Disease and corruption


There is a thread of disease imagery running through The White Devil which is concerned with syphilis, a sexually transmitted illness. As a metaphor this sums up the sense of moral decay and corruption within the play.   

Accusations of moral corruption are made by reference to the effects of the physical corruption wrought by syphilis:

  • Flamineo reassures Brachiano that he should have no concern about Camillo, Vittoria's husband, as he is suffering from the consequences of treatment for syphilis which resulted in hair loss:   


‘The great barriers moulted not more feathers than he hath shed hairs by the confession of his doctor.' (Act 1 scene 2) 
  • In Act 2 scene 1 Francisco warns Brachiano that his affair with Vittoria is likely to lead to him contracting syphilis. This implies that Vittoria's conduct is immoral (given Camillo's disposition, he seems an unlikely carrier). He is told that he will need ‘plasters' as a cure for the disease and that they will encounter him at ‘moulting time'; another reference to hair loss
  • Brachiano himself accuses Vittoria of endangering him with syphilis as a result of Francisco's fake love letter to Vittoria:


‘O, I could be mad,
Prevent the curst disease she'll bring me to,
And tear my hair off. (Act 4 scene 2)

Rotten plants

References to the decay and corruption of plants is also symbolic of the immoral relationship between Brachiano and Vittoria:

  • In Act 1 scene 2 Cornelia says to Brachiano:


‘What make you here, my lord, this dead of night?
Never dropped mildew on a flower here, Till now.'
  • When Francisco fails to achieve a reconciliation between Brachiano and Isabella he is determined that Brachiano's and Vittoria's corruption should be their downfall:


‘Like mistletoe on sere elms spent by weather,
Let him cleave to her and both rot together.'
(Act 2 scene 1) 

These references to decay add to the idea of all-pervading sexual corruption. When Flamineo says:


‘Would I had rotted in some surgeon's house at Venice, built upon the pox as well as on the piles ere I served Brachiano.' (Act 3 scene 3)

he is expressing his sense of discontent in one of the strongest possible ways by comparing Brachiano's service unfavourably to being treated for syphilis (the pox).

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