Actual and metaphorical poison

PoisonPoison plays an important part in The White Devil. Two of the characters die as a result of poisoning, but poison is also symbolic of the insidious evil in this society. An English audience would be predisposed to thinking badly of Italy at this time. The famous ruling family, the Borgias, had a reputation which was associated with use of poison. (See Social/Political Context > Renaissance Italy > The Borgias.)

Poison is mainly used as a metaphor for evil:

  • In Act 1 scene 2 when Cornelia finds that her daughter Vittoria is being seduced by Brachiano, she likens the situation to a ‘fair garden' planted ‘with all the poisoned herbs of Thessaly'
  • Isabella compares herself to a spider which was believed to be able to act as an antidote to other poison – here the corrupted love of Brachiano which has rejected a wife in favour of a mistress:
    ‘As men try the precious unicorn's horn
    Make of the powder a preservative circle
    And in it put a spider, so these arms
    Shall charm his poison, force it to obeying
    And keep him chaste from an infected straying.
    (Act 2 scene 1)
    Ironically Brachiano starts to plan Isabella's death by actual poison later in the same scene.
  • Vittoria is compared to poison during her trial in Act 3 scene 2:
‘You, gentlewoman,
Take from all beasts, and from minerals
Their deadly poison.'
  • Flamineo compares Francisco and Monticelso with poison as they are involved in plotting against Brachiano:
‘I will compound a medicine out of their two heads, stronger than garlic, deadlier than stibium; the cantharides which are scarce seen to stick upon flesh...' (Act 2 scene 1)
  • Flamineo himself is quite happy to help with poisoning of Isabella
  • Francisco later hatches the plot to have Brachiano poisoned.

All this adds to the atmosphere of poison within this society as so many characters not only talk about poison but are prepared to use it.

Contamination and cover-ups

Poison is often seen as being close to - or hidden by - something seemingly much more innocent:

  • Flamineo tells his brother, Marcello, that his rewards for the service of his master are often accompanied by poison:
    … we seldom find the mistletoe
    Sacred to physic on the builder oak
    Without a mandrake by it,'
    (Act 3 scene 1)
    The mistletoe was thought to cure illnesses, while the mandrake was a mythical plant associated with witches
  • In Act 3 scene 2 Vittoria implies she does not trust the words of Francisco by saying:
‘I discern poison
Under your gilded pills.'
  • In Act 5 scene 6 Flamineo tries to persuade Vittoria to commit suicide after the death of Brachiano. Vittoria accuses him of disguising the deadly sin of despair with poisons:
‘O the cursed devil,
Which doth present us with all other sins
Thrice candies o'er: despair with gall and stibium,

Poison is a dangerous presence. It kills in an underhand way, allowing the perpetrator to escape unnoticed. Similarly it represents an insidious corruption within society. It is a covert evil which is often hidden by hypocrisy.

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