Families and individuals

Changes in society

The structure of the play can be seen in terms of the desires and motives of a number of strong characters. Juxtaposed with this, however, the play can be seen through the relationships of the two main families.

Families were very important in medieval and Renaissance Italy. It was through family dynasties that power was exerted. However, individuals were becoming more important as society moved into the modern world. So the play reflects these important social changes


There are two main families in The White Devil, the Medicis and the Corombona family.

The Medici family

The most powerful member of this family is Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, who has married off his sister, Isabella, to the Duke of Brachiano. The Medicis are the chief representatives of temporal power in the play.

The murder of Isabella by her husband triggers vengeance, which eventually leads to the deaths of many of the main characters. Francisco cannot allow such a crime against a member of his family to go unpunished. Instead he pursues Brachiano and Vittoria for dishonouring his family name.

The Corombona family

This family includes Cornelia and her three children, Flamineo, Vittoria and Marcello. They are descended from the Venetian family of the Vitelli. They used to be a noble family, but have lost much of their wealth and status. However, Vittoria marries well, firstly Camillo and then Brachiano. Her brothers are able to use their connection with her to gain positions at court. Flamineo works for Brachiano and Marcello works for Francisco.

There is much conflict within this family. Flamineo is responsible for bringing together Vittoria and Brachiano in an adulterous affair. But this leads to quarrels with Cornelia and eventually he kills his own brother, Marcello. However, there is also family loyalty, seen when Flamineo defends Vittoria against Lodovico and Brachiano.

Conflict resolution?

These family loyalties and enmities make the conflicts within the play more dynamic. At the end of the play Giovanni, son of Brachiano and Isabella, enters to bring the deaths and conflicts to an end. As the son of a Medici mother, he ensures that that family remain dominant: even though he is told that his uncle, Francisco, is responsible for instigating the murders, he makes no move to bring him to justice.


In the materialistic, self-seeking world of The White Devil, the audience may feel that actually the play is far more concerned about the fate of individuals rather than the household to which they belong. The role of the malcontent, who felt himself to be an outsider, highlights this idea – the play has not one but two malcontents in the shape of Flamineo and Lodovico. Zanche and ‘Mulinassar' also represent characters excluded from the ‘tribe'.

As a play about strong individuals, The White Devil has many who are dramatically important:

Flamineo is in many ways the driving force of the play. His ambition leads him into wicked acts of murder and deception that lead to the downfall of himself and others. The audience engage with him, carried along by his energy and wily humour.

Vittoria's beauty and her weakness for Brachiano cause others to turn to murder and violence. Her intelligence, wit and courage in the face of injustice involve viewers as much as her role as the main focus of much of the play's misogyny.

Francisco is the Machiavellian villain whose desire for vengeance drives the revenge plot forward. His double-dealing helps maintain the play's intrigue.

Lodovico plays the part of an avenger and a malcontent. Through the play we witness the continued moral descent that had already commenced three years before the drama started. There is tension however in whether his passion for Isabella, or fear of hell, will win out and make him turn from his downward spiral.

Isabella does not appear in the play very much but is a powerful presence as she is the focus for the desire for vengeance. She also acts as a contrast to Vittoria because of her self-sacrifice and her goodness. She expresses personal feelings beyond those expected of a two-dimensional ‘good wife', and her un-quiet soul haunts her brother from beyond the grave.

Cornelia is another dominant presence whose depth of grief about the consequences of her children's moral choices offsets the prevailing cynicism and engages the audience emotionally.

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