The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
The White Devil is set in a Christian universe, which affects the ideas which permeate it. Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the Son of God. Although divine, he was born in human form to a virgin, Mary. The New Testament (the second section) of the Bible tells of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and the setting up of the Christian Church by his followers.
The immediate setting of most of the play is Rome, the centre of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the important characters is Cardinal Monticelso, who is elected Pope during the course of the play. Writing in Protestant England, Webster places his revenge drama at the heart of what his audience regarded as a morally dubious Catholic empire, whose practices had lost sight of the Bible's original teachings. So, whilst appealing to the Christian morality of Reformation believers, he highlights the absence of such morality in some of the characters and their behaviour. See Religious / philosophical context > Radical changes to the Christian Church and Attitudes to Catholicism in Webster's time.
To demonstrate that they were the followers of Christ, believers were expected to live virtuous lives according to the teachings of the New Testament. These became the accepted norms of Christian society.
Forgiveness and generosity
Isabella forgives her husband, Brachiano, for deserting her in favour of Vittoria. She agrees to take responsibility for the dissolution of their marriage upon herself. Her self-sacrifice demonstrates the Christian virtue of a selfless, generous spirit.
The importance of the chastity of female characters is stressed in the play. In a society in which marriage was about the securing of property rather than about love, huge importance was attached to the chastity of a woman prior to matrimony and her faithfulness within it. Men wanted to ensure that only their true heirs would inherit their estates.
It is not surprising therefore, that the main accusation against Vittoria in her trial is that she is unchaste, no better than a prostitute. In Act 1 scene 2 Cornelia criticises her daughter, Vittoria, for contemplating adultery with Brachiano, seeing it as the death of her honour as a woman. In response Vittoria portrays herself as being powerless to protect herself against Brachiano's attentions:
If anything but blood could have allayed
His long suit to me -
The Moorish servant Zanche is not considered good enough for Flamineo by his family and the chief charge that is laid against her is that she is immoral (the fact that Flamineo is her seducer is not considered relevant).
Purity and poverty
Cornelia is a significant voice of Christian judgement, upholding the need for moral purity as opposed to succumbing to the seductions of the world. She criticises her daughter's love affair with Brachiano, and her son Flamineo for aiding the affair in order to advance himself. She expresses the Christian idea that poverty should not be a bar to morality.
When he becomes Pope, Monticelso represents the orthodox Christian values that are expected of him. When Lodovico agrees to tell him what he knows, it is under the protection of confession to him as a priest.
Although it did not seem to trouble him whilst a Cardinal, on his promotion Monticelso eschews plotting vengeance against Brachiano and Vittoria and urges Lodovico to change his ways and repent. In Act 4 scene 3, he reminds Lodovico of God's judgement and the belief that hell awaits someone who pursues vengeance:
If thou persist in this, 'tis damnable.'
The White Devil is set in a world where Christian values are considered important, but many of the characters deliberately go against Christian morality in order to achieve their own purposes. The chief of these are Flamineo, Brachiano and Francisco.
At the end of the play when the young prince, Giovanni, steps in to restore harmony, he does so in the name of heaven. But Lodovico defies him to the end and refuses to repent of his part in the carrying out of vengeance. He considers his actions are the best thing he has done:
‘I limbed this night-piece and it was my best'.' (Act 5 scene 6)
There is little sense that the Christian order has been restored, particularly as Francisco, the chief instigator of the murders, seems to have escaped any kind of blame, whilst the Machiavellian Monticelso now has absolute authority as Pope.
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