The White Devil Contents
- Social / political context of The White Devil
- Religious / philosophical context of The White Devil
- The Theatre
A major part of the dramatic appeal of The White Devil is in the intrigue generated by power struggles. Power is wielded both by the Church and the nobility. These two institutions are represented in The White Devil by Cardinal Monticelso and the two leading nobles, Francisco and Brachiano.
Because of his position as a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church Monticelso has a great deal of political power. During the trial of Vittoria in Act 3 scene 2 he takes the leading role. He acts as prosecutor and judge, leading the attack on Vittoria as an immoral woman and he pronounces her punishment to be sent to a ‘house of penitent whores'.
The idea that everyone is subject to the power of great men is introduced in the first scene. Lodovico complains about his powerful enemies and Gasparo reminds him that his enemies are ‘men of princely rank'.
This idea continues throughout the play. Cornelia expresses the idea that great men have the power to influence events around them for good or ill:
Whose regular example is so strong,
They make the times by them go right or wrong.'
(Act 1 scene 2)
Vittoria echoes this idea with her dying breath.
Francisco is the main representative of the power of the nobility, and the instigator of Lodovico's banishment. Lodovico's resentment of Vittoria is shown in Act 1 sc 1 because she could have used her charms to persuade ‘the Duke' to pardon him. Later we see how Francisco uses his wealth to encourage Lodovico's pursuit of vengeance, despite Monticelso trying to sway him from this.
Dressed as ‘Mulinassar', Francisco impresses all around him (even the cynical Flamineo) with his easy assumption of command and wisdom.
Through his status and money, we hear that Brachiano has escaped the banishment that is imposed on the less affluent Lodovico. By the same powers he is able to tempt Vittoria into an affair with him and use his servant, Flamineo (also Vittoria's brother) to assist him. After Vittoria has been imprisoned he is able to manage her escape and the two are then married.
After Brachiano's death, his son, Giovanni inherits his power. He is able to impose punishment on Lodovico and his co-conspirators, except for Francisco, who is beyond his power.
Inequality and the rise of the malcontent
With power in the hands of just a few, justice is seen as the servant of the rich. The affluent Brachiano and Francisco escape the legal punishment they deserve, whereas the poorer Lodovico and Flamineo do not.
Flamineo's resentment that those less deserving than him have the prestige that is denied him turns him into a malcontent. He judges his brother Marcello to be in the same difficulties as himself:
Followest the great Duke, feedest his victories,
…what hast got? …a poor handful…(Act 3 sc 1)
although Marcello does not take Flamineo's devious route to self-advancement.
Later, Flamineo advises ‘Mulinassar' not to trust Brachiano's promise of a pension for his war service: ‘that's but bare promise: get it under his hand' (Act 5 sc 1). It is no wonder, when honest service is disregarded by the rich, that their servants should take matters into their own hands.
Apart from political passions, The White Devil is driven by sexual power and society's efforts to contain it. The plot revolves around the powerful attraction presented by Vittoria Corombona. To attain her ‘jewel', Brachiano becomes a would-be adulterer, double murderer and faces the loss of his place in society. The dangerous nature of her sexual power prompts the vehemence of her denunciation by Monticelso and Francisco. As a whore, Vittoria is likened to ‘Sweetmeats which rot the eater … / Poison'd perfumes' (Act 3 sc 2), both images containing equal measure of attraction and repulsion.
In the face of Vittoria's sexual charisma, Isabella and Camillo are either too noble or too foolish to attract their spouses. Zanche tries to ape her mistress's allure, and has attracted the attentions of Flamineo. But she does not have Vittoria's power – her charms do not work on ‘Mulinassar' and although Flamineo defends Zanche against his family's attack, he is not prepared to honour his own promises of marriage, having enjoyed her favours.
Strength or dependency?
It is sensual attraction resulting in the legal security of marriage which demonstrates real sexual power in the world of The White Devil:
- Vittoria ends up as a Duchess, having deposed another
- Meanwhile, Zanche reflects ruefully on her own lack of financial and sexual power in Act 5 sc 1: ‘Alas! Poor maids get more lovers than husbands.'
However, there is a kind of justice in the death of Brachiano's second wife echoing that of his first: both illustrate that sexual power is dependant on a man succumbing to it. When the protection of that man is lost, so is his woman.
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