Jacobean theatrical conventions

Webster employs a number of theatrical conventions common at the start of the seventeenth century. Some of these were due to theatrical design (see The Theatre Context > Design of Theatres > The Red Bull Theatre). Others were more concerned with popular dramatic conventions.


At the back of the stage was a balcony. This was sometimes referred to as the ‘upper stage'. This was probably used for the audience of courtiers to watch the fight at the barriers in Act 5 sc 3 and for the announcement of the Pope's election in Act 4 scene 3.

Between the doors was an alcove known as the ‘inner stage' or ‘discovery space' which would be curtained off but where actors could be dramatically revealed. It is here that Cornelia would be discovered, tending to Marcello's corpse in Act 5 sc 4.

At times Webster also used a ‘split stage technique' in The White Devil:

  • In Act 2 sc 1 different characters split into groups and the audience's attention could be switched between the groups, enabling parallels and contrasts to be highlighted
  • The dumb shows in Act 2 sc 2 were probably presented at either side of the stage to enhance the spectacle.


The White Devil was first performed at the Red Bull Theatre. This was an open-air theatre that is believed to have specialised in providing simple, escapist drama for a largely working-class audience. As a result Webster's highly intellectual and complex play was unpopular with its audience.

Webster refers to this in his prologue to the printed edition of The White Devil:

‘it was acted in so dull a time of winter, presented in so open and black a theatre, that it wanted …  a full and understanding auditory;  … most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble … ignorant asses'

However, the play did provide a certain amount of entertainment through the provision of spectacle.

There is dramatic spectacle in:

  • The protracted deaths of Brachiano, Flamineo and Vittoria
  • The madness of Cornelia
  • The ghosts of Isabella and Brachiano
  • The employment of disguise.

There are also the staged spectacular events. These include:

  • Vittoria's illuminated passage across the stage in Act 1 scene 2
  • The dumb shows
  • The passage of the Ambassadors across the stage in Act 3 scene 1
  • The trial of Vittoria
  • The ceremonious election of the Pope
  • Brachiano and Vittoria's wedding procession
  • The fight at the barriers in Act 5 scene 3.

The purpose of spectacle

These examples of spectacular events all had a dramatic purpose in the structure of the play, serving to highlight the juxtaposition of the public and the personal. The events of the play are about the individual follies and desires of the different characters. But they are played out in a public arena as all the characters are linked to worlds of the Court, Justice or the Church. The spectacular events show that the actions of the characters in the play affect the whole society. This is important if the play is to be considered a tragedy. It cannot just be about individual strengths and weaknesses, but about, for instance, the great in society whose actions affect others.

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