A worked passage analysis - Act 5 scene 4

Act 5 scene 4


FLAMINEO. I have a strange thing in me, to th' which
 I cannot give a name, without it be
 Compassion; I pray leave me.       [Exit FRANCISCO.]
 This night I'll know the utmost of my fate;
 I'll be resolv'd what my rich sister means                5
 T' assign me for my service. I have liv'd
 Riotously ill, like some that live in court,
 And sometimes, when my face was full of smiles,
 Have felt the maze of conscience in my breast.
 Oft gay and honour'd robes those tortures try:                10
 We think cag'd birds sing, when indeed they cry.

[Enter BRACHIANO'S Ghost, in his leather cassock and breeches, boots, a
 cowl, a pot of lily flowers, with a skull in 't]

Ha! I can stand thee: nearer, nearer yet.
 What a mockery hath death made of thee! Thou look'st sad.
 In what place art thou? In yon starry gallery?
 Or in the cursed dungeon? No? Not speak?                15
 Pray, sir, resolve me, what religion 's best
 For a man to die in? Or is it in your knowledge
 To answer me how long I have to live?
 That 's the most necessary question.
 Not answer? Are you still like some great men                20
 That only walk like shadows up and down,
 And to no purpose; say----

[The Ghost throws earth upon him, and shows him the skull.]

What 's that? O fatal! he throws earth upon me.
 A dead man's skull beneath the roots of flowers!
 I pray speak, sir; our Italian churchmen                    25
 Make us believe dead men hold conference
 With their familiars, and many times
 Will come to bed with them, and eat with them.    [Exit Ghost.]
 He 's gone; and see, the skull and earth are vanish'd.
 This is beyond melancholy. I do dare my fate                30
 To do its worst. Now to my sister's lodging,
 And sum up all those horrors: the disgrace
 The prince threw on me; next the piteous sight
 Of my dead brother; and my mother's dotage;
 And last this terrible vision. All these                    35
 Shall with Vittoria's bounty turn to good,
 Or I will drown this weapon in her blood.      [Exit.]


1.This speech comes at the end of Act 5 scene 4. It follows Flamineo's murder of his brother, Marcello, in the previous scene. The scene started with Flamineo putting on a brave and defiant face as a man under judgement as a murderer. He shows lack of respect for the authority of Giovanni. He is then told about his mother's extreme grief for Marcello, after which he witnesses this.

2.Flamineo's speech follows his sight of his mother, Cornelia. It is one of the few soliloquies in the play and it allows the audience to see his shifting moods and ideas. His mind is moving fast as he reacts to an uncertain situation.

3.The speech starts with the unusual revelation of Flamineo's feelings of guilt. He recognises that he has not lived a good life but links this with the court in l.7. He speaks of his conscience as a ‘maze', showing his confusion. This is not comfortable for Flamineo as he prefers to dismiss moral concerns. In l.11 he sums up the situation of those at court as ‘cag'd birds'; they have exchanged peace of mind for the trappings of riches.

4.The Ghost of Brachiano appears. Its appearance is highly significant. It is wearing a leather cassock, which was what was usually worn by ghosts in Renaissance tragedies. The cowl is a monastic hood or robe. Men were often buried in these monastic robes in order to earn remission of sin. The ghost carries a pot of lilies. These flowers symbolise something which is beautiful and pure, associated with the purging of souls at death, yet here linked with the foul buried skull, symbolising mortal decay. Webster's audience would be familiar with these symbolic meanings.

5.Flamineo defies the Ghost. As an echo of his defiance toward Brachiano in Act 4 scene 2, Flamineo exhibits physical bravery. He questions the Ghost, intending to use him for his own purposes. In a typically cynical manner he asks ‘what religion's best / For a man to die in?', a relevant question for a Jacobean audience grappling with the salvation doctrines of Protestantism and Catholicism. He then demands to know how long he has left to live. Flamineo never misses an opportunity to pursue his own self-interest.

6.The Ghost remains obstinately silent, but his gestures unnerve Flamineo. He throws earth at Flamineo and reveals the skull, clearly symbolising Flamineo's death. Flamineo's exclamation in l.23, ‘O fatal!', shows he is aware of the significance of this.

7.The departure of the Ghost sees Flamineo strengthen his resolve. He says that the Ghost is ‘beyond melancholy' and so not a product of his imagination. He resolves to face his fate and defy it as long as possible. He is going to use all the ‘horrors' that he has seen in this scene to make his sister, Vittoria, pity him. He is resolved that she must help him or he will kill her. The speech ends with Flamineo once more determined to take his destiny in his own hands.

8.This soliloquy shows us many important aspects of Flamineo's character. It reinforces what we already know of him, demonstrating his physical bravery, his cynicism and his constant preoccupation with his own self-interest. However, it also reveals a new side to Flamineo as being susceptible to conscience and as understanding moral feelings.

9.Flamineo's use of language shows that he is under stress, particularly with the appearance of the Ghost, which he realises is a bad omen despite his claim: ‘I can stand thee'. This is indicated by his short sentences (l. 12-13) and the broken and incomplete sentences in l. 15 and l. 22 and 23. There is a concentration of imagery about confinement, with the mention of mazes (l. 9), dungeons (l. 15) and cages (l.11). This is indicative of Flamineo's situation at this stage in the play: the avengers are closing in on him. He has very little room to manoeuvre but still has the determination to keep trying.

10.This speech gives the audience an indication that the play can be viewed as a tragedy. If Flamineo is to be considered the hero of the play it is through his tragic self-awareness shown in this speech. He recognises the hollowness of the court life that he has pursued and the damage that it has done to others in his family and, even, to himself.

11.The structure of the speech is affected by the appearance and disappearance of the Ghost. Flamineo started the speech in a mood of melancholy and moral doubt, but the Ghost's appearance and its actions make Flamineo even more desperate to be in control of his own fate and to try to defy any omens.

12.The appearance of the Ghost would also add to the sense of spectacle and entertainment for the audience. They would also understand the symbolism of its appearance and be aware of the likely fatal consequences for Flamineo.

13.Important themes are mentioned in this speech.

  • The idea of the viciousness of the court, whose dependants can never be truly happy but who experience the ‘tortures' of conscience
  • This is linked with the idea of the malcontent. The courtiers are likened to ‘caged birds' who ‘cry', as Webster offers an oblique critique of English court life under James I
  • There is also the theme of Christianity. Flamineo uses the Ghost to question the purpose of Christian doctrines, showing his own lack of real belief. His doubts are understandable given the machinations of churchmen such as Monticelso
  • Death is personified here by the Ghost, a dramatic reminder to Flamineo of its inevitability.
  • Most importantly the theme of morality is at the forefront of this speech. We see Flamineo debating within himself the effect of recent circumstances on his conscience. Flamineo is very much an amoral character for most of the play. But in this speech he shows that he can recognise that there is another way to live. However, he ends the speech by threatening to kill his sister if he does not get his own way. So it seems that ultimately he will ignore the claims of his conscience, indicating the weakness of morality within the world of The White Devil.

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