Types of writing

Blank verse

Blank verse is a type of poetry, which has a regular metre, but no rhyme. In English, the metre most commonly associated with blank verse has been iambic pentameter (as used in Shakespeare's plays).

Iambic pentameter is a commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes a particular beat, measured in small groups of syllables known as feet. This is the commonest stress pattern in spoken English, where one unstressed, or weak, syllable is followed by a stressed, or strong, one – for example:

‘He knew he had to go to school today.'

When there are five iambs in a line it is called iambic pentameter.

Playwrights realised that by using this natural inclination in a more organised way, they could simultaneously suggest real speech and yet introduce a more formal, organised pattern to their language. Iambic rhythms come relatively naturally in English.

Webster, following the Shakespearean tradition, used blank verse extensively in The White Devil:

‘I would the common'st courtesan in Rome
Had been my mother rather than thyself.'

The opposite pattern (strong/weak rather than weak/strong) is known as a trochaic metre, for example,

Cloudy weather reaching Northern Ireland'

This trochaic rhythm is a common variant of blank verse, particularly at the opening of a line where the stress needs to be in the first word:

When to | my rescue there arose, methought,'

The result is that blank verse is a particularly flexible form of verse, which allows the writer to reproduce the sound of everyday speech, while maintaining the formality of the verse structure.


Although blank verse is unrhymed, sixteenth and seventeenth-century playwrights sometimes used rhyme for effect as part of their verse. Rhyming couplets are quite commonly used at the end of scenes to signal their finality. For example, the final lines of Act 2 sc1 of The White Devil sum up Francisco's desire to see the fall of Brachiano and Vittoria:

Like mistletoe on sere elms spent by weather,
Let him cleave to her and both rot together.'

Rhyme can also be used to draw attention to key quotations. Cornelia's judgement on great men sums up an important theme in the play and the use of rhyme highlights its importance:

‘The lives of princes should like dials move,
Whose regular example is so strong,
They make the times by them go right or wrong.'


Although most of The White Devil is in blank verse, Webster also uses prose. In Shakespeare's works, verse was frequently used for the high-born characters and prose for the low-life characters (though Shakespeare varied this for effect). It is not so straightforward in Webster's plays. The social divisions between the rank of the characters is not always so obvious. Flamineo is a servant, but he is the son of a gentleman and the brother of Vittoria, who marries two noblemen. So, how should we consider his rank?

In Act 2 sc 1 Brachiano and Flamineo speak to the Doctor in prose about their plot to murder Isabella and Camillo, while they speak in blank verse in the remainder of the scene. Are they using prose because they are speaking to a more lowly character or because of the nature of the conversation? Yet the Conjuror in Act 2 sc 2 speaks in verse and his rank could be compared to the Doctor. Thus we find that characters can switch between prose and verse in the course of one scene: it is not simply a matter of rank.


A soliloquy is a device often used in drama whereby a character relates his or her thoughts and feelings to him/herself and to the audience without addressing any of the other characters. A famous example is Hamlet's speech beginning: ‘To be, or not to be...' where he considers whether or not to commit suicide. The soliloquy is an important dramatic device allowing the audience to have access to the internal workings of a character's mind. They were commonly used in revenge tragedy to reveal motivation. (See The Theatre > Revenge tragedy > Features of revenge tragedy: Soliloquies.)

Powerful speeches

The White Devil is noted for powerful speeches by many of its characters. It is seen as one of Webster's strengths as a playwright. Most of the important characters give powerful speeches with strong arguments and full of emotion.

  • In Act 1 sc 2 Flamineo turns on his mother with a speech of great bitterness and resentment about his lowly position in life:
    ‘Pray what means have you
    To keep me from the galleys or the gallows'
  • Vittoria is also a forthright character and in Act 4 sc 2 she expresses her resentment at Brachiano's lack of trust:
    ‘What have I gained by thee but infamy?
    Thou hast stained the spotless honour of my house
    And frighted thence noble society:'

Webster uses these powerful speeches to generate debate and conflict between the characters and exemplify the main ideas of the play. Even a relatively minor character such as Cornelia, who does not have much power, can give forceful speeches to express her position as a thwarted or grieving mother.

Psychological realism

While writing in the formal tradition of revenge tragedy, Webster was able to use his writing to express psychological realism. His characters do not just give set speeches but express their feelings and ideas forcefully, using the flexibility of the verse and prose to convey them.

As he is dying in Act 5 sc 3, Brachiano gives a speech which shows the fear and terror at his predicament:

‘See, see, Flamineo that killed his brother
Is dancing on the ropes there:'

The irregular metre in the first line opening, with two strong stresses at the beginning and the extra syllable, add to its directness, so that it conveys the distress that Brachiano is feeling. He goes on to use imagery of the tightrope walker indicating Flamineo's precarious career and powerfully evoking the derangement caused by the poison in his system.

Francisco's soliloquy in Act 4 sc 1 exhibits a similar psychological realism. He is in a state of indecision when he sees the ghost of Isabella, his sister. The hesitations and short broken sentences reveal his psychological stress at being in the presence of his sister's ghost:

‘Her figure ‘fore me. Now I ha't - How strong
Imagination works! How can she frame
Things which are not!'

In this way the audience is able to believe in and understand the mental states being evoked even though they are not necessarily in sympathetic characters.

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