Dramatic genre

Tragedy or chronicle history?

Like many other aspects of The White Devil, its structure is ambiguous. In its published title page it claimed to be a tragedy. But can it really be said to be one?

It has been likened to a chronicle, or history play, with which genre it also shares other characteristics:

  • It is based on real events like the papal election and the trial
  • It has a sequence of chronological events.
    However, the characters do not closely resemble the historical characters on which they are based.

Satire or tragic-comedy?

The White Devil make comments about contemporary society and illuminates the prevalent corruption through mockery, which would enable us to regard it as a satire. However, there are also genuine tragic elements which evoke our sympathy rather than scorn. For example, there is nobility in the way in which Vittoria defends herself at her trial and later faces death, whilst Cornelia's grief and madness inspires pathos even in the hardened characters of the play.

That said, Webster often subverts the tragedy with the introduction of comic touches, such as those provided by Flamineo. There are Flamineo's acerbic asides and his macabre mock-death in Act 5 scene 6. His response to his fake death is so exaggerated as to be almost a parody:


‘O I smell soot,
Most stinking soot, the chimney is a-fire –
My liver's parboiled like Scotch holy-bread;
There's a plumber laying out pipes in my guts, it scalds'

Once the audience has been carried along in this way, it is perhaps harder for them to see Flamineo as a really tragic figure in the face of his actual death later in the same scene.

The dominant tone of the play is its criticism of a corrupt society, the very real consequences of which provide the elements of tragedy.   

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.