveness in order to further his own career with Brachiano, he does defend her and appreciate her qualities:

  • He quarrels with Brachiano when his master calls his sister a whore after the false letter from Francisco in Act 4 sc 2.
  • At her death he praises her for her bravery:
  ‘Th'art a noble sister –
I love thee now. If a woman do breed man
She ought to teach him manhood:' (Act 5 sc 6)
  • During her trial, even the English ambassador praises Vittoria for her courage in standing up to her accusers: ‘She hath a brave spirit.'

Vittoria's admirable qualities

Despite the heavy moralistic guidance about how Vittoria should be regarded, Webster has created a psychologically complex character with whom modern audiences will find much to identify. She displays some admirable qualities which show up those who seek to manipulate her.


  • This quality is particularly on display during her trial (Act 3 sc 2). Vittoria demonstrates her learning, in that she understands the Latin that is used by the Lawyer, and her common sense, by insisting that she wants everyone else to be able to understand what she is charged with
  • During her trial, she defends herself by ably responding to the charges laid against her. Even Francisco realizes that they have not proved their case:
My lord there's great suspicion of the murder,
But no sound proof who did it:
  • She is often able to turn her accusers' arguments against them:
You read his hot love to me, but you want
My frosty answer.


  • Vittoria is never afraid to stand up for herself, as the English ambassador says at her trial: ‘She hath a brave spirit.' (Act 3 sc 2)
  • When she is accused of being unfaithful to Brachiano in Act 4 scene 2 she is very strong in her resistance to him:
What have I gained by thee but infamy?
Thou hast stained the spotless honour of my house.
  • She faces death bravely at the end and refuses to let her assassins kill her servant before her:
Yes, I shall welcome death
    As princes do some great ambassadors:
I'll meet thy weapon half way.

Moral awareness

  • Vittoria is aware that she is culpable for the way in which she has lived her life. When Cornelia, her mother, accuses her of betraying her husband in Act 1 sc 2, she is clearly affected by the accusation
  • As she is dying (Act 5 sc 6) she shows awareness that she has put her soul in jeopardy by her behaviour during her life:
‘My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven I know not whither.'

Vittoria's vices

To a modern audience, Vittoria's failings are much more excusable than they would have appeared in Webster's day:

  • She admits that she is tempted by money and finery:
‘Sum up my faults I pray, and you shall find
That beauty and gay clothes, a merry heart,
And a good stomach to a feast, are all,
All the poor crimes that you can charge me with:'
   (Act 3 sc 2)

which Jacobeans would have known went against Jesus' commendation not to be concerned with material provision Matthew 6: 25-30

  • She has allowed her sexual appetites to override her sense of morality. As she says in Act 5 sc 6:


‘O my greatest sin lay in my blood.
Now my blood pays for't.'

(referring to the double meaning of blood, as ‘passion' as well as red corpuscles). To a church-going audience, this would identify her with various ‘wicked women' from the Bible (see Big ideas from the Bible > Women in the Bible).

Is Vittoria implicated in the murders?

The central section of The White Devil, and indeed the play's very name, focuses on Vittoria's guilt or otherwise over the murder of her husband, and whether or not she should be equally blamed for Isabella's death, as Isabella's brother Francisco feels she ought. Does she share any of the guilt with Brachiano?

There is a range of evidence which is ambiguous enough to engage the audience in deciding for themselves:

  • She was not present at the murders nor involved in any of the plotting witnessed between Brachiano and Flamineo
  • Her dream about the yew tree which she recounts to Brachiano in Act 1 scene 2 could be seen as inciting Brachiano to commit the murders. Flamineo says:


‘She hath taught him in a dream
To make away with his Duchess and her husband.'

Or is this just Flamineo's cynical interpretation?

  • In Act 1 scene 2 Vittoria says of her husband, ‘How shall's rid him hence?' This could be interpreted as her desire for Camillo to be killed so that she can marry Brachiano, but it may just be her wish to get him out of the room so that she can continue her affair with Brachiano
  • Like Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, whilst there is no direct evidence that Vittoria is involved in murder, does marriage to the chief beneficiary, Brachiano, morally compromise her and make it more likely that she was complicit? She shows awareness of Brachiano's culpability for Isabella's murder (Act 4 sc 2):


‘Whose death God revenge
On thee, most godless Duke.'

Yet she still marries him.

Facing death

How any character confronted their end would be regarded as a clear indicator of their worth by a church-going audience such as Webster's. In Act 5 sc 6 Vittoria displays a conventional horror at the prospect of her brother's suicide:

Are you grown an atheist? Will you turn your body,
Which is the goodly palace of the soul
To the soul's slaughter house?

However, her gloating over what she thinks is his death displays the obverse of New Testament morality and compassion:

O yes thy sins
Do run before thee to fetch fire from hell,
To light thee thither.

When the conspirators come to kill her, she faces it with stoic fortitude like her brother:

I will not in my death shed one base tear,
Or if I look pale, for want of blood, not fear.

Vittoria has regrets about the course of her life, but displays no penitence for her sins. It is clear that she has no expectation of salvation beyond the grave but is ‘like to a ship in a black storm' with no certain destination.

Vittoria's ambiguity

Being referred to as a ‘white devil' sums up Vittoria's ambiguous moral position:

  • ‘White' is associated with virtue, innocence, chastity
  • Devil' has connotations of wickedness, moral darkness, temptation and entrapment.

Is one a cover for the other?

The audience has no access to Vittoria's inner thoughts and motivation via soliloquy. It is unclear, for example, whether she really loves Brachiano or is using him for her own advancement. There is her long silence at the end of Act 4 scene 2 when the audience does not know the true state of her ‘reconciliation' with Brachiano. She remains the ‘white devil', a morally ambiguous character.

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