Magic, dreams and apparitions

Attitudes to magic

The White Devil is a play which is firmly set in a recognisable and believable world so it does not rely strongly on magic and its consequences. However, superstition and magic still had a fascination for many Jacobeans (including the King) and so could be used by Webster to dramatic effect.

The Conjuror

The most important magical influence is the presence of the Conjuror as a character in Act 2 scene 2. He tells of the common presence of fake conjurors and was probably referring to well-known figures in contemporary England. However, the audience is asked to believe in the authenticity of the visions the Conjuror creates, just as Brachiano does. The Conjuror uses images taken from the world of necromancy:

‘and some there are
Will keep a curtal to show juggling tricks
And give out ‘tis a spirit: besides these
Such a ream of almanac-makers, figure-flingers,'

He also refers to a ‘nigromancer', ‘confederate spirits' and ‘the devil'.

There is other evidence of superstition and belief in magic in the play:

  • Isabella refers to a charm made from the powder of ‘unicorn's horn' in a ‘preservative circle' when she is trying to protect her husband from the influence of Vittoria in Act 2 scene 1
  • When arguing with Lodovico in Act 3 scene 3, Flamineo insults Lodovico by telling Lodovico to look at himself in ‘a saucer of a witch's congealed blood'.       


Dreams are symbolically important in the play. The most significant one is Vittoria's dream in Act 1 scene 2. Her vision of the yew tree and the blackthorn in the church-yard is ambiguous. In the dream Isabella and Camillo are killed by a branch of the yew tree.

  • Brachiano interprets it in one way:
‘You are lodged within his arms who shall protect you
From all the fevers of a jealous husband,
From the poor envy of our phlegmatic Duchess;' 
  • Flamineo interprets it in a different way, saying Vittoria has ‘taught him in a dream / To make away with his Duchess and her husband'.

This has the effect of making Vittoria a more enigmatic character as the dream cannot be interpreted in a simple manner.

In Act 5 scene 3 Zanche tells Francisco (Mulinassar) of a dream she had about him. This dream includes Mulinassar making sexual advances towards her. Francisco pretends to have had a similar dream:

‘Wilt thou believe me sweeting? By this light
I was a-dreamt on thee too, for methought
I saw thee naked.'          

Zanche's dream symbolises her desire to confide in someone similar to herself as Francisco is in disguise as a Moor. This comes at a time when she is being persecuted because of her race. Francisco's false dream symbolises his cunning and his attempt to deceive his enemies. The result of it is that Zanche gives him important information about his enemies.                                           


The appearance of ghosts was a staple feature of Jacobean revenge tragedies (see The Theatre > Revenge Tragedy > Features of revenge tragedy > Ghosts). Ghosts of murder victims would appear to persuade others to avenge their deaths:

  • In Act 4 sc 1 the ghost of Isabella appears to Francisco, providing a moment of melancholic reflection for the Machiavellian plotter. However, he does not dwell on his feelings / memories of Isabella:
… what have I to do
With tombs, death-beds, funerals, or tears,
That have to meditate upon revenge?
  • In Act 5 sc 4 Brachiano's ghost appears to Flamineo. Although his initial reaction is cynical, he is reluctantly caught up in the power of the vision:
… O fatal! He throws earth upon me
A dead man's skull beneath the roots of flowers.

Despite Flamineo trying to revive his spirits after the ghost's departure, by daring his fate ‘To do its worst', he still refers to the apparition as a ‘terrible vision'. By such means Webster has added to the play's dramatic tension and charnel-house atmosphere, as well as to Flamineo's desperation.

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