Cornelia is one of the few good characters in The White Devil. She is associated with Christian values throughout. She exerts some influence over her children, affecting their consciences at key moments. However, her social status or power in society is minor and so her morals have little influence on other characters.

Cornelia's social background

Cornelia is the mother of Vittoria, Flamineo and Marcello. Her family has fallen from the status they once had and she acknowledges that they are now poor:

‘What? Because we are poor,
Shall we be vicious?' (Act 1 scene 2)

Her two sons have no option other than to work in the service of noblemen. Flamineo blames his mother for his situation, while Marcello is less dissatisfied with his life and closer to Cornelia. However, her daughter Vittoria has improved her social status through matrimony. At the beginning of the play Vittoria is married to Camillo, nephew of the powerful Cardinal Monticelso, and subsequently she briefly becomes a duchess by marrying the Duke of Brachiano.

Keeper of Christian values   

Cornelia is in few scenes, but she has an important role as the representative of Christian morality:

  • Her reply to Flamineo that the ‘poor' should not ‘be vicious' in Act 1 scene 2 exemplifies the Christian attitude to poverty as a positive moral state. In the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-24), Jesus declared:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied …
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. TNIV

See More on the Christian perspective on poverty and Poverty and wealth.

  • Cornelia gives voice to the idea that rulers should set a moral example to their people, as advocated in the [3Old Testament6] (2 Samuel 23:3-4):
‘The lives of princes should like dials move,
Whose regular example is so strong,
They make the times by them go right or wrong.'
(Act 1 sc 2)
  • In antithesis to the Machiavellian pragmatism of men like Francisco, Cornelia advocates that personal (Christian) morality should govern the behaviour of rulers. Whilst Flamineo sees Brachiano's adulterous wooing of Vittoria as a source of advancement (which he will not otherwise gain from his family), Cornelia sees it as morally wrong
  • Using the emotive example of Jesus' betrayer, Judas, Cornelia appeals to her daughter's conscience regarding the sanctity of the marriage vow and the need for loyalty. As a result, Vittoria leaves the scene in distress
  • Cornelia also upholds the virtue of chastity in relation to Flamineo's relationship with Zanche, the Moor. She chastises Zanche's easy morals, calling her a prostitute, and is anxious that she leaves Flamineo alone.

The maternal instinct

Cornelia's fierce protection of her children leads her into morally dubious behaviours:

  • She could be seen as beingintolerant in her treatment of Zanche. She is not just critical, but actually strikes her in Act 5 scene 1
  • After Marcello's death in Act 5 sc 2, Cornelia tries to pervert the cause of justice by asserting that Flamineo is not guilty, despite the evidence of eyewitnesses. She is desperate not to lose both her sons for such a futile cause.

Cornelia's madness

As a result of the condemnation of Zanche by Cornelia and Marcello, Flamineo and Marcello fight and Marcello is killed. This triggers a terrible grief in Cornelia. At first she cannot accept his death:

‘Alas he is not dead: he's in a trance.
Why here's nobody shall get anything by his death. Let
me call him again for God's sake.' (Act 5 scene 2)

This grief leads to madness. In this she echoes the fate of Kyd's earlier revenge play The Spanish Tragedy, in which Isabella finds the body of her son hanged and stabbed, and is driven mad.

Seeing his mother in this pitiable state affects Flamineo and he shows signs of a conscience for the first time:

‘I have a strange thing in me, to th'which
I cannot give a name, without it be
Compassion.' (Act 5 scene 4)

In Cornelia's final appearance, Webster associates her with flowers, the kindness of nature and prayerfulness. She talks of her own impending death and the audience is in no doubt that her end will be heavenly. Her final words are: ‘Bless you all, good people' (Act 5 sc 4).

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