The deception and intrigue of court life

A recognisable court

Court life plays a major part in The White Devil. The action mainly takes place in the houses of the various nobles either in Rome or Padua. Power rests with a few of these nobles, mainly Francisco and Brachiano. The other characters are all trying to gain favours from the powerful men.

Although the play is set in Italy and is ostensibly about Italian court life, the situation would be recognisable to English audiences of the time. Webster safely deflects the discontent arising from the situation in the court of James I, to the palaces of Rome and Padua. (See Social/Political Context > The problems of James I's reign > Discontent / Dashed social and economic expectations.)

Dishonest advancement

Flamineo represents a discontented Jacobean courtier most closely. In Act 1 scene 2 he complains about how he has been forced by poverty to seek a position at court, but has gained nothing from it:

‘I visited the court, whence I returned –
More courteous, more lecherous by far,
But not a suit the richer –‘

He uses this as a reason to commit acts that could be considered immoral or illegal. He sees doing his master, Brachiano's, dirty work as the only way to advance in the world. He acknowledges that the courtly world of spying and subterfuge suits him:

‘Give me a fair room yet hung with arras, and some great cardinal to lug me by th'ears as his endeared minion.' (Act 5 scene1)

(The arras is a wall hanging tapestry that could be hidden behind for the purpose of spying.)

These words also hint at the morally dubious culture that pervaded the court of James I. The King had a number of favourite courtiers, to whom he gave titles and power, such as Robert Carr and George Villiers. Court intrigue suggested a homo-erotic aspect to these relationships with ‘endeared minion[s]'. Certainly James was unduly influenced by his favourites, rather than by Parliament or existing nobles.

Social breakdown

At the heart of Webster's world is a chronic lack of trust. Even though Flamineo has chosen his path he is well aware of the drawbacks of relying on a proud, but untrustworthy noble, for advancement. In an episode of dramatic irony, he discusses court life with ‘Mulinassar' (a disguised Francisco), and gives him advice on dealing with its problems:

‘I will now give you some politic instruction. The Duke
says he will give you pension; that's but a bare promise:
get it under his hand.' (Act 5 scene 1)

As with the Jacobean court, Italian court life is insecure and the promises of the nobility are not to be trusted. The traditional contract, that the ruling classes would protect those who gave them their allegiance, has been fractured.

False dealing

After the death of Brachiano, his master, Flamineo sees that he can expect nothing more and he blames this insecurity on the nature of court life:

‘Why here's an end of all my harvest, he has given me nothing.
Court promises!'     (Act 5 scene 3)

Zanche claims that the tears that are wept for Brachiano's death are ‘court tears'. In other words they are not sincere. The idea of the court stands for everything that is false.

This is underlined earlier when Flamineo first meets Francisco disguised as Mulinassar. The ‘Moor' is meant to be a soldier returning from the wars and is praised in Act 5 sc 1:

‘I never saw one in a stern bold look
Wear more command, nor in a lofty phrase
Express more knowing, or more deep contempt
Of our slight airy courtiers.' 

Francisco is therefore pretending to be a man of action, the very opposite of the Machiavellian schemer that he is in reality. In this guise he represents the contrast between the traditional knightly virtues and the modern ones of the practical politician.

Vittoria's dying words sum up the duplicity of court life:

‘O happy they that never saw the court,
‘Nor ever knew great man but by report'.'
(Act 5 scene 6)         

Only the very powerful, like Francisco, who appears to escape all punishment, can expect to benefit from court life. For everyone else it leads to unhappiness or death.

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