Colour symbolism

Colour plays an important part in The White Devil. Jacobean attitudes to light and dark / black and white were far less nuanced than current attitudes. However, as the title of the play implies, colour is not always used straightforwardly - there is an inherent contradiction in a devil being white.


Black is the colour that appears most frequently in the play. Most of the time it is used conventionally to represent death and evil (see Big ideas from the Bible > Darkness):

  • In the trial in Act 3 scene 2 the Lawyer accuses Vittoria of ‘a black concatenation of mischief'
  • Monticelso's list of villains appears in a ‘black book'
  • As Pope he accuses Lodovico of being ‘like the black, and melancholic yew-tree', a tree which is associated with graveyards, when he threatens to continue with his plan of vengeance.

Towards the end of the play, when the action moves towards the final murders, black is used more frequently to accentuate the atmosphere of evil and despair:

  • Francisco talks of Brachiano's imminent death:
‘Now to the barriers.
This shall his passage to the black lake further,'
(Act 5 scene 2)
  • Hortensio, who is eavesdropping on the conspiracy between Francisco and Lodovico, says:
‘There's some black deed on foot.' (Act 5 scene 5) 
  • In their dying speeches (in Act 5 scene 6) both Vittoria and Flamineo refer to the colour black. Vittoria talks of: ‘My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,' while Flamineo explains that: ‘My life was a black charnel.'

Black appearance

The use of black is complicated by the presence of characters who are physically black - or are pretending to be black - in appearance, referred to as Moors.

MoorsMore on the Moors: To the Jacobeans, a Moor indicated someone of North African descent, familiar to Europeans as for 800 years they had ruled much of Spain. Shakespeare's commander Othello is referred to as a Moor.

Like Jews, Moors were a racial minority whose identity set them apart from the predominantly white European society in which they lived. In fact Queen Elizabeth expelled ‘negars and blackamoors' from Britain in 1601, probably referring to Moorish refugees from Spain.

In terms of moral rhetoric, blackness was associated with staining, impurity and evil. Othello's vengeance is regarded as a ‘black' desire, his ‘dark' emotions are immoral.   

Zanche, Vittoria's Moorish servant is called a ‘black fury' by Carlo in Act 5 scene 6 and Lodovico refers to her as an ‘infernal' or devil in Act 5 scene 3. Because of her race she is associated with evil. However, she is a character who is largely sympathetic. She is loyal to Vittoria at the end and she is defended by Flamineo from the insults of his mother and brother.

Francisco uses a Moorish disguise and appears as Mulinassar. He appears to be a noble character, a soldier who is respected by everyone. In reality he is white rather than black and is a scheming Machiavellian villain. This means that the use of black to represent evil is not a simple matter.

Black conjoined with white

The colour white is not always used for purity or in opposition to black. When Vittoria claims that her soul is like ‘a ship in a black storm' in Act 5 scene 6, Flamineo replies:

‘But seas do laugh, show white, when rocks are near.'

The idea that white represents goodness and therefore safety is reversed, as here it represents danger.

The title of the play adds to the ambiguity of the way in which these colours are used. Is Vittoria simply a devil in disguise? Or does the term white juxtaposed with devil show that there is not just good or white and black or evil in the play? Maybe Flamineo has it right in Act 4 scene 2 when he says:

‘As in this world there are degrees of evils:
So in this world there are degrees of devils.'

In this way Webster's employment of colour imagery adds to the idea of moral uncertainty.


The colour red is also used in a number of contradictory ways. Red represents blood and often sexual passion in this play. Vittoria admits in Act 5 scene 6:

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

In the trial scene, Act 3 scene 2, Monticelso invokes colour in accusing her of being a painted woman or a prostitute:

‘I shall be plainer with you, and paint out
Your follies in more natural red and white
Than that upon your cheek.'    

Ironically Monticelso, as a cardinal, would also be in red:

‘O poor charity!
Thou art seldom found in scarlet.'
(Act 3 scene 2)            

He is acting as both judge and prosecutor in the trial, even though he knows there is scant evidence against Vittoria. So his supposedly holy scarlet is hardly better than the red of Vittoria's sexual passion.

Webster uses the well known symbolic meanings of these colours to subvert traditional values. His use of colour imagery adds to the sense of a morally ambiguous world.

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