The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
Act 5 scene 4
Flamineo is talking to Gasparo, who praises Giovanni, standing on the other side of the stage with his attendants. Flamineo is less positive but, when Giovanni approaches, flatters him. However, Giovanni warns Flamineo about his wrongdoings, and after he leaves, Flamineo discovers from a courtier that he is banished. Flamineo vows to cause trouble before he is ejected.
‘Mulinassar' enters and tells Flamineo about Cornelia's great distress as a result of the death of her younger son, Marcello. Flamineo insists on going to his mother, until reluctantly ‘Mulinassar' draws aside a curtain to reveal Cornelia with Zanche and other ladies attending on the body of Marcello.
Cornelia reveals her descent into insanity through grief as she distributes flowers (either real or imaginary) in memory of her dead son. She sees a sign of death on Flamineo's hand, talks of Marcello's burial then departs. Flamineo surprises himself in feeling compassion and, once alone, speculates about what is to happen to him.
The ghost of Brachiano enters carrying a pot of lilies. Flamineo refuses to be frightened and demands that the ghost answers questions about Flamineo's future and his death. When the ghost throws the earth from the pot at him and reveals the skull beneath the flowers, Flamineo takes it as a sign of his death.
The ghost departs and Flamineo determines to go and see his sister, hoping her wealth will counteract the bad news he has been given. If not, he resolves to kill her.
Wise was the courtly peacock … His will grow out in time: Using bird imagery, Flamineo compares the peacock and the eagle in terms of beauty. The peacock is the more beautiful, but the eagle will always have more admirers because of it long talons. In other words, those that are more powerful will always be more admired. Flamineo ends by saying that this applies to Giovanni as he will become more powerful as he matures.
Anacharsis: Webster's mistaken reference to the philosopher Anaxarchus, who was crushed to death in a mortar
his uncle's … look ... /In decimo-sexto: Giovanni resembles Francisco writ small (in a volume of tiny pages).
Castle Angelo: This Papal fortress is where the historical Vittoria was imprisoned.
A flaming firebrand: Wood kindled in a fire; someone who starts strife or mischief; word play on the name Flamineo.
Thou metst ... courtier: Flamineo is telling a joke at his own expense. One of the saving characteristics of Flamineo's villainy is his sense of humour.
They are behind the traverse: A traverse is a curtain at the rear of the stage, concealing the inner stage. Drawn aside it reveals the tableau of Cornelia and the ladies with her son's corpse. (See The Theatre > Design of Theatres > Four levels of acting.)
This rosemary is withered … Heart's ease for you: The flowers and herbs that Cornelia refers to represent symbolically the qualities she wants for her son's funeral. Rosemary is for remembrance and rue symbolizes sorrow. There are echoes here of Ophelia's speech on discovering the death of her father Polonius in Hamlet Act IV sc 5.
Here's a white hand … handled a toad: As in Macbeth the colour of the Flamineo's hand signifies his guilt. Cornelia mentions screech owls, crickets and toads, which are omens of disaster.
keep the wolf far thence: Wolves were believed to uncover the corpses of murder victims so as to expose the crime.
‘We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry': The caged birds represent courtiers, who like captive birds, may be secure and prosperous, but they may not be free and happy.
Enter Brachiano's Ghost: The ghost is important in revenge tragedy, reminding the characters and audience of past events. Brachiano's Ghost is silent in contrast to the talkative Flamineo and it carries the pot of lilies, which are a symbol of life and purity, beneath which lies the symbol of death and corruption (see The Theatre > Developments in revenge tragedy > Features of revenge tragedy > Ghosts).
starry gallery … cursed dungeon: Flamineo questions whether Brachiano has ended up in heaven or hell. The star-painted roof above the stage was referred to as ‘the heavens' and there would have been trapdoor access to under the stage, often used in plays as a place of confinement or symbolising hell (as in Marlowe's Dr Faustus).
what religion's best / ..to die in: This was a very real question for an English Protestant audience whose grandparents grew up as Catholics. See Religious / philosophical context > Attitudes to Catholicism in Webster's time.
Italian churchmen ... dead men … familiars: An English audience would be ready to believe in the idea of Catholicism teaching about witchcraft.
beyond melancholy: The next step beyond melancholy for someone falling away from their faith was despair, a point at which the person doubted that God could rescue them (or even existed). Webster's audience would have recognised that this was considered a sin because it meant that a person did not believe that God's powers were adequate to the task / all powerful.
Investigating Act 5 scene 4
- How does this scene provide a dramatic contrast to sc 3? Look in particular at Cornelia's speeches and the appearance of the Ghost
- How do the above link together?
- Think about imagery and symbolism here.
- Compare Flamineo's speeches at the start of the scene with that which he delivers from the exit of Cornelia to the entrance of the Ghost.
- What do we see in him here which has not been evident before?
- Why, by the end of the scene, might an audience conclude that the sentiments expressed in Flamineo's speech (delivered from the exit of Cornelia to the entrance of the Ghost) were only temporary?
- Why do you think Webster varies our expectations in this way?
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