What is meant by Marxist criticism?

This critical perspective explores ways in which a text reveals the ideological oppression by a dominant economic class over subordinate classes. In order to do this a Marxist might ask the following questions:

  • Does the text reflect or resist a dominant ideology?
    • Does it do both?
  • Does the main character in a narrative affirm or resist upper-class values?
  • Whose story gets told in the text?
    • Are lower economic groups ignored or devalued?
  • Are values that support the dominant economic group given privilege?
    • This can happen tacitly, in the way in which values are taken to be self-evident.

The White Devil as a reflection of its time

There is no doubt Webster's play is an indictment of a specific time and place. It is also, in terms of the broad picture, historically accurate. The audience is presented with a picture of a society completely dominated by a corrupt ruling class.

Travis Bogard, in an essay that appears in Shakespeare's Contemporaries, identifies three prominent threads that run throughout the play:

  • The rotten prodigality of court life (identified particularly with Lodovico and Flamineo)
  • The evils of a social system in which sycophants flatter a lord for an uncertain living (Flamineo, Marcello and ‘Mulinassar')
  • The treachery of a prince's capricious 'justice' (Antonio, Brachiano, Monticelso).

It is clearly Webster's aim to express his contempt for this society. Vittoria's dying words sum up his attitude:


‘Oh, happy they that never saw the court,
Nor ever knew great men but by report.' (Act 5 scene 6)

In other words, it would be better be a commoner than to associate with the powerful in the court of a prince, because there is no chance of attaining a secure place in such a world. Only the very powerful benefit from court life.

A ‘Marxist' text?

Marxist critics might view The White Devil as a drama that challenges dominant ideologies and in which the ruling elite is not presented as being virtuous. Different social classes are seen to be in conflict with one another, with all ranks given a significant voice.

As with his presentation of women, Webster's portrait of this society seems surprisingly modern to us. Although the patriarchal structure is very powerful and reasserts itself at the end of the play, it is, nonetheless, challenged by a number of characters, specifically Vittoria and Flamineo. Neither of the two has much respect for the great men who have power over them and both are prepared to use their talents to assert themselves. In some ways they can then be seen as modern characters who challenge the status quo.

Thus, although The White Devil has been out of critical favour for much of its history, its themes of power and corruption and its dark aspects of violence seem to speak once more to an audience in the present day.

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