Vittoria's social status
Like her brother Flamineo, Vittoria Corombona is descended from the honourable Venetian family of the Vitelli. We know from what Flamineo says in Act 1 sc 2 that the family had become poor. Given a society in which respectable ladies did not work, the only way for Vittoria to gain any social status is through marriage:
- Her first husband is Camillo, the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso, who, according to his uncle, married her without receiving a dowry:
‘and to my acquaintance
Received in dowry with you not one julio:'
(Act 3 sc 2)
- Her second marriage is to Duke Brachiano, who murders both Camillo and his own wife, Isabella, in order to be able to marry her.
- Given that it is not in the interest of each man, either financially or dynastically, to marry her, Vittoria clearly owes her elevated social position to her beauty and sexual attractiveness. However, such attributes also lay her open to the charge of being an evil temptress, according to contemporary attitudes.
More on misogyny: Misogyny means hatred of women. At the time of the Renaissance there was increased debate about the nature of women following on from the medieval debates about Eve as the cause of evil in the world. Like his contemporary dramatists, Webster engages with this debate through his plays, showing its social and economic causes. See Big ideas from the Bible > Women in the Bible.
The views of other characters
Since Vittoria is allowed no soliloquies by which we can interpret her directly, much of an audience's assessment of her is shaped by the perceptions of the other characters in The White Devil. Vittoria is constantly being judged and variously labelled as:
- A whore or courtesan (high class prostitute)
- An evil temptress
- A brave and independent woman.
In a society that set huge store by a woman's virtue and chastity, the accusation of being sexually promiscuous was extremely serious:
- From the earliest scenes the mention of Vittoria is associated with terms like ‘prostitute' and ‘strumpet'
- Whilst the ‘men of the world' discuss her social position, it is Cornelia's horrified reaction in Act 1 sc 2 that indicates her moral blackness - even though at this stage she has not actually committed adultery
- The fact that it is Vittoria who is put on trial and not Brachiano demonstrates her dubious moral standing (and the court's misogyny). All the men implicated in Camillo's murder are exonerated, while Vittoria is the only one who is punished. Yet even Monticelso admits that:
We have nought but circumstances
To charge her with, about her husband's death;
Their approbation therefore to the proofs
Of her black lust, shall make her infamous
(Act 3 sc 1)
Vittoria is seen to be on trial for her sexuality rather than for her uncertain role in the murder of her husband. If she can be shown to be a whore (prostitute), that is considered to be sufficient to implicate her in Camillo's murder. As a result she is sent to the house of penitent whores as punishment.
- During the trial, Monticelso accuses Vittoria of seducing Brachiano:
… ‘twas plotted he and you should meet …
Where after wanton bathing and the heat
Of a lascivious banquet - …
I shame to speak the rest. (Act 3 sc 2)
- Brachiano himself mistrusts Vittoria and blames her for their situation after he has been misled by Francisco's letter in Act 4 sc 2. He briefly repents of the harm that he did to Isabella, his first wife, and blames Vittoria for tempting him:
‘Your beauty! O, ten thousand curses on't.
How long have I beheld the devil in crystal?
Thou hast led me, like an heathen sacrifice,
With music and with fatal yokes of flowers
To my eternal ruin. Woman to man
Is either god or a wolf.' (Act 4 sc 2)
However, we see a different view of Vittoria from her brother, Flamineo. Although he exploits her attractiveness in order to further his own career with Brachiano, he does defend her and appreciate her qualities:
- He quarrels with Brachiano when his master calls his sister a whore after the false letter from Francisco in Act 4 sc 2.
- At her death he praises her for her bravery:
‘Th'art a noble sister –
I love thee now. If a woman do breed man
She ought to teach him manhood:' (Act 5 sc 6)
- During her trial, even the English ambassador praises Vittoria for her courage in standing up to her accusers: ‘She hath a brave spirit.'
Vittoria's admirable qualities
Despite the heavy moralistic guidance about how Vittoria should be regarded, Webster has created a psychologically complex character with whom modern audiences will find much to identify. She displays some admirable qualities which show up those who seek to manipulate her.
- This quality is particularly on display during her trial (Act 3 sc 2). Vittoria demonstrates her learning, in that she understands the Latin that is used by the Lawyer, and her common sense, by insisting that she wants everyone else to be able to understand what she is charged with
- During her trial, she defends herself by ably responding to the charges laid against her. Even Francisco realizes that they have not proved their case:
My lord there's great suspicion of the murder,
But no sound proof who did it:
- She is often able to turn her accusers' arguments against them:
You read his hot love to me, but you want
My frosty answer.
- Vittoria is never afraid to stand up for herself, as the English ambassador says at her trial: ‘She hath a brave spirit.' (Act 3 sc 2)
- When she is accused of being unfaithful to Brachiano in Act 4 scene 2 she is very strong in her resistance to him:
What have I gained by thee but infamy?
Thou hast stained the spotless honour of my house.
- She faces death bravely at the end and refuses to let her assassins kill her servant before her:
Yes, I shall welcome death
As princes do some great ambassadors:
I'll meet thy weapon half way.
