Feminist approaches

What is meant by feminist criticism?

The concepts of ‘Feminine' and ‘masculine' are ideas constructed by our culture, and it is important to be aware of this when reading texts from periods and cultures different from our own. Many feminists are interested in how women are represented in texts written by men, and how these texts display the power relations between the sexes. Feminist critics argue that patriarchal culture is marked by the urge to define, categorise and control.

In recent years, feminist critics have provided some of the most interesting readings of The White Devil by placing the play within the context of the culture from which it comes.

Women in Jacobean society

In The White Devil, Webster presents us with contemporary ideas about women. He demonstrates how patriarchal structures define the position of women in the culture, particularly as exercised through the Church and the state. In the play these are represented by Cardinal Monticelso and Francisco de Medici.

Are Webster's female roles hard to delineate because that was the case for women generally in the Jacobean era? Or might this ambiguity reflect Webster's unease about the patriarchal certainties of his culture, as voiced by many of the play's male characters? The ideological position of the patriarchy would say that:

  • Men are associated with the functions of the mind and reason
  • Women are associated with the functions of the body and passion.

This would mean that women are more animalistic than men. They could then be criticised for their unbridled sexual passion; a passion that was seen as very dangerous.

Women as beasts

Webster demonstrates these ideas from the beginning of The White Devil. For example, Flamineo says to Brachiano about Vittoria,


‘Women are like curst dogs: civility keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight.' (Act 1 scene 2)

With these words, Flamineo shows his contempt for women. They are no better than bitches on heat, fulfilling their sexual desires without any discernment.

Flamineo also declares:


‘These politic enclosures for paltry mutton makes more rebellion in the flesh than all the provocative electuaries doctors have uttered since last Jubilee.' (Act 1 scene 2)

This statement emphasises the physicality of women. They are ‘mutton' and ‘flesh'. They are like the beasts, completely at the mercy of their own lusts. Flamineo does not see in women any evidence of reasoning and the higher powers that are associated with men.

The role of Vittoria

In Vittoria, Webster presents a complex female character very different from the picture given by Flamineo or Monticelso. She is shown as a victim of male lust and power who is punished for her sexuality and defiance. Vittoria is one of the strongest characters in the play and perhaps one of the most sympathetic. As a result Webster presents the audience with ideas about the role of women in contemporary society that was unusual for the time.

Within the play, Vittoria is feared for her more masculine attributes. Webster gives her a very ‘male' discourse at her trial, providing an alarming confrontation for the dominant male leadership. As she says, her:


‘defence of force like Perseus,
Must personate masculine virtue. To the point:
(Act 3 scene2)

In 1989 Margaret Loftus Ranald wrote about Webster's ‘surprising' modernity in his treatment of female characters:


‘He is not afraid to portray women of power, whether evil … dignified and tragic … or manipulative,'
‘choose to take risks and in so doing they broaden the female horizons of the Jacobean era, while at the same time undermining norms of established behaviour.'


Webster's approach makes The White Devil an interesting text for modern critics and audiences. The position of women in society has changed since the seventeenth century, but playgoers today can still recognise the issues faced by characters like Vittoria and Isabella in their environment.

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