The significance of death

Jacobean tragedies inevitably contain death and The White Devil is a particularly murderous example of the genre. Seven characters die in the course of the play and Lodovico and his attendants are about to be put to death at its end.

The orthodox Christian view of death, is that it marks the point at which individuals face God's judgement. Those who have faith in Christ (often transmuted in popular teaching as those who had lived a morally upright life) are rewarded by an eternity in heaven, whilst unbelievers who have not repented of their wrongdoing are consigned to hell (see Big ideas from the Bible > Judgement). It is this belief that Monticelso alludes to when he condemns Lodovico's desire for revenge.

However, with the social unease and pessimism which characterised Webster's era, such certainties were being questioned and this is reflected by the attitudes to dying voiced by different characters in the play. (See Religious/Philosophical Context > The Renaissance in England > Attitudes to death.)

Violent death

All the characters who die during the course of the play are murdered. Both Isabella and Brachiano are poisoned by ingenious methods:

  • Isabella by poison on the lips of the portrait of her husband
  • Brachiano by poison sprinkled into the helmet he wears at his wedding tournament.

Brachiano is subsequently strangled as he does not die from the poison soon enough. Others die a violent death at someone else's hand.

We are presented with a world of casual violence in which any kind of quarrel can lead to death. It is seen as the inevitable outcome to a dispute:

  • Francisco sees the poisoning of Brachiano in Act 5 scene 3 as a way of hastening to him to ‘the black lake', maybe a reference to the River Styx of the Classical underworld
  • In the last scene of the play, Act 5 scene 6, Vittoria, Flamineo and Zanche are killed by the swords of Lodovico and his co-conspirators. As a result there are corpses on stage at the end of the play, which Giovanni refers to as a ‘massacre'.

Giovanni orders the bodies to be removed and suggests that lessons can be learned from their deaths:

‘See, my honoured lord,
What use you ought make of their punishment.'

Generally though, there is little sense of the Christian idea of death as the beginning of a better existence beyond the grave. (See Big ideas from the Bible > Death and Resurrection). Instead, impending death is often accompanied by despair as Vittoria says in Act 5 scene 6:

‘My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven I know not whither.'


Two of the characters appear on stage as ghosts after their death; Isabella in Act 4 scene 1 and Brachiano in Act 5 scene 5. Isabella's ghost reminds her brother, Francisco, of her death and the importance of avenging it. The appearance of Brachiano's ghost to Flamineo serves to remind him of the inevitability of his own death as a result of his crimes. However, it does not make Flamineo any more penitent as he cynically asks the ghost:

'Pray, sir, resolve me, what religion's best
For a man to die in?'

In the play death is presented as being very much linked to suffering. There is little sense that it brings peace or the beginning of afterlife in heaven.

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