- Vittoria is aware that she is culpable for the way in which she has lived her life. When Cornelia, her mother, accuses her of betraying her husband in Act 1 sc 2, she is clearly affected by the accusation
- As she is dying (Act 5 sc 6) she shows awareness that she has put her soul in jeopardy by her behaviour during her life:
‘My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven I know not whither.'
To a modern audience, Vittoria's failings are much more excusable than they would have appeared in Webster's day:
- She admits that she is tempted by money and finery:
‘Sum up my faults I pray, and you shall find
That beauty and gay clothes, a merry heart,
And a good stomach to a feast, are all,
All the poor crimes that you can charge me with:'
(Act 3 sc 2)
which Jacobeans would have known went against Jesus' commendation not to be concerned with material provision Matthew 6: 25-30
- She has allowed her sexual appetites to override her sense of morality. As she says in Act 5 sc 6:
‘O my greatest sin lay in my blood.
Now my blood pays for't.'
(referring to the double meaning of blood, as ‘passion' as well as red corpuscles). To a church-going audience, this would identify her with various ‘wicked women' from the Bible (see Big ideas from the Bible > Women in the Bible).
Is Vittoria implicated in the murders?
The central section of The White Devil, and indeed the play's very name, focuses on Vittoria's guilt or otherwise over the murder of her husband, and whether or not she should be equally blamed for Isabella's death, as Isabella's brother Francisco feels she ought. Does she share any of the guilt with Brachiano?
There is a range of evidence which is ambiguous enough to engage the audience in deciding for themselves:
- She was not present at the murders nor involved in any of the plotting witnessed between Brachiano and Flamineo
- Her dream about the yew tree which she recounts to Brachiano in Act 1 scene 2 could be seen as inciting Brachiano to commit the murders. Flamineo says:
‘She hath taught him in a dream
To make away with his Duchess and her husband.'
Or is this just Flamineo's cynical interpretation?
- In Act 1 scene 2 Vittoria says of her husband, ‘How shall's rid him hence?' This could be interpreted as her desire for Camillo to be killed so that she can marry Brachiano, but it may just be her wish to get him out of the room so that she can continue her affair with Brachiano
- Like Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, whilst there is no direct evidence that Vittoria is involved in murder, does marriage to the chief beneficiary, Brachiano, morally compromise her and make it more likely that she was complicit? She shows awareness of Brachiano's culpability for Isabella's murder (Act 4 sc 2):
‘Whose death God revenge
On thee, most godless Duke.'
Yet she still marries him.
How any character confronted their end would be regarded as a clear indicator of their worth by a church-going audience such as Webster's. In Act 5 sc 6 Vittoria displays a conventional horror at the prospect of her brother's suicide:
Are you grown an atheist
? Will you turn your body,
Which is the goodly palace of the soul
To the soul's slaughter house?
However, her gloating over what she thinks is his death displays the obverse of New Testament morality and compassion:
O yes thy sins
Do run before thee to fetch fire from hell,
To light thee thither.
When the conspirators come to kill her, she faces it with stoic fortitude like her brother:
I will not in my death shed one base tear,
Or if I look pale, for want of blood, not fear.
Vittoria has regrets about the course of her life, but displays no penitence for her sins. It is clear that she has no expectation of salvation beyond the grave but is ‘like to a ship in a black storm' with no certain destination.
Being referred to as a ‘white devil' sums up Vittoria's ambiguous moral position:
- ‘White' is associated with virtue, innocence, chastity
- ‘Devil' has connotations of wickedness, moral darkness, temptation and entrapment.
Is one a cover for the other?
The audience has no access to Vittoria's inner thoughts and motivation via soliloquy. It is unclear, for example, whether she really loves Brachiano or is using him for her own advancement. There is her long silence at the end of Act 4 scene 2 when the audience does not know the true state of her ‘reconciliation' with Brachiano. She remains the ‘white devil', a morally ambiguous character.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread, 12and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. 25Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
1Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. 2Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 3But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. 5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 9After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 17But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. 19Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 22The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. 23But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! 24No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. 25Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? 26Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? 27Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? 28And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 31Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? 32(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 33But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. 34Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Renaissance is literally 're-birth'. The term describes the movement, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries originating from Italy, where new areas of art, poetry, scholarship and architecture emerged.
According to the book of Genesis in the Bible the first woman, said to have been created by God out of Adam's rib, to be his companion.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of God.
The spirit which gives life to a human being; the part which lives on after death; a person's inner being (personality, intellect, emotions and will) which distinguishes them from animals.
A 'testament' is a covenant (binding agreement), a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible. Its name comes from the new covenant or relationship with God.
An individual's sincere acknowledgement of their guilt, sinfulness and desire to seek forgiveness, especially the forgiveness of God.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
In the Bible, salvation is seen as God's commitment to save or rescue his people from sin (and other dangers) and to establish his kingdom.
Also known as Satan or Lucifer, the Bible depicts him as the chief of the fallen angels and demons, the arch enemy of God who mounts a significant, but ultimately futile, challenge to God's authority.