The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
A change of focus
The play's subtitle describes it as ‘The tragedy of Paolo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano', which suggests that Brachiano is a tragic hero. However, the events of the play do not bear this out, with both Vittoria and Flamineo having more claim to this role. That said, The White Devil could be said to be both a tragedy without a hero and the tragedy of a whole society.
Is Brachiano the villain of the play?
From the outset of The White Devil it is clear that Brachiano, like Lodovico, is driven by his desire for a woman. But whereas Lodovico's love for Isabella has an element of service which ennobles it, Brachiano's passion is initially presented as purely carnal and aggressively jealous.
Does this mean that he is the most conspicuous villain of the play? There is significant evidence to suggest this:
- Brachiano seduces Vittoria, another man's wife, despite being married himself
- He has her husband, Camillo, and his own wife, Isabella, murdered in order to allow his marriage with Vittoria to take place
- He exhibits extreme callousness when he witnesses Isabella's death through the magic of the Conjuror: ‘Excellent, then she's dead.' (Act 2 sc 2)
- At Vittoria's trial he does nothing to defend her. When he is accused of being implicated because of his lust, he departs and leaves her to her punishment
- When Francisco sends a love letter to Vittoria to trick Brachiano into believing that Vittoria is being unfaithful to him, he is inclined to believe it:
‘Ud's death, I'll cut her into atomies
And let th' irregular north-wind sweep her up
And blow her int' his nostrils. Where's this whore?'
(Act 4 scene 2)
It takes the defiance of both Vittoria and Flamineo to convince him otherwise.
In defence of Brachiano, he is a man of hot temper who has risked his social position and reputation, for a woman who appears to be unworthy. There are shades here of the grizzled Antony's love for a flighty Cleopatra in Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.
- Brachiano does desire to honour Vittoria. If he had only wanted to seduce her, he would not have carried through his plan to marry her after their escape from Rome in Act 4 sc 2.
- At the end of his life he expresses love for Vittoria:
They were too little for thee. Must I leave thee?'
However, compared to the Roman general, the passion of Brachiano's relationship is rarely ennobled by great poetry and frequently outweighed by suspicion and accusation. In addition, the audience witnesses his callous cruelty to his first wife, Isabella, for whom they have sympathy (a scene that has no equivalent in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra).
The manner of Brachiano's death is ignoble. He is both poisoned and strangled, without the chance of valiant acquittal. Webster's dramatic ‘resurrection' of him, before his life is finally snuffed out, is also slightly tawdry. We are caught up in the thrill of horror rather than finding ourselves identifying with a mighty man fallen. Even Vittoria's dying words disown him as one of the many men through whom she has suffered:
Nor ever knew great man but by report.' (Act 5 sc 6)
